It’s around 3.30PM on an overcast, chilly January afternoon in East London, and Kobby has just finished the photoshoot with Samm Henshaw. As we sit outside Crispin Cafe in Spitalfields, Samm sips on an ice cold kombucha, whilst I nurse a mint tea. He tells me that he wishes he ordered a hot drink too with a rueful smile. Despite the winter elements, protected by a warm parka and a beanie, he cracks on with the interview. Less than a week from today, his debut album, ‘Untidy Soul’, will be released, and he is anxious. “The album is there, but I think from a marketing perspective, I don’t feel 100% ready yet. So I’m just doing last minute things and trying to catch up in certain areas… but we’ll get it,” he says assuredly.
It’s been seven years since Samm emerged as a burgeoning star in Soul, and he’s done a lot of living in that time frame. From being signed to Sony straight after university, to releasing EPs in successive years, touring with Chance the Rapper, to the inception and culmination of his first long term romance, Samm has had to mature quickly. Young artists signed by majors can feel like a leaf being blown in all directions by the wind. However at this stage of his career, having parted ways with Sony, he is anchored, and knows what he wants. “I’m 27 now, and I’m just like, everything needs to be enjoyable otherwise, why am I doing it?”
Success at a young age comes with its own set of unique pressures, however Samm has remained centred, a credit to how he was raised. “I think when I look back, I couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. I couldn’t have asked to have been surrounded by a better community of people. There’s so many people in my life growing up that have contributed to… me being me. And that goes for, music, faith, morals… just everything.” Growing up, music permeated his household, whether it was his father listening to Johnny Cash, or his uncle playing Aretha Franklin. However, the idea of becoming a musician only solidified at university. “It was never the goal to be a musician, but at university it became a bit more… tangible. It became something that was a bit more like, ‘oh, I can actually do this’ and that was really dope to me.”
Not giving serious consideration to being a musician is difficult to fathom given his vocal ability. He is distinct sonically, with echoes of John Legend, when pushing out rich yet gravelly notes. Gospel elements are naturally entrenched in his style having grown up singing in church, with layered vocals providing the choral effect. His range is expansive, gorgeously elucidated on one of his earlier songs, ‘Better’. Most importantly, his lyrics are meaningful, whether that’s challenging society’s status quo, or challenging himself by looking inward.
‘Untidy Soul’ focuses on the latter. The description of how he’d define his genre, is ‘the realisation of the fact that I’m a bit of a mess and that we all are too internally.’ In some ways, the difference between earlier work and the current album in content and message follow a familiar arc for artists. Where Samm would speak on certain social issues before, there is now a greater emphasis on self-contemplation. “ I just want to learn to be that type of person where if I’m going to do something, I’m just going to do it to make a change, as opposed to feeling this need to speak on it without any action. I would just rather be silent completely or just be silent and do what needs to be done…”
‘Thoughts and Prayers’, the first song off ‘Untidy Soul’, is a wonderfully crafted interpretation of the above statement. It holds a mirror up to how we are contradictory beings, quicker to speak than take meaningful action, scolding others when we are far from being perfect. However, the rest of the album speaks from a more personal place. It’s a moving reflection of the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, whilst also serving as an exercise in introspection. Like on ‘Thoughts and Prayers’, Samm is making it clear, just like everyone else, he too is human.
The relatable theme of love pervades the album, and takes many forms. There is intense yearning on the glorious ‘8.16’, devotion and duty in ‘Loved By You’, pain and anguish on ‘East Detroit’, cathartic expression of self love on the brilliant ‘Joy’, but also a questioning of what love really is on ‘Take Time’. It’s a question that Samm has ruminated over before. “It’s weird because we talk about love almost as if we have this understanding of love, but the way we act is completely different. It’s like an alien coming to the planet, being told about this concept of love, but then when they see how humans act, they’re like, “whatever you said love was, this isn’t it”. If you want to go real deep into the concept of love, most of us don’t show it, you know what I mean? That includes me unfortunately… I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else.”
As honest and open the album is, from a creator’s perspective, Samm had to detach himself when talking about a subject that he finds painful. Enter Sonny, the character Samm plays in what is a visual story, for the album’s lead singles, ‘Still Broke’, ‘Grow’ and ‘Chicken Wings’. An abstract tale that flows in a series of prequels, we’re taken on a journey of Sonny achieving wealth and fame from initially working at ‘Henny’s Wings’. Fittingly it is at Henny’s Wings, where he meets ‘Selah’, the love interest played by Tiana Major9 in ‘Grow’. As we discuss the video, Samm gushes over Tiana’s artistic ability. “Her acting is just so sick! Music aside, she’s so talented… I’m so excited for her”.
Tiana Major9 adds to the list of Black British artists that have made waves in the US, yet prior to their success were considered a drop in the ocean in the UK. Samm, who identifies heavily with the issue and sits in that same boat, laments passionately about the reasons behind the unwanted phenomenon. “There’s so many incredible artists from this country that make really great music, but it’s not what is deemed as popular, so they don’t know how to deal with it. UK record labels need to learn how to package black British male singers… and Black artists in general. I’m not trying to call anyone out or diss anyone or anything like that. But don’t look at someone like me and try and use the same blueprint that you used for George Ezra. Sometimes we don’t want to address that side of it but you have to. You know what I mean?”
It was this dissonance between Samm and his label’s ideas that heavily contributed to them making the decision to part ways. Setting up his own label, ‘Dorm Seven’, means that he can now exact his own creative vision. The excellence of ‘Untidy Soul’, proves that, at least in the creative process, a major label is not necessary. He didn’t need to compromise on artistic integrity by bringing in features just to boost streams. Instead, Samm took the opportunity to shine a light on musicians such as legendary jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold, Brasstracks and Marco Bernadis. “I don’t see enough artists doing features with really dope, incredible musicians, so I wanted to give them a spotlight on this album. I mean, what are we without the musicians?”
His appreciation for the collaborators who created the soundscape for ‘Untidy Soul’ is unbounding, none more so than longtime friend and producer, Josh Grant. “Honestly, the main thing for me is that I trust him. I’ve been working with Josh since ‘The Sound Experiment 2’ EP, and weirdly, we just never stopped after that. I loved his vibe, his energy, and then we just kept making music… I wouldn’t have found my sound without Josh, and that was really important to me. This is his album as much as mine. There’s actually a picture of just Josh and I sitting in this room where we were working on ‘Untidy Soul’, and I was considering making it the album artwork. It perfectly sums up the album for me personally, because we started this crap together and now we’re done. He’s been at every moment I’ve had like a freaking panic attack or… gone a bit insane, so yeah that’s my bro…for life”.
Throughout the conversation, it’s clear that great relationships are of the utmost importance to Samm, whether that’s with his friends, family, record label… or faith. Many people may view religion as following a prescriptive set of archaic texts to a tee, with no room for nuance. However, as the comical saying goes, “religion is a guy in church thinking about fishing… relationship is a guy out fishing thinking about God.” Religion is always up for interpretation, but by reframing it as a relationship, we as humans have more autonomy on deciding if this relationship is something we truly desire. “The people in my life, I choose to have them here. I choose to love them. I choose to do the things that I want to do for them. And because I love these people, I’m going to choose to do these things with them. I think that’s the difference between relationship and religion, and that’s kind of how I perceive it now as I’ve gotten older. I’m just learning it’s like, ‘alright, I have a choice to do this’. I don’t need to do this to make me feel better, if I want to feel better. And I know that there’s a way that I can do that and let me choose a relationship that’s going to be better for me.”