Kassia Conway never thought of herself as P. Diddy’s “type.” But with only 48 hours’ notice last winter, she found herself as the main and only musical act at a televised launch party for Diddy’s Revolt TV network.
Revolt had already been playing Conway’s self-made video for her first single, “Big Talk,” and previously did a quick bit on the Los Angeles-based artist. Still, she had no idea that Diddy himself was interested.
“When I asked who else was playing, they said, ‘It’s just you,’” said Conway, who opens for Ellie Goulding at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium Saturday. “P. Diddy (was) there, Tyrese shows up. Mace and Kendrick Lamar show up. Wale shows up. It’s a full-on hip-hop party. I was almost gonna have a heart attack because it was really high stress. It was the fastest three minutes of my life.”
A month after her performance for Diddy’s network, “Big Talk” was featured on Girls, an appropriate fit for the artist whose songs tout empowerment and independence. Conway doesn’t watch much TV — “when I do, I get so sucked in that I would never get anything done” — but female image and perception are of high importance to the St. Louis-born singer-songwriter.
She tries not to judge other artists for their stage persona or televised lives, but has high standards for herself.
“I am extremely conscious that there’s a lot of girls taking clothes off and doing overly sexual shit, which to me has nothing to do with music,” she says. “Everything I do is inspired by the music. It’s not inspired by ‘I want you to see this. I want to be sexy.’ As I woman, I do find it really important to carry myself with that kind of dignity.
Conway is known to dress unusually; she even makes her own alterations to clothes and welcomes the attention from music fans that’d never heard of her before. She’ll wear zebra stripes if it means that someone will go from a show and remember nothing about the opening act besides what she wore on stage. But dressing eclectically is not the same as conforming to the ever-more-provocative dress, or lack thereof, of other female musicians.
“(It’s) like you can only do art at a high level if you’re also sexy, or if you’re also slutty,” she says. “I don’t understand how we got there. Every year you get desensitized like, ‘Oh, I guess that’s cool, she’s like humping the floor. Whatever. I think she’s in pitch, kind of, though.’
“I love being an example on the other side of sexy town. Not that I’m not sexy. I think I am.”
That self-confidence has been propelling Conway onward for several years. She left St. Louis for Brooklyn after high school after deciding the city had nothing to offer her. Despite appreciating St. Louis’ musical heritage, rich with blues, soul and gospel, she’d been telling her mother she wanted to live elsewhere since she was 10.
“My mom used to sneak me into clubs, and I would watch these old dudes just play amazing blues that definitely influenced me (into) being in love with music,” she said. “But I wasn’t in love with St. Louis.”
She toiled in New York, starting “a million things,” but her music career didn’t get off the ground until one of her friends, drummer Amy Wood, asked her to move to Los Angeles, where she had access to a recording studio and needed a singer-bassist. Conway threw everything she had — one bag of clothes, two guitars, and a bag of potato chips — into her car and drove across the country with the promise of a career in music.
“You go where the opportunity is,” she says. “It was straight-up a career decision.”
But two records later, her emotional, diary entry-esque band that drew comparisons to The Breeders didn’t survive, either. Perhaps she should have known better, being that the name was All Wrong and the Plans Change. And so they did. Conway and Wood decided they wanted to make music that made them want to dance.
And that, says Conway while sipping on tea that smells an awful lot like miso soup, is how she ended up as a solo artist, with enough varied influence to draw attention from the likes of Columbia Records (who signed her after watching the “Big Talk” video that she made using her laptop camera) and P. Diddy.
“I can fucking make some jams,” she emphasizes. “I make beats all the time. I love to play the drums. I play bass. I love hip-hop. I…don’t worry about what genre it is. (Whether) I’m pulling from hip-hop, soul or Celtic music, who knows?”
Ellie Goulding, with Conway
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
April 19, 2014