North London teen treasure Zak Abel talks to us about his new EP, working with Bondax and making ‘modern soul’.
Zak Abel signed his first record deal when he was 17. Even more impressive is that by then he’d already been songwriting for two years and had taught himself to play the piano and guitar. Now 19, he spent last year touring Europe with Bondax. I hope you’re now starting to reassess your own achievements over the last year, because Zak isn’t even 20 and he’s already done it all.
Yesterday saw the release of his debut EP ‘Joker Presents’ on Atlantic Records, a collaboration with Joker. The Bristol producer and North London singer have together created four tracks of surprising soul. You hear the word electronic and you don’t usually expect to hear pianos or raspy vocals but the production is perfectly arranged around Zak’s voice, offering up a platform for him to exhibit his expert vocal control. We caught up with Zak to try and find out all his secrets before the limelight gets too bright for him to see us!
What inspired you to get into music? Was there a specific event you remember?
I remember my mum used to have this compilation cassette tape which had Michael Jackson’s “The Way you Make Me Feel” on it. That’s the first track I remember being emotionally attached to. It’s so clichéd but I can honestly say I’ve been singing since I can remember.
How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard it before? Why should they listen? Sell it to us!
I’d say I make electronic/soul/RnB music – modern soul that’s fresh and edgy but still soulful and emotionally charged. I always try to be as honest as possible with the songs I write.
How do you go about the creative process, from writing to recording?
In terms of writing, there isn’t really a formula I follow. Sometimes I’ll be writing over a Joker beat (my collaborator on my current EP), then I start humming melodies to get it started. Other times I’ll be playing the piano and a song idea will come from that. In terms of recording, before I record vocals, I try to have 30 seconds to myself to make sure I’m really focusing on what I’m singing about. That’s important to me.
You’ve been song-writing since you were 15, would you say your style has changed much since then?
I’ve listened to a lot of music since then and when you listen to new music you are constantly being influenced. I would say that along the way I’ve made many minute changes in the way I sing and write, but I think the soulful vibe has remained from the beginning till now.
Working with Gorgon City and Bondax, what have you learnt about the industry and performing? Has anyone given you any memorable advice?
The best piece of advice was probably from Bondax and Gorgon City’s Musical Director (they share the same MD) called Quintin Christian. He told me that, “When you are on stage, you have the power to make people feel good.” So, it’s important to make sure the audience knows you’re there to have a good time and that you intend to make them feel good too.
19 years old and on tour around Europe with an act as huge as Bondax! What did you enjoy the most?
Firstly, I’d like to say that Adam and George (from Bondax) are the biggest legends on the planet. I think my favourite moment must have been playing Parklife Festival with them. It was the first big show we were to do together and I remember waking up that morning with severe man flu – fever and everything! When we got to the festival, even 10 minutes before we were supposed to be on, all my sinuses were completely blocked and I couldn’t get a note out without coughing. However as soon as I got on stage, the buzz that the crowd gave and that Bondax were giving off was crazy. I soon forgot I was ill and had the best gig I’ve done to date!
Is there anyone iconic you aspire to be like (not necessarily musically but have similar goals)?
Bill Withers. He built a music career based on songs that were honest, simple and soulful, plus he remained humble throughout his career. I’d love to do that.
Tell us what ‘Alchemy’ is about?
Alchemy is about a relationship where the person you are with is a wild, destructive character and you know that they are no good for you, however you keep wanting more because there is crazy chemistry between you. I wrote the song while I was right in the middle of that relationship.
How have you and Joker each put your individual marks on your EP?
With every tune on the EP, whether it is a funky, garage-y, or RnB vibe, it has an overriding Joker feel to it. By that I mean, dirty, cinematic, and warm. I love how, in Joker’s production, it sounds like he just doesn’t care about rules. He’s just putting out what he hears in his head.
Every song on this EP initially came from a Joker beat that he had sent over. The way I put my mark on these tunes is with the melodies I’m singing and the lyrics I write. I tend to naturally come up with soulful/bluesy melodies and the lyrics are all from personal experiences.
What are your plans for the near future? What can we look forward to from Zak Abel?
There will definitely be more music, since I’m off to do some more work with Joker soon. I’m in the process of writing an album as well, it’s very early days for that but really exciting too. I’m just getting my live set up ready for some stripped back gigs in the Spring and some festivals in the summer. Those are the plans anyway – you never know with these things though!
‘Joker Presents’ is out now on Atlantic Records.
Words: Lily Walker