Oakland singer Astu’s parents are preachers who raised their children in a tight-knit, religious community. But after high school, Astu took a break from her Charismatic Christian church, promising to return to God later. As she explains it now, “I kind of wilded out.”
She tried to return to her faith with a renewed commitment. She went to seminary college in Oklahoma and married a minister, and became a minister and worship leader herself.
Still, something was missing.
“I was the most unhappy I'd ever been in my entire life,” she says, describing her thought process at the time. “God can't mean for me to be this unhappy. So then, well, I just have to leave it all. I have to let it all go, you know?”
Leaving her marriage and life as a preacher was a slow process. It took time and grit. But eventually, Astu arrived at a version of herself that’s unafraid of challenging that which may seem preordained, and seeks new pleasures in unfamiliar territory. That courage and experience are evident on the singer’s new EP, Patterns -- a particularly insightful and self-assured debut, sure to count as one of the Bay Area's most notable releases this year.
When I meet Astu for coffee near Lake Merritt on an overcast afternoon, she arrives in sizable door knocker earrings that match perfectly with her bold, glossy blonde finger waves. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed about for so long,” she says of her new EP, gleaming.
Over the course of seven songs and five interludes, Patterns concerns itself with love: love of self, love of others, and love that frees. Produced mostly by Daoud Anthony -- who’s worked with Chicago indie hip-hop darling Saba -- the project moves at a languid pace, with warm, summery vocals and sticky percussion all orbiting comfortably in the electro-R&B and soul galaxy. Astu’s dexterity is best displayed on “Paperheart,” a standout track from the EP that switches from playful warning to sweet supplication over Anthony’s soulful, funky production.
Astu spent half of 2017 writing Patterns and recording it at San Leandro’s After Ours studio; she says that the completion of her debut project signifies a beginning. “It doesn’t feel like an end. It feels like a doorway.” To what, I ask her. “Everything I've ever wanted,” she exhales with a giggle.
Astu has been singing from a very young age. She recalls being 4 or 5, lining up her brother and sister to sing gospel for her family’s guests at their home in San Jose. “My family always recognized that singing was my gift and the thing I always heard was, ‘You have to sing for Jesus,’” she remembers. “But from the beginning, I knew singing was mine.”
“I guess I was conflicted because it was such a deep belief, the way I was raised and the way I was taught about God and Christianity,” she continues. “It felt like I was wrong; it felt like singing for myself was wrong. And it felt like the things that I cared about, that I wanted to put into music, they weren't right.”
So Astu sang for others. She joined choirs at her high school and church, and sang background vocals for her brother’s psych-rock and blues band. When she moved to Oklahoma for college, she led her worship group in song. But the weight of life in service of a religious community that she no longer identified with grew to be an uncomfortable burden.
“When you see yourself through other people's eyes, it's not just that it's inauthentic, but it's almost like you're killing yourself,” she says. “You're not allowing who you are to be.”
After she left her Oklahoma life behind, Astu settled back in the Bay Area, landing first with her mom in San Jose and then moving to Oakland in 2013. As she began to acquaint herself with her identity outside of the pressures of church, she returned to music through open mics and jam sessions around the Town.
In the Spring of 2014, she arrived at Spirithaus Gallery for a free-form music session. She sat and listened, amazed at what she was witnessing. “This is incredible. People do this outside of church?” she remembers thinking. Towards the end of the session, she got on the mic and sang for 15 minutes; she describes it as “one of the most spiritually satisfying experiences.”
Encouraged by Oakland’s creative scene, Astu set up a home studio and began recording. “In the beginning it was me and a bottle of whiskey, some orange juice, and my little studio. But now I've gotten to the point where the whiskey is unnecessary.”
Those last few years of pushing herself emotionally, spiritually, and creatively resulted in Patterns, an elegant debut polished by Astu’s battles against religious dogma and the inescapable soul-searching that followed. On “Love Lessons," the EP's choral, intimate outro, Astu and her friends talk about the different lessons they’ve learned about love. I ask about one that's stuck with her.
“Sometimes, love looks like war,” she says. “Just being able to defend yourself, stick up for yourself. That was the biggest one for me.”
Astu celebrates the Feb. 23 release of Patterns with a performance and panel discussion at Red Bay Coffee on Feb. 22. More info here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED