Entertainment & Arts

Kwabs: 'The song is always king,' says rising neo-soul star

Kwabs Image copyright Publicity still
Image caption Kwabs studied jazz at the Royal Academy of Music

The new album from singer-songwriter Kwabs is one of the most anticipated of the year. Soul singer, jazz man, dance artist - it is hard to pigeonhole him, and that is just how he likes it.

Kwabs (pronounced Kwobs) is the stage name of Kwabena Sarkodee Adjepong, of south London.

Brought up in the care system, he joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, whose former vocalists include Carol Kenyon and Amy Winehouse, as a teenager and spent three years as its lead singer.

He then went on to study jazz at the Royal Academy of Music. Kwabs's rich baritone was further noticed when, in 2011, he appeared on the BBC's Goldie's Band: By Royal Appointment programme.

The UK nationwide search for young talented musicians culminated in Kwabs performing at Buckingham Palace.

Last year, after signing to Atlantic Records, he released the slow-burning soul and hip-hop infused single Walk. Although something of a minor hit in the UK, it topped the chart in Germany. The video has since been viewed on YouTube about 80 million times.

"I don't check any more, but it makes me feel good," says the self-deprecating singer on his tally of views. "You don't really expect it to happen, but then you don't know what will happen and that's the beauty of it.

"You make music thinking, 'This will fly somewhere,' and you don't really know where."

Kwabs's growing reputation also led to a sold-out night at London's Koko venue, a feat often reserved for artists with more than a couple of modest EPs behind them. If he was nervous before the crowd of London industry types and hipsters, it didn't show.

"Often, I don't really go out to see how big the venue is or how big the crowd is until I go out and sing a note," he says. "I prefer it that way because throwing caution to the wind can sometimes be good in those situations.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption His debut album Love + War is out now

"I think in this life as an artist, we try and keep control over a lot of things or what we do and that's my way of abandoning some of that control."

Dance artists Disclosure, who have worked with Kwabs on their track Willing and Able, say: "There's no reason that someone like Kwabs couldn't be equally huge as Sam [Smith].

"He has such a beautiful soulful voice, and some great songs too."

Much of the early praise for Kwabs comes down to that voice, described in the Guardian as a "velvety baritone that veers from soaring to brooding to sensuous".

"I think it was always there," he says. "The expression was always there. Then, as I got older and started to appreciate what I had, I learned how to look after it and how to get better.

"I practise every day, and I keep myself in check. I'm sensible, which is probably boring but keeps me sane. That's the trick, to listen to your body."

But surely there is always the concern about damaging that instrument through the sheer level of live commitments singers have in their diary.

Adele, Jess Glynne and Sam Smith have all suffered conditions requiring throat surgery. Isn't that a worry?

"I guess so, but at the same time there is no fear if you know what your getting yourself into," says Kwabs. "And I have no time to be getting ill or having operations on my voice or find myself foul of those issues, so I make sure that I don't push myself too hard.

"I'm only 25, and there's no way I should be finding myself pushing myself so hard that I need to take a break."

Kwabs's debut album, Love + War, is out this week, a collection of 12 songs that veer from traditional singer-songwriter material, such as the beautifully sombre Perfect Ruin, to soulful pop and stripped back electronic beats, Wrong or Right for example.

Neo-soul, future soul, nu-soul, whatever you want to call it, Kwabs enjoys being stubbornly indefinable.

"I do find that people struggle to categorise me, partly because I don't know how to categorize myself," he says.

"Sometimes I can be obtuse and tell people to, 'Just listen to it, I'm sure you'll like some of it,'" he says.

"It's not just future soul for the audience that implies, it's not just straight pop. It has got those left-of-centre vibes. All I can say is that I try and write songs in the spirit of traditional song writing.

"For me, the song is always king, and the voice is always king."

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