On a particularly warm July night I was invited down to Samuel Jack’s show at the intimate St Pancras Old Church in London, a venue that first claimed its own little slice of rock n roll history in 1968 when the courtyard was used by The Beatles for a photo shoot on their ‘Mad Day Out’.
Since then it’s seen its fair share of both established and emerging artists, from Sinéad O’Connor and Brian Eno to the likes of Tom Odell and Sam Smith. It’s a fitting venue, therefore, for rising artist Jack, whose powerful and soulful vocals immediately command the room.
Raised on blues, Motown and soul, his music is a mix of big, gut-busting soul numbers, emotional ballads and feel-good pop hits. It’s the kind of music that is at its best when played live, and his performance does not disappoint. I leave wanting to hear more and curious about the man behind the music, so a few days later I sat down with him to talk influences, songwriting, sync, new music and more….
How did you first get into music and decide to take it to a professional level?
I was a relatively late starter – I didn’t sit down at a piano until I was in my late teens. My mate James made me sing one night in a pub – it was a lock-in scenario and I sang “Light My Fire” by The Doors. After that I taught myself how to play the piano in-between shifts at the restaurant I was working at. I got a part-time job at Conversion Studios in the South West of England and that’s where I met Owen Thomas and Lily-May Young, who I’d eventually end up working with. I’d make tea and sit in on sessions and watch producers work. During that time I started writing my own songs. I’d record them terribly and send them off to the friends that I’d made in the studio and say, “What do you think of this?”
Eventually I wrote a song that excited some people in America so I went over there and recorded my first professional record, and the rest is history. I’ve dedicated my entire life to music now – you have to be 100% dedicated to make it work. Things are going really well and gaining momentum. I’m getting better syncs, better streaming numbers and my fanbase is growing, and that’s now being accompanied by international touring and a strong release schedule.
Can you talk us through your team?
I’ve got a wonderful team around me. I’m represented by Owen Thomas and Lily-May Young from Landon Records, an independent US label/management company, distributed via Ingrooves/Universal. On the sync side in the US we have the team @ Sugaroo! in Los Angeles, in the UK we have Michelle @ Stoddart Music. It’s all moving in the right direction, a lot of exciting conversations in the works and the team is definitely growing.
What are your musical influences and how would you describe your sound?
I was raised on blues and Motown and soul – all the old greats like B.B. King and Sam Cooke. As I grew up I went through phases of loving rock and hip-hop as well but I’ve definitely been massively influenced by music of black origin. I’d say that’s the backbone of it all. I’ve got an album coming out at the top of 2020 and I’d say it’s a mix of big, percussive, heavy-hitting songs as well as some soulful, rootsy vibes, and then there’s some stripped and raw emotional ballads as well. All infused with lots of gospel and soul influences.
It’s interesting to think about whether or not you’d still be writing and performing that kind of music if you didn’t grow up listening to it.
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I would be. I spent a lot of time in South Africa growing up and there’s a lot of tribal communities singing there and I loved that. That coupled with American blues and classic soul singers and big, heavy, gospel type stuff.
Your latest single “Feels Like Summer” is a proper feel-good summer hit and a departure from some of your heavier, more bluesy stuff, which really shows your versatility.
Yeah, I wanted to write something summery and a bit more up-tempo and lighthearted, something a little different from my big, soulful ballads. It was really fun to write and it’s great to play live.
How would you say your sound has evolved?
People ask me that a lot and I’d say it’s evolving to be bigger – it’s got a bigger production value. When I first started out I was doing more stripped, acoustic songs, especially when I played live. As things have developed, and particularly with the new album coming along, sonically it’s bigger and live its bigger. Vocally I’m discovering new realms of what I can do with my voice.
Earlier this year you played a bunch of shows in Europe and LA. What were some of the highlights of that?
I really love being in America. I’ve got a strong affiliation with LA because I do a lot of writing out there and this last trip I got to play one of my favourite venues of all time, The Hotel Café on Hollywood Boulevard. I used to watch my favourite singers play there on YouTube years ago and I never thought that would be me. It’s a tiny little place but it’s steeped in history. I’ve also played couple of times before for the lovely people at Warner TV and NBC Universal, the guys that put my music in the shows 🙂
And then Europe was about 20 shows over a month, from big stages to intimate stages. I did a few festivals, some club shows, some tour supports. It was an interesting experience because it’s only my second or third outing to Europe and it was longer than usual. So that was amazing as well.
It seems like the live element is a really important part of what you do
Yeah. I feel like when people see music live they connect with it straight away. It’s all very well listening to records but until they’re in the room listening to you, you can’t really communicate the stories behind the songs. There’s nothing better than that for me – it’s the only way to do it.
Do you feel like it’s important to spend time in LA?
I’d say so. The romantic thing about LA is that everyone is there doing the same thing. You speak to your neighbour and they’re in the industry as well. I’ve got a great relationship with LA – I’ve written a lot of songs out there and a lot of my sync success has come through the American market. I’ve had placements in shows like Nashville, Grimm, About a Boy, Queen Sugar and Shameless amongst other promotional and commercial stuff. It’s always good to be there and keep yourself in the game. I’ve also got a placement coming up in Pearson, a new USA Network spin-off of Suits.
I also love a co-write – I think two heads are better than one, even if it’s someone you’ve never met. It’s a bit like speed dating, particularly in the sync world. If you’re writing for sync you tend to go into a studio and write several songs in a day. Now that I’m so focused on my career as an artist, I’m finding that crossover, because a good sync can be really instrumental in your career in terms of listenership and fan acquisition. I’ve got a few songs on the new album that I think are crying out for a good movie placement.
Which sync placements have had the most impact so far?
Nashville was probably my most successful in terms of streaming and downloads, although it’s not like I’m sitting writing songs purely for TV shows. I’m writing songs for myself as an artist to perform live, so sometimes it can be luck of the draw and whether sonically, or lyrically the music compliments the visual.
I did a promotional video for UFC which was one of my favourite spots because it was a big fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather. It was this humongous thing in the States about one fighter going from one sport and fighting in another sport. Conor McGregor is a massive character and whilst he was being interviewed I could hear my song in the background, which was really cool for me and my mates.
You’ve done a few covers including an excellent rendition of “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Is that something you’re interested in doing more of?
Yeah, it’s definitely something I’m interested in. Over here in England it’s that Radio 1 Live Lounge culture and for a lot of artists covers can be an avenue into the next stage of their career. I’ve got a few covers in my arsenal and I’m always trying to add to it. It’s really fun doing your own take on a song – you can take it apart and put it back together again. I did a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” which was recorded in a caravan at about 3am and It’s probably the best cover I’ve done yet… hopefully I’ll release it sometime soon 🙂
What would be your dream sync?
I’d love something like a Scorsese movie. As I mentioned earlier there’s a few songs on the new album that I think are screaming out for a big blockbuster placement – something dark, moody and heavy hitting. I’d love something in Peaky Blinders because that show is awesome. I really like what Michael Kiwanuka’s done on Big Little Lies, that’s a wicked TV show. I’d love to hear a big song in a big movie. Oh, and then there Bond…James Bond.
Let’s run through some hypothetical sync scenarios. Which song of yours would you pick for…
1) Either a summery montage or heartbreak scene on Love Island
There’s two that instantly come to mind. For heartbreak or an emotional goodbye I’ve got a song called “All the Things” which is a heart-wrenching piano ballad with a really delicate, some say John Legend kind of vibe. The other one is a more summery, sexy/swaggy tune called “Lovin’ Heart”.
2) A blockbuster superhero movie and the hero has to sacrifice himself to save the woman he loves…
That’s a good one. I’ve got a song coming out on the new album called “Red” and I think that’s the one for that. The verses are delicate melody with a moody musical undertone and then it rips into a bold, dramatic chorus.
3) A Scorsese-esque gangster movie and there’s just been a big reveal…
I’ve got another tune on the new album called “Higher”, a little hip hop back bone with a pokey guitar riff, can imagine that in a Scorcese scene with gangsters running down the street kind of vibe. I think “Kill All the Lights” could work in that respect as well.
You could have a second career as a music supervisor
Haha, funnily enough I grew up on a film set because my dad was a film director. For a while I wanted to make movies and my brother’s an editor. So maybe later down the line…
What’s your favourite movie soundtrack?
At this time of year it’s the soundtrack to a film called Chef. It’s just a fantastic soundtrack full of summery, Latino vibes and also really interesting covers of old soul songs done in a Cubana-like style. The soundtrack to True Romance has a really cool 80s vibe as well. Let’s not forget Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and T-Bone Bernett’s work on that. I could go on… I love soundtracks.
What’s it like being an artist in the streaming era? Do you feel like you have a lot of control?
At this stage, yes, I feel like I have certainly enough control, and can just release music when I want or indeed if we do land a good sync on an unreleased song then we can amend the release plan to coordinate roll out. It’s exciting because these days there’s so and so many ways to get your music heard and build audiences, then on the flip side there’s massive amounts of music being released every week and fighting for those very same channels. The way we are in music requires a multi-pronged approach; streaming, touring, sync, social media, radio. But at the crux of it all, I feel it’s important to put out quality, honest songs, regularly. I continue to work hard both on and off the stage and along the way I’ve picked up some fantastic loyal, dedicated fans, and long may that continue! 🙂
What’s been the most surreal moment so far?
I think, this year, it was playing The Hotel Café. I was backstage and I didn’t really see the room. I didn’t know what to expect or what ticket numbers we’d done and I walked onstage to a full room. When you travel 10,000 miles away from your home and there’s people there singing your songs, that’s a big deal for me. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck. You just think, “Shit, things are going the right way!”
What song are you proudest of writing?
“Red” on the new album.
What song do you wish you’d written?
“Imagine” by John Lennon
What would be your three desert island discs?
Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’, Sam Cooke’s ‘Live at the Harlem Square Club’, and Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’.
What else can you share with us about the new album?
It will be available early 2020 although I don’t have specific date yet. It’s full of big, heavy hitting, percussive, soulful, rootsy vibes, up-tempos and some stripped raw emotional ballads. It’s straight from the heart and I’m really proud of it. I hope other people like it as much as I do.