Music Features

AKA George (Interview)

When AKA George released his first single in more than a year, Up All Night, the most wonderful parts of the UK pop artist were back and better than ever. His howling falsetto, great pop sensibilities, and alluring songwriting worked together to create one of his best songs in years. Up All Night  also represented a continuation for the British multi-instrumentalist, as his previous single, Stone Cold Classic, carried a similar pop-rock energy. That song was one of his biggest yet, eventually being featured in an ad for Škoda automobiles and gaining over 13 million streams on Spotify. All of this was surely good news to fans who had been waiting for what felt like ages for new material.

With the upcoming EP, Bad For You, George seems to be channeling all of the different phases of his career so far. From his early pop-rock material under the name George Barnett and his infectious hip-hop-influenced Animal Keeper EP, to the First Friday series which leaned towards synthpop and R&B influenced material, all of the different influences that have stuck with him seem to pop up on the EP’s singles. While that first single was great, the title track off the EP is a ferocious rock track that depicts Barnett's addiction to a messy relationship. Based on the two singles alone, this is bound to be one of the few pop EPs this year that is worth caring about in the landfill that can be someone’s Spotify queue.

In this interview with Ethan Gordon, AKA George discusses how he’s trying to connect with his audience under quarantine, Bad for You, his self-destructive past, and how he’s always trying to move forward.


You’re currently under lockdown, but I’ve noticed you’re trying hard to build hype for the upcoming EP and interact with your fans. How’s that going?

Well, to be honest, I haven’t really done livestreams before now, so it kind of felt right to do it since I haven’t been out performing or doing much of anything. I wouldn’t call it lucky or serendipitous or anything, because this is a terrible thing that’s happening, but for me, it made me want to connect with people more. Just the idea that you can’t go and meet people seems to be the primary motivation to want to connect with people through these sorts of things. When I’m actually doing it, I realize that it’s been such a good experience to remember that my career has been quite varied and lots of starts and stops, and I think some people have come along right at the beginning, and some people have come towards the middle, and some people are new. It has reminded me that there are a lot of people who like what I do, which is nice.

You’ve had a series of very explosive singles, coming off of your success with Stone Cold Classic, and I feel like you’ve figured out how to access that catchy pop-rock energy in singles off the EP, Bad for You and Up All Night.

That’s definitely what I wanted to do. For me, it’s an effort to keep something in a lane, you know? Like, especially nowadays, I think everyone dabbles like that and everyone has a love of so many genres. With my generation growing up listening to everything, I don’t know how you could separate it in your mind. I think it’s a bit difficult today to break through as an artist because I think people expect you to have a strong identity, and they expect you to know yourself, and kind of work within a parameter, especially at the beginning, and I’m no good at that. With Stone Cold Classic, it was quite liberating to write that because I had sort of been in my head for a bit, trying to confront my emotions, and I was kind of tired of that. I just wanted to do something on the fly, kind of rock out, you know? The weird thing about Stone Cold Classic and the streams and such, it got a couple of playlists and ads, and while I think that tune has done well in terms of streams, I’m not sure any of the people who watch the Instagram lives, my bigger fans, don’t know if any of them think Stone Cold Classic is my best song. It’s quite confusing to be an artist at the moment if you’re just looking at the numbers. I think that can skew things.

Branching off that, you’ve had a pretty varied career since your first EP in 2011 and it seems like you’ve had these exciting peaks for almost every era. Obviously with 2012’s 17 Days and you releasing it on Pirate Bay to lots of success. Same with the Get Lucky and Swimming Pools (Drank) covers, which I know you have lots of feelings about, and then the First Friday series, and now Stone Cold Classic, which is big if you just look at the numbers. I wonder if you’re ever trying to take the momentum from these peaks and push it from there.

I think the answer is that I really should use the momentum, but I think what you’re talking about, with sort of having peaks, those peaks happen like a wave. The actual point where the wave breaks, usually like a year after whenever you make the music or art or whatever, there’s a delayed reaction where you’re excited about what you’re doing now, but it takes a long time for it to catch fire. I think people today think things are quick with the internet, everything spreads, but I actually think things take longer now. Songs and artists can kind of be bubbling under for a long time, and then they pop up somewhere in a video, or on a thread, or on god knows what, and it can just make something pop—and suddenly people’s awareness with an artist entirely changes.

I think with all those things like First Friday and the covers, I’ve had an intense period of really focusing on something and then letting it go into the world. For me, it’s really hard to repeat myself. It’s really hard to maintain a focus on something after it has been released. I get influenced by how other people react to my things, and I don’t want to be, but I am. Say if I did something, and it was good, and a few people liked it, I think to a lot of people that means that they should do it again in a slightly different way. To me, I have this adverse reaction where it means that it’s over for me. It’s done, they liked it, and it’s now time to do something else. I feel a complete pull to do something different. It’s hard for me to maintain a clear head and a business head or a strategy. In my heart, I often feel compelled to do something completely different and to go against what I’ve done before. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, that has calmed down a bit. For the past few years, it’s been impossible for me to make an album. I’ve had really bad writer's block, I’ve been struggling to come up with ideas for songs, I’ve had intense moments and emotional upheaval and things I could draw from, but for some reason, I’m not allowing myself to do it. I think for the last few months I’ve been unlocking again. With this thing that’s happening right now, I’m starting to make things again that feel like it's really coming from me. 

These tunes feel like another peak to me, but they also feel very exciting and tight in a way that is new for you. What inspired this change of pace from First Friday?

The first time I thought that I could make an EP like this, and I thought that it could be good and not lame (laughs), was The 1975 at Reading Festival last year. They opened with this song called People, and I don’t love the song, but what I loved was them doing that song. The context of them doing it at Reading was like “Ah!” This allows me to see that I’m not just in a vacuum, it’s not all just trap beats. Not everything connected to pop was the same way. It’s not a radical song, but it’s just the fact that they did it, and they’re quite big, made me think Stone Cold Classic isn’t old or like a throwback, there’s something new about it. That’s when I started writing Bad for You and Up All Night and some other tunes. Those aren’t as good so they didn’t make it onto the EP, but things that were more guitar-based—and I stopped worrying that it’ll just be consigned to the landfill on Spotify. That’s just me being super analytical, I think really that the things that work for me are when I don’t think about things like that, when I just do something I enjoy. I was at a point that was a transition of being all in my head to being out in the world and socializing a bit more, and the project represents that. It’s a bit ironic that it’s going to be coming out now.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I know you have mixed feelings about what you’ve done in the past. I remember at the time of 17 Days and then a year later with The Red Tape, you mentioned that you’ve met with major labels. What do you think has stopped you from going on that path?

I think it partly really comes from me. It’s definitely my attitude, which for the last five years, is not something I think a major label would want to sign. But, to be honest, with the Get Lucky cover and the success, I was stoked when it was happening. I was stoked that things were going up and things were getting exciting. It wasn’t an issue with the actual song. At the time, there were a lot of YouTubers kind of...there’s always YouTubers everywhere (laughs), but I would get invited to things here in London, where there were events for YouTubers, and I was like “alright, ugh!” They’re trying to like, even though I’m the least successful person in this room, lump in with these kinds of people. I’m just not on board with these kinds of people who are too shiny and pretending all the time, they’re just quite vapid. My favorite artists were kind of mysterious. My generational thing was that we were in the transition between these two things, where artists were either entirely mysterious, or now, where you get every piece of information from everybody at all times. I don’t think that’s such a good thing. I don’t think anyway.

I think it’s more interesting if people are open, and you can see snapshots of their lives, and there is something about what’s going on there and what they’ve got to say. The covers didn’t feel like an artist thing, they felt like an online personality or a YouTuber thing, and I think that’s what made me decide that I was over this. That was what was behind the decision to pull videos and music down. I’m a bit naturally self-destructive, so if I can push a button and delete things, I will. It fills me with a mix of dread and glee. It’s a bad trait of mine. It’s the idea of something fresh and being new that’s exciting to me. What I didn’t think about was people who liked the stuff, just ripping it away from people who were like, “What the fuck? I liked that.” That was me being selfish— now I would be a bit more pragmatic about it. I would just accept that it’s something I’ve done. I don’t think I really agree with the internet, and the permanence of it, because when you’re an artist, you’re always trying to push forward and get onto the next thing. I’m not going to be George Lucas about it much longer, playing with my old tracks and deleting stuff. That annoys people, and it annoys me as well, so I’m kind of over that period of my life where I’m obsessing about my own output. It’s quite narcissistic, honestly.

Steering it back to the Bad for You EP for a second, what do you plan on doing in the future after the EP is out, after you can go back out into the world? I know you talked about some live shows and another EP. Do you have a gameplan or is it just the current moment?

I have a kind of game plan, but it depends on a few things. Primarily, if the second EP does a bit better than the first EP, and so on. I want to get to the point where I can tour and have a great live show. My thing is always like, what is it going to be like when it’s live? What I want to do is put out these EPs, and then put out an album that takes the best of the three, but maybe there will be more songs by then because I’m writing them as I go—and I’ve got a big bank of them as well. I’m in this space where I need to see how the last thing happens before I do the next. I’ll probably put out an album this year, though. I want to think of it somewhat like my The Red Tape from 2013, where it’s not this hugely important thing, but it’s got some good songs on it. It’s quite free, like it doesn’t try to conform to anything or try to stay in a lane. It has a few bits and pieces, some things that are personal to me, and just to use it as a platform to open up again. I feel like the last few releases have been solid good tunes, but I don’t feel like I’m getting my voice through them. I just want to put more stuff out there. I make loads of stuff. I don’t know why I don’t put more out. I’ve got this folder of 150 things that I could release, and maybe not all of them are the best, and part of me is like, why didn’t you put some of it out? I just want to get this album out and I want to be touring. To be going places. I’m sick of being inside.