For producer Barney Lister and vocalist Kojo Degraft-Johnson, music is a place to belong. Hailing from different ends of England and disparate cultures, they have come together as MRCY, creating a shared space of soulful self-expression that combines the timeless musical warmth of Marvin Gaye with the modern sensibility of Anderson .Paak. On their debut, eight-track project VOLUME 1, MRCY view the heartfelt essence of Soul through the looking glass – theirs is a masterful sound that is as classic in feel as it is contemporary in concern. “It’s like hearing a distant memory,” Barney says. “But one that speaks to where you are now.”
Arriving with a fully-formed vision, MRCY have nonetheless hustled hard to make work in their own voice. Over the past five years, Barney has established himself as one of the UK’s most in-demand, genre-fluid young producers, striking up a long term collaboration with Obongjayar and producing the Ivor Novello Award-winning ‘God’s Own Children’ in 2020, as well as his critically-acclaimed 2022 debut album Some Nights I Dream Of Doors. He has also worked with some of Britain’s most exciting pop talent: Rina Sawayama, Mercury Prize-nominees Joy Crookes, Olivia Dean and Celeste plus Glaswegian singer Joesef. Kojo, meanwhile, earned his stripes at London’s prestigious jam nights before going on to provide vocals for an equally-illustrious roster of homegrown artists, from Cleo Sol and Little Simz to Ego Ella May and Liam Gallagher.
MRCY first met online in 2021, when Barney messaged Kojo after discovering him singing live on Instagram – they connected in Barney’s Brixton studio between restrictive lockdowns, where the chemistry was immediate. “Kojo’s voice hit me like Stevie Wonder,” Barney says. “The plan was just to make one tune but it all came together so quickly and easily, we knew we had much more in us.” That very first session produced the opening track of VOLUME 1, ‘R.L.M.’ Pairing Kojo’s soaring vocals with Barney’s effortlessly enveloping production – full of horn fanfares and cinematic swells of background harmony – ‘R.L.M.’ is about finding joy in the frenzy of London life; it’s a stop-you-in-your-tracks introduction to MRCY.
Ever since, the pair have met up regularly in Brixton and allowed the MRCY sound – and bond – to deepen. “I’ve never felt this good about making music before,” Kojo says. “It is full of love and positivity, and means a lot to us.” The guys’ unusual connection places MRCY in the lineage of other unorthodox vocalist-producer duos like Gnarls Barkley, as well as the lineage of Soul greats who have always used songwriting to speak to the current moment of its making. “The world can feel pretty fucked up, and we’re just trying to find peace in the madness,” Barney adds. “MRCY is Kojo and myself doing our own thing for the first time, putting our own emotions front and center.”
Though social and political chaos inevitably informs their songs, MRCY is also about the need for common-ground. Both in sound and ethos, VOLUME 1 pays tribute to those communities that help shape your world-view. Growing up in 90s Huddersfield, Barney started out playing the drums and found his artistic calling thanks to the Yorkshire town’s melting-pot soundsystem culture. In South London, meanwhile, Kojo was raised on legends like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, absorbing the choral music of his father’s Catholic church alongside the raucous gospel of his mother’s Ghanaian ministry. “I’d alternate between the churches every Sunday, and that really informed me – especially the power of a voice to move you,” he says. MRCY’s work reverberates with individual perspectives, but also reminds how those shared experiences of graft, grit and abandon have always been able to bring crowds – or a new band – together.
Across VOLUME 1 MRCY artfully combine musical weight, commanding vocals and underlying message to produce personal but deeply universal work. The familiar is often warped into something strange and new, a case made on first single ‘Lorelei’ – its wistful chorus subtly alters the Soul blueprint with a steady psychedelic groove reminiscent of Dead Oceans labelmates Khruangbin. “It’s Soul but with our own edge; ethereal and otherworldly,” Kojo says. “That track really helped us establish our identity when we were making the record.”
As the project progresses, MRCY’s alternative Soul looks deeper inwards and further outwards. ‘Purple Canyon’, for instance, is an atmospheric, acid-trip of a track that’s actually inspired by our exhaustion with digital platforms. ‘Flowers In Mourning,’ meanwhile, lets loose a propulsive Afrobeat energy nodding to Kojo’s Ghanian heritage, while the Northern Soul soundystem dub sirens and delays of Barney’s Huddersfield upbringing are a sonic thread weaving through VOLUME 1: a body of work that explores the past in part to make sense of the present. In MRCY’s world the sound may be cutting-edge, but the need for collective escapism spans generations: ‘Days Like This’ is a communal blast of much-missed Northern Soul optimism, while ‘Powerless’ beautifully transposes the social consciousness of 70s Marvin Gaye into the turbulence of noughties life.
MRCY already are on the cusp of taking their local music global, with a European tour supporting Black Pumas marking their first ever live shows. The Volume’s hands-clasped artwork symbolises the unity and solidarity at the heart of the band, with a lot of the project, says Barney, touching on the somewhat lost “human aspect of making records – the jankiness of playing live. We can’t wait to get onstage and communicate that feeling to everyone in the audience.”
As its title hints, there are also plans for an ensuing second volume of MRCY, with the duo continuing to produce tracks that not only give Barney and Kojo a place to belong, but their listeners a space to feel, heal and be themselves. Having strived separately for years behind the scenes, for Barney and Kojo the band is as much about putting yourself first as it is the spirit of compassion, empathy and m(e)rcy that has never felt more needed. Soul, says Barney, is “good people making music that matters” – a fitting aspiration for a record that’s both fresh and, ultimately, hopeful. From the very first line of ‘R.L.M.’ – “London rain on the window / I don’t care where we’re gonna go / I’m good with you” – MRCY offer a blissful respite from and an intoxicating soundtrack to the madness, the magic, of the everyday.