SAMM HENSHAW; INSPIRED BY LIFE
WORDS AMY MACKENZEI - PHOTOGRAPHY EVA PENTEL - FASHION SHOPHIE EMMETT
It was a joy to catch up with the multifaceted creative Samm Henshaw as he took a day to shoot for F Word. When meeting with him, Samm talked us through his upbringing in Peckham, South London, and the importance of going to church in his early life. Not surprisingly, his early life in the church has had a strong influence on his musical style, but it was only relatively late in life that he decided to pursue a career creating music. At the age of 19, Samm decided this was his future. He describes his style as ‘untidy soul’, and blends of a whole series of influences into his own unique sound.
With such an engaging personality, Samm tells us that 'people' the greatest inspiration for his music. He seems to relish life, friendships and storytelling, and this shines through in his music. Despite the fact that he has worked with and supported some very big names (including Pharrell Williams), he remains incredibly humble. Not only does he have to be prompted by us to talk about this great list of names, but he also talks about them in terms of their talent, the respect he has for them and the things he has learnt from them in terms of their craft and professionalism.
We have a very good feeling about what the future holds for Samm – and it could not happen to a more grounded, generous and respectful artist.
Amy MacKenzie: Hi Samm, how are you today?
Samm Henshaw: I'm good. I'm good. How are you?
A.M: I’m doing great, thank you. Have you enjoyed today on set?
S.H: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
A.M: Good, I’m glad. Really nice and chilled out.
A.M: Right, so I’m just going to take things right back to the start and ask where you grew up and what your family is like?
S.H: I was born and raised in Peckham. Well, I was born in, I think, London Bridge and then moved to Peckham, raised there with my mum and dad, my older sister and then we lived with two of my older cousins who were 10/15 years older than me. It was fun! I guess what you think it would be, just being surrounded by a lot of banter! A lot of parties and stuff, not wild ones, just suitable ones. My parents’ mates and stuff around that time, everyone was having kids as well so there was always some type of event we were always meeting up. I was born and raised in the church so I naturally picked up music through that, as I was always surrounded by it and stuff, it was a lot of fun.
A.M: Yeah; is that where your love of music really came from then?
S.H: Yeah, it was from the church. I remember seeing a lot of young people playing instruments and stuff in the church at a young age and I thought 'yeah, that’s cool, I wanna be a part of that'. When you’re surrounded by something, you are naturally going to gravitate towards it so that was my thing, I was always around young musicians and I naturally found I had this gift for it. I started playing the drums when I was about 4.
A.M: Wow, that’s young.
S.H: Yeah, really young! I started playing keys when I was about 14/15, and then picked up the guitar when I was about 16/17 and then didn’t start singing until I was about 17 or 18.
A.M: When you’re writing now, is there an instrument that you start with?
S.H: Keys. I always go to the keys.
A.M: Okay, that’s what you gravitate to first. Why do you think that is?
S.H: I think whenever I’m working on music, or writing, I’m trying to think of the sonic of the song as well as coming up with the melody. I want to know what it sounds like as a whole before I even get there and I feel like keys are just a great foundation for anything. When you think about the piano, it kinda covers all parts within the music. You can be rhythmical on it, you can get your bass notes on it, you can get melodies, for me it’s the easiest for me to play and the easiest to get inspiration from. So yeah, I always gravitate to that.
A.M: Fair enough. When did you decide you wanted to pursue music?
S.H: Properly, I think when I was about 19 and I was at uni.
A.M: Where were you at uni?
S.H: Southampton Solent.
A.M: What did you study?
S.H: Music. I studied Popular Music Performance. Yeah, I actually went to uni to study music to become a teacher or something. I didn’t really know how you got into the music industry. When I was growing up, you watch people on TV like 'oh cool, that’s that' but I didn't know how they got there or what they needed to do.
A.M: Yes, I get that. You see them performing and famous but the pathway to get there is not publicized.
S.H: Yeah, that’s great! So I never had any goals to get involved in the industry or anything but I met my manager through uni, his brother went to my uni. I had put a video on YouTube or something, and we somehow met and connected and then his brother, my manager, gave me a bell and said he wanted to work with me. I was like 'no', I pushed it off for about a year because you hear all the stories about the industry so I tried to avoid it. Then he started showing me the ropes and teaching me a lot of stuff and it was more from a friendship basis, rather than manager and artist. Yeah, we just built a friendship and he helped me understand different parts of the industry. I was recording with my mates all the time and it was so much fun, I was like 'yeah I actually see myself doing this for the rest of my life' and now here I am! [Laughs]
A.M: Were you playing shows at that time?
S.H: Very small ones.
Samm wears jacket CARNE BOLLENTE; trousers URBAN OUTFITTERS; shoes CLARKS; beanie ARTIST'S OWN
A.M: Just in Southampton?
S.H: Yeah, and then I think summer came about and there was a girl I’m friends with who hooked me up with something they do call ‘Acoustic Afternoons’. It was around here in Shoreditch actually, in Boxpark, so I was going there and doing performances. From that, I was meeting lots of people and it was all building and building. Yeah, it was a lot of fun!
A.M: So what inspires your music as a whole?
S.H: Life! People. I think we are the most interesting beings ever. I think people are so fascinating. The more stuff you hear about people’s lives, the things that have gone on in people’s lives, those stories, there’s so much to talk about. The things we have to go through mentally, the challenges we go through physically, there are all these things, I just think there’s so much to talk about. And it’s so weird to think how connected we are in a sense. I can write a song about things I’ve gone through that I think are very personal to me and it comes out and everyone goes ‘I relate to that’ and I’m like ‘what, how do you relate to this? This is my thing, back off’ [laughs]. I just think people are exceptional!
A.M: Do you feel quite protective of your music through the stories you’re writing or do you find it quite easy to put it out?
S.H: I wouldn’t say protective because I feel like if I was I would never put my music out. But I feel like I am more precious with them and sometimes I’m nervous to put something out because there is something beautiful but also quite scary about being vulnerable. I think with vulnerability, you have a blanket, not even a blanket…I think when it comes to this idea of vulnerability you almost can’t be touched because we are giving everything away, I can’t really be attacked but at the same time, I am giving everything away. I keep to myself so when I am talking about certain things, I’m like 'this is me, you’re seeing me' and that’s quite a weird thing for me. I’m only used to my friends and family knowing who I am.
A.M: Yeah. I think you have a really unique style.
A.M: So I was wondering how you would describe your sound and how has it developed from when you were at uni until now?
S.H: Umm, I think that it is..., I would describe it as it’s like…This is difficult [laughs]. Actually, the project I’m working on at the moment I am considering calling it ‘Untidy Soul’ and I’m thinking about calling it that because in soul I love a lot of different things, but it’s so hard to explain that I think it is quite messy and untidy. With the way I make the music and the way it comes out, it’s not conventional, I don’t think it’s like a lot of other things people are doing which I feel like sometimes is to my detriment. But to me, I think it is like untidy soul, I think it’s a mixture of gospel, hip hop, soul music and just other things that I listen to like folk music and all that stuff and just chuck it in and it becomes this mess but I like it!
A.M: Cool! I’m going to ask you about a few songs more specifically – the first song I heard of yours was ‘Broke’ – which I love!
S.H: Thank you, I appreciate it.
A.M: So what was the inspiration behind it? I think the storytelling of it is very clear but I want to hear from you.
S.H: Yeah, to be fair, the inspiration behind writing 'Broke' is actually a little different than I think a lot of people think. When you hear the song, I am talking about it more in a relationship setting but it’s actually I was more inspired by my mum always saying to me 'get a job, don’t be a bum', type of thing. Just constantly encouraging me and pushing me to do some work, or else you will end up broke, you will end up with nothing. That’s really where it came from. Then also life experiences, there were points where I had been in that position and remembering what she had said to me, don’t be lazy, don’t be this and that and when I was writing that’s what was coming into my head. Use all the experiences I’ve had and use all the moments, these are the things mum always said when I’ve been in this predicament. I was hellish broke when I was at uni. [Laughs]
A.M: [Laughs] Aren’t we all?!
S.H: Yeah [laughs]. Those £1 pizzas that you have to live off from ASDA, or pot noodle or whatever!
A.M: They give out pot noodle in freshers week. [Laughs]
S.H: I remember a guy that spent his entire…no he didn’t spend it, I lie, he gambled his entire student loan in the first week and we never saw him again!
A.M: Oh wow, unsurprisingly there!
S.H: Yeah, people are crazy! First time being away from home and first time having that much money.
A.M: So, can we talk a little bit about ‘Church’ now?
A.M: You said you grew up going to church, so I’m guessing that fed into it?
S.H: Yeah, again, my mum waking me up on a Sunday morning to go to church. At the time, not even at the time, I think when I was growing up, you are only surrounded by your parents and then the rest of it you’re surrounded by other people. When I was growing up all I knew was church. Then I started going to school and going to other schools, I got kicked out my first two schools and had to go to other ones, I was a bad kid! [laughs] I went to schools and found out some kids didn’t go to church on a Sunday morning, some weren’t Christian, I just started finding out how different people’s lives were and how different people are. That made me start to question does this have to be my faith because it is my parents’? Do I need to go to church every Sunday? It just gave me a bunch of questions and eventually I started hating the idea of going because it didn’t feel like I was going because I wanted to.
A.M: Not a choice.
S.H: Yeah, it wasn’t a choice. Then when I got older and went through a lot more experiences, I did find my faith myself. But the song was really about a time when I thought this isn’t really for me, stop waking me up every Sunday morning. But yeah, it was also looking at it from a fun side, I can look at it now from a fun side and not hate my parents or anything for making me do it because it was great and it’s still very much a part of who I am so I’m grateful for it.
A.M: Would you say your faith is something that is important to you now?
S.H: Heavily, yeah. I think I’ve gone through a lot of things where, for me, if it hadn’t been for God being present in my life, and if it wasn’t for me being able to seek Him and go to Him for all these things, I would probably be in a much worse place.
A.M: So, ‘The World is Mine’ was released this Summer, how did that come about?
S.H: Well, I was basically going to America a lot to do sessions and on one of the trips we did I just couldn’t be bothered to write any more. I was tired, I was fatigued from every other trip we had done and all the other stuff we were doing, so I just wasn’t in the mood. So this is actually a song I didn’t write. I was in the room with Sebastian Cole, Wayne Hector, Pop and Oak who are all just stupidly incredible and so talented! So if I was going to be in a room where I wasn’t going to do anything, maybe be with some of the best writers and producers ever! So we sat down and chatted, as we always do, and they were like “what do you want to talk about, what do you want to say, what do you want to do?” and we had a conversation about creating a movie soundtrack thing and we ended up with ‘The World is Mine’ and that’s pretty much all I can say about it! To me, it’s the greatest song and I love that we were able to create such a cool thing.
A.M: When you’re writing with people does it always start that way, having a conversation?
S.H: It depends on who I’m working with. With Sebastian [Cole], it’s usually he comes to me and is like ‘what’s going on in your life?’ and we have a 2 or 3-hour conversation, or maybe it’s 4 or 5 minutes and he will go away, piece something together. He’s weird, he’s just a genius, he walks out of a room then comes back in and he’s got 80/90% of your song and we sit down and just tweak bits and we go through parts and moments. What I love about Sebastian, in particular, is based off our conversation, he will grab every detail that I’ve said, down to each word, and he basically just says what I’ve said but in a way that works with the song, I think it’s incredible. And then we work on the production and everything else, or I’ll work on the production or the music simultaneously and we go back and forth between it all. But yeah, he’s incredible!
Samm wears jumper CARNE BOLLENTE
A.M: Do you find there’s a trust element going into a room with people like that because you’re sharing so much?
S.H: 100%. Yeah, I’m finding more and more now that I’m loving working more with artists because we all understand it, we are all going through the same thing, we all go through very similar things so it’s easier to trust someone that you know understands what you’re going through and can relate to what you are going through are have been through. So those sort of conversations and that process to me is great. Trust is definitely a big thing.
A.M: Yeah, cool. And then ‘Only One to Blame’ is your most recent release, would you be able to talk to us a bit more about it?
S.H: ‘Only One to Blame’ was a couple of months ago we made it in America.
AM: When you’re in the States, where are you most?
A.M: Do you like it there?
S.H: Nah! It’s a weird one though because I feel like you can, in terms of starting a really fun, new, interesting life it’s quite a cool place to be but sometimes I just can’t deal with the type of people that are out there, especially with what I do. There’s a lot of pretentious people and a lot of people, it just doesn’t feel real to me. People wanna talk to you or meet you and it’s not for anything other than what you do, who you are, and it feels like people only want to be friends with you if you’re not doing anything of worth.
A.M: How exhausting.
S.H: Yeah, and I’m just not from that sort of world. But in terms of the lifestyle you can live out there, I think it’s dope! Whenever I go out there I do things I would never do here.
A.M: Like what?
S.H: Go to the gym [laughs] Even that is such a small thing! Going out and brunch and stuff like that! Brunch is a weird thing to me, I never do it here! Go to the beach often.
A.M: Yeah, you can’t really do that here. Well you can, it’s just in a jumper!
S.H: Yeah, in a jumper, and probably some really protective gear on!
A.M: Definitely in a wetsuit!
S.H: Yep! But yeah, LA is interesting. But yeah. The producer I worked on most of my stuff with, Josh Grant, who is a part of WESLEE, a great band. A lot of the music I’ve worked on with Josh and we went to LA and I went through this process where it was just weird, they told me to work with new producers, and I was like ‘I’m literally here with the producer I make all my music with, why do I need to meet more producers, just bring in writers’. So we went through this thing when we were working with a whole load of producers and one of them came up with this dope beat. And I was like ‘this is sick!’ and we started trying to work on it and he wasn’t feeling it so was trying to move on and I was like ‘dude, I’m feeling this’ so anyway, Josh is amazing, he held onto it, took it home with him and took it to Emma who is the other half of WESLEE. So all three of us used to work all together all the time so she knows me well enough to know what I’d want to talk about, what I’d want to say, so she started coming up with this idea and then Josh played it to me and I was like ‘this is sick’. Then I basically went with it, added some parts to it and worked on it a bit more then we came out with this idea. It was really just talking about a time when I wasn’t the best boyfriend, again being able to be vulnerable is scary but to me, it was also kinda refreshing being able to say something and be real and talk about that. Being able to admit my mistakes and where I’ve gone wrong. That’s how we ended up with ‘Only One To Blame’.
LEFT: Samm wears shirt, jacket and trousers SANTA CRUZ; shoes CLARKS; bucket hat URBAN OUTFITTERS
RIGHT: Samm wears jumper and trousers URBAN OUTFITTERS; shoes CONVERSE; beanie ARTIST'S OWN
A.M: What do you think you’ve learnt about yourself through writing songs?
S.H: That’s a good question. A lot of things. I think I’ve learnt I’m an impatient person [laughs]. Not even just writing, just in general. I’m trying to learn to be a lot more patient with a lot of things. I think because of the impatience thing, I’ve learnt that the process of making music never really ends until the song is out, and even then, I feel like I’m always trying to push myself to be better and do more with whatever we’ve created. I think I’ve learnt that there is always room to be better and I think that’s with anything. To just keep striving to be the best you can be. I had a moment where I became complacent and I think that’s quite an easy thing for a lot of us to do anyway. I had a moment where I became complacent and saw the effects of complacency and the effects of becoming comfortable, and how being comfortable is not always great. I think for a lot of the process of working on music and stuff I learnt all of that and I learnt what kind of writer I am, how I like to write which for me is through telling stories. Sorry, that was a whole load of stuff! [laughs]
AM: No, it’s great, thank you! And what do you want your fans to take away from your music?
SH: I never want the music to feel like it’s being catered to a lot of people. I don’t want it to be catered to a group of people, I want it to feel like it’s being catered to an individual. So you listen to it and feel like you’re the only person that’s being spoken to when you hear it, or you’re the only person that can grab something and take something away from it. That to me is great, I feel like we are in a time where a lot of people need a bit of love, and a bit of self-love and I think a lot of people also need to be able to learn a few lessons about themselves and how they can make themselves the best version of what they can be, and I feel like I’m going through that journey at the moment with wanting to be a better person, so I’m sure there are some people out there that are similar.
A.M: Yeah, it’s important stuff.
S.H: Yeah, definitely.
A.M: So I’m going to do some name dropping for you so you don’t have to!
S.H: Ok cool. [laughs]
A.M: What was your experience like working with Pharrell [Williams] and how did that come about?
S.H: [laughs] I mean it’s what you think it would be! It’s funny, I texted him today about the GQ thing just saying congrats and stuff!
A.M: It was so sick! I woke up this morning and everyone on my Instagram was posting it on their stories.
S.H: It’s crazy! He’s amazing. He’s so…he’s as much of a genius as you’d think he’d be. To me, he’s lovelier than I thought he’d be, really approachable, the fact I can text him says quite a bit! He’s approachable and just full of wisdom. I think sometimes because of how young he looks, people forget that he’s a big man! So when he drops knowledge and wisdom, you’re like ‘oh yeah, you’re the same Pharrell that was making music when I was young’. He’s full of wisdom and full of knowledge, I kinda feel like he’s ahead of his time, constantly thinking ahead which I think is crazy. He said some things in the past that are happening now and I’m just like… I spoke to him on the phone maybe last month or something, and I was like ‘dude you said that and it’s happening now!’ There was basically a statement that he said about music and where it was going to be in like a years time and now it’s there and I was like ‘what?!’ He just has knowledge about these things and he likes looking ahead which I think is wicked and it keeps you on your toes!
A.M: Amazing! And then also you’ve toured with James Bay and Chance the Rapper, what did you learn from those experiences? Because those artists are both quite different, with different audiences and stuff…
S.H: Funnily enough I learnt to have a standard of excellence from both those artists in everything that you do. James [Bay] was, I always tell this story, but there was a point where he was sick on the tour and it was a big tour so I’m not surprised. But he fell ill and no one really realised and then there was a part in the show where he does an encore and he came off and was literally started coughing up whatever and he had some medicine and just went straight back on stage and just performs like we didn’t just see that like no one would have ever known! So yeah, that standard of excellence, professionalism. We watched that show, altogether I probably saw about 30 shows so I watched that show 30 times and I remember saying to myself ‘I’ll watch the first night and not after’, I stayed for every show and every show was better than the last. There was always something a little different that he added to it but the level of professionalism and the standard that he was always trying to keep through it all was insane. The same for Chance [the Rapper], the creativity gassed me! The professionalism, creativity and standard of excellence that they both had was something that I’m trying to always keep.
Samm wears shirt, jacket and trousers SANTA CRUZ; bucket hat URBAN OUTFITTERS
A.M: Funny you talk about creativity because I was going to ask you about your music videos. They’re always so cool!
S.H: Oh, I appreciate that, thank you!
A.M: I was wondering how you come up with the ideas for them and how you link the song to the video to then live?
S.H: So I love films, movies, stories, I’m a massive comic book fan! One thing that really excites me about comic books is how weird they can get because there are no restrictions to what you can do, but the story can still be told and there can always still be a message. So for me, when it comes down to the music videos, I also really don’t like videos that don’t make sense to what you’re saying. If you’re listening to a song and I can’t clearly see the message you’re trying to portray in the song, the music video is going to be that opportunity for me to get the extension of what you were saying.
A.M: Continuing the story...
S.H: Yeah, bringing what you’re singing to life. So for me, I always want to make sure that what I’m singing, even if it’s a story that’s very clear. For example, I think ‘Broke’, you can picture what’s going on in your minds eye, but I still want to make sure that even with that, in the music video you can see what’s being said and for me, that’s always what pushes it – how do we make sure this video tells the story that’s being told in the song? And then we just add the weird crap afterwards [laughs] here’s a story, now what’s the weirdest thing we can do? Every director I’ve worked with has just been incredible at grabbing what we are saying and getting the weirder parts and putting that in, yeah, I love it!
A.M: I love all of them, I loved watching them!
S.H: Thank you, that means a lot!
A.M: What would you say one of your career highlights is, just at this point?
A.M: Or a moment where you were like ‘I’m really proud of that’?
S.H: Selling out Electric Brixton probably. I can get so in my head about stuff and I’ve spoken to so many artists that go through the same thing, it’s weird how similar our minds are about this industry. I can get too into my head about stuff and shows are an important thing to me so when we spoke about doing that show, they were like ‘we are going to do this show’ and I was like ‘Nah! That’s a lot of people, too big’ and I really started doubting myself which is ironic because I made a song about how you shouldn’t be doubting. But anyway, I really got into my head about that and then we did it and it was the first show I got to bring a lot of ideas that I had to life and then actually looking out and seeing that all these people had shown up, and seeing how crazy the crowd was throughout it, I was just like ‘this is weird, but I’m excited’. That show was great, my whole family came, my girlfriend was there, yeah it was just incredible!
A.M: And what would you say one of your biggest challenges so far has been?
S.H: I think [laughs] there’s a lot! I think the thing that a lot of artists go through, watching other artists and looking at what they’re doing and feeling like you aren’t doing enough and feeling like you need to go and do what someone else is doing to progress in your career. That has been quite a challenge.
A.M: The urge to compare when you know it’s the worst thing possible
S.H: Yeah, it’s also trying to get your head out of the space, like we are all unique. Every single human being on this planet is unique so even when it comes to music, we are all unique, so why are you looking at someone else and trying to imitate what they are doing? The weird thing is, even if you try and imitate what someone else is doing, it’s still going to be different, it’s never going to be what they did. Trying to get myself into the headspace thinking I don’t need to look at other people, I don’t need to follow a trend, I don’t need to do those things. Because of that I look at my career and think things are moving slowly, you get into that headspace so then you look at other people and think what did they do to get to that place, but it doesn’t work! So that’s been one of a few challenges, just getting in my head.
FAR LEFT AND RIGHT: Samm wears trousers DICKIES; t-shirt MUJI; jacket CARNE BOLLENTE; beanie ARTIST'S OWN
MIDDLE: Samm wears jumper CARNE BOLLENTE