QSC Aspiring Interview: Kaien Cruz on their accidental hit 'Love Me In The Dark'

Queer South Africa-born, Los Angeles-based independent recording artist Kaien Cruz has released their self-titled debut album, KAIEN – a culmination of the diverse range of ebbs and flows the artist has experienced throughout their life thus far. Expect love, heartbreak, bliss, misery, and everything in between.

The 25-year-old singer-songwriter’s debut single Love Me In The Dark was nominated for Song of the Year at the South African Music Awards, which led to Kaien opening for Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour. Not bad for an artist who had only performed once in front of a handful of people, and who had no plans to be an artist…

You’re from South Africa and are now based in Los Angeles. When did you move over, and why did you decide to make that decision?

It's kind of a funny story. I met a couple of producers who are originally from Zimbabwe, but were living in LA. I met them in Cape Town at the time and we worked on a couple of songs together and they were like, ‘You should come to L.A., there's a lot of opportunities, the whole industry etc’.

I was like, ‘Okay, that sounds cool’. It took me maybe over a year to get a visa and I made my first trip out to L.A. and stayed for a couple months. I went back to South Africa and thought, ‘That's cool. There's a lot of opportunities, but to move there I'd have to really figure some stuff out’.

Then I went back to L.A. for a month and then covid hits. I was in L.A. with one suitcase and no family or friends. I came to this decision of, ‘Okay, the whole world is locked down. I'm in Los Angeles right now, very far away from home. What should I do? Do I stay? Do I go back home?’ 

I had all these plans, ideas and projects I wanted to work on and all the people I pretty much needed were based in L.A. – I was conflicted. But I just decided to stay in L.A.!

It was definitely a journey that had a lot of challenges. I was 21 at the time and away from home for the first time. It was a huge learning experience for me and is one of the biggest reasons why I'm able to hold my own now, from navigating the industry on my own. The whole experience definitely was wild.

I'd never considered myself to be a musician or desired to be a musician in any type of way.

Your debut single, Love Me In The Dark rose to the top of the South African charts, earning you a nomination for Song of the Year at the South African Music Awards. Were you surprised by the success, and had you always wanted to make it as an artist?

Growing up, the guitar was my little thing that I had for myself; I never played for anyone or sang for anyone. I'd never considered myself to be a musician or desired to even be a musician in any type of way. I would lock myself in my room when I was pissed off with my family and play guitar and write songs about how they annoyed me [laughs]. 

It was this personal thing for me for most of my life growing up, until I got to the end of high school. My parents were putting pressure on me to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I also played a lot of sports; I was an athlete growing up and played a lot of soccer and field hockey, so I was like, ‘Well, maybe I could do that; that seems like something I'm good at and I don't mind it’. I got a full ride for soccer to a local uni in South Africa and I tried that for about six months, and dropped out. My parents weren't very happy about that!

But simultaneously, the universe aligned things perfectly without me even knowing. I had released my first song with a local DJ, his name was Sketchy Bongo, and that song was Love Me In The Dark. I had written that song in my flat at uni on a guitar. I had no intention of doing anything with it, but my sister said, ‘What's that song? I've never heard that before’. I was like, ‘That's just something I wrote’. She was like, ‘No way; sing it for me again right now’. So I sing it and she's like, ‘Yep, that's it. We're gonna go record this song. It's happening. I don't care what you say’. 

So my sister was the one that pushed me into recording the song, which then gets remixed into this dance mix, and I guess the rest is history. The song kind of went crazy on radio and was in the top five in South Africa, which was so insane to me. It felt like it happened overnight. Coming from a small town where I had no intention of being a singer in that sense, to then hear my song that I wrote in my room playing on the radio, and people are singing the lyrics. It was definitely insane!

I had no intention of doing anything with it; the rest is history. The song went crazy.

As a result, Justin Bieber hand-picked you to open his Purpose Tour to a crowd of 90,000. Tell us about getting that call…

Yeah, that was definitely insane too! I was sitting in the same apartment on the couch and I got the call from the producer who had mixed the song. He's like, ‘You're never gonna believe this: The label just contacted us to open for Justin Bieber’. I think it was the next month or something. I was like, ‘The Justin Bieber?’ He was like, ‘Yes, that one. These are stadium shows’. 

Prior to that I had done one small acoustic show for a couple of people and never had performed in school. I never sang, I never did the talent shows, I never was on stage. I was always just known for playing sports and being good at that, so, it was huge. It was…I don't even have the words. 

I remember sharing the information with the rest of my family. It was unbelievable joy and excitement that one of us from this small town was going to suddenly be sharing the stage with Justin Bieber. It was almost out of a dream. So yeah, that happened!

How did it go?

Honestly, I was terrified! I was like, ‘Am I gonna be able to do this? Am I gonna freeze? Am I gonna throw up on the stage?’ I was 18 at the time. I'm backstage and things are getting very real: this is happening, you start hearing the crowd screaming. If you've ever been to a stadium show, hearing a whole stadium full of people screaming is very intense. It's very loud. It's very visceral and real. It's a whole vortex that you step into.

I'm standing backstage, and I'm like, ‘Okay, this is real, this is about to happen’. Then the music starts, I come out on the stage and it was just insanity – people are screaming, they are singing the lyrics. I was like, ‘People are gonna have no idea who I am’. I didn't expect people to know the song and for people to be as hyped up as they were; it was so magical.

As soon as I stepped on that stage, something else took over and I just handled it like a pro. Before I went on, I told myself that this is how I know for sure if this is what I want to do, because obviously doing a stadium show is something that is the highest goal as a musician or as a singer to work your way up to that point. 

For me, it was like, ‘Okay, if I do this and I enjoy this and I have fun on a level this big, then I know that I'm on the right track and that I need to keep making music and keep pushing for this’. Getting off that stage, I was like, ‘Yep, confirmed. I'm doing the right thing. I'm in the right place’.

It was unbelievable joy and excitement that one of us from this small town was going to be sharing the stage with Justin Bieber.

More recently, you released an alternative version of Afropop-infused anthem I Lay. How did the alternative version come about and did you always want to hear it with a feature?

That process was interesting. The song as a whole has a very interesting story. I was sitting in L.A. in my room at the time and had just come off of a dry spell of writing. I hadn't written anything in maybe a couple months, and as an artist, when you haven't made anything in a while you start questioning yourself: ‘Am I even good? Can I even write a song? Am I ever gonna write another good song ever again?’

I was sitting at my desk on my laptop and I was like, ‘You know what? Let me just do what I used to do back in the day and go find some YouTube beats and write something for fun, just to get my muscles flexing again and to get into my flow’. I landed on this instrumental, and it is the one that is on I Lay. I listened to it, and I was like, ‘Huh. I like this. This is something I didn't expect to find on YouTube. But that's cool’.

I pull it up to my Ableton and freestyle some melodies. 10 minutes into me freestyling, I was like, ‘Wait, I really like this. This feels like an actual song’. So I ended up writing the whole thing and doing all of the vocals – exactly how you hear it now. I recorded it in my room and it took me around 30 minutes to finish the whole thing. I sent the song to a couple people and they were freaking out about it, so I knew it was good.

We released the song, and it just started doing really well, so I was like, ‘I feel like a feature on the song would go really well.’ I had no idea who it was gonna be, but I had it in my mind. I had heard of Xenia before, but I had never met her. I sent out the song and the next day, she sent it right back and she's like, ‘I did a verse; Let me know what you think’. I was like, ‘Damn, that was quick’. 

I pull up the song and I play it through my speakers and immediately she comes in with the first line and I was like, ‘Yep, this is it. No edits required. We are releasing this’. It took the song even further and elevated it even more.

I Lay is an anthem about the power of intuitive love and cosmic energy. You mentioned it has an interesting story behind it…?

The story behind the song is that, personally, I was going through a huge transition. I just ended a two year relationship and was stuck in this weird place. I had been making a lot of space in my life for new people and trying to connect with myself. I sat down to write the song and around the same few days, I had just met someone.

It's like when you meet someone and as soon as you walk into the same room as them, the energy shifts, and you're like, ‘Whoa, what is that? Who are you? I don't know you. But I feel like I know you already’. I had that cosmic feeling when you connect with someone that feels on your same wavelength – almost like a godsend. So that is kind of what inspired the song, and fast forward, I am now dating that person!

You just released your self-titled debut album, KAIEN. What is the concept or meaning behind the album?

It is an amalgamation of my life, my experiences, my culture and a sense of being very mixed and growing up around a lot of different sounds, genres of music, people, languages and also in my own world. It’s also my own personal experience. 

I'm someone that lives a lot in my head and I feel like this project really showcases all the things that go on in my mind and in my life. I'm very excited about this project being out because for the first time when someone asks me, ‘What type of music do you make? How would you describe yourself as an artist?’ I would just send them this project and say, ‘Here, listen to this. This describes me as a whole’.

I know it's my music, but unbiasedly I would say they are no skips.

What’s your favourite song on the new album?

I don't know if I could pick one… but I love Grip. I love Explore. I love Seasons. I love Tell No One. I honestly love every single song on there. I know it's my music, but unbiasedly I would say they are no skips.

Do you have any new music plans you can share…?

I have a few things up my sleeve. My upbringing was playing guitar and writing songs on guitar, so I have this desire to do an acoustic version. So we'll see how that plays out. That's all I can say for right now…. But a lot more acoustic vibes to come. It's something that I'm craving to do again to get back to my roots.

Is there anything people would be surprised to learn about you?

Well, Sedona is one of the biggest hotspots for UFOs. A couple of days ago I did a UFO tour, which is something that they do here, which is so wild. I honestly don't care if people believe me or not, but I saw at least 10 UFOs! Before that I had maybe seen one, or one that I thought I'd seen, but it was so far in the distance you question yourself. But there were so many that it was just unbelievable. It's something that you have to see to believe.