Jamie Woon interview
Whack an 'S' in front of his surname and you have the measure of 27-year-old Jamie Woon's sure-fire, supernova success. The singer-songwriter first insinuated his way into public consciousness via his darkly soulful cover of the traditional 'Wayfaring Stranger', which was remixed by dubstep producer Burial to awesomely illbient effect. A Brit School gradute who also studied music at Westminster University and made the top five in the BBC's Sound of 2011 list, Woon has been slowly but assuredly making his mark. Five years ago he was organising and performing at One Taste, a regular showcase for singer-songwriters and poets at The Bedford in Balham, and living with his mum. Now, he's about to unveil his self-produced debut album, 'Mirrorwriting'. It's a brooding and noir-ish neo-soul affair that shows off Woon's divinely bruised voice against a groovy backdrop of hip hop/R&B beats and textured, electronic loops, and it's beyond lovely. Time Out spoke to Woon ahead of his appearance at Rough Trade East on Independent Record Store Day 2011.
How did you start down the singer-songwriter road?
'I'd taken up acoustic guitar when I was about 16 and songwriting seemed cool to me because I was into Britpop around that time. But I really wanted to be in a band. And I was in a few at college, but they petered out for the usual reasons. When I started, I was a big Kelly Joe Phelps fan - that whole “Yee, c'mon, woman” thing. Not really appropriate to my age, heritage or experience!'
Who are your musical guides?
'I really got into soul music at university and was influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder - he's The Man, as far as I'm concerned. I also used to be a fan of Mo'Wax, DJ Shadow and Radiohead, early '90s hip hop and new jack swing. And I think Beyoncé's great. She plays that Top Lady part so well, and she doesn't get enough credit for how ridiculously funky she is.'
Your record is sweetly soulful, but has a strong undertow of darkness and solitary melancholia.
'Well, I was pulling quite a few all-nighters when I made it, working on my own, so… it's introspective, sure. That's why the first song is “Night Air” - it's an ode to the night. My friend John and I were talking about how we're more creative at night, and how if you go outside, sometimes you don't connect to it. There's an almost uneasy sense of wonder; that's what that song
A lot of the LP is also sad and rueful, despite its funky feel. What gives?
'Most of the songs are about my anxieties. Yeah, I do have a lot of them. That's why it's called “Mirrorwriting”; I didn't realise until afterwards how much of it was so angsty and striving for some sort of peace with myself.'
Any particular anxieties?
'Mainly social and about self-acceptance. I am a bit of a loner and the songs are very much about that, but they're also examining the moments when I don't feel anxious; inscrutable things that make me feel wondrous. There are four tracks about being outside and going for a walk - that sense of movement and engagement with nature.'
You've been given the 'post-dubstep' tag. Is that irritating?
'I think it's a horrible term, but I like the other artists who are described as making post-dubstep music - people like James Blake and Mount Kimbie - and the emphasis on space, calm, atmosphere and pure sonics is something that appeals to me a great deal.'
Has your voice changed much since you were a teen, just starting out?
'Hip hop/R&B is now completely inescapable and I saw it affecting my voice; I started unconsciously adopting different vocal inflections. Ever since I was a kid, I've always done different voices. Me and my mum [Celtic-rock singer Mae McKenna] would be singing along to the radio, mimicking the singers. I used to do a really great Heather Small, but then my voice dropped!'
Does the thought of 'Mirrorwriting' being described as a 'chill-out' album fill you with horror?
'It doesn't, actually. The only thought I had going into the record was that it would be calming - both for my own nerves and for other people to listen to. There are all kinds of awful, bourgeois things attached to the term, but it's a bit worrying if calming down and relaxing have become dirty words.'