New Music

Record of the Week

Northern Territory producer Kuya James takes us inside his debut album ‘Isa’

We take you inside our favourite new albums with the artists who made them. We're sitting down with Northern Territory producer Kuya James to chat about his debut album 'Isa'.

On his debut album ISA, Kuya James – AKA Northern Territory producer James Mangohig – is redefining the Australian identity. 

We first sat down with Northern Territory producer Kuya James only a few months after he’d unveiled his debut single ‘Sabaw’, and with it, the Filipino-Australian producer had a simple mission statement in mind – to “put an Asian face in Australian mainstream culture”.

On his debut album ISA, he has continued his mission to share the voices, backgrounds, heritages, and stories of a vast array of people, sticking true to his goal of representing people in spaces that they might ordinarily be excluded from.

Across its ten tracks, James brings together the voices of Serina Pech, Emily Wurramara, Caiti Baker, Chong Ali, Emcille, Harlen, Stevie Jean, Tasman Keith, and Don Nunggarrlu – all exceptional artists and creatives in their own right – to impart their own lived experiences, talents, and identities throughout this remarkably diverse album.

Sonically, ISA embraces a rich palate of sounds, expertly layered to balance out the sparkling synths and electronic quirks with the sounds of James’ Asian heritage, creating a soundscape that is organic and easy to get absorbed in.

Before taking on the Kuya James moniker, Mangohig has been involved in the music scene for more than two decades. He was a founding member of the hip hop collective Culture Connect in the late-’90s, half of electronic-soul act Sietta – alongside Caiti Baker –, played bass in TZU, and on the producing front he has worked with the likes of  Daniel Johns, Jessica Mauboy, Briggs, Gurrumul, Caiti Baker, Stevie Jean, and Tasman Keith.

We sat down with Kuya James to learn more about the making of, and meaning behind, ISA.

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The Kuya James Story

Influences & inspiration on Isa

Kuya James: “I’ve always been heavily influenced by The Neptunes, Timbaland, DJ Muggs and Dr Dre; so naturally I still find inspiration in the way they’ve used samples and rhythms to bring fresh sounds to the hip hop scene over the years.

“Creating this album I definitely wanted to showcase some of the sounds and textures I love from Asia, so in many ways, my travels over the years also influenced this album. Late-night Asian Street Markets are one of my inspirations for living.”

Inside the creative process

Kuya James: “It took a huge turn as the initial idea was to collaborate with a bunch of artists from The Philippines and Taiwan. Due to the pandemic this year I was forced to make it a much more local affair – which once I accepted, turned out to be the best option and I couldn’t be prouder of how it all turned out.

“I started out as a bass player and now I mostly just produce. There’s definitely been a shift in the way I think about making music. I think these days I try and find a bigger vision on how the song should sound and what I’m putting out into the world. When I was younger it was more about writing grooves and quick beat ideas. I feel my creative process has shifted more to songwriting as I’ve become more obsessed with the way things sound. I understand that music is constantly evolving so chasing a sound isn’t my process. I tune into what moves me and what I sonically love and wanna listen to.”

Tell us the story

Kuya James: “The opening track has a chant, “Live By New Rules”. It’s not a theme of the record as such but it’s definitely a statement and one that could be applied on a daily basis at the moment.

“I wanted to make a record that told many stories and brought out something from the collaborators. Many people have heard the artists on their own tracks but this was a chance to push them into new territories. I love the results of what this brought and I think if there was a theme it would be based around not only diversity in artistry but in the stories and themes those artists want to share with the world.

“In a nutshell, I selected all these artists based on the relationships we have. To me, this is one of the most important things about collaborating with people and it also allows the collaborations to enter into different music styles and themes comfortably.”

Down memory lane

Kuya James: “I was in Tasmania working with Tasdance and the news was all about COVID. I had reached out to Emily Wurramara as she’d agreed to collab on this record and I knew she lived in Tasmania but I had expected to be there for 2-3 weeks, so wasn’t in a crazy rush to record her vocals for ‘Trust’.

“When I got word that borders were closing everywhere, I quickly bought a flight back to Darwin as I didn’t want to get stuck. Caiti Baker had flown down to see some friends and I had one more day with the dancers in the studio, so I asked her if she could record Emily’s vocal for me. They caught up in the morning, laid down the vocals at midday in a friend’s lounge room, then we got on the plane back to Darwin at 3pm. I didn’t even hear the recordings until I got back to Darwin and I have often thought how amazing it is we were able to capture her voice.”

Audience takeaway

Kuya James: “I do hope people press play and listen from start to finish; I’ve made it to be heard like that, but the world of playlists tells a different story. So I guess what I really hope is that people find tracks on this album that they connect to and I hope that people feel like they can relate to some of the stories and themes.”

Say it in a sentence

Kuya James: ISA is an album that reflects my love of big drums, swinging bass lines, and Asian samples/melodies/textures combined with some of my favourite vocalists.”

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Essential Listening

Kuya James – No Country ft Tasman Keith and Don Murrungun

“Tasman and I wrote this song in a studio session in Melbourne more than three years ago. We were working on his MISSION FAMOUS EP at the time and this song almost made it but we wanted to sit on it. Three years later it’s finally coming out as a track on my record. I love when songs don’t get forgotten and this is easily one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever been a part of in my career so it felt fitting to close the album. I recorded a choir on this song and then Don Murrungun from Mambali laid some incredible traditional vocals over the top as well.”

Kuya James – Isa ft Serina Pech and Emcille

“It’s hard to not have favourites on an album, but this is definitely one of mine. It’s the first time I’ve ever recorded something in Tatay (father)’s language – Cebuano. Serina and I wrote the hook many years ago and I always had a vision to get a poem read on the track. When I first met Emcille I thought she was a dancer, then she told me she had an idea for one of my demos. I remember the first time I pressed record I thought she was going to read a story or a poem and she just started rapping fiercely, proudly connecting with me on our Visayan blood. This is only the beginning for Emcille, there is so much she has to offer the world, let alone the music scene, and I encourage everyone to keep an eye on her.”

Kuya James Better Than That ft Harlen

“I first met Harlen when she was one of the backup singers for a touring band that the band I was in at the time (TZU) were supporting. Every night we’d watch their show and my favourite part was when the backup singers got to solo. I absolutely fell in love with Harlen’s voice and was so stoked when she agreed to work on a track with me.”

Kuya James Goodbye ft Chong Ali

“I heard about Chong Ali many years ago, as he was part of a crew that went to school in Brisbane with Caiti Baker. His crew at the time was called EMR (Eat More Rice). I always loved his passion and was keen to learn his story, the chorus of this joint which simply says “goodbye” was sampled from the Serina Pech song ‘Across The Sea’ which is also out on Settle Down Records. When I first flipped the beat I thought it’d be dope to get Chong to tell a story on it and what he brought to this track carries such a special sentiment.”

Kuya James Rewind Our Love ft Caiti Baker and Serina Pech

“I’ve been working with Caiti Baker for almost 15 years now. We’ve written over four albums together and I actually didn’t plan for her to feature on my debut. I sat there at the beginning of COVID and put on all these scenes from my favourite ’80s movies while I started finding nostalgic ’80s-influenced sounds on my synth. I found a sound called VHS Strings and the first demo of this song was an instrumental called ‘Rewind Our Love On The VHS’. Nostalgic reflective moments haha.

“I sent Caiti the beat and said I wanted something cheesy and fun as it was going to be used for a mixtape called ‘DTOWNLOCKDOWN’. I was also putting the instrumental over famous ’80s film snippets (including The Never-Ending Story) for fun. Caiti sent back the hook and I instantly laughed at how different it was for her to sing something like this. The next day we showed it to Serina Prch in the studio and she said, ‘Can you get me an early ’90s Janet Jackson vox sound on the mic? I’ve got an idea for a verse.’ I love what they did and we had a lot of fun making a film clip to suit the whole vibe.”

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