By taking a sound, examining what makes it special and placing his own epic-sounding spin on it, Kwabs is pushing his way to the forefront of British contemporary soul. Experimental electronica offers a stark contrast to his traditional vocal technique, but held against most modern music he sounds almost revolutionary. So many pop singers adopt falsettos, battling against compression and complex production on tracks. But he doesn’t make shallow pop records. The rich baritone is not the only deep element in this music.
A love for the prodigious technical ability of singers like Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald, saw him originally embrace all things jazz. Attending the Royal Academy of Music, the illustrious institution allowed him to learn his craft at the highest level and deepened his love for all music. Whilst his musical education was traditional, the varying musical tastes he was exposed to at college would affect him as much as lessons in theory or performance.
Listening enthusiastically to whatever was available all his life, each new peer group would introduce new genres for him to immerse in. Soon the allure of artists like the legendary Stevie Wonder and near-incomparable Donnie Hathaway took hold. “I happened to be surrounded by people who loved all sorts of music,” he tells me. “They were much older in their understanding and musical knowledge. There was so much I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I hadn’t been around those old heads.” Indie, soul, jazz, folk and modern gospel; after his progression through all these different styles, Kwabs has truly found himself musically, borrowing from each to create a sound which is uniquely his.
After posting a number of spine-tingling covers on YouTube, including James Blake’s ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, he captured the imagination of Atlantic Records. Under their careful and considerate stewardship he’s prospered and developed as an artist. “They get what I do, and they let it breathe.” He’s certainly no mere crooner; this is a voice that’s meant to be heard. There are hints of pop, electronica, jazz and funk, but the soulful elements are where the real power lies. Delicate and exquisite electronic backgrounds bubble under all Kwabs’ tunes, fully exposing the reverberating majesty of his voice. Somehow, it just feels more ‘real’.
His debut album is the next step in Kwabs’ journey. Released this month, ‘Love + War’ has been two and a half years in the making. Now the 100 or so songs – many composed during breaks at college – have been reduced to the 12 best, demonstrating where he stands in both head and heart. It expands upon an already impressive repertoire with a new, eclectic and instinctive edge coming through in his sound. “It’s going to be interesting for people to hear the full range of what I’m about. I feel they will get an idea of the deep and dark workings of my mind.”
We get to talk at Brighton’s Komedia, a few hours before another night in his latest set of sell-out shows. He’s something of an open book, laughing with ease when something amuses him, his brow furrowing when he touches upon his darker life experiences. He oozes soul, potential and gratitude, the latter being a word he uses a lot. There is unmistakable sincerity in this thankfulness. These aren’t the empty statements of a media trained personality, he’s had a glimpse of how hard life can get.
He admits, just like most of us, he’s not completely sorted in every aspect of what happens in his mind. This album details how he at least became comfortable with his full spectrum of emotions. Describing himself as ‘emotionally complex’, he is adamant his unusual background has given him a lot to think about. “Real artistry in general comes from people that have lived real lives. They need to have lived enough to have self-awareness and real emotions. It’s no coincidence some of our most beloved artists have been the most troubled.”
Later that evening, his extraordinarily powerful voice draws an enraptured crowd. Everything I’d read or heard about him makes absolute sense. It’s a fair assumption Kwabs won’t be playing to venues of this size again. Similarly breath-taking performances at events like Glastonbury, The Great Escape and Secret Garden Party have ensured he’s viewed as an exciting live prospect. The growing adoration still takes some getting used to. “I’ve had to drop my basket a couple of times in Morrison’s to take a selfie with someone. In my naïve mind I hadn’t quite worked out that might happen. I’m ready for it now; it’s part of the job. When you meet someone who is inspired by what you do, it’s an amazing feeling.”
The rest of the year is to be spent building and entertaining his crowds.. Latitude, Somerset House, Reading & Leeds, and around 40 other festival appearances through the summer, are already in his diary. There’s even calls from a range of US radio DJs insisting he travel over the pond to begin his assault on the world’s biggest market. “The music will dictate what happens,” he muses, typically pragmatic about the future and where it will lead him. It seems making imaginative music, which connects with people, is enough for now.
Kwabs’ debut album ‘Love + War’ is out on Mon 11 September, via Atlantic Records