With “guitar music” frequently pronounced dead, spare a thought for the humble singer songwriter. Often condemned as yesterday’s (wo)man, it’s a brave soul indeed who attempts to forge a career with just a guitar and some wistful storytelling in amongst the minimal pop R&B and electronic frippery that so dominates modern music. But there are those who plough that lonely furrow, and plough it well; talent like Luke Sital-Singh.
Lazily pigeonholed as the “British Bon Iver” – someone he does count as an influence, but just one among many – he brings so much more to his music that just soft strumming and a gentle lilt. “Heartbreak never sounded so good,” read one early review, and although his success has been ten years in the making, the last year or so has seen his stock soar; signing to Parlophone, inclusion in the BBC Sound Of 2014 longlist, and a burgeoning fan base eagerly awaiting his debut album.
Released on the 18th August, The Fire Inside is a bewitching mix of seductive balladeering, heart-tugging sentiment, and wispy orchestration. Favouring the bare bones of song craft over indulgent histrionics, he’s carving his own niche in a crowded genre and helping people fall in love with acoustic strumming all over again. We spoke to him about dealing with criticism, definitions of success, and what makes covering David Bowie so fiendishly difficult...
How does it feel now that the album is finally out? Does it feel that the previous ten years have been leading up to this point?
Yeah, it does. Time is a weird thing; in some ways it feels like it’s crept up and then suddenly happened, but on the hand it feels like it’s been a long time coming. It’s not hard to put an album out these days, but to have an album out on a reputable label, an international release, I don’t think I ever really believed that would happen, even though I've been making music for about ten years. It was always something I liked doing, but it’s only in the last couple of years when it started working and people cared that releasing a record felt like a realistic goal. It’s great to finally have it out as, as tends to happen with these things, you have the album finished for quite a while; I've been sitting on it while all the marketing bods did their thing. That felt like a long time – it was actually finished around March/April, and it’s been a long few months. I couldn’t tweak it anymore, or change anything, and you start second guessing yourself. A few weeks before, you get the reviews coming out – some were good, some weren’t quite as good, and that’s all you’ve got to go on before the fans have heard it. But since it came out, it’s been brilliant – the reaction from the fans has been overwhelming. I feel really relieved and chuffed.
Do you generally read your reviews? Lots of artists say they deliberately avoid doing that.
Well, they say they don’t! It’s hard for me to say, because I generally haven’t had that many reviews yet, or in the past. But one of the reasons we chose this as the release date – and it moved around quite a lot – when we were planning to put it out was to try and get as many reviews as possible. So it was always in my head that there’d be a bunch of reviews, and I’d have to decide whether to read them or not. This is my first album, so what should I do? I’ve probably read most of them now, but I tried not to read too many before it came out; I read a couple, and they weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. It was pissing me off too much, so I decided to stop. But now that it’s out, and I've had some praise from fans and people who actually matter, I can read the bad ones with a bit more humour and laugh at them; I don’t take them to heart as much.
I’m a bit of a control freak in some ways, so even with the best ones, I've found reasons to go: “Urgh. It’s not good enough, and they’re not picking out the things I wanted people to pick out.” If I can clearly see that people have misinterpreted something, or it hasn’t quite had the effect I wanted, I get annoyed, so it’s probably best for me to leave them alone. But it’s a weird thing, and I don’t know what I’ll do in the future; this is all a learning curve.
Lot’s of people scoff at the BBC Sound Of… list and its significance, but what does it mean to be on it from an artists point of view?
I didn’t really know what it was before I was on it, so when I was told I was like: “OK. Cool?” But it’s good to have – the reality is that the BBC is a pretty heavyweight influence in things, and it all ties together with Radio 1 and that kind of thing. Having the backing of that world is damn helpful, and when it was announced the response was crazy! I had no idea how much people paid attention to it, and the spike on all my social networks and stuff was nuts. I was like: “Gosh, this is actually a big deal.”
So you didn’t know you’d been included before it was announced?
No. It’s not something that I’d look at for myself in the past. I’d heard of it, but there are a lot of lists like that, aren’t there? Every publication has a hot list or something. It went a long way to keep the key people who have believed in me – like management, the label, all that – excited. At the end of the day, these folks have taken a punt on you, and work exceptionally hard to make you a success. So when you get those external markers saying: “Yes, this is working, this is going places”, then it’s brilliant, and massively helpful for your career. But personally, I’ve not gone mad – it’s not my world really. The industry moves on so quickly, you just have to accept the plaudits, say: “Thanks very much”, and carry on doing what you do.
Growing up, and when you started first playing music, who did you look up to or were inspired by musically? You’ve talked about Damien Rice before…
Back then, Damien Rice opened the door to that whole world, as I’d not really heard anything in the singer songwriter vein. So I started inhaling everything I could; I got into Nick Drake very quickly, and the greats like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. There was more modern folk, like Josh Ritter – I was obsessed with Josh for a long time, and still think he’s brilliant – Ryan Adams, and more pop stuff along the way too; I remember being into John Mayer for a few months. There were four great influences for me; Rice started it off, then Josh Ritter – as a songwriter and lyrically, I think he’s without equal these days – then Ryan Adams – I remember seeing him in Brighton playing on his own, for two hours, and I was blown away by the way he captivated 2000 people with just a guitar. I left that gig thinking: “I’ve got a lot of work to do.” – and the most recent one was Bon Iver, whose first record also blew me away. I’ve also been getting into classic songwriters recently, like Neil Young and Springsteen, and delving into their back catalogues; people don’t write songs like that anymore.
You did a four-year music degree – what sort of things did you learn that stood you in good stead for a full time career as a musician and songwriter?
You know, in some ways nothing, and in some ways everything. I think – and this applies to almost any course, especially at University – it’s just a time of living away from home, being in a community of other people, and learning from them. You learn more from being in those places rather than the actual content of the education. There’s not a lot you can teach in terms of “pop” – to me, it’s all quite obvious. I did a song writing course for a year, and we did lessons where we explored songs, structures, things like that. But to me, a lot of it was common sense: “Oh yeah, that’s a verse, that’s a chorus. The chorus should be catchy and upbeat, or sum up the song.” I mean, they’re all obvious things, but at the time, exploring that with other song writers who were taking it seriously, and with a competitiveness where everybody wanted to come in and write a better song, was good. There were some classes where we were taught genuine things, especially with regard to the business side of stuff; “This is what a major label record deal looks like, this is how PRS works” – things like that, that are more black and white. All that was really interesting, and I’m more confident in this world because of it.
But the main thing was I met people who I needed to meet. I met Iain Archer, who produced the album, indirectly I met my current manager through people in Brighton, and I've got a lot of opportunities through the music college and the people who were there at that time. Sometimes I feel really guilty because nobody else in my class is still doing this, or got to the level where I’m at now, and it’s such a weird thing – I don’t understand how I managed to do it!
When you signed for Parlophone, it was for quite a lot of money and several albums. Do you now feel the pressure to deliver on your promise?
It depends on what you mean by “promise”. If the promise is “I will make that many albums”, that’s the only thing I’m obliged to do. I don’t feel any pressure there, because I can do that; they might all be shit, but I can do you five albums no problem! But the pressure that I actually feel is that they all have to be successful, so the label makes that money back. I’m a big worrier and people-pleaser, and I don’t like letting anyone down, so there’s a sense of me that feels like it’s my fault the album isn’t number one. I have to kick myself, and say: “You're an idiot.” I did what I did and I’m proud of it, and it went in at 25 or something? I never dreamt of having a Top 40 album – it’s an achievement, and just because someone else might have different goals, or definitions of success…it’s hard for me not to let those change my own perception, and just do what I love to do. So I feel a little bit of pressure, yes, but I don’t think it’s valid to feel that much – in some ways it’s up to the record label to stand by their gut instinct when they signed you, do the work, and if it doesn’t go well, they’re not obliged to do anything more with you.
But it’s an investment. It’s a shame sometimes that artists don’t get the chance to make four or five albums, and grow into it, because the expectation that you should make one album that is phenomenally amazing and if not, you’re out – it’s just nuts! You’ve only had one go! It seems like a healthy thing to grow as a songwriter, keep getting better, and have another go – I’ve learned so much from writing and doing this album, and the mistakes I made, so the next one will hopefully be better.
You’ve said before that: “If a song doesn’t get written in a day, it won’t get written. It’s quite instinctual.” Are you generally a quick worker?
It’s all based on the atmosphere and the mood I'm in, because I’m not an amazing musician; I’m not searching for interesting sounds and chords. I write very simple songs, so it’s all about the emotion that I’m trying to get across, or feeling at that moment. I always have to have a guitar there, ready – one of the best song writing tips I ever read was never leave your guitar in its case at home, always have it on a stand or something. Essentially, we’re all a little bit lazy; you might fancy writing a song, but your guitar is in its case, and oh look, Netflix is on again… then you’re away with the fairies. These moments just strike, where the same chords that I play in every song sound new again, for no apparent reason, there’s a melody there, and the start of the words just come out fully formed. And that first verse dictates what the song will be about, and where it will go, but it’s such a momentary thing; if it doesn’t get finished, and I come back to it the next day, it often just doesn’t work. It’s not an unequivocal thing, that I can’t finish a song unless it’s done in one day, but usually when I come back to something I’m like: “I don’t feel this, I don’t understand what that was.”
Damien Rice once said that: “Booking a studio is like booking the toilet for five o’clock”. Do you feel the same?
I want it to be like a job, where I can sit down at 9am and work. And I do do that sometimes, but it rarely works; I don’t persevere for very long. If it’s not working, I can’t force it, and inspiration really does strike when it strikes. At the moment, I’m struggling with a block – I’ve been struggling for quite a while now – and part of it is because there’s a lot going on. I always find I need quite a bit of headspace, even before and after I’m writing. The reality is I’m like: “I’ve got that thing tomorrow, or a phone interview at 3pm…but I’ve got the rest of the time to write.” But no; if I have anything else in the day, I won’t be able to write – I’ll be thinking about the other thing. Even if something is at 4pm, I won’t be able to concentrate till it’s done – I can’t concentrate if there’s more than one thing in a day. So I need to get out of promo/gig/whatever mode, and that can be quite hard to do.
What made you do the Film Music EP? It’s a really interesting little project.
That came out of boredom really; I was waiting for the album to come out, and it felt like a really long time to wait. I’m really into Wes Anderson films – I often re-watch them and listen to the soundtracks – and there’s always amazing songs in them. The first few I recorded were just for laughs. I really enjoy recording – I’d quite like to get into producing one day, as a potential future thing – so I thought: “Right, I can’t write any more songs at the moment, so lets record some stuff.” It was mainly to practice that, and experiment with different techniques, and some of them sounded quite good. A chap at Parlophone suggested doing a little thing around it, so I started picking out films and songs that I liked. The thing I was trying to find in all the songs were ones that I’d be… not just proud to have written, but songs that fitted into my world.
Was it easy working out which ones to eventually include? Not everyone would attempt to cover Radiohead or Springsteen…
It was you know, because there weren’t a huge amount of songs I thought would fit in with the way I wanted to present myself. I could’ve taken a few other ones and re-invented them, tried to make them more in keeping [with my style], but at the end of the day I just thought: “Right, what films do I love?” So I tried various songs, and it happened quite quickly. It really wasn’t that hard to choose because I'm such a picky person – I don’t like a lot of music. I tried my hardest to do a Bowie one from The Life Aquatic, which is probably my favourite film, but alas there are too many chords in David Bowie songs.
Which one did you attempt?
‘Life on Mars?’ It almost worked, but it didn’t quite come together. I also tried ‘Queen Bitch’.
Bowie is a hard one to pull off. Many try, but hardly anyone gets it right.
Yeah, it wasn't working. I sort of tried to do a version of Seu Jorge’s versions, but in English…but there was just something that just wasn't right. Ironically, it only works in Portuguese…and I wasn't gonna sing in Portuguese. I don’t do that many covers, partly for this reason; if I love the song, it’s because it’s perfect as it is and why would I want to ruin it? Any other version is just going to be rubbish unless you re-invent it, and make it completely different. But then you think: “Why am I changing this song that I love?”
Would scoring a film or curating a soundtrack be something you’d like to do in the future?
That would be a great thing to do, for sure, but I doubt whether I’d have the skills. It’s an idea that I'm really interested in – I love how songs change films, and make them great, and I’m really interested in that world and the people who work in it. They seem really interesting, and they’re some of the most passionate people I've ever come across in the music world; way more so than label or radio people. I think it’s because their job requires them to have an emotional understanding of songs, which other jobs don’t; their job is interpret a song’s tone and emotion, and fit it with a scene. You can’t really blag that – you have to understand the song. There’s a lot of blagging and disinterest in a lot of music people, and I actually quite like the idea of choosing music – I’d love the challenge of it.
The Fire Inside is out now.