Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2016 winner Jack Garratt: The story so far

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Media captionJack Garratt: "I am trying to stay as grounded as possible"

Jack Garratt, who has come top of the BBC Sound of 2016 list, seems to embody most of the qualities a pop star should need to survive and thrive in the fickle 21st Century music industry.

He is a one-man multi-skilled music-making machine - he sings, writes, plays numerous instruments and produces his own records.

His songs combine classic melodies with the warps and beats of cutting-edge music, as if he has fed the influence of idols like Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits and Stevie Ray Vaughan through a modern pop super-computer.

He also jumps between genres with glee, flipping between the haunting electronica of James Blake and the soulful guitar-based balladry of Ed Sheeran. His voice, meanwhile, can go from a Tom Waits growl up to a Sam Smith soar.

And he has a very hip beard.

The combination of these qualities means he has found himself riding the zeitgeist. As well as topping the BBC Sound of 2016 list, he has won the Brits Awards Critics' Choice prize and the BBC Introducing trophy at the BBC Music Awards.

Never in this history of music tips has one artist been so vigorously feted. Now, with his debut album Phase due out in February, all that is left to do is to prove the tipsters right.

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Media captionJack Garratt: the story so far

The story so far

A star is born

He was born, to be precise, on 11 October 1991 in High Wycombe Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

His mum was a primary school music teacher and dad a police officer. "The thing that was most constant when I was growing up was just complete support and adoration from my parents," he says.

He admits to being a show-off as a child, so his parents tried to channel that attention-seeking streak into activities like acting and singing.

"I would sing around the house and I would always play on things just because instruments were always there, but I didn't show any genius as a child. I wasn't a prodigy or anything like that.

"I just really enjoyed making noises and really enjoyed the reaction that I got from making those noises. So they put me on music lessons to encourage me to hone in on that talent rather than show off."

Image copyright Anita Ross Marshall/Bucks Free Press
Image caption The young Jack tried to represent the UK at Junior Eurovision

The musical awakening

"My mum would play Stevie Wonder around the house and I remember just loving the songs and feeling so blown away by how much was going on," Garratt recalls.

"At that age, I mentally couldn't fathom the amount of detail. I just loved the tones and the melody and Stevie Wonder's energy behind his singing.

"That was the first real awakening. Then the first time I discovered Tom Waits for myself. He became, and still is, a very, very important voice and inspiration to my lyric-writing and my songwriting."

Garratt was also into Californian singer Jackson Browne at the time. Although the two troubadours have very different vocal styles, he heard similarities between Waits and Browne.

"I genre-hop quite a lot," he explains. "I love manipulating genre and deconstructing it and making it irrelevant. Genreless music is great because it means you get to write in any genre that you like.

"That was a really inspiring moment for me, to see folk music be completely blown apart by two completely separate voices, but still be able to find the tangible link between them."

Nul points at Junior Eurovision

As a cheeky 13-year-old, Garratt tried to be the UK's entrant at Junior Eurovision with a composition called The Girl.

The national qualification was broadcast on ITV2 - but his song came last.

"That was the first time I tried to achieve anything as a musician, but my intentions were wrong," he said recently. "I did it more for attention rather than for a love of what I was doing."

Image copyright Island Records
Image caption Jack Garratt is managed by the company that launched the careers of previous Sound Of... winners Ellie Goulding and Jessie J

Pressing self destruct

That disappointment did not put Garratt off, and he kept writing and performing while he worked as a teaching assistant with a boy with cerebral palsy during a gap year after secondary school, and then training to be a teacher at university.

At the time, he was working on an album with an independent label. Thanks to YouTube, we can see him in his bluesy pre-beard days.

But then he called it all off - his training and his album.

He disagreed with much of what his course was teaching him, and at the same time lost confidence in his music.

"I dropped out of uni and had to re-evaluate everything because I wasn't happy in what I was doing," he says.

"I was trying so hard to achieve something for the wrong reasons. I wasn't proud of the songs I was writing, and I was performing the music because I liked the way that people reacted rather than because I was proud of the songs.

"When I dropped out of uni I had a real self-destructive moment where I had to break myself apart.

"I felt like I was going through a quarter or a midlife crisis, but I was not even 20, and that freaked me out even more. But thankfully I had to make some harsh decisions and I think I made the right ones."

On the right path

One of the decisions was to enlist one of his best friends as his manager. He went back to square one.

"I could go up on stage and play guitar fast and sing loud and people were impressed by that, but until I knew I had the right songs under my belt I was just using loud singing and fast guitar playing as cheap tricks, gimmicks, to fool people into thinking I'm a better musician than I actually am," he says.

"So instead, what I actually needed to do was to lock myself away and spend the year writing the best songs that I could.

"The minute I started to treat music with a totally different level of respect and integrity, everything changed and suddenly things started to fall into place.

"I found my way back to a path that I felt was very familiar, but knew I'd never walked on before."

That process brought him to the attention of the management company that launched the careers of previous Sound Of... winners Ellie Goulding and Jessie J, and then Island Records.

Image copyright John Marshall/Brit Awards
Image caption The Brit Awards praised his "genre-defying blend of electronica and soul"

The big breaks

Garratt points to appearances on the BBC Introducing stage at the 2014 Reading Festival and at BBC Radio 1's Future Festival last January as key moments, after which people started to sit up and take notice.

He also supported Mumford and Sons on their recent UK arena tour, before now being showered with these pre-emptive awards.

"I am still fixed firmly onto the ground," he insists. "I have got a small but very good team of people around me. Things are going very, very well but I am just seeing it as that. I am trying to stay as grounded as possible.

"It is difficult because I don't ever want to give the impression that I'm not grateful because I am so unbelievably, overwhelmingly grateful for this.

"But I also have to be dangerous about how personally I take it because I know who I am as a person, and I have worked very hard on myself to not let this kind of success get to my head in any other way other than what it is, which is so utterly complimentary."

The rest of the Sound of 2016 shortlist:

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