Jamie Woon: 'It's hard to be funky if you're English'

As the BBC Sound of 2016 award longlist is announced, the former nominee discusses how to swerve the hype, overcome an identity crisis, and his nu-soul album, Making Time

There was a point last year, says Jamie Woon, where it was “touch and go” whether he might get dropped by his label. It was four years since his much-hyped debut and the singer-songwriter was armed with nothing new.

“I had been making music but nothing was coming out,” he admits. “You know, in a way, it would have been pretty cool to be dropped because I would have got paid off and I would have had the experience and I could have gone in a different direction.”

In the back room of a pub in north London, Woon is explaining the tangential journey behind the album that eventually arrived, the knowingly titled Making Time. It was wise of his team to keep faith in the stubborn, somewhat attention-shy artist: his second album is full of crisply constructed, melancholic falsetto funk; a fresh new chapter in the evolution of nu-soul. He has previously said that this stop gap was as a result of his slow, considered way of writing. But an artist can’t spend every waking hour, for over 1,460 days, agonising exclusively over music.

“Can’t they?” he laughs. “I’m not making music 24 hours a day. There were long periods where I wasn’t really doing anything.”

What were they like?

“Confused, I suppose.”

He was perhaps right to feel directionless. Throughout his career, Woon has attempted to avoid categorisations that a similarly confused industry has bestowed upon him. After his first EP, 2007’s sparse, singer-songwriter styled Wayfaring Stranger, he attracted a lot of attention from labels, many of whom thought they would slot him besides the swathe of Radio 2-ready troubadours such as James Blunt and James Morrison. Woon, however, resisted, and four years later rode a new wave, arriving with the chilly, Burial-produced Night Air. Alongside James Blake and the xx, he became a poster boy of post-dubstep. His career was then elevated by his inclusion in the BBC Sound of 2011 poll – but next was one of two artists on he shortlist who failed to scale the charts or gain transatlantic success following the initial push (Clare Maguire being the other). His album Mirrorwriting failed to crack the top 10, but Woon’s musical ambiguity was never meant for the mainstream.

“That ‘Sound of’ thing is very unusual, from the point of view of people getting to know who the fuck you are. But do you need everyone to know who you are? It’s quite a funny thing that gets bestowed upon you. There was some frustration in the way the record [Mirrorwriting] was perceived because it made it sometimes harder to put the record across for what it was – there was preconceptions of what it was. Probably from the outside maybe it looked like it was disingenuous – a bandwagon thing,” he admits.

“I suppose it was not very obvious where it was coming from – there was some confusion about it. It was frustrating at times for sure – there was a lot of hype in the record, a lot of expectations for what it was.”

He says that writing Making Time was like “shedding a preconception of what you should make, or what you might think you can make”. Instead of trying to appease his label by making something that might be more commercially viable, Woon became stubborn. Armed with a recording budget, he began to retreat, and slowly, quietly backed away from the spotlight. He stopped going into the studio, and was able to halt the endless touring of his old material after a football-related leg injury.

“At the time I was quite grateful for it,” he says of his ruptured achilles heel. “I was done with promoting that record. It allowed me to slow down. It allowed me to start to ‘long out’ my record label.”

That involved a period of self discovery. He had a six-week trip to China with the British council in 2012 which allowed him to “take stock” of his career. His manager took on a bunch of new artists, which was great because “it meant I wasn’t his sole bread and butter”. Apart from a guest vocal on Disclosure’s debut album, Woon remained relatively silent.

It wasn’t until he sat down with producer Lexxx, who had previously worked with Wild Beasts, Björk, Jessie Ware and MIA, that the songs began to arrive. Both Woon and Lexxx shared the same sonic vision: built around a funk rhythm section, they wanted warmth and intimacy. Performed by a live band in the studio, it has a rich and intricate quality. Unlike the cold, anaesthetised R&B of the Weekend, or the theatrical emotion of Sam Smith, Making Time stands out as elegant, timeless, and has subsequently bypassed the zeitgeist. Praise has popped up in more appropriate places, too: Erykah Badu, Julie Adenuga and Pharrell Williams have eulogised Woon’s return, with the latter extolling the virtues of his integrity. “It’s amazing when you see someone be consistently awesome and just sticking to his own thing,” Williams recently said. “He never veered off his own path.”

Like the recent, jazz-inflected soul albums by Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat or D’Angelo, Making Time sounds as if it was spawned from a sweaty New York studio rather than Osea Island in Essex. It is an album that embraces funk, a genre often shirked by awkward Brits.

“I mean it just sounds horrible, just saying ‘funky’. ‘Groovy’. Anything you put any on the end. ‘Jazzy’,” he grimaces. “It’s all nasty, isn’t it? It’s hard for an English person to talk about these things”.

Woon admits that he has been lucky to be backed by his team for the past few years, even though he has been “a bit of a difficult bastard at times”. Should next year’s BBC Sound of 2016 hopefuls, announced today, not be as fortunate, does he have any words of wisdom to alleviate the pressure?

“You don’t have to conform to expectations that there are of you,” he replies. “It doesn’t even matter. Who cares if you make a record anyway? If you love making music, then it is something that is yours. You can do it on your own terms.”


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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