Blue skies are reflecting from the blacked-out mirror façade jutting across Mann Island. It’s a strangely warm day, especially for this time of year. Beside the undisturbed reflections of this faux summer sky peer in neoclassical columns, baroque domes and concrete foundations, held in place by aspiration and the nurturing hands of redevelopers. It’s an active scene. The perfect setting for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ northern exhibition space, today’s destination. The perfect place to meet architecture graduate turned musical virtuoso XAMVOLO, real name Sam Folorunsho. You’d think, anyway.
“I don’t want to be an architect,” Sam declares earnestly, in his confident yet polite manner. “I’ve met some great people through my studies, but I don’t intend to use that side of my education.” He tells me this from our office on the fringes of a building site on Wolstenholme Square, where we’ve rescheduled to meet, away from the complete and distinguished structures on Liverpool’s waterfront. This says a lot about Sam; signature creations are at the forefront of his wildly active mind. And if his studies taught him anything, he only has interest in the intricate spaces where he can fulfil the potential of his own design. Not those that reflect established marks of grandeur.
If an interest in architecture has faded since arriving in Liverpool from London, one feature of Sam’s character has remained since first appearing in these pages four years ago: the desire, if not purpose, to produce music cut from his own individualistic nature. “I understand that there is structure in life, but I don’t really agree with the paint-by-numbers processes we allow to rule over decision making,” he coolly asserts, responding to a suggestion that he’s taken an alternative path towards success. The self-taught 24-year-old has forgone any classical training, acquiring his talents via a solo venture through the musical frontier.
Before coming to Liverpool, he was quietly active from the controls of his bedroom studio in London. A rush of EPs and singles followed his relocation up north, assimilating influences from soul, hip hop, metal and pop-punk. Now he’s taking calls from TOP producers and collaborators queuing up to borrow his versatility.
He’s an artist, on the face of things, that’s adept at producing luscious, high-end productions topped off with an enviable vocal range. Sonically, it’s music that matches the size and feel of D’Angelo. It’s music that’s not to be expected to emerge from Liverpool in a climate dominated by bands; it arrives from an attention to the subtlest nuances of style, those that mark his musical interpretations of life as a patchwork blanket of cultures and experience. “When people want to do things, they generally find a way to get it done. I liked a certain kind of music, and it was very rare to hear. So, in the beginning, making music was a vehicle to adhere to my own tastes. That’s what really pushed me on.”
Sam’s voice is understated when in conversation, perhaps more so today. Our interview is a little delayed as he’s under the weather this afternoon. There’s little respite offered by the premature summer conditions. His usual cool isn’t deterred, though. He doesn’t even think to remove his coat throughout the interview, despite today’s rare climate. “I woke up quite late due to being ill, but I didn’t go to sleep until 4am.” As always, a determined streak shines through. “I was up all night working on some tracks. Being my own producer means I can work on my music whenever, you know, to finish off an idea, to whittle away at my own pace while the creative spark is still there.”
This artist makes no distinction between work and free time. He’s constantly at the controls of his music, whether that be through observation or creation. It’s this meticulous streak that brought about his debut album, released in January; a 15-track concept album for his first full swing. It’s a bold move, but a clean hit. All The Sweetness On The Surface is an amalgamation of everything Sam has been alluding to in terms of his capabilities since announcing himself as XamVolo five years ago. Swathes of confidence spread across a diverse landscape, with microscopic idiosyncrasies treated with the importance of a macro feature. It’s evidently been a painstaking process. Yet, you see no signs of fatigue beyond the unregulated bedtime. “From a creative standpoint, the album really pushed me,” he admits. “But for a good 12 months or so, I was putting in 13, 14 hours a day in the studio; just me, on my own, with no windows.” Most would be flushed out by the claustrophobia and constant blanket of unnatural light. “For me that was really good. It allowed me to learn new things and get things done at a speed I was comfortable with. I was able to devote my complete attention.”
Signing to a major sub-label, Decca, was just another piece in the puzzle; the vehicle for manifesting the present world of his musical imagination. “An album is not about telling yourself, ‘Right, I’m going to write 30 songs this month’. It’s about letting the creative process dictate the quantity of the finished product. I’m not about creating McMusic. The studio for me isn’t a factory line way of thinking.”
While the creative energy was in abundance through the early stages of the project, its overall delivery wasn’t seamless. The record was finished by late 2017. A year of waiting followed, with an output locked in gears easily able to stretch ahead of the static, complete body of work. “Even though there was a period of waiting, I used the time to flesh out the idea into a fully realised concept for the project.” The year offered the room to enhance the visualisation of the concept embedded within the music, drawing on the themes interwoven into the writing process. “I finally got the opportunity to build the extra mediums into the music, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Everything down to the visual campaign, the overall concept.” He pulls out his phone and guides me through a palette of colour schemes for the record, logos and graphic illustrations of a hive – all of which he’d designed himself. It’s just another signal of Sam’s willingness to carve his own way with his own capabilities, including a graphic design A-Level.
As a conceptual artwork, All The Sweetness On The Surface wanders through a world hollowed by decadence. It’s a theme that’s explored through all 15 tracks, with added visual cues. “The album taps into the outward vision of perfection,” Sam informs me. It’s a feeling that clearly engages such a meticulous, prolific artist content on blazing their own trail. “It draws on the subconscious battles with bitterness. All of this translates through to the artwork. You’ve got the cosmetic gold, but closer up the deficiencies really shine through – the cracked gold paint, chipped nails, broken glasses.” The running narrative of the record is founded upon a hive, depicted in the earlier noted graphic designs. It’s the ruling metaphor of a perceived gold standard, the source of an unattainable brand of honey which humankind strives for, unwittingly. “The album was split into two halves: the first looks at the acquisition of the honey and its perceived benefit. The second focuses on the psychedelic comedown, as a result of a life dedicated to its discovery.” However, the record isn’t an entirely fictional experience, as the elaborate concept would allude to. While Sam himself isn’t the lead character, the questions put forward over the 15 tracks roll the narrator into the heart of the narrative. The inquisition brings about its own confession.
“Every song I write is honest. My songs are real, it’s just that I’m not always at the heart of the narrative. I can take what I see and experience and translate [it] into music, so it becomes an honest interpretation. I’m not an overly emotive person, so I don’t like to lead with feelings. I set my own mechanical boundaries and bring the music to life. It draws in all of my failures, my experiences, as though making music is like a scientific trial and error that continually evolves. I appreciate locating the problem more so than the definitive answer.” This is a mark of the ever-evolving student.
There’s a definite appreciation for process in Sam’s work, even if his album arrived via an off-piste musical education. From a young age, he was surrounded by gospel music played by his parents. Music was an ever-present, but not a set path; he appreciates the intricacies of his route, the potential to gather experiences from aspects of life that don’t glaringly inform one another, yet always leave their mark. “If you’re in a band you make your name by playing lots of shows in the early stages of your career. My own beginnings were sat in a bedroom. I only went to my first show when I was 19. Before then I was making and recording from my bedroom, living in London. It became my own stage. When I came to Liverpool I existed in a vacuum; I had the liberty to exist in a bubble and put myself out there online.”
The feeling that music was to be his main outlet soon set in after starting university. From here came a balancing act; architecture on one hand, and learning to produce in his free time on the other. Though, he admits, the latter overlapped into his paid study. “I see music as problem solving, and the process of finding answers. For me, the internet was somewhere I took a lot of my cues.” Like many burgeoning producers, the open source space of the internet liberated his potential. Here there was no set syllabus, tests, course work. “Of course, there is a lot of trial and error. I’ve made the most of as many lectures on YouTube as I could, more so than the ones I was actually paying for at Uni.” Working away on two fronts, graduating and continuing his music is the clearest example of this artist’s endeavour.
A passing listen to All The Sweetness On The Surface would suggest it’s a genre-spanning LP, designed to cater to as many tastes as possible. It draws in influences of rock, blues and neo-soul, but not simply as a popularity exercise. Sam is vehemently opposed to this idea, citing the thin web that ties the album’s parading feathers together, irrespective of the clashing colours. “For me, my music caters to a single taste,” he attests. “I don’t really see it as being split on the genres that it reflects. The sound I create isn’t a genre, it’s a reflection of my musical experiences. You know, I started producing trying to make a grime track and now I’m here. It’s no different to me. When I was younger the first CD I was bought was 50 Cent, and the first one I bought with my own money was Paramore. I had a whole pop-punk phase following that. I’ve got an appreciation for metal, dubstep and EDM, all of the technical elements of each.” It’s the congealed paints on the canvas that bear the reflection of his art, not the individual elements that each contribute. Originality is a mere repacking of shared understanding. Sam doesn’t find himself bogged down in discussion of the latter.
“I’m really drawn to nuance. It’s a standard human reaction to try to put everything in boxes or within certain barriers. It sort of follows a simple equation: X+X = Y. That’s not my life experience. I lived long enough to develop and portray a certain nuance in myself. You know, you look at me straight up you’ll say first, ‘He’s a rapper, and if he’s not a rapper he must be a singer, a soul singer, a neo-soul singer’.” The preconceptions noted aren’t only limiting musically, but a signal of too casual a reaction to understanding how Sam perceives himself as an artist; which identities society deems him entitled to. “Now I like both of these genres, but it’s not my entire thing. It’s just easier to underline my music as neo-soul; it just makes it easier for people to understand without having to look for any of the nuance I try to reflect.”
“You listen to someone like Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid has all kind of genres. You’ve got country in the mix, a Spaghetti Western vibe, Fela Kuti samples. That’s one version of a nuanced portrayal. That’s the world that I exist in. I’m not out here trying to play a part in someone’s 8-bit narrative. There’s a lot more to explore, and the gradient is there. You can’t pay for intricacies, so you’ve got to create them yourself.”
For someone who has relinquished an interest in architecture, XamVolo is an artist uniquely driven by the potential of space. Modification, workability and an ear for fine details shine through in his music. He’s calculated and meticulous; two attributes necessary if a self-taught dream is to materialise into a reality. “Creating music is almost like bringing a product to market. If there is a gap for something, then it’s up to someone to create the product that fills the gap.” In a city of defined structures, he’s used every tool to hand to carve out a space that bears his own design. All The Sweetness On The Surface is as intricate as it is subtle. It’s finely measured, to the highest expanse.
All The Sweetness On The Surface is out now via Decca. XamVolo plays at Inside Pages, part of our bido100! programme, at Constellations on 23rd June: tickets available now at ticketquarter.co.uk.