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Willow Kayne has landed: 90s-obsessed Bristol rapper on plans to dominate 2022

The pop maverick has crafted a signature Day-Glo blend of ’90s rap, rave and profanity-laden pop-punk

By Jenessa Williams

Willow Kayne poses for Rolling Stone UK
Willow Kayne poses for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Jack Bridgland)

Pacing through central London, Willow Kayne is breathless as she takes Rolling Stone’s call. Headline shows don’t plan themselves, and she has spent the day trying to find a venue that will meet her exacting standards.

“It’s not till February, but my idea includes a lot of different working factors, and there’s not many places that can do it,” she explains. 

With her signature Day-Glo blend of ’90s rap, rave and profanity-laden pop-punk, Willow has conquered both Live at Leeds and Alt-LDN festivals in the past six months, marking herself out as a prize-fighting performer, a lyrical spitfire, with veteran ease.

“I’m very confident on stage, but the bit before? Terrified,” she laughs. “I can’t do rehearsals, because I end up thinking too much about what I have to do and it freaks me out. My mum hasn’t even heard me sing yet; I won’t let her see a show until it’s a mad one.”

Now 20, Kayne’s Bristol upbringing was musically eclectic: her mum worked on video direction for the likes of Moby and The Prodigy, while her dad’s “terrible” music taste helped pique her interest in house and soul. At 17, Kayne began uploading beats to SoundCloud, swiftly outpacing her interest in lo-fi RnB. “There’s still a bit of that sound in there, but moving to London, getting signed and meeting new people who fully get me, it’s all been wicked growth,” she says.

Before music, a different kind of stardom beckoned. “I used to be a proper YouTube kid,” she howls. “I had a channel where I used to collect rubbers and make videos about them, crazy little Japanese erasers and dinky things. It was a moment! But it’s not the same any more.”

Part of the problem, Willow believes, is TikTok. Despite her 400,000 likes (and counting), it’s also been a haven for the haters, a narrative that fuels her bolshiest work.

“When my song ‘Two Seater’ came out, TikTok ran it as an advert, and straight away I got 1,500 hate comments ripping me apart. Ten minutes later, I wrote ‘I Don’t Want To Know’. It’s hilarious to me that there are people who are that sour in the world, but that’s fine — I’m not making music for everyone.”

“My mum hasn’t even heard me sing yet; I won’t let her see a show until it’s a mad one.”

The vindicating success of Kayne’s recent tracks must certainly feel sweet. Alongside ‘Two Seater’s inclusion on the FIFA’22 soundtrack, she also scooped the Rising Star award at this year’s Ivor Novellos. “It was a great moment to win, obviously, but my speech; oh my God, mate, I was so overwhelmed!”

The award earned her a mentorship with songwriting legend Nile Rodgers. “I didn’t get how cool it was at first — when I got nominated, my manager gave me his biography, ‘Like, Willow, you’ve got to swot up!’ But he’s a great guy. We can hardly work because I just want to hear all his stories.”

Willow’s debut EP, Playground Antics, is the sound of an artist openly embracing her youth, blending brash drum’n’ bass clapbacks with an infectious sense of self-ownership
and pride.

“When I had made those songs, I had just moved to London, and a lot of relationships around me were changing,” she says. “It’s about looking at the realities of adult life through a child’s eyes, basically. Every song I make, I feel I can see the character and the colour of it right away. It really helps to fit things together.”

“Every song I make, I feel I can see the character and the colour of it right away”

Exactly who are these characters? How many stars exist in the world of Willow?

“There’s the ballsy side, but then there’s a little kid as well. But that’s all I can say for now. I should keep some enigma and shut my mouth.” She lets out an enormous laugh. “I’m literally lying. There’s no enigma with me!” Mystery or none, Willow Kayne is unlikely to stay a secret for long.