When she performed at Blankets and Wine a few weeks ago as the opening act, though not very popular, Isabel Twongyeirwe who goes by the stage name Izabel Ug wowed the audience with her soothing vocals accompanied by her ability to play the piano and guitar.
When I meet her for a one-on-one, I discover that there is more to this petite 29-year-old than meets the eye. We meet in Bugoloobi at 12:30 pm and she tells me she is using her lunch break from her 9-to-5 job for the interview; so, we get right into it.
The first born of four children born to a Baptist pastor, it was inevitable that Isabel would take keen interest in music as she grew up surrounded by it. Her father played various instruments and her mother used to sing in church.
At age of 13, Isabel was already playing the piano and writing songs, and with her two younger brothers who played guitar and drums, they had formed a music band at home which took up most of their time especially during the holidays. Attending Kampala Parents School and Gayaza High School which had great music, dance and drama only sharpened her love for music.
“I used to love poetry and writing and I actually thought that I would be an author. Because of that love for writing, I decided to start writing songs. While at Gayaza High School, I got friends and we started doing music seriously. Then, I wasn’t looking at becoming a professional musician even though I had started getting offers of people wanting to manage me and make me a professional artiste. I was doing music because it was fun and would help me process life,” she says.
Isabel later joined Uganda Christian University for a bachelor’s degree in law; during her third year at law school, she released her first EP Chaotic Heart in 2016.
When she was done with law school, she went to study music production for a year in San Diego, California, after which she went to Law Development Centre (LDC) and upon her completion, started working with intellectual property firms that could help with music and copyright.
The first time Izabel performed for an audience as a professional musician was during the A Ka Dope band sessions in 2017 where she performed her Chaotic Heart EP.
She describes the moment as an amazing experience because it was the first time she ever heard her music organized and performed with
a full band set up. With her ability to play the piano and the semi-hollow electric guitar which she doubles with the bass guitar, Izabel refers to her music as “non-genre conforming”.
“My vocals are very RnB-infused but my music isn’t really RnB. It always has that foundation of singer/songwriter; I am telling a story, it is very lyrically and emotionally descriptive and it’s very alternative because it is not the kind which is mainstream or popular. But moving forward, I like indie/alternative pop-infused styles and in the past years most songs I have been releasing sound like that,” she says.
As one who has written all her songs, Izabel draws inspiration from her personal life experiences.
“For me it begins with having a question, then breaks down into a metaphor and in the end it might just be a song about anything. The most prominent thing I have written about is existentialism and understanding the complexity of humans. When I am writing a song, my mind is literally just flowing out of me and so you can go through my songs and literally get a glimpse of my whole life,” she says.
She is, however, excited about writing about other aspects of her life such as her son and how difficult marriage can be. Indeed, when you listen to her music, her first project, the Chaotic Heart EP highlights depressing moments in her life. Her first full length album Little Grownup Child, which is a 10-track story about coming of age, has some love songs, while her most recent album Love and Light, which she wrote right after her wedding, featires only love songs, with some dedications to her husband and highlights of their relationship.
She has also released singles such as Wuuyo, Ntwala and Lubererwa, all collaborations with Kenneth Mugabi, Boda Ride which is a collaboration with a Congolese producer and more recently Naawe with Artin Pro, which leans heavily on the guitar, with Lingala influences.
IZABEL THE LAWYER
Music aside, Isabel is a fulltime lawyer specializing in intellectual property and technology. Though being a lawyer was not among her career considerations growing up, she is not surprised that she turned out to be one as she was always argumentative and confident as a child.
She wanted to be a paediatrician but then sciences failed her and she decided to study History, Economics, Literature and Music, subjects she enjoyed. At university, she participated in the moot competitions, a co-curricular activity organized at university level internationally
where law students compete in mock court proceedings.
It is through these competitions that she participated in nationally and internationally that she got the passion for legal fields that are not so common in Uganda like international law, intellectual property and technology.
“I am interested in consulting for creatives because many artistes don’t know their rights. In the long term, I hope to work in the music business as a music executive and use this legal background to advise creatives. I already do a lot of legal work pro bono for artistes and speak at creatives’ engagements offering legal advice,” Isabel says.
How does she separate the artiste from the lawyer?
“The most immediate difference between Isabel the lawyer and Izabel the musician is that Izabel the musician is fun; I like who I am on stage. Whereas as a lawyer, I am a no-nonsense person. I am very serious, professional and a go-getter. Sometimes even people at work are surprised when they find out that I am also a musician.”
However, doubling as a musician and lawyer has not been easy; some people who are referred to her for legal advice don’t take her seriously wondering what a musician could possibly know about the law. On the other hand, some fulltime musicians consider her as a sellout because of having another profession yet for them they live, breathe and sleep music; they believe she can’t understand the realities of being an artiste.
This has left her with a feeling of not fitting in either world. It is through law circles that she met her husband, also a lawyer, in 2019 at an intellectual property symposium and the couple got married in 2021. Unfortunately, the marriage did not work and they are no longer together. The two share a three-year-old son.
BALANCING MUSIC AND LAW
Balancing the two careers is no easy feat for Izabel especially now when more music opportunities are coming in. But through proper time management and efficiency, she is managing to give both law and music the time and attention they deserve though she admits that she wants to give her music career more time in order to get better and grow at it.
“Music time is from 12:30 pm to 2 pm, 5 pm to 10 pm and then the weekends. At times when I am recording projects, I just have to sleep in studio. If I know I have a rehearsal at 5 pm and I don’t want work to bleed into that time, I go to office a bit earlier or do more the previous day so that I can cover as much work as possible before that time. It becomes exhausting yet I am also very deliberate about spending time with my son; so, it reaches a point where I am turning down some opportunities,” she says.
On which of the two careers she would choose over the other, she, with not much thought, picks music, because it has always been her passion.
DISAGREEMENT WITH PARENTS
Coming from a strong Christian family, doing secular music is not something Izabel’s parents accepted from the beginning. Because of the way secular musicians are depicted as drug users, vulgar, indecent and the kind of places they perform in, her parents thought their child would end up doing all sorts of vices to fit in.
This has occasionally created a rift between Izabel and her parents, but she still has a lot of respect for them and would not want music to come between them. She is intentional in making sure that through her music activities, she represents herself in a way that does not bring shame to them and what they believe in.
“As the first born, there is a psychological way I am very attached to my parents. It is not like whatever they decide I do, because there are times I have had to put my foot down and do what I want against their will. There were times my father would tell me to leave his house and I would because I owed it to myself to explore this opportunity,” Isabel narrates.
Isabel says they have now found a common ground of agreeing to disagree.
“My father thinks that nothing constructive can happen after 8pm so you cannot convince him that you are going to sing late at night. But I have realized I cannot persuade them on everything and I have had to make peace with that. One thing I know for sure is they know the joy that I find in doing music and the quality it brings to my life.”
NAVIGATING THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Izabel’s music is not the kind you would find playing in mainstream media or banging in bars and clubs but, according to her, not being mainstream has been inevitable especially considering the home she comes from and the cultural realities of the mainstream music industry which don’t align with her Christian background.
Though she admits that this limits her from tapping into a bigger audience, she has made peace with that after understanding that for people to relate to her craft as an artiste, she has to be her true self and allow herself grow organically.
“I could also decide to sing what I think will hit and sell fast but can I be able to sustain it? I just really want to speak to people’s lives. I live for moments where a person tells me that my song helped them get through a particular situation or made them feel less alone; that is success to me. Yes, it would be nice if I ever did Lugogo cricket oval and filled it to brim but that one-on-one conversation with the audience at a smaller gig means much more to me,” she says.
However, this does not mean that she would not collaborate with mainstream artistes such as Sheebah and Fik Fameica.
“I really want to do something with Sheebah because I would like to exchange our energies for once. I have seen her perform and her energy is captivating and intoxicating; when she sings it, you believe it. I want to explore how I can learn from that; bring her into my quieter sound but still have her being energetic. I also want to work with Fik Fameica because I love how playful but serious and creative his flow is. I would like to be pulled out of my conventional verse-chorus, verse-bridge structure into a rhyme structure.”
The biggest stage Izabel has so far performed on is last month’s edition of Blankets and Wine. She has also done performances on other platforms especially those that attract the new generation audience like Jameson and Friends, Expressions Ug and events in uptown hangout places.
She has also done some music for movies including Akakalabanda Ate My Homework and participated in the Ngalabi short film festival. She, however, says she is also keen on doing international performances at different music festivals around the world because internationally, most of those spaces are based on sound in that even if people don’t know who you are or your songs, they can still relate with your sound.
With the piano, guitar and her smooth vocals, the future looks bright for Izabel, who is already finishing up her next album due for release next year.
Source: The Observer