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Kwesi K: The Team Player.

April 17, 2014

KwesiKonlineDD02Text by Kyle Bagenstose. Images by Darragh Dandurand.

It’s tough to imagine Kwesi Kankam barreling at you full-speed, preparing to knock you to the ground and leave you face-down in the dirt. The 26-year-old songwriter is soft-spoken and unassuming. When he talks, he pauses thoughtfully between each sentence, looking down through the corner of his square-framed glasses. When he sings, his smooth vocals have an instantly soothing effect.

But that doesn’t change the fact that for a good portion of his life, Kankam had the primary objective of running over everyone who stood between him and the end zone.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Kankam excelled athletically and was offered a chance to play Division I football at Lehigh University. He took the offer and landed with a splash, earning starting time and even scoring touchdowns as a freshman. There was just one problem: He couldn’t have cared less.

“I remember being in the locker room before games, thinking something was wrong,” recalls Kankam, who now records as Kwesi K. “Everyone else was hyped up, rowdy as shit, and I’m just really chill in the corner.”

When he decided to quit the team, things got ugly. His coach accused him of cowardice, his father stopped speaking to him and he was forced to move back home after losing his financial aid. However, Kankam was able to reevaluate his life and returned to Lehigh to pursue a degree in architecture.

With free time on his hands, Kankam also picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time in years and began to write songs, eventually putting his abilities to the test while abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

“I sang publicly for the first time and thought I was just taking up space in the park,” Kankam says. “But people were instead coming up, saying that I had a warm voice.”

After graduating from Lehigh in 2011, Kankam decided to pursue a career as a songwriter. He relocated to Philadelphia to better his chances. Using 30th Street Station’s free Wi-Fi on his first night in town, he released his debut EP, Ran Away From Me, on Bandcamp.

“I produced it and engineered it myself,” Kankam says. “It was cool for what it was but I wanted to take things to the next level. That meant enlisting a studio producer.”

KwesiKonlineDD01As fate would have it, Philadelphia drummer and producer Charlie Patierno was waiting in the wings. Patierno was the studio drummer on Melody Gardot’s Grammy-nominated album My One and Only Thrill, he toured across France with late guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and he’s worked with The Roots, including producing tracks and a co-writing the song “Get Busy.”

In late 2012, Patierno had just finished installing a recording space in the basement of his Fishtown home and was looking to take on new artists when he was introduced to Kankam.

“It was sort of serendipitous,” Patierno says. “He was new to the area and the process. I really liked his voice, so we met and started to put things together.”

Kankam launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for studio musicians and recording sessions at South Philadelphia’s Turtle Studios and the two got to work. But, like the young hotshot being trained in kung fu by the savvy sage, friction sparked between the two. Patierno tried to apply his experience, and Kankam faced professional criticism for the first time.

“I came in as a folk artist and he kind of had a rock and hip-hop background,” Kankam says. “And we argued our points for sure.”

As the recording process progressed, the differences between the two actually began to work to their advantage.

“There’s always that back and forth, and the end result is going to be better for it,” says Patierno. “We combined his vibe with my vibe – with the Turtle Studio and musician vibes – and there became a shared vision.”

Kankam’s vocals and acoustic style remained the centerpiece, but suddenly there were new layers to the music. Steady, growing rhythms were built with shakers and tambourines. Locally revered vocalists like Ginger Coyle and Birdie Busch came in to provide backing on newly-constructed choruses. Kankam learned to trust the process, and Patierno worked his magic.

“He has a great sense of the bottom feel – the frequencies, the rhythm and the tightness,” Kankam says. “He picks up on stuff that I’m completely oblivious to.”

The results of the yearlong recording process were split into two EPs. The first, Pronouns, was released last November and received airtime on WXPN. The second, Lovely, dropped this week. With gigs at hard-to-book venues including World Café Live and New York’s Mercury Lounge now under his belt, Kankam and Patierno feel that momentum is building and that the trust that they developed is paying off.

“Something that is extremely, extremely important – often even more important than being really talented or having a name producer – is having a hardworking team around you,” Patierno says.

In that sense, Kankam’s journey has come full circle. Once detached from his teammates on the field, he has now found the value of surrounding himself with those who can help him reach the end goal.

“It was great to have Charlie there to tell me what works and what doesn’t,” Kankam says. “You know when you go into a store and walk out with buyer’s remorse? I feel the exact opposite.”

Kwesi K’s album release party will be at Boot and Saddle on Saturday, with Maitland and Anthony D’Amato. See here for ticket details.

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