In 1986, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush released the heart-stopping collaboration "Don't Give Up." The song was a gorgeous slice of earthy ambience that balanced melancholic longing and a glimmering, essential undercurrent of hope.
With Gabriel and Bush not slated for another collaboration anytime soon, Central Florida musician Aisha Badru is a more-than-worthy successor to this particular sound and sentiment in the modern pop scene.
A comparison like this isn't doled out lightly. Badru's talent is fearsome, her ethereal songcraft rooted in deep emotions that skirt well clear of the dreaded "twee" descriptor. These are songs to play on repeat during long nights lost in reflective thought. Badru's music triggers an emotional response that hits right to the heart's imagination,
These qualities are on abundant display on Badru's recently released mini-album The Way Back Home. And don't just take our word for it; the six-song EP, her third, was put out by credentialed independent label Nettwerk Records, over the decades home to alternative leading lights like Sarah McLachlan, Perfume Genius and Skinny Puppy. (If you're snickering at us for throwing them in, we can't hear you because we're too busy jamming Badru's "Worthwhile" and Skinny Puppy's spectral "Worlock" in a two-sides-of-the-same-coin situation.)
Badru decamped to Central Florida during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 after a stint in New York, currently living a quiet, contemplative life in Mount Dora — where some of the songs on this album were written — with her partner and twin toddlers.
Badru humbly describes the songs on the EP as "simple with very relatable themes, whether it's the feeling we get from a break-up, feelings of self-worth or spiritual fulfillment ... a lot of things that I've gone through as I go through my journey of life and finding that wisdom as I'm finding that healing, I infuse that into my music."
The Way Back Home is filled with these compelling stories delivered through sound. Influenced by modern-day folk artists like Damian Rice and her labelmate Passenger, Badru's songs stop you in your tracks physically and mentally, enrapturing the listener with strummed rhythm guitar, delicate and deliberate electronics, and her celestial voice.
"I want the music to be uplifting. I do it in a way that the lyric is the centerpoint," says Badru. "I want my words to cut through to people and find a place within them that needs healing and hope that my journey can help shed some light on what they're going through."
U.K. producer Chris Hutchison fleshes out Badru's singing and guitar-playing with subtle strings, electronic washes, piano and wide vistas of open sonic space. Cool synths wash over Badru's verses like an idyllic stream, giving the recording a brilliant continuity.
"I normally write on guitar and [Hutchinson's] been with me since my Pendulum album and he's produced everything since," says Badru. "He's really helped my production sound. I'm very much a writer first before I'm a musician. I'm very much a poet, and he really helps with the atmosphere of my songs."
The Way Back Home's closing track, "Rebirth" (praised by NPR as "extraordinary," and they're not wrong), is a testament to this in flying colors. Drum lines swell to the triumphant chorus, "This is the great rebirth," with beautiful spoken word passages that amplify the song's emotional core.
When asked about her personal standout tunes on Way Back, Badru asks for a moment to think about it. After a few moments of silence she lists "The Way Back Home," "Rooted" and "Graves."
"'Rooted,' it speaks to my inner landscape, now. Being in the space where all the things that have happened to me are still going to happen to me. The world is still going to have suffering," explains Badru. "How do you respond? How do you stay grounded? Even though the world may be falling apart, how can you become rooted within yourself and not just falling wherever the wind blows you?
"These three songs really speak to my perspective, and they all symbolize going forward and not going backwards, but going back to go forward. When I think about the whole EP, there's a theme of being rooted."
For all the melancholy, there's an essential element of hope in Aisha Badru's music and a vulnerability that quietly shines through — spiritually and sonically. And that's something we need now more than ever.
The Way Back Home is available on all major streaming platforms, Badru's Bandcamp or through Nettwerk Records.