Something Out of Nothing
Somewhere in the Kent woods, Sam Wills has been building a small log cabin. Constructed from foraged pallet wood, it’s been a time consuming, patience-crushing endeavor. One he favourably compares to the recording of his debut album, their creation running in tandem.
“I finished it around the same time as finishing the album. So weirdly, those two parts of my life have been intertwined,” he smiles from the other side of a video call. Inspired by a YouTube clip and naive of the amount of effort and experience needed, he and a friend have been painstakingly building their woodland retreat, learning from their mistakes, remedying them with grit and determination.
Simultaneously Wills was locked in a different kind of creativity, pouring his talent and emotion into rich and soulful debut record Breathe, both informed and complemented by his manual labour. “I think that was kind of therapeutic in a way, because making an album is the opposite of that. Nothing's ever finished. You never know if it's any good,” he shrugs modestly. “I do obviously love the whole creative side of making music as well, that's part of its charm is that it's not tangible. A lot of time it's a stream of consciousness, and just all to do with feelings rather than things you can touch. Obviously, that's a great draw of music and being creative, but it's nice to have something real there at the same time.”
Wills grew up in Surrey. His earliest memory of music was repeatedly watching his mum’s VHS tape of Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits. “I was utterly obsessed,” he says. “That and Wham, but that's not as cool.” At the age of twelve he formed a duo with a friend from school called The Legends, in homage to John. Together they played in school assemblies, dreaming of making it onto the music channels that then dominated satellite TV.
His family moved to Hastings when he was thirteen and he began focusing on a career in music, making the most of his new hometown’s relatively small creative community. Initially informed by his parents’ record collection, he started writing his own songs. “My mum and dad love music,” he explains. “We never really had the radio on, it was always their CDs or their vinyl, and that was a random mix of classical and Seal, Sade, and Frank Zappa. But it was always the Sade style things that I resonated with the most.”
Alongside listening to Alicia Keys and Chet Baker, Wills also went in for some classically angsty teenage rock. “I guess the awkward phase was when I was about fourteen, you know, Fall Out Boy and Bullet For My Valentine. Just thinking I was the coolest dude ever, just enjoying that music, getting sad about things I didn't need to get sad about,” he laughs.
By the time he was sixteen, Wills was cutting his teeth on the small but supportive gig circuit of Hastings, an experience he still greatly appreciates. “I’ve done a lot of those gigs in bars and pubs over the years. It’s great to hone my craft in that way. Even though it wasn't my ideal show some of the time, I learned a lot about performing,” he says. “I’ve played a bunch of band gigs as well. We just get to the point where we don't rehearse, we just turn up and then we just jam and see what happens. Most of the time, something pretty fun happens, even if it's a bit strange.”
After school, he took a place at ACM in Guildford, spurred on by the talents of those around him. “I went from the time when I was quite young, playing and singing and I was like all right, by the time I'm eighteen I'll have this thing sussed. But it turned out everyone else just kept getting better and better around me.”
On his first day at the college, Wills got a message from his old music teacher in Hastings asking if he wanted to try singing on a track. “He was in a drum and bass duo called The Prototypes, and he called me up during the lesson like, ‘Hey, can you come down to the studio and sing this drum n bass thing?’ And I was like, sure.”
Wills ended up singing a number of features for DnB producers, his vibrantly soulful tone and impressive range perfect for the genre. One track in particular, for producer Alix Perez, began to blow up, picking up plays by then Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe and formally introducing Wills to his first taste of hype. While it helped him get his foot in the door with more writing sessions, and introduced him to his label and management, Wills quickly realised that it wasn’t the true path for him. “I'd done it for maybe a year or so and I was thinking, this isn't quite what I envisaged my career going like. I decided that wasn't quite where my heart was, so I had to make a conscious decision of what I wanted to do musically. And so I just turned to the music that has always been there throughout all the different phases of my life, and that was soul. It's the thing that still comes most naturally to me,” he explains. “I've got all these like different influences now. But Michael Jackson, I can still hear his influence to this day on my music.”
Of course, the Jackson that Wills grew up with was somewhat free from the context we have today. “It is a very awkward thing, but I can't change the influence that his music had,” he explains. “You just have to try and separate it in some way if you can. The art from the person, you know? It's a tough one.”
After college, Wills moved back to Hastings permanently and set about focusing on how he wanted his own project to take shape. He began releasing singles through NxtGen Records, the label run by his management company. In 2016 he released the So Bright EP, followed by his Walking Underwater EP in 2018. “I'm quite a perfectionist and quite a slow writer. I'm taking my time for sure to get to this point,” he admits. “But after the second EP, I felt more comfortable with my sound. It's something that is always changing and modifying, but I felt ready to pursue an album because since I started making music, the idea of having an album, it's the big thing. I didn't quite realise how much work and time it would take to get to that point.”
As well as consistently releasing singles and EPs that built on his experience and talent, Wills developed a live show, touring across the US with his friend Jordan Rakei and singing backing vocals on Rakei’s Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. Back in the UK, he sold out a headline show at Hoxton’s Colours, joined on stage by Tom Misch, and was personally invited by Jamie Cullum to open his show at the Jazz Cafe.
Now ready to release Breathe, he worked closely with the producer Phairo whom he met collaborating on previous single “Kool Aid”. “I don't think either of us knew that it was gonna take two and a half years from that point,” he says. “I feel almost like I’ve developed as a person through it. A project like that takes a lot of emotional energy. You have to really look inside. An EP is four or five tracks, and you can just kind of bash them out, and it doesn't really have to have much of a journey. But I really wanted to feel like there was a reason behind having a volume of work rather than just a mass of songs.”
Wills planned his record meticulously, taking into account the narrative threads that run through it and the journey of the listener. “I wanted to have a beginning, middle and end. So that was always a conscious effort the whole time I was making it and we had a whiteboard,” he says. “At the beginning of the album, I wrote down everything I wanted to get across and the elements I wanted to try and combine in there. And as we went through, we were just ticking them off, which was quite satisfying.”
The album is an escape, Wills’ vocals so rich and smooth there’s nothing to do but sink in and let them wash over you. His Jackson influence is clear, especially when he goes falsetto, but there’s no space for pastiche in these tracks. Instead we get soulful and syncopated rhythms, dynamic and confident melodies and a deeply warm and delicate delivery.
Previous single “Talk In The Morning” is a lick of sultry guitar and charismatically suggestive sentiment. There’s a lot of space in the mix, allowing the different elements to dance under the lead refrain. Wills’ vocal ranges from conversational to cascading, and each track has a way of enticing subconscious upper body movement.
“Curious” is instant and kitsch, a playful and daring plea, while “Hold Tight” rests in a snug groove, one backbone drum beat keeping Wills’ slick and adventurous delivery in the pocket. “Friendzone” features Barney Artist who speaks over a sparse and off-kilter loop, while on standout track “Traingazing” Honey Mooncie engages Wills in a silky back and forth over daydream synths.
While the songs are personal, emotionally poignant and at times intimately vulnerable, there was still a little room for creative license. “In general, not every track is a very specific story to me, it’s more of a general emotive feeling and just emotions that I've had. I've kind of crafted it into something that's cohesive, I think,” Wills explains. “There's a lot of escapism there, a lot of wanting to be present and kind of enjoy the moment. Something I've wanted to try and do is appreciate what I have and not take things for granted.”
Part of Wills’ self-awareness simply comes from growing up and feeling more comfortable to be himself, but it’s helped by the experience of building something tangible in his cabin. Having the space to see the wood for the trees, and the traps of working in a career that can test even the strongest of confidences. “Being a musician, you're always looking to the future, worrying about what's going to happen in a creative industry such as this, there's no guarantees of anything. So you're constantly comparing yourself to other people,” Wills admits. “Just like always focusing on the next thing, and never being satisfied. And it's kind of part of the journey of the album was to try and appreciate how far I've already come. And also just to enjoy the process of making something and crafting it.”
Through his newfound acceptance, Wills learnt to be more open with his writing, a process he believes has made the songs that much stronger. “It's a lot harder to actually make that happen, especially for me because I'm quite a guarded person in general,” he says. “It's a lot easier in some sense to just write about things you see, and friends and other people's experiences, or just make something up. It's easier emotionally. But also, if you're in a session with a producer and you've got a day to make a song, you just chuck it all at it and see what happens and hope that it works. Whereas this one I took my time, and I worked with someone that I was close to.”
Working with Phairo and building on the trust they shared, Wills was able to capture what was important to him. Instead of working towards what he thought he should be doing, the songs were born to meet his needs. “I wanted it to mean something to me going forwards, like a snapshot of my life. I felt like the songs deserved that input,” he says. “I wanted each song to resonate in some way and for me to be able to draw from my experience more. I think it's made the music better as a result, not just lyrically, but musically. If you're singing from somewhere that's authentic, I think it makes a big difference. I wanted to, on this occasion, try and draw from my own emotional experience.”
Much of Wills’ inspiration was taken from holidays with family and friends to the Scottish Highlands and one particularly prominent trip to Slovenia. The scenery, breathtaking nature and experience of being surrounded by peaceful space worked its way into Wills’ mind as he wrote the record. “I just love the woods and nature and the fact that the highlands are that close to us. I know, it's like a nine hour drive, but it feels like a whole different world up there. It's just that escapism,” he smiles. “One of my tracks is called “Night Drive” and it's about going for a drive at night and having a nice time. That's what I'm picturing when I'm doing that. I think that it just ties in with where I'm coming from mentally when I'm writing a lot of the time, which ties in with the album artwork.”
The cover is a luscious illustration that collages winding green hills with a distant cityscape, and Sam at the foot of it all by an idling BMW. Even his wood cabin gets a cheeky cameo. Across all his releases, the imagery has been strongly consistent, weaving themes and motifs, creating another arm to the album’s narrative. “All of the singles I've released since my second EP, I've worked with the same artist,” Wills explains. “He’s called howiewonder. He's an awesome collage artist and he shares my vision, and he's very kind with the edits.”
In terms of his creative allegiances, the rise of the UK jazz and soul scene, especially around South London, feels integral to Will’s story. While it certainly feels overemphasised by genre pigeonholing and hyperbole, there’s no denying it’s impact on artists and audiences alike. “There's definitely a cycle of musicians who collaborate and we know each other, it's just naturally what happens in music scenes is that you gravitate towards certain people,” Wills explains. “But it's really exciting, the scene, because it's drawing influences from so many other places. Obviously, we've got a hip-hop, Dilla kind of influence in there, and then the jazz scene, the UK jazz scene is amazing. And that draws from soul, but also from afrobeat and world music. It's all a cohesive world with different parts, but it's an exciting place to be at the moment for sure, musically.”
From his early days playing in The Legends through his time featuring on DnB singles, collaboration has been a cornerstone of Wills’ creativity. It also plays a role in establishing connections between the different artists he’s come to be aligned with. “Collaborating musically is one of the biggest ways and just being in the room with different people,” he explains. “But I met Tom Misch online through Instagram. Jordan Rakei, we just happened to know each other's work when we weren't very well known. I especially wasn’t very well known. I guess a lot of it is online, I would say through personal connections, rather than, like management or labels. I find that my best collaborations have come naturally.”
Although his musical collaborations have made a profound and progressive impact on his art, a more recent collaboration is still at the forefront of his mind. “I mean, trying to build a cabin out of pallets was the most naive thing I've ever done. I would never, ever do it again,” he laughs. “But it was very free. So that was good. It had humble beginnings. I just saw someone on YouTube, and I hit up a mate saying we could do this in, like a few weekends. Let's just do it. And he was like, yeah, sure, collected a bunch of palettes and ideas became grander as we went along. We'd never made anything before, so we have no experience. Everything went wrong every time we tried to do something. And working with palette wood was the most brutal thing because all of them are different sizes. They're all warped, cracked. And then we had to sand them all down with a belt sander, take all the nails out. I don't even know how many 1000s of nails we've hit out with a hammer. People thought we were crazy. I still think I’m crazy.”
For all the effort and anguish, the cabin played a positive role in helping Wills to unlock his mind, creativity and ability when it came to channelling his inspiration into the record. “I wanted it as a place to totally not think about music. I wanted it to be the opposite of music for me, somewhere where I can just go and just be peaceful, recharge and regenerate and go again,” he explains. “Because writing music, it can be quite draining as well as invigorating and everything else. It's quite an extreme place to be, 24/7 in your own head like that. That's where I was delving in from time to time to get some inspiration, as well as severe frustration when everything went wrong with it, but that's part of the journey, I guess.”
There are many parallels between Wills’ debut record and his new build. Both required patience, tenacity and a powerful self belief. “It's just for the amount of time it took. It's so small and so insignificant, but no one would know quite how many hours went into it,” he says of the cabin, but it’s a sentiment that’s strikingly appropriate. Similarly, Breathe feels like it just rolled into existence, smooth and effortless. Perhaps that’s the beauty of good craftsmanship.