Interview: Kwabs on Beyoncé’s New Album, James Blake, and Trying to Inspire People

By Ashley Birch

Kwabs grew up surrounded by music. Growing up in Bermondsey, South London, he sang in choirs as a schoolboy and was given blues and jazz CDs by his teachers, before going on to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music. When you learn of the musical heritage instilled in the 23 year old, it’s no wonder that his grand voice and soulful tone has not only amazed audiences but also attracted acclaim from other artists.

Excitement around Kwabs is undoubtedly growing, and with today (February 3) marking the release of his debut Wrong or Right EP, and an album in the works for later this year, we talked to the soulful singer about James Blake, Beyoncé, the new wave of  complex pop music coming out of London, and lots more.


My first experience of your music was your cover of James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream.” Is he an inspiration?
As a singer and a male artist, he was an amazing inspiration because he just forged his own path in the most forthright way imaginable. It’s no coincidence that people are looking to him, and a lot of music recently feels like it is shaped by certain aspects of his production style and musical taste. I really dig his stuff and I think he is doing a really good thing for the music of today.

Have you heard that he’s moving into a house in L.A. with Chance the Rapper?
Well that can’t be a bad thing. I think he’s moving in the right circles and he’s definitely got the kudos from the right people.

What are you listening to most right now?
I’m listening to Beyoncé’s new album. Last year I was desperate for her to do something risky and I thought she’s not going to do because she’s at the top of her game. But she did exactly what I feel like she needed to do, which was say to everyone, “Look, I know the world wants me to do massive pop tunes but I’m going to give you stuff that’s more unusual and creative, which you’ll still buy.” I really dig that.

Your music is filled with emotion—the first time I heard “Last Stand” I was genuinely taken back by it—is this something you are conscious of when making music or is it just natural?
I’m a naturally emotive person and singer, so I think it comes out naturally. Once you’re on that journey of creating something that feels very heartfelt, you just get taken into that. That particular song, we wrote most of the lyrics quite early on. Then, a lot of the production aesthetics came from singing lines through the song. SOHN asked me to sing three or four runs of vocal lines of whatever I was feeling at the time, and running with it. I think we took all the original takes from those, and that stuff is what gets me really excited—that feeling of real human-ness that comes from the voice. I love that.


There’s also a density to your music that unravels as you listen, and it’s something that seems to be a growing trend. Sampha is another artist that comes to mind. How does it feel to be part of that movement, especially in terms of soul music and its recent revival?
I’m so up for that. I’m so up for real singers who want to speak to an audience in a way that is honest and not overwhelmed by other aspects in the music. That’s not to say you can’t have massive production, but I think you need to hear the raw emotion in what people are singing. I think that’s real soul and it’s what the greats have always done. It’s cool to see those sensibilities coming back into the frame. I love Sampha and there’s actually an element of what James [Blake] does, which is also like that—but it’s just cool to see that it’s a rising trend.

I’m so up for real singers who want to speak to an audience in a way that is honest and not overwhelmed by other aspects in the music.

It seems that at the moment, the music that is more popular and successful contains a level of complexity compared to past years where ‘pop music’ maybe didn’t.
Music goes in waves and people seem ready or even need something that feels like it’s a bit deeper. That’s not to say that the music that went before isn’t good, it’s just that people want something different now and I’m so ready to be a part of that wave, if that movement will have me.

Do you agree that London is acting as a hub for this particular movement?
London’s providing a lot of inspiration for that, first of all for real singers but also for innovation. Here, people are ready to try different stuff and they might not always get something that shakes the world but every now and again, you get someone who, due to their effort to be different, breaks through. That’s what I’m really feel excited about. Making those tunes which are just different and unusual, and no one knows why they work, but they just do.

Your debut EP is out February 3 so it must be a surreal time in your life right now?
It’s kind of crazy. I wasn’t expecting to have everyone on board but I’m loving it and I like that people I really respect on the radio and artists I’ve listened to, are in to it. It’s just really cool and unexpected.

The recognition you received from other artists must be great.
It’s such an affirmation that I’m doing the right thing and it spurs me on. To have people say they are in to what you do, on Twitter for example, it makes you feel like there is actually a space for you in the industry. Whereas once upon a time, you might have felt more disconnected from those people.

On the EP you have two tracks produced by SOHN, how did that come about?
Well I heard “The Wheel” and it turned out that he had heard some of my stuff, so we learnt from each other in a mutual way through music. We first worked together in London and “Last Stand” came really quickly out of that session, and all of a sudden it occurred to us that there is actually something in this. When we went to do our second session, “Wrong or Right” came really quickly too. So for me it’s just the start of that relationship. Who knows where that will go, but it just worked so we carried on.

London’s providing a lot of inspiration, first of all for real singers but also for innovation. Here, people are ready to try different stuff and they might not always get something that shakes the world, but every now and again you get someone who breaks through.

You are flying to Vienna to do more work with him so I’m guessing we can expect more collaborations in the future?
I always want to create, so I’m willing to make however much we can.

The last piece of the EP was recently revealed, that being the Ben Pierce remix – did you reach out to him?
We were looking for people who could make the EP feel rounded and he is such a musical guy and talent that it seemed worthwhile giving the song over to him and seeing if he would have a go—I just ended up really liking the result. I really respect him and his musical taste, so I thought lets see what you can come up with basically.

There’s a real diversity of sound on the EP, are you still experimenting with your music?
I’m just trying to create whatever feels natural. I think the sound is very unusual and bit more forward-thinking than people would have expected when they first heard me. I’m not necessarily expecting the sound to be the thing that links everything, I hoping it’s the content and what I want to say—the lyrics and the voice. Hopefully at the end of it, we will come out with a body of work that people will get from beginning to end, despite there being different production aesthetics.

It certainly takes the listener to different places.
Well I’m really glad about that because I wanted it to be a journey. We’ve been doing this for a while and we haven’t put out a massive amount of music and I like the fact that “Wrong or Right” is such a different track but people get that it’s at home with everything I’m doing. As more music comes out, I think people are going to learn that there are many more shades and colors to this project and many more parts to the story. Although there is a thread through it and there are certain things I talk about that I hope people get. It’s interesting to see how they respond to that.


Is there any artist that you really wish to work with in the future?
I want to work with people who are doing the same thing as I’m doing at the moment. People who are trying to find their place and forge their own path. Right now I really dig artists like BANKS, I love Lulu James and Emeli Sandé. Hopefully I’m not out of place saying this but we are all kind of in it together, as we are all trying to move and inspire people. I would just love to work with people who are on that same journey. Although if Sampha or Frank Ocean came along and wanted to make a song then that would happen [Laughs].

I want to work with people who are doing the same thing as I’m doing at the moment. People who are trying to find their place and forge their own path.

Clear my schedule!
Exactly.

If we were to sit down again this time next year, where would you want to be?
I want loads of people to have my album. I want to be touring. I want to have done a few things that people don’t expect! I want to throw a few curveballs.

You want to do a Beyoncé?
Yeah! Maybe sing on a couple of songs that aren’t necessarily mine but I sound good on and people look at and think, “that’s kind of unexpected but I really like that.” I want to keep it mobile and fluid, just roll with the punches because who knows what’s going to happen? But I’m going to take as many opportunities as I can. I want to get to 2015 thinking that I’ve worked as hard as I can and not think that I’ve missed out on things that could have been great.

Could there be an album?
An album’s definitely coming out in the second half of this year, hopefully a September release. It’s in the making, there are lots of songs and we’re constantly pushing.

Keeping your cards close to your chest though…
Yeah because I never like to say that it’s done yet but that’s just my own artistic brain thinking I’ve got to keep pushing as I just want to make the best thing possible. It’s a constant journey.