The Harmony of Opposites is a recurring theme in Eastern philosophy, that life’s highs cannot come without its lows. Singer-songwriter Aisha Badru has lived that duality—which is why she devoted an entire album, Pendulum (Nettwerk), to exploring how that which once haunted her now empowers her. “A major theme of every human’s experience is that we’re constantly swinging between good and bad,” she says. “We can’t avoid it. By realizing that the swings aren’t permanent, you begin to develop the ability to control how you feel about the unfortunate events that may arise in your life.”
Though elegantly spacious and radiantly harmonic (often with nightingale vocals), Pendulum reverberates with strong will. Here, humbled pensiveness can erupt at any moment into transcendent battle cries. Pendulum delivers a universal message. But it’s also the sound of Badru revealing how she’s never let any disadvantages or heartbreak destroy her.
The album’s first single, “Bridges,” is about the latter. An atmospheric piece, it manages to make a vocoder seem ethereal. Badru sings: “There”ll be mountains for us to climb / There’ll be days when the sun won’t shine / But I’ll stick to it.” Its video chronicles a couple violently kept apart by doppelgängers, representing the man’s demons. “Those mountains are personal demons. They can rip you apart from the person you love most,” she explains. “It takes perseverance to stick with someone through times where you know they need to fight their own battles without you.”
The world first met Badru through a very different love song. In 2016, Volkswagen licensed the exquisitely hushed, plaintive “Waiting Around”—one of her earlier compositions—for an advertisement. “When I secured that ad,” she says, “my whole life changed.” It finally put money in Badru’s pocket, and enchanted listeners across the globe.
For instance, “Navy Blues”—a gorgeously fractured ballad with an Edith Piaf soul—amassed more than a million Spotify plays. The song is about an intense romance with a military officer who went AWOL in their relationship, with relatable relevance. (“You had your armor on,” she sings. “I had none.”) “I never saw him after that summer. Oftentimes there’s someone in a relationship who just cares more than the other,” she explains. “But I turned my sadness into art.”
It’s impossible to resist the emotion-tugging power of Badru’s work (people are known to cry at her shows), but it is futile to deny the profound DIY instinct that drives her talent. Pendulum, for instance, was produced by the U.K.-based Chris Hutchison, whom she’s never actually met in person. With no industry inroads and some VW money, Badru simply Googled “music producers” and listened to search results for three full days until she found the right one. “I go with my intuition,” she says. They worked via Skype calls and shared files. “I had a feeling he just understood me.” Hutchinson’s production is admirably nuanced: richly evocative, while light-handed enough to ensure Badru’s lyrics remain each track’s aural focal point.
If Pendulum has a listen-to-your-gut anthem that she adhere to, it’s “Mind on Fire.” “The song is about cognitive dissonance: feeling one way but doing the opposite,” Badru says. “It’s all of that fire, that passion, that we don’t express.” The video features various women—an activist, an overworked mom, an ice skater, Badru herself—seemingly limited in their own situations. The track inspired Badru to step out of her comfort zone, into a higher vocal range. “I’ve never sung like that in my life! I was in my apartment and recorded the guitar part on loop, then randomly added vocal harmonies. Singing in that really high voice was, like, this out-of-body experience.”
She wasn’t always this daring. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, Badru was a timid, tentative teenager. “There’s the nice side of Yonkers, and there’s the not-so-nice side, where I grew up,” she says. “When you grow up in a low-income neighborhood, there are many stereotypes placed on you, including what your future will look like.” She started to feel isolated because, she says, “I knew I wasn’t a stereotype in any way. I tried to keep my mind open to the world, which is hard when you feel like you and everyone around you is in a box.”
Her parents divorced when she was young. Mom, a home-health aid, raised Badru and her siblings. Dad, a professor, taught at the University of Louisville. “I got to experience both worlds. “I developed a strong sense of empathy because I can understand how a lack of resources may push someone to succumb to the limitations of their environment,” she recalls. “But I could also see, from my father, that there’s so much more beyond my neighborhood.”
She may have been shy, but she was also independent. “My mom couldn’t be as present as she wanted to because she was working so much,” Badru says. “I had to be self-motivated.” In the tenth grade, she discovered literature and writing. A year later, she joined the guitar club, where she learned to play the instrument, while singing lead vocals. At the time, she subsisted on a diet of Top 40 music. Her encouraging music teacher opened her up to new sounds: “ He introduced me to ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles, and Tracy Chapman.” To this day, she writes all her music on guitar, with Hutchison adding sonic texture thereafter.
Upon graduation, Badru turned down two music scholarships (“I still didn’t have the confidence that I would become an artist”), instead landing at a college in the Bronx. Miserable there, she finally dropped out after three years. Her song “Splintered” touches on that journey. “We are splintered, and we are rotten,” she sings in a hushed, Joni Mitchell nightingale voice. “Deep inside the walls that we’ve forgotten.” The track is a call for people to take control of their lives. “We externalize our problems, always looking for someone else to blame,” she says. “The world isn’t broken, we are; the world is simply a reflection of us. We are afraid to take responsibility, reclaim our power, and heal ourselves.”
Dropping out of college “caused a lot of friction with my dad,” she says. “But I knew if anyone was going to change my life, it had to be me.” She worked at a bookstore and played open-mic nights to save enough money to record music, which she put online. “Waiting Around” got organic traction, ultimately landing her the Volkswagen ad.
As it turns out, that commercial aired as far away as Africa, where her dad had recently relocated. “He called me from Nigeria and said, ‘I saw your commercial on TV. I’m so proud of you,’” she says. “That was the first moment he really realized I’m not a crazy, deadbeat art kid.” It was also the first time Badru realized was an actual artist. “Sometimes you have to feel completely defeated, in order to realize you’re not defeated,” she says. “I hope to serve as a reminder to people everywhere that we are so much more powerful than we think we are and I hope to encourage people to draw strength from their shortcomings.”