“I’ve been focused on who I am in my music, but now I’m exploring where I am,” Alfa Mist says. “I’m asking: how did I get here?”
This is the journeying question that underpins Alfa’s fifth album, Variables. Traversing luscious, big band swing, head-nodding boom-bap rhythms and yearning melodies, the record is expansive, soulful and moving, in both body and spirit. On Variables, his second release for ANTI-, Alfa achieves his most fully-realised, expressive musical work to date, coupling his keen ear for looping, memorably emotive piano lines with intuitive grooves and a free-flowing jazz improvisation.
The musical mood spans the Duke Ellington orchestral feel of opener “Foreword” to the rhythmic thump of “Borderline”, where Alfa spits verses on the battle between our nature and nurture, the dark introspections of groove-heavy “4th Feb (Stay Awake)”, and the seven-minute free improvised expressions of “BC”.
Variables also features several standout appearances. Longtime collaborator Kaya Thomas-Dyke sings on the soul-inflected “Aged Eyes”, blending her gossamer vocal over a finger-picking guitar melody to swell into a strings-laden, cinematic chorus. While South African folk singer Bongeziwe Mabandla pens the yearning love song “Apho”, producing a call-and-response through his crystalline falsetto that skips over drummer Jas Kayser’s frenetic beat.
Since the release of his first full-length project Nocturne in 2015, Alfa has established himself as one of the UK’s most focused and distinct musical voices. He has worked with the likes of Jordan Rakei and Tom Misch, drummer Richard Spaven, producer Lester Duval and singer Emmavie. Alfa is yet to be boxed into a specific genre as his music spans everything from hip-hop beat-making to producing for artists such as rapper Loyle Carner, composing neo-classical works for the London Contemporary Orchestra, and reworking tracks from composer Ólafur Arnalds and pioneering jazz label Blue Note.
Building on the success of 2017’s debut album, Antiphon, which has amassed over 10 million views on YouTube, 2019’s Structuralism and 2021’s debut for ANTI-, Bring Backs, Variables now finds Alfa moving forwards with renewed intensity and purpose. “The whole album is more uptempo and influenced by the freedom of returning to gigs,” Alfa explains. “It feels like I’m coming back to my early days of making grime beats and creating tracks that make me want to bop my head fast.”
The return to live shows has been a welcome one, resulting in an instantly sold-out run of debut US shows in 2022, as well as a headline gig at London’s Barbican in 2021, and an expanded run of US shows slated for 2023. The urgent energy of Alfa’s live presence speaks of his restless creativity – a driving force that has enabled his remarkable work-ethic to date. “I’ve never been a ‘one album every four years’ artist – I want to put out new projects every year,” he says. “Music is an extension of my life; it is the practice of creating.”
That practice is certainly fruitful. Alfa currently heads up his own label Sekito, releasing records from Jamie Leeming, trumpeter Jsphynx and bassist Rudi Creswick, with more slated for 2023. He also hosts the Are We Live podcast with Barney Artist and Jordan Rakei.
“Music is the gift that will never stop giving because I am always trying to figure out something new,” he says. “There will always be a question and I’m just searching for new ways to answer it.” We are the lucky ones, left to listen to Alfa’s soulful responses.