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Summer of soul: meet the stars of the UK soul renaissance | Soul

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‘Soul can address tricky conversations and subjects’: Joel Culpepper. Stylist Tommy Raban, assistant Ejatu Shaw.

The other day, it struck me that enough time had passed to recognise the contours of that decade we nauseatingly called the noughties. Perhaps in another 10 years or so, baggy polyester cargo trousers, pink cowboy hats and bootcut jeans with soggy, worn patches that have rubbed against the heel will be back in fashion. Maybe everyone will once again celebrate trilby-topped heroin (chic) addicts or privately educated electropop bands who, with tiresome, geriatric millennial irony, dress like those men in the 118 118 adverts. Maybe late Britpop/early Brexit ethnic nationalism that tries to ban black headliners from Glastonbury will be back in vogue. But for those who lived through the era, it’s time to reject the recent past. The 2000s were awful.

If I sound bitter it’s because, as a soul music lover, I was out of sync with the period during which I came of age; nothing was less cool in Britain in the first decade of the 21st century than soul music. It may not be the most dangerous of genres, but I love soul’s wisdom; in the States, they sometimes call it “grown-folks’ music” because it speaks to the perennial rather than to gimmicky fads. Soul deals with the figurative and literal interior, is less suited to festivals and more suited to private spaces or intimate venues and cultivates chill time.

And what can I say? I owe soul music my life, literally. I’m a northern soul child, the product of a touring African American musician from Brooklyn and a white English mother from a working-class part of Sheffield, who met at a northern soul club in the early 1970s. By the time I was old enough to go out out, however, gone were the hitched rides to Wigan Casino to see Wilson Pickett live, gone was the unselfconscious dancing until the early morning to Jackie Wilson.

Then came the 1980s and 1990s. My brother and sister are 12 and 11 years older than me respectively, so they lived through the British soul wave that included Sade, Omar and Soul II Soul’s epic mixed-media events at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden and a thriving UK club scene that gave birth to artists as diverse as Seal and Shara Nelson. They talk of Trevor Nelson back when he was known as the Madhatter and dancing to acid jazz at Dingwalls in Camden; Young Disciples, Incognito, Jamiroquai before the hypocritical Ferraris.

It wasn’t that the 00s were devoid of talent, it’s just that we were pushed into an unfashionable underground. We had neo soul, a genre that was often rejected even by those artists considered part of it. As contested as the title of that genre is, there is no doubt that there was a sound born out of the black Atlantic – that inverted piece of geography that ties together black culture from Africa, the US, Europe and the Caribbean. Sonically and aesthetically, neo soul often quietly referenced African artists, particularly Fela Kuti, and was as British as it was American; Omar, Sade and the Brand New Heavies contributed much to what came later with the retro-soul-infused sounds of Erykah Badu, Maxwell and even J Dilla (whose early remixes are all over the acid jazz scene).

It was only natural then that we would have our own great neo soul artists such as the late Lynden David Hall (the UK’s criminally underrated answer to D’Angelo), Floetry – who wrote for Michael Jackson – Hil St Soul, Siji, Terri Walker, Conner Reeves and artists who straddled the line between soul, pop and R&B such as Hinda Hicks, Kele Le Roc, Shola Ama, Nate James and Beverley Knight. The list goes on.

By the time the 00s had come around, however, there were few avenues for soul artists and the infrastructure around soul music was in serious decline. My band, Bare Knuckle Soul, did a Maida Vale live session for Nelson and were played by stalwarts such as Gilles Peterson and Norman Jay, but no labels were interested in us, with our Fender Rhodes, without our skinny jeans. My first writing gig was for Blues & Soul, the oldest black music magazine in the world, but its days as a printed publication were numbered; the same was true of similar outlets such as Touch magazine and Trace.

It was a time of huge transition for the music industry and the few opportunities for soul singers were controlled by 00s hipster A&R men keen on watering down black sounds for a white audience, often with devastatingly bland ballads or offensive black culture appropriation. Such was the complacency of New Labour’s Britain – where not only was nobody racist, but race itself didn’t matter (allegedly) – that white singers were praised for sounding black, while black singers themselves were sidelined.

Things were different for black artists deemed “urban” enough; I met many Etonian types who loved grime and UK hip-hop with pre-96 east coast inflections – exotic tales of danger they themselves would never face – but not so many loved soul music: “A load of old caterwauling,” I was once told. Perhaps it has something to do with soul music’s roots emerging from black intimacy, the yearning of black men and women (choose your own gender configuration) to be together in a world that has a way of keeping them apart and an industry that found black-on-black violence sexier than black-on-black love.

In the wake of the global financial crisis and the age of austerity, during the tumultuous 2010s, we began to seek solace in soul again. Michael Kiwanuka showed why old analogue textures mattered in a digital world, Jessie Ware proved that a white person singing soulfully is not always reductive, Laura Mvula crafted a sound that felt both fresh and familiar and Lianne La Havas’s lush vocals channelled Sade for a new era. All this is to say that we are no longer living in the oblivious 2000s, we are living in the fraught, anxiety-ridden 2020s and like soul got my mom’s generation of Brits through tough times as steelworkers or miners, perhaps it can once again offer consolation in the darkness.

Afropean by Johny Pitts is published by Penguin (£10.99)

Joel Culpepper: ‘There’s just as much grit in soul as there is in grime’

London singer-songwriter, 37

‘Soul can address tricky conversations and subjects’: Joel Culpepper. Stylist Tommy Raban, assistant Ejatu Shaw.
‘I needed to be as raw and free as possible’: Joel Culpepper. Stylist Tommy Raban, assistant Ejatu Shaw. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

For years, Joel Culpepper was living a double life. Like a soul Superman, by day he was working as a learning mentor for children; by night he was playing shows and making the album that shores him up as Catford’s answer to Curtis Mayfield. In the summer of 2021, however, just ahead of its release, the 37-year-old decided to take the leap into full-time music, waving his career in education goodbye. “It’s in the hope that the kids are still following me, know exactly what I’m up to and see that they can do it if they want to as well,” he says.

That album, Sgt Culpepper, was a debut 10 years in the making.Culpepper released his first EP, Skydive, in 2012; some guest spots on dance tracks followed and a support slot for Paloma Faith in Australia. But for the most part, the UK music industry didn’t know where to place him. Here was an artist whose sound was both nostalgic and futuristic; ice-cool and yet showy; gritty but with no rapping, and looked to the UK soul greats (Omar, Lynden David Hall), US funk and soul heavyweights (Marvin Gaye, James Brown) and LA fusionists (Thundercat, Anderson .Paak). It didn’t fit in any lane.

Labels showed some interest, but mostly they misunderstood his music. “We don’t know where it sits within radio and the black audience versus a mainstream audience,” is some of the feedback he recalls. To succeed, it was implied, he would either have to smooth it out for Radio 2, go uber-slick for the pop mainstream or become an MC. On one occasion, he was told there was already a Tinie Tempah, “which showed the lack of nuance and understanding of what I was doing,” he says. “For me to be compared to Tinie Tempah is based on a complexion. And [wearing] glasses. Because musically, we’re not remotely like each other.”

This, he adds, is the lot for many soul singers, who in the UK are given little opportunity to grow. “It’s frustrating,” he sighs. “I see soul artists who I love feel disheartened and discouraged because they have felt this glass ceiling. They start doing the same circuits, fewer releases – the excitement is being taken from them.” And while white British soul-pop acts often enjoy huge success (from Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield all the way up to Sam Smith and Adele), Culpepper says that his black British peers often don’t receive the same attention. “In the UK, it feels like it’s a really impressive thing to see a white person singing [soul music]. Adele does it, Duffy does it, Amy Winehouse did it. It’s like, ‘whoa’. When a black person does it, it’s still impressive but maybe it’s seen as kind of standard. Around the time of Amy Winehouse, there was also Terri Walker. She was working with [the producer] Salaam Remi, same as Amy.” And yet how many people have heard of Walker by comparison? “There’s a lot of disheartened artists out there who feel like they aren’t good enough, or as good as [someone else], and they absolutely are,” he adds.

Culpepper got one break when he gave his demo to a dad he got talking to at the nursery school gates, the music journalist Joe Muggs. Muggs introduced him to a producer – sometime grime producer Swindle – who became instrumental in shaping his sound. Culpepper’s 2017 EP Tortoise – the title a sly nod to how he’d been taking his time – included songs he had written with Jimmy Hogarth, architect of hits with Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Corinne Bailey Rae. But it was Woman that truly set out his stall.

He performed Woman on the influential YouTube channel Colors, baring his chest under a dangling microphone. It was a knowing nod to neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo, but with UK street swagger. The film now has 14m views and counting; the skilful vocal control, the Prince-rivalling falsetto and the physicality of his dance moves amounted to a triple threat. It was the moment, he says, when people “got him” as a UK black artist doing soul. “I felt like I needed to be as raw and free as possible,” he says, wanting to show that “there’s just as much grit within soul as there is within grime.”

In the intervening years, he spent his own money on studio time, steadily putting together Sgt Culpepper with Swindle and a discerning group of alt-soul producers and pop writers including Hogarth, Joker, Redinho, Tom Misch and Guy Chambers, who have rooted his sound in the UK (he is currently on tour supporting Misch in the US). Culpepper was clear that he didn’t want it to be a pale imitation of the past or American legends. “It was always, ‘We’ve got to do a new thing the old way’, which means real strings, real horns, one drummer across the whole album, one bass player, backing singers. We watched Hitsville: The Making of Motown with an intention to learn and deliver an album that we felt had one foot in the future – not pastiche, not retro, but pushing it forward.”

The record’s buoyancy undercuts some of the darker themes. There are songs that reflect on impostor syndrome (Tears of a Crown), injustice (Dead Bodies) and an exuberant former pupil who was unapologetically himself, even when it got him in trouble (Black Boy). “Soul can address tricky conversations and subjects,” says Culpepper. “The messages on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On are really heavy; he’s talking about war, about racial inequality and yet it’s so uplifting. Soul flirts constantly with that duality.” And yet Culpepper has a sense of humour, too: for the video for Thought About You, he teamed up with the comedian of the moment, Munya Chawawa, for a send-up of a 70s chatshow.

Sgt Culpepper was released independently in July 2021 and largely flew under what’s left of the music press’s radar. And yet its creator’s career has soared: in June, Culpepper performed on Later… With Jools Holland and then embarked on a series of festival dates, his audience ballooning over the course of the summer as word spread about his supremely energetic, life-affirming live shows. He’s still unsigned, but he’s in no particular hurry to change that. “I’ve just backed myself and gone: right, until it’s a situation that really makes sense and I’m being trusted with that creative control, and can get the music out in the way that I envisage it, don’t jump yet.”

What kept him going, he says, was seeing the grassroots UK jazz scene take flight in recent years. “The jazzers inspired me. People like Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd; these were artists in their own right and it didn’t fit any convention. And the grime world as well – at one stage, it was pure pirate, it wasn’t considered a contender to dominate in the industry. The artists have banded together in a way that’s upheld the genre. And I believe that soul is now having its turn, if you look at Sault, Michael Kiwanuka, Maverick Sabre, Jordan Rakei… soul is having a moment in the UK.”

There’s something to be said for Culpepper taking his time and defining UK soul on his own terms. “When we veer off and try to fit within what’s acceptable at the time, then there’s challenges,” he says. “For us to have the space that the music deserves, we’ve just got to keep being patient.” KH

Joel Culpepper plays Grace Jones’s Meltdown with Lee Childs, 18 June and North Sea Jazz festival, 8-10 July

Ego Ella May: ‘UK soul needs to be discussed more. There are a lot of people who aren’t being spoken about’

South London singer, 28

Ego Ella May
‘Soul music is more open now’: Ego Ella May. Makeup by Min Sandhu, hair by Sharon Robinson. Photo assistant: Ejatu Shaw. Photographed at Holborn Studios. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

When Little Simz took home her gong for best new artist at the recent Brits, 10 years into her career, Ego Ella May could relate. In 2020, this south London soul singer collected a Mobo award and told the camera: “It’s been a really long journey… this symbolises what perseverance looks like.”

“It’s been slow,” says May, though she seems to prefer it that way. She started putting songs on SoundCloud when she was 18; a decade on, she’s grown into her understated, classy, featherlight style of futuristic soul and her music has soundtracked the final season of Issa Rae’s hit comedy Insecure.

Her name might spell Ego – it’s pronounced “eh-go”, the Nigerian way – but she’s anything but self-absorbed. In 2014, she had an underground breakthrough with Underwater, a track with the producer Iamnobodi, who was associated with the buzzy LA label/party collective Soulection. But a year later, she took a lengthy break. “I really struggle with anything that isn’t to do with music in this industry,” she says, talking from her home in Croydon. “I’m not that good at interviews or photos or video shoots, all the glamour and the glitz. And I started to question if I was supposed to be a singer. As you come up more, the industry starts thinking about you as a brand, or about making songs that will sound good for radio. I just enjoy making music.”

May worked part-time jobs before coming back in 2018 with the single Table for One. She says she wanted to emulate the approach of artists such as Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone and Jill Scott, “who make music when they’re ready to make music”, as well as UK soul innovators such as Omar, who, while not selling out arenas, is still “living his life as a singer”. She stopped “feeling like I need to be constantly present or people will forget about me”, instead focusing on her next musical statement, 2020’s Honey for Wounds LP – a sort of UK answer to Solange’s A Seat at the Table – and then her lockdown EP series FieldNotes.

May’s music is marked out by its soft power – she points to British neo-soul legend Sade, who made her feel “I can do this”, and has noticed how today more singers like her are focused on diction and tone rather than “really showing off your voice”. “There was a time when soul music was associated with massive singers [doing] all this stuff to prove that they can sing,” she says. “But now I think it’s whatever you want it to be. Soul music can be mellow, it can be an acoustic ballad. It’s more open.”

May says she doesn’t want to be pinned down by preconceptions about what soul’s subject matter should be about. “What if I wanna talk about suffering?” she offers on the Erykah Badu-indebted Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys, which also notes that she’s more concerned with issues such as sustainable fashion than starting a family. Another track, How Long Till We’re Home, opens with: “Breaking news at 6pm/ disappointed by the government.” “[I wondered] why isn’t anybody talking about everyday things?” she says. “It’s like there’s a formula for songs.”

May says the music industry should be looking outward for new talent. “I definitely think UK soul needs to be discussed more [in press coverage and the mainstream]. It’s more than just the London jazz scene out there.” She reels off a list of names including Andrew Ashong, Reuben James, Emma Vie, Demae, Yazmin Lacey and more. “There are a lot of people who aren’t being spoken about.” KH

FieldNotes Pt II is out now. Ego Ella May plays Jazz Stroud festival, 29 May and Norwich Arts Centre, 3 June

Children of Zeus: ‘When I get a message from someone deeply affected by our music, numbers don’t mean anything’

Manchester duo consisting of beatmaker Konny Kon and vocalist Tyler Daley

Taking issue with the idea that smooth can’t also be tough: Konny Kon (left) and Tyler Daley of Children of Zeus.
Taking issue with the idea that smooth can’t also be tough: Konny Kon (left) and Tyler Daley of Children of Zeus. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Konny Kon and Tyler Daley make soul music, but don’t expect them to be sappy. Before they became one of the UK’s most exciting duos, they were MCs in Manchester hip-hop groups, and their Twitter biog is a lyric by US rapper Nas that they’ve adopted as a motto: “Soul music for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners.” Which is to say, the slow jams they’ve made so far over two albums as Children of Zeus have a certain edge. “I’m not trying to be no Justin Bieber pretty boy singing girl, I love you girl, I want you girl,” says Daley. “That’s not our vibe.”

Daley spent his youth in a “rough white area of Manchester – you had Bernard Manning’s Embassy club literally outside my nana’s house and she’s a black Jamaican lady,” he says. “My dad was a boxer. My uncle was a boxer. We had to look after ourselves.” Kon, meanwhile, was on the other side of town in a predominantly black neighbourhood: “I was probably one of the whiter kids,” he says. “I grew up in south Manchester in the gang era.”

Kon’s take is that Daley sometimes doesn’t want to explore the softer side of music “because of the environment he grew up in”; their 2020 single No Love Song directly addresses the expectation that their music be schmaltzy, taking issue with the idea that smooth can’t also be tough. This tension is one of the reasons why Children of Zeus’s music feels so dynamic. “There aren’t many people who’ve got the energy of a rapper, like real energy, and they sing sweet,” says Kon of his bandmate.

It’s a dynamite combination that has put Children of Zeus at the centre of the bubbling new UK soul scene and Manchester on its map, first with 2018’s album Travel Light and then last year’s follow-up, Balance. They say that wherever they travel globally, people are always asking about their home town. “It’s a similar vibe to the Bristol scene in the early 90s, just the way people are recognising a scene outside London,” says Daley.

Certainly, when they were starting out as a duo, after 10 years of friendship and swapping records, few people were interested in the soul music of their parents’ generation. But the pair found common ground in the “street soul” they’d hear on pirate radio stations such as Frontline and Soul Nation. Street soul, Daley explains, is “as bassy as reggae, as slamming as hip-hop beats and as smooth as a soul vocal”, with key tracks such as Tammy Payne’s Free (The Freedom Mix), a spacey jam released in 1990, and music by the short-lived Manchester groups Gold in the Shade and Bô’vel, much of it long out of print.

Are we going to see UK soul have another moment like it did in the late 80s, with bands such as Soul II Soul and Loose Ends enjoying global attention? “We’re not far from it,” says Daley, pointing to the crossover success of artists such as Ella Mai, Jorja Smith and Cleo Sol in the States. He adds that certain influences set UK soul music apart from its US peers: “It’s a slightly different story here, especially in the black areas. The Caribbean influence, for one… the Windrush generation, the reggae sound, jungle, house.” Children of Zeus track Be Someone namechecks British dance linchpins such as Goldie.

Daley and Kon are proof that operating outside the mainstream pays off (they’re signed to the small jazz and soul indie label First Word Records alongside new voices such as Yazmin Lacey). They’ve just headlined a show at London’s Roundhouse and are selling out shows in America. But they say streaming numbers and chart positions don’t matter to them. “You could look at those figures and say we’re not as successful as some other people,” says Kon, “but when I get a message from someone who has been deeply affected by our music, numbers don’t mean anything.”

Fame and fortune aren’t really on the agenda, either. “When I first wanted to be a rapper as a kid, I wanted to live in a mansion like Biggie Smalls and drink champagne all day,” says Daley. “But as you get older, you think about what you want in this life and I am more than grateful for what I’ve got. Just to have a steady stream of fans who turn up to shows and buy the merch and tell you how much they love the music. That’s all I can really ask for.” KH

Children of Zeus’s 2022 festival dates include Gala, Peckham Rye, London, 2-4 June; Gottwood, Anglesey, 9-12 June; Strawberries & Creem, Cambridge, 17-19 June

Lovescene’s Poppy Roberts: ‘I want to make love songs that are deeply relatable’

Lovescene are a six-piece band from Manchester

Lovescene: Alex Hill, Adisa Allen, Pops Roberts, Ben Price, Jack Duckham (standing), Ruben Sheridan.
Homing in on heartbreak and self-discovery: Lovescene, left to right: Alex Hill, Adisa Allen, Poppy Roberts, Ben Price, Jack Duckham (standing), Ruben Sheridan. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Poppy Roberts was stuck at home during the pandemic, wondering how she was going to make her debut album with her six-strong band, Lovescene, when she got wind that a certain influential American tastemaker had asked after one of their songs. The late Ameican fashion designer Virgil Abloh had heard Make This Right, a throbbing house track that they’d made with Manchester producer Ruf Dug, on internet radio station NTS and, impressed, texted the show’s host to find out what it was. “It was a really gorgeous moment,” she says. “This was in lockdown, when we felt so disconnected. So to suddenly get this message from across the pond, that was incredible.”

Lovescene are one of the newest groups at the centre of Manchester’s emerging soul scene, which includes acts such as Secret Night Gang. “Soul has always been bubbling under the surface here,” says Roberts, “but what’s happened with Children of Zeus has given a lot of people more confidence.” During the pandemic, she says, many music lovers gravitated towards soothing, soulful sounds. “Coupled with everything that’s happened, there’s a bit more vulnerability [in music] as well.”

Lovescene’s own music homes in on heartbreak and the subsequent self-discovery (the band’s name was inspired by Roberts’s penchant for chopping up romantic film soundtracks using Ableton production software). With the band, Roberts wanted to move away from the cold, stark electronic beats that have defined R&B in recent years in favour of a warmer, full-band sound and sweeping string arrangements. But Lovescene are also devoted to the dancefloor – Roberts did a stint as in-house singer at the influential Manchester clubnight Swing Ting – and fit into the lineage of UK soul singers such as Peven Everett, who sang on crossover club hits including Roy Davis Jr’s Gabriel in the 90s. Amid the American neo-soul stylings in Lovescene’s music is the influence of broken beat – the subgenre that originated in early 00s London, which hot-wires jazz, drum’n’bass and house to stuttering, syncopated beats. Dancing to its unusual rhythms, says Roberts, “forces you into freedom – physical freedom”.

Roberts had the sort of freeing childhood that sounds like a film script: she grew up in the rural Lake District in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and was encouraged by her family – who, following her opera singer great grandfather, all had classical music training – to pick up the saxophone. She started singing because the teenage rock band she was in needed a lead singer, and was inspired by the visceral performance style of Skin from Skunk Anansie: “She was the only person I ever saw who resembled me, because I had no hair at that time. Plus, there was the queer factor.” While there are very few openly queer artists in soul music, Roberts says she doesn’t want to be defined by her sexuality. “I want to make love songs that are deeply relatable – we all have the same fears, shortcomings and unrequited situations.”

Roberts was briefly signed to a label, though she says her contributions to the songwriting process were routinely overlooked and she was dismissed as “merely a singer”. After a break, she make the decision to record independently. With the help of the Mobo Help Musicians fund, Lovescene have finally made their self-titled debut. They have also been supporting local musicians. During lockdown, Roberts was teaching with community groups and “felt this disconnect” between the talented musicians she was working with and the “industry side” of music; the Lovescene track Silver features a number of community gospel choir leaders from around Moss Side. “These people do all this work here to make sure that young people don’t feel forgotten about or sidelined culturally,” says Roberts. She hopes that Lovescene will inspire others in Manchester to take musical risks. “I think we’re moving against the grain a little bit, and hopefully we will encourage others to do that as well.” KH

Lovescene’s debut album is out on 1 April. They play Tam, London SE1, May 16 and Cross the Tracks festival, Brockwell Park, London on 5 June

Fatima & Joe Armon-Jones: ‘Soulful music is something you can connect to in your heart’

Singer, 36, and keyboard player and producer, 29, both London

Fatima and Joe Armon-Jones photographed at Holborn Studios.
Music for the Milky Way and beyond: Fatima and Joe Armon-Jones photographed at Holborn Studios. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Fatima Bramme Sey and Joe Armon-Jones are considering where they’d like people to experience their new collaboration – the EP, Tinted Shades. “Preferably on planet Earth,” says Sey, known simply as Fatima, as Armon-Jones sparks up what looks like an enormous joint on the sofa next to her, at his home in London. “No, actually, let me erase that.” She adjusts her wraparound sunglasses, which the EP title nods to, and starts again. “Anywhere in the Milky Way and beyond. Or the bathtub… Why not?”

It’s a suitably intergalactic answer from a duo who, in their music and in person, seem as if they’ve been beamed in from another planet. Or at the very least a beach in California. Tinted Shades is a woozy whirl of boom-bap beats, improvisational keys, cosmic cool in the mode of the late LA producer Ras G, and what you might call neo-soul, the term that emerged around a loose group of artists in America in the 1990s who elegantly fused jazz, soul, R&B and the laid-back end of hip-hop and who, according to Vibe, had a “highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal approach to love and politics”. Similarly, Tinted Shades finds optimism in dark times, not least in Fatima’s layered vocals on the uplifting Love Life Hope.

Their pairing feels very of the moment: one of the standout players in UK jazz teaming up with a respected left-field voice in UK soul. Armon-Jones is perhaps best known as the wild-maned keys man who plays with his band Ezra Collective and saxophonist Nubya Garcia, who glides over the ivories like he’s channelling a spirit. He’s been described by the broadcaster Mary Anne Hobbs as “possibly the hottest keyboard player in the world right now”, and he’s also a producer; he engineered Tinted Shades and has started a label, Aquarii, on which to release his multi-genre music.

Sey, meanwhile, has for the past decade been ticking along on the club underground like an unexploded grenade. She moved from Sweden to London in the mid-2000s and found a collective of like-minds at east London club Plastic People. At the influential Sunday music-swap night CDR, she would hand in her latest songs burned on to disc to play out on the club’s infamously crisp sound system. This led to her collaborating with the British producer Floating Points; her exceptional falsetto has since been heard on a variety of electronic and jazz-inflected tunes by the likes of US funk voyagers Knxwledge and Shafiq Husayn and house kingpin Larry Heard, with whom she tours in his live band.

Sey has also released two albums, 2014’s Yellow Memories and 2018’s And Yet It’s All Love, on cult London label Eglo Records one of which made a top 20 list in Rolling Stone. You wonder why she hasn’t, like, say, Katy B, had a massive crossover hit. She says she sees a new generation of soul singers in their 20s coming through who are “definitely inspired by Amy Winehouse” but, she says, “sometimes I think it can be boring; that’s not something I’m interested in… I haven’t always had a specific vision. I’m very mood-based. I don’t want to be stuck in a situation where I feel trapped – I want freedom.”

The same could be said of Armon-Jones. Tinted Shades feels like a gentle peeling away from being lumped in with any one sound or scene. “If you spend your whole time worrying about what genre of music you’re making, you’ll never release anything,” he says. “From the very beginning, all the artists were making different-sounding music. It’s just a bunch of friends who’ve known one another for ever.”

With Tinted Shades, there was no big idea, no specific concept or vision, just two musicians catching a vibe between lockdowns, without restrictions. “Soul music makes you feel good,” says Sey. “Soulful music is something you can connect to in your heart.” KH

Tinted Shades is out now. Joe Armon-Jones plays Lost Village festival, Lincolnshire, 25-28 August

The producers behind the new wave of UK soul

Inflo.

Inflo

An elusive figure, London producer Inflo’s work tends to do the talking. Dean Wynton Josiah Cover is one of the architects of some of the most interesting British soul-led music around, incorporating afrobeat, Motown and anything else funky that sounds like it’s been pulled out of a record crate and dusted down. Bizarrely, it is indie band the Kooks that appear to have given Inflo his break, inviting him to work on their 2014 album Listen after finding him on Soundcloud. Since then, he’s lent his Midas touch to Michael Kiwanuka’s Mercury-prize winning album Kiwanuka (alongside another artist who excels at recasting past sounds in the future’s glow, Danger Mouse), Little Simz’s albums Grey Area (for which he won an Ivor Novello award) and Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, and five releases by his publicity-shy, critically-acclaimed group Sault, which includes his partner, the acclaimed singer Cleo Sol (neither have spoken publically about the project, which debuted in 2019 and took flight amid the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020). Music runs in the family – Leona Lewis is Inflo’s cousin. This year, he became the first black artist to win the Brit award for best producer, for his work on Adele’s 30.

Swindle.

Swindle

When it comes to linking up the different worlds of the UK music scene, Swindle is a key conduit, and has been called the country’s most prolific producer. His artist albums, 2019’s No More Normal and 2021’s The New World, represent a new world order of sorts – genres such as grime, jazz, alt-rap and dubstep deconstructed and put back together according to his vision, driven by bombastic brass arrangements and expansive strings. The New World features the cream of the new UK soul vanguard – Joel Culpepper, Greentea Peng, JNR Williams, Maverick Sabre, Joy Crookes – alongside rappers such as Loyle Carner, Kojey Radical, Ghetts and Akala, and explores hard-hitting subjects, as on the song No Black No Irish, with a lightness of touch. “For the most part, the story I’m trying to tell is about unity,” he says.

Scrimshire

Scrimshire

Adam Scrimshire is a respected DJ and former label head of Wah Wah 45s, which has been consistently putting out quality funk and soul since 1999. He now runs the Albert’s Favourites imprint. As a producer, like Swindle, he excels at creating albums packed with soulful guest stars and fresh takes on the genre. His most recent release, 2021’s stunning Nothing Feels Like Everything, featured jazz saxophonist and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss – their powerful psychedelic-soul epic The Pile was one of the best songs of last year – alongside London-based Swedish-Eritrean storyteller Miryam Solomon and Brighton’s Faye Houston; its predecessor, 2019’s Listeners, was a modern soul opus and had Ego Ella May on the song Don’t Stop Here. Much like Swindle, he often pulls in the best UK jazz instrumentalists, including Nat Birchall, Idris Rahman and Emma Jean-Thackray, to give his tracks an otherwordly radiance.

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