Zara Larsson, Starley
Wed, April 19, 2017
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm
Clean Bandit have defied expectations from the very beginning. Their experimental fusion of electronica and classical must’ve seemed like odd bedfellows back when they first played at their own National Rail Disco while still studying at University, but they immediately recognized their potential mass appeal.
Such resolute self-belief was vindicated in awe-inspiring style. Their debut album ‘New Eyes’ raced to 1.6 million sales, and was propelled by 12 million sales of their omnipresent global hit ‘Rather Be’ which was the world’s second biggest-selling track of 2014. The awards soon followed: a Grammy for ‘Best Dance Recording’ and then two Ivor Novello’s wins for the band’s multi-instrumentalist/producer, Jack Patterson, for ‘Best Contemporary Song’ and ‘Most Performed Work’.
The inevitable question that chases such success is simple – how do you follow it? Clean Bandit’s answer was a back-to-basics approach.
“It’s about being able to recognize that a song works as a piece of sheet music and a chord structure – like how a jazz standard has a chord structure, a melody and lyrics,” explains the band’s dominant creative force Jack Patterson. “You can that produce and render that however you want. It’s making sure that all of the songs have that solid foundation.”
“It’s a total contrast to how we made the first album, where it was all produced as it was written,” adds cellist Grace Chatto. It’s an approach that was particularly evident with ‘Telephone Banking’, in which their collaborator Love Ssega wrote the lyrics during its video shoot.
This creative process resulted in Clean Bandit’s anthemic 2016 comeback single ‘Tears’, which evolved from a minimalistic piano / vocal composition into the richly layered production which became their fifth domestic Top 5 hit when it was released earlier this summer; the single has reached over 80 million streams and is one of the most successful single releases of this year.
Written by Jack and Sam Romans, an early version of ‘Tears’ found its way to Simon Cowell who called Jack to ask if his X-Factor winner Louisa Johnson could perform it. His initial reticence was countered by Grace’s enthusiasm for Louisa’s talents, and soon both Jack and drummer Luke (the younger of the two Patterson siblings) were enthralled by her performance.
Always eager to collaborate with new vocalists, Clean Bandit’s second new track - the dancehall-tinged ‘Rockabye’ - featured an especially striking presence in the shape of Sean Paul.
“Why? Because we’ve always wanted to with him,” smiles Grace. “‘Temperature’ and ‘Breathe’ were such big songs for me growing up. Jack and I went to his gig in Shepherd’s Bush in 2013 and gave him our first EP. We both wanted to do something, but we’ve literally been on tour for three years and he’s been really busy as well. Eventually he and Jack got together, and Sean Paul recorded an amazing verse for it.”
Its story of a single mother battling to do her best for her child resonated with many people who lived through similar experiences. Also featuring the soaring vocals of Anne-Marie, ‘Rockabye’ has provided the band’s second UK #1 almost three years after ‘Rather Be’ had first conquered the charts. Moreover, aside from X Factor alumni, the single is the first UK #1 by a UK act in 2016 and now heralds Clean Bandit as one of just two UK artists to land two UK Top 5 singles this year.
“I’m really into dancehall music at the moment, so ‘Rockabye’ is really special and I want to make more songs like that,” declares Grace, adding that she’s appreciative of co-writer Ina Wroldsen’s contribution to the track. “It also has a super-hot sweet Scandinavia sound with a reggae element that’s reminiscent of a lot of the early nineties music that I love.”
The trio have strived to incorporate fresh sounds and textures into Clean Bandit’s emerging songbook. In addition to Grace’s love of dancehall, Jack has been inspired by the “confident, pure and very bold” production of Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ album, while both Patterson brothers have experimented with modular synthesizers and acoustic sax techniques. “Those ideas have to work within a coherent album,” asserts Jack. “There’s no point in just throwing that in for the sake of it.”
Thematically, the rest of the new tracks follow the deeper themes that were presented in ‘Rockabye’. As Grace observes, “The lyrics are a lot darker but the music is full of full and joy, whereas the first album was often the other way around – particularly with ‘Rather Be’, the lyrics are so pure and happy, but you can hear sadness in the music. We’ve always been interested in juxtaposing different feelings within the music.”
It’s a stance reiterated with the upbeat ‘Disconnect’ which features Marina and the Diamonds. Grace interprets the song within the context of a break-up. “You’re constantly on the phone, looking up the person and wondering what they’re doing. You need to let go and disconnect from a relationship, but it’s so hard.”
“It feels very relevant,” opines Jack. “It’s talking about young people who seem to be completely consumed by technology to the extent where it’s suffocating them.”
While the band’s debut album ‘New Eyes’ magnified the attention on a range of rising talents, most notably Jess Glynne, the new songs boast a plethora of big names. There’s Sir Elton John, who introduced himself at a party by serenading his new friends with ‘Rather Be’; they all praise Craig David’s almost supernaturally precise vocal gift; and Zara Larsson provides the exuberant energy of music’s current breed of talent.
One person who isn’t present, however, is founding member Neil Amin-Smith who recently quit the band after a decade together. “We knew something wasn’t quite right,” states Luke. “But it was a major shock when it happened,” interjects Jack. “I felt sick and really sad.”
Grace: “It was a decision that he didn’t take lightly, but he was always one to do other things. After ten years, it was his time to do something else. He’s definitely irreplaceable.”
His exit is undoubtedly a blow, but it’s also one that has precedence in Clean Bandit history. The departure of vocalist Love Ssega felt like a devastating blow at the time, but it set Clean Bandit on a path towards collaborating with a variety of different singers. Indeed, as Ssega has recently returned for live shows, it feels as if the door will remain open should Amin-Smith want to return in some capacity in the future.
In the hectic life of a working band – shows, promotion and the myriad range of other activities that come unexpectedly along the way – moments of triumph can arrive in spectacularly mundane circumstances. News that ‘Rather Be’ had topped the charts was received by text as the band drove back from a gig in Manchester. For Jack it felt like a “weird, Christmas-type feeling”, but it was a lot for the then 21-year-old Luke to come to terms with.
“I just really wasn’t ready for it,” he admits. “It was never my goal. It was something that had happened that was completely out of my control and I was quite scared.” He soon adjusted to the situation. “It wasn’t so bad in all honesty,” he says with a glint in his eye, “because it’s not so bad being number one!”
As their reputation expanded exponentially from continent-to-continent, their world became ever stranger. Grace remembers a surreal moment being recognized in a small shop in Tokyo, and Luke is still struck by arriving in Jakarta to find so many fans waiting for them that they needed a police escort in order to get to their hotel – where what they thought was going to be straightforward interview instead turned out to be a press conference that recalled the mania of The Beatles’ heyday.
Fast-forward to Los Angeles: February 2015. It’s the Grammy Awards and Clean Bandit have just won Best Dance Recording from a Britcentric list of nominees which includes their old friends Disclosure and Basement Jaxx. And yet – as anyone can see – the award has been accepted by someone who most definitely isn’t Clean Bandit.
“We had no idea that we were going to win it, it felt like an absolute long shot,” recalls Jack. “And then Wes Clark, a mix engineer, ran up and accepted the award for us because he thought we weren’t there, even though we were like ten meters away from him.”
“It was quite chaotic,” summarizes Luke, before Jack corrects him: “It was quite annoying!”
Nonetheless, such an accolade means that it’s time to cut loose. Clean Bandit DJed at wild, celeb-packed scenes at the official Warner party at Chateau Marmont before heading to Sam Smith’s bash in the Hollywood Hills where Luke was the last man standing. “I’ve never seen you look such a state in my whole life,” chuckles Jack as Luke looks as sheepish as he surely did the next morning.
As well as representing a landmark achievement for years of dedication, a Grammy forecasts a glowing future for Clean Bandit in which anything is possible. They’re keen to keep pushing themselves, as evidenced by both their excitement for the expansion of their live band and by Grace and Luke’s passion for directing their videos. Clean Bandit have carved their own distinct niche in music, and fans the world over have embraced their individuality.
Before she made a splash in the U.S. with her two hit singles, the reggae-tinged Platinum-certified “Lush Life” and the double-Platinum collaboration with MNEK “Never Forget You,” Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson was already a star in Europe thanks to her two EPs (Introducing and Let Me Reintroduce Myself) and a string of multi-platinum singles (“Uncover,” “Carry You Home,” and “Rooftop” that appeared on her 2014 album 1. She was also featured on Tinie Tempah’s “Girls Like” and David Guetta’s “This One’s for You,” which was the official song of UEFA Euro 2016. In just two short years since releasing 1, the relentlessly hard-working Larsson has seen her career go into overdrive. Over the summer, she performed with Guetta during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Euro Cup and opened for her idol Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour in London. She was named one of Time magazine’s “30 Most Influential Teens of 2016" and became part of the Spotify Billions club for racking up over one billion streams on the digital platform. In the fall, Larsson delivered a show-stopping performance at the MTV EMAs and took home awards for “Best New Act” and “Best Swedish Act.” She was also nominated for “Best New Artist” at the 2016 MTV VMAs and has performed on nearly every major morning and late-night talk show, cementing her American fanbase as she recorded So Good , which will be released by Epic Records in January 2017.
The fact that “Lush Life” popped up in both Björk’s DJ set at the launch of the Icelandic star’s virtual reality exhibition in Australia and on British soap opera EastEnders (where the cast sang along to it) proves that the now 19-year-old Larsson is among those rare artists who can appeal to the mainstream, but also remain credible in more rarefied circles. An avowed feminist, Larsson is beloved by fans for her outspokenness and candor both in the press and on her social media platforms — another rarity at a time when most artists are afraid to speak their minds. “It should be a no-brainer to speak up about important issues and have a voice,” she says.
Larsson’s confident personality is all over So Good, which also showcases her powerhouse voice. As GQ put it: “Much of Larsson’s appeal lies in her ability to fit into a song. Her vocalizations are chameleon-like,” adding that she can shift effortlessly from full-tilt electro-pop diva, as on “Never Forget You,” to Rihanna-esque Barbados twang, as she does on “Lush Life.” Larsson’s shape-shifting vocal ability serves the eclectic, genre-hopping nature of her album, which though strongly rooted in pop, contains songs influenced by R&B, dancehall, British house, and skittering EDM. The MNEK-produced single “Ain’t My Fault,” is a strutting, trap-tinged pop banger, while the Monsters & Strangerz-produced “I Would Like” is club-ready mélange of house-influenced synths and bouncy electronic percussion. The ’90s R&B-inflected “So Good” (featuring Ty Dolla $ign) and the soaring ballad “What They Say” enable Larsson to show her softer side with soulful vibes and slower tempos.
“My vision was basically just to collect a good amount of great songs that I love and take it from there,” she says of So Good, which features collaborations with Stargate, Charlie Puth, The Monsters & Strangerz, MNEK, Livvi Franc, J Hart, MACK, and X-plicit, among others. “It's pop, but there are some rhythmic songs, some dance songs, some ballads. I’m not trying to prove to people that I'm super mature, like ‘Look at me, I can do sexy songs.’ It's just who I am and it’s what I like.” In a September cover story on Larsson in Britain’s NME, the writer said of the album: “There’s no sense of coming-of-age being fetishized. The songs just sound like a cool, confident young woman living her life.” “From the bottom of my heart, I really like these songs,” Larsson says. “If I didn't sing them myself, I would have them on my Spotify playlist. That's how I feel.”
After co-writing “Never Forget You” with British songwriter and producer MNEK, Larsson was eager to contribute melodically and lyrically to So Good, which she says is dominated by songs about love. “That's the theme that keeps coming back,” she says. “You can write about love in many different ways. It can be happy love, sad love, jealous love, even self-love. ‘What They Say’ is about believing in yourself. Don’t listen to the bullshit. Do you because you are great. It’s a very strong, positive message without being cheesy.”
Such emphatic declarations are not unusual from Larsson, who grew up in the socially progressive Swedish capital of Stockholm. Her father, an officer in the Swedish Navy, loved AC/DC, Metallica, The Sex Pistols, and Queen and he passed on his love for the latter’s theatrical swagger to his daughter. Larsson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing. “We had no furniture in front of the table because that was my stage,” she recalls. “I had this special area marked out where I could dance and sing. My younger sister and I would put on shows for my parents and their guests.” When Larsson was 10, she tried out for and won Sweden’s Got Talent, which led to her signing with independent music company TEN Music Group in 2012, followed by posting a video for “Uncover” to YouTube in 2013. “I thought maybe I’d get 20,000 hits, maybe 100,000.” The official version has now racked up over 139 million views. In 2013, she performed “Uncover” at Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo backed by an orchestra and choir. The same year, Larsson was signed by L.A. Reid to Epic Records.
As she gears up to release So Good, Larsson claims that it feels like a great first album. “I'm really proud of every single song on it,” she says, while acknowledging that it’s just another step on her road to global superstardom. “I'm on my way, but I'm not even close to where I want to be. I want to sell out stadium after stadium. I want to make multi-platinum records. I want people to connect and love my music, and I want to give love back to them. I want major things. I've never been satisfied with anything in life, and I probably won't be in music either. It's not like I'll wake up one day and be like, ‘I'm just going to settle down now and be happy.’ I think I'll always have a hunger for more. That's just the person I am.”
Starley’s breakout hit “Call On Me” — a record written as a symbol of hope for herself waswritten at a low point in her life — serves as an appealing introduction to this Australian singer-songwriter. Her potent sound is a mix of warm indie folk and dynamic dance-pop powered by her affecting melodies, emotionally resonant lyrics, and soulful voice that makes each song sound intimate and vital. Not surprisingly, “Call On Me” is resonating with fans around the world, having racked up over 220 million Spotify plays (between the original acoustic-driven version and a remix by Melbourne DJ Ryan Riback) by the start of 2017. It has cracked the charts in several countries including the U.S. where it’s climbing Billboard’s Hot AC chart. “I think ‘Call On Me’ resonates with people because the sentiment is genuine. It's a song about never losing hope in a dire situation, which a lot of people can relate to” Starley says. “To add to that, the music production is infectiously catchy.”
But “Call On Me” almost didn’t happen. The song was written at a time when she nearly gave up on making music altogether five several years working as a London-based songwriter-for-hire. Though she landed a publishing deal and collaborated with a wide range of producers and writers in Britain, Sweden, and the U.S. placing cuts with major artists eluded her. Heartbroken and out of money, Starley returned home to live with her family.
“I went through a slight period of depression,” she recalls. “I'd made sacrifices, moved countries and worked so hard, but it just wasn't working out the way I envisioned. I questioned God about it many times. Asking for answers, wanting to know if music was really part of my purpose. I was thinking of walking away from music altogether and becoming a personal trainer. Then I wrote ‘Call on Me’ on keys in my bedroom and it felt really special. I’d asked one of my friends to play guitar for the song which I then sent out to a handful of producers. One of those producers was New Zealand based P Money who took my guitar vocal and created the majority of what the original version of ‘Call on Me’ sounds like today. I got his version back, played it in my car. I cried my eyes out. Because I realized that it was meant to be me the whole time. I was meant to be representing myself and singing my own songs. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to give it one last shot.’ The song is about encouraging myself to follow my intuition and essentially call on myself. I'm an optimistic person. My surname is Hope. I've always been that way.”
It was optimism that led Starley to pursue a career in music from a young age. She grew up in a musical family, her mother, who is part Australian, part Filipino and part Japanese, was a lounge singer who listened to the Carpenters, and her Mauritian father, who owned a blinds company, favored George Benson and his native Séga music. One of Starley’s earliest musical memories is watching the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba over and over and falling in love with his music. She was also enamored with Mariah Carey whom she cites as a major influence. “I was good at creative writing and I knew I loved to sing, so I naturally decided to put those two together and write music,” she says. “I knew Mariah wrote her own songs, so I thought if I wanted to be a singer, I should do the same.”
When Starley was 14, she recorded a three-song demo and began to attract attention from managers. From the age of 15, she had classical vocal training. She had some interest from labels around that time but nothing really panned out. “This guy said I would have to lose weight and straighten my hair if I was going to do a deal with them.” Jokingly, she recalls, “I was different in Australia. There were a lot of people trying to fit me into a box which was never going to happen with the size of my Afro!”
Starley wound up spending five years based in London, which she describes as a crash course in finding out how tough the industry can be. “I took all my own A&R meetings where they’d listen for ten seconds to something I'd been working on for weeks and say, ‘No, next,’” she says. Over time, opportunities would arise and it would feel like the tide was finally turning; but, inevitably something would happen and it would never quite make it over the line.
Discouraged and feeling as if she had the wrong people around her, Starley ended relationships with both her business team as well as her long-term boyfriend and retreated to Australia, which is when “Call On Me” appeared in her consciousness. The song has opened many doors for Starley, including resurrecting her desire to be an artist and leading her to a deal with indie-dance label Tinted Records. They connected her with Australian DJ duo, Odd Mob, with whom she scored the multi-week No. 1 ARIA Club track “Into You.” Now signed to Epic Records, Starley is writing songs for her debut album.
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