HAVING met five months ago, Quays News reporter Nathan Salt headed down to O2 Ritz recently to catch up with Samm Henshaw before he supported Grammy-nomiated Tori Kelly…
There is always a mixture of nervousness and excitement when interviewing a musician. Friends watch on in sheer envy whilst we as the reporter are continuously preying we get enough quotes to reach our stipulated word count. Yet, as Londoner Samm Henshaw crossed the road opposite Manchester’s O2 Ritz on Oxford Road, the rapport established at our previous encounter five months ago returned instantaneously.
Now with the added weapon in his arsenal of a full band, it was clear that his career has propelled indisputably since he supported BRIT award winner James Bay at the O2 Apollo in September last year.
“When I met you I was only two months into my journey and now I’m like eight or nine months so I’m still really new to this,” he noted early on.
James Bay is a natural idol and role model for Henshaw having won the Critics’ Choice award in 2015 before taking the ‘Best British Male’ gong at the 2016 awards.
But, aptly, that was where the debate surrounding a lack of diversity at the BRITs began to gather pace.
There has been only one black recipient of the award Bay took home this year – Dizzee Rascal won it back in 2010 – since the turn of the millennium. That’s one black winner in 16 years, and yet there remains a ferocious defence that there is diversity.
Jack Garratt, the 2016 Critics’ Choice winner, was open and honest on the red carpet that evening, noting the omissions of Stormzy and Krept&Konan: “Why aren’t they here? Krept & Konan had a number two album,” he exclaimed that night.
So what does Henshaw, a musician of Nigerian descent, feel about such a glaring anomaly across musical award shows?
“I think there is [a lack of diversity] and I agree with Jack [Garrett] but I don’t know why,” Henshaw admitted.
“I will never be able to sit here and give you a specific reason as to why that is. Of course I could speculate but I don’t want to do that.
“Artists of all ethnicities are missing, not just black artists, but I do think things will change – I hope they do.
“Ultimately it’s a shame.”
Having been running for the past nine awards, no black male has ever received the BRITs Critics’ Choice award, and while the 22-year-old doesn’t strike as one driven by personal accolades, he accepted the wider significance of him winning such an award in the next few years.
“I’m a huge huge huge fan of Frances and Jack Garratt who were both up for that award. Izzy Bizu is insanely good as well so the competition is always fierce!
“I would love to get [the BRITs Critics Choice] because it would potentially change the whole black artist debate.
The musical journey for Henshaw, however, remains in its infancy and so mentors such as Grammy-nominated Tori Kelly and James Bay are crucial to his development.
Since working together at the Apollo in Manchester, Bay and Henshaw have seen a friendship blossom away from the microphone with the former keeping him grounded.
“There was one thing James [Bay] said to me,” he admitted. “That even if you don’t see a song going anywhere just keep writing and finish the song. I’ve been sending some of my new songs to him actually and he’s been giving me feedback on how to make them better, which is a blessing.”
Then came the moment. The moment to ask the question everyone familiar with Henshaw is desperate to ask. Since supporting Bay he has began wearing a sesam hat at every concert. Did he raid his wardrobe that night?
“I really need to clear that up!” he laughed.
“I’ve always been a fan of big hats and obviously James has made them famous in the industry. I’m not one who likes to show my hair on stage really anyway but I definitely didn’t steal the hat from James Bay.”
Before moving on it was clear that something inside Henshaw had been left unsaid, before he blurted out: “I’m not being funny my hat is cooler than his!”
Staying grounded, however, is not just the job of the Chaos and the Calm artist. Upon returning to the family home, he must leave his work and stage name outside the door, according to his mother.
“My mum would never allow me to get too big for my boots!
“I’m pretty sure she gets me to clean deliberately whenever I go home. When I get in the house she says ‘you’re not Samm Henshaw in this house’ you are Iniabasi Samuel Henshaw.
“When she drops the full name bomb it’s impossible to be anything other than grounded,” he confessed.
His family, nor James Bay, are the ones who are surrounding Henshaw regularly across the country, and the continent.
Both Henshaw and Stefan Adamson, a close friend whom he met at university in Southampton, now his keyboard player and backing vocalist, accepted the role they both play in ensuring the correct mind-set throughout the band.
“These guys when I’m on the road play a huge part,” Henshaw said. “We share the same faith and know each other’s families so it all comes together. If I’m acting up I expect them to set me straight as I’d be like that to them. “
Adamson added: “I piggy-backed my way into the band back in university. In all seriousness though, if I didn’t agree with something he was doing I’d tell him my views.”
At our last chat the message on the music was that the beauty lay in that Henshaw had no fixed sound – hence how his EP ‘The Sound Experiment’ was conceived. Five months on, had his battle to find his sound concluded?
“Funnily enough there was a point where I thought I had the sound but then I realised actually no, ‘The Sound Experiment’ is still it for me right now.
“Most musicians will agree with me when I say I don’t like listening to an album, a body of work, that is distinctly similar. For me, I don’t feel like I have the patience or consistency to create that similar vibe for an entire record.
“Going down the line there will be a lot more projects from myself that don’t sound similar – I’m not trying to replicate the last EP but I just get bored of having one sound.”
The industry is a fickle beast at times with one of the toughest battles facing any artist is establishing an identity, a clear one in order to build up the crucial fan-base.
With Henshaw rightfully dabbling with sounds at the start of his career, just what does he have that gives him a place in the industry?
“I think Samm has this innate ability to come up with these amazing hooks and lines which I hate him for as well,” joked Adamson.
“Speaking from a musician viewpoint it’s really hard to get that hook that reels people in. Somehow every time, whether it’s off the cuff or he’s been thinking about it a bit, he just creates something that is great.”
With his growing social media avenues teasing new music in the very near future, fans of his soulful vocal may not have to wait long for more material.
As the interview began to wind down, talk soon turned to his recent birthday celebrations and the special present he was given by his record label.
“[The label] got me a huge framed Batman poster for my birthday.”
“So you must be excited about the upcoming film?” I added.
“Dude don’t get me started [on Batman v Superman] we can just scrap this interview and talk about that!”
He’s the black award winner the BRIT awards needs, but seemingly, in their eyes, not right now.
By Nathan Salt