When FKA twigs said “fuck alternative RnB!” in an interview with the Guardian in 2014, she was lamenting more than just being lumped into a musical bracket because of her mixed-race heritage: she was striking at the core of what it is to be a musician today. Weighed down by expectations to produce something groundbreaking, while simultaneously being judged against the vast tapestry of recorded music that’s gone before, artists can be excused more than a little frustration at the current trend for compartmentalising music into easy-to-understand umbrella terms. Even the faux liberalisation of shattering a genre into hundreds of strands – post-this and anti-that – is a mask, a neat way for us (mainly critics) to keep our reference points within arm’s reach. In his own quiet way, XAMVOLO is doing his bit to muddy those waters of genre. Just don’t expect him to stay quiet for long.
XamVolo – or Sam Folorunsho to his parents – is one of those artists that just has a natural presence about them, whether it’s on record or on the stage. There’s also an almost professorial air about him, which I detect when we meet up to discuss his new EP, The Closing Scene, which comes with a conviction that only a fierce talent can muster. As much alt. rock as it is alt. RnB, The Closing Scene is the result of a production deal Xam has signed with Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Levine: within its muscular movements, the EP has a depth of tension that wouldn’t be out of place on a Frank Ocean record, yet still kicks with the energy of BANKS’ take on new wave, contemporary RnB. It’s a departure, certainly, from 2014’s bright and bouncy introductory EP Binary In Blue, which exhibited more of the playfulness of Kendrick Lamar and the neo-soul delivery of, say, a young D’Angelo.
Reclining in his chair, right hand thrust in pocket (it’s never not) and dressed in his customary all black, Xam considers the position he finds himself in, and pauses a moment while he balances his words. “The voices and the big techniques and all the craziness, that’s all in the urban spectrum – though I don’t like to use that term – but they don’t have the lyricism or the musicality that rock and indie music have,” comes his measured reply, delivered with a surprisingly light voice. “I feel like, if people sat down and studied outside their genre, really thought their lyrics and the arrangements through, they would get into the music and understand it more. That’s what I’ve tried to do, to go into other genres and pick out their best bits.”
A bright spark of the LIMF Academy 2014 intake, Xam has been learning from every conceivable side since he started making music as a teenager, drinking up influences at a prodigious rate. In fact, he’s big on learning, and it’s something that he comes back to a lot during our conversation. “When I see people who are miles better than me at something I think ‘oh great, there’s something to live for, there’s more to learn’,” he explains. He talks of “rubbing minds” with other artists when working with them, and says that he knows he still has a long way to go, even though the strides he’s made so far (he’s signed a management deal with the playmaker group) place him far above some of his contemporaries. “I’m trying to stay as humble as possible,” he continues, “to learn from everybody. Say if someone considers me as a seven, and I meet someone who’s, say, a two, and I disregard that person, I may miss out on the opportunity to become a nine – because that person may have had a two that I didn’t have, and I could have learnt from them. Everyone has something to offer. It’s the same in LIMF Academy: everyone in my year has taught me something about the industry, or performing or writing or whatever.”
As an architecture student, Xam evidently has a thorough mind that’s trained on the importance of structure and strategy, and this seeps through into his music. “I like everything to have a meaning, I like people to be able to analyse things,” he says. “This thing has to have layers, and each layer has to be understandable.” He has a clear grasp of how it all fits together, too, with every aspect of his music and the themes behind it deeply thought out. Whole swathes of our discussion are taken up with Xam just recounting his thoughts behind each track, giving more of a background to the stories, and wrestling with the notion of control. “I’ve realised that a recurring theme I write about a lot is power,” he replies, when pressed on the lyrical content of The Closing Scene. “Most people in the RnB thru soul spectrum write about love a lot and it gets a bit corny. I’ve realised that writing about power is like a long giant pool of potential topics: it takes the corniness right out of it and allows you to explore things. Cos life is a lot more complex than, you know, person meets person.”
“The reason I chose that [title] is cos The Closing Scene sort of represents finality,” he continues. “It’s all in reverse in terms of the mentality of each song. So, the first song is Rescue Me, which is a lot to do with these weird delusions of grandeur. At the end of it I believe that the position I end up in is a position of power, where I don’t need anyone to rescue me. Be Cool, that one’s about… we compromise things, and we feel like we’re not in control but kind of accept that – and in that acceptance, you’re kind of in control. And Breathe Slowly is all about having the correct way of viewing things while describing the wrong way of viewing things.”
I’d hesitate to describe Xam as a perfectionist because that makes him sound like a diligent school swot; his unswerving attitude towards precision is more like that found in a concertmaster. From the outset he’s keen to hear what I think of the new EP, quizzing on what I thought about it (“dead good” was my not-so-succinct response). His hunger for reaction from people is part of the feedback loop that’s wired in to his mechanism to improve things at all stages.
“I tend to aim to please the environment that I’m in…” he says, carefully, when describing the shift towards a darker, noir-y sound on his track Bone Marrow, which came about from noticing a shift in the “market” towards that style. “You can’t exist outside the world – we live here. If people are thinking that this or that [aspect] could be better, then you can’t just say ‘I’m outside of their world, their opinion doesn’t matter’. If the majority think something, at least address it.”
Working with Steve Levine on this EP has also had a huge impact on Xam, not least because it was the first time he’d worked in a full studio, and with his new band, plucked from friends “in the rock spectrum”. Up until this point, Xam had never collaborated with anyone on any of his productions, self-teaching himself the basics of Logic, FruityLoops and Cubase in putting together Binary In Blue. Even though it took something of a leap of faith on Xam’s part (“Well, Steve won a Grammy! It’s not like he’s any guy come out of nowhere.”), Levine helped him strip away all the extraneous elements that he’d built around himself – the plugins and effects – and kind of set him free. “For this whole new EP I kind of had to re-train my brain to get away from all those habits, allow the drums to be a bit freer, allow everything to move within the record,” he admits. “It sounds better… You can’t really get that vintage soul sound – which I like a lot – with plugins and synths. It works so much better with non-quantised, real instruments.”
Another aspect of the new-look XamVolo is the lush and striking impact of strings, supplied by former Goldfrapp member Davide Rossi. The man who contributed string arrangements to two Coldplay records worked on additional parts to The Closing Scene remotely, from his home in LA, as a favour called in by his old friend Levine. They add a heightened sense of drama to the overall atmosphere, especially on the taut, brooding Rescue Me, where you can almost see Xam’s head pressed on the window pane in contemplation. Breathe Slowly – the standout track on the EP – is punctuated by a tremendous plunging riff, which gives his something for the string additions to pivot about and accentuate the drama around the lyrics.
Given that Xam had produced every last beat of the music he’d done up until this point, he was at first reluctant to relinquish that control. “I’m always worried whenever anyone else puts their hands on stuff I’ve created,” he says, smiling as a memory comes back to him. “In the studio with Steve I memorised the levels on the faders, just in case he changed one of them and it didn’t work and I could put it back to the exact level!”
“Producing is my instrument. I wanna show that I’m hands on and that I control the artistic direction,” he continues, but with giving up some ownership to a new producer and a fully-functioning band, does he still feel in control?
“Ummm…” he deliberates for a beat, before continuing in a measured tone: “Yes – only because – like what I was talking about in Be Cool – I’ve understood that the feeling of control comes from accepting the situation that you’re in. I feel like I’m in control because I’ve relinquished that bit of control consciously. Having the choice of who you let in to help you is being in control.”
It’s perhaps misleading to asses XamVolo’s progression from Binary In Blue to The Closing Scene in too much detail, as he’s in that period where you’re measuring progress more in giant leaps than baby steps. But the potential he’s shown thus far is limitless, and you feel that he is only just beginning to flex his muscles. God help us when he does.