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“I could get some incense.” In truth, nobody particularly feels like buying incense, even for a good cause. It’s 28 °C and the wafts of orchid-scented smoke are only worsening the effects of the haze that has descended upon Primrose Hill, but Harley Alexander-Sule – the man behind soulful singer-songwriter Jimi Charles Moody – has left his pint balancing precariously on a windowsill as he dashes inside to fetch the vendor’s asking price of £2.
Things have changed since Alexander-Sule’s musical debut as one half of the British hip hop band, Rizzle Kicks, back in 2008, a fact that is loudly pointed out to us by the passer-by shouting, “Rizzle!” Irritating? Of course, but the 25-year-old isn’t fazed. “I’d actually be really confused if someone shouted ‘Jimi’ at me,” he says.
Jimi has provided the musician with an alter-ego that allows him to communicate the feelings that he finds hard to express as himself. “Only You”, a heartfelt track that captures the artist’s delicate voice in all of its understated glory, laments the ending of a relationship, a narrative that is explored over his latest EP, “Highbury”. However, exposing his most intimate thoughts has uncovered new anxieties for Alexander-Sule, who – after an attack of stage fright – hasn’t been able to perform live in almost two years, even under the anonymity of Jimi’s mask.
In the wake of his releasing new single “Shame“, the musician sheds some light on the inspiration behind “Highbury”, and the prospect of the live performances we’re patiently waiting for.
Can you tell us a bit about how got into music – was it always a big part of your life?
Funnily enough, no. With a lot of musicians, it comes from their family, but my family were never really that musical when I was growing up. I don’t have an album that I can remember my mum playing in the car or anything like that. I think it was more when I went to college; I went to The BRIT School which is like a performing arts school. I did theatre – I didn’t do music – but I started hanging around with a lot of creatives and got into that. Then it just came from there. I couldn’t really sing at the time, but then I just realised, “Ah, this is actually really fun” so I carried on. But yeah, from a young age there was no big passion for it.
So who are your musical influences today?
Well the whole project was essentially inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles, and when I first started performing as Jimi it was very heavy rock with jazz influences, but that has mellowed out now. For my first EP I was actually listening to quite a lot of pop music, obviously I’ve done pop music, but I’ve never really thought about it structurally. It sounds crazy but I was listening to a lot of Sam Smith. I knew I wanted to write heartbreak songs, and he knows exactly how to write a really good heartbreak song. But I don’t know… a lot of Etta James helps. What I can bring from my childhood is that I listened to a lot of swing music – Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, all that kind of stuff; Nat King Cole was a big influence on this recent EP. And then there’s also Tom Waits and Tobias Jesso Jr.
Your sound has gone through huge changes since you were in Rizzle Kicks. There was of course your first your first EP as Jimi Charles Moody, “Islington”, and you’re about to release “Highbury”. How would you describe those changes?
Yeah, big changes! Obviously I’m proud of everything I’ve released musically, but to explore all the influences I have was hard to do through just one lane. Really and truly I’m a jazz lover, and as much as I tried to put that in Rizzle’s music, I couldn’t just come out with a jazz ballad for example, but now I could. I think what really made me happy was how many people were surprised that I could just swap over. When I first started as Jimi it was very anonymous because I didn’t want people to have those preconceptions, but yeah, it worked, and it’s been long enough for people to kind of accept the difference.
How have you personally changed during that period?
I’ve just grown up a bit. I realised that the pop world wasn’t for me not that long ago. A lot of it actually makes me feel really anxious…like I feel quite anxious right now, even just doing this! I kind of always felt like that, but it was underneath. Obviously though, when you’re 20 or 21, straight out of college, and everything is really exciting, it is a lot easier to grow up in a way where you can just have as much fun as possible. When I kind of sat down and looked back at the last five years, I was like, “Oh shit, I really don’t want that anymore, I really don’t want to be a face anymore.”
I think that is where the anonymity came from. Essentially my dream scenario would be to be able to consistently release music forever and the amount of work that I put into it would correlate with how many people would listen to it. To reach the highest heights of music… it’s not just about the music. In an ideal world I would just make music and people would buy it but obviously that’s unrealistic.
Performing now is like… I can’t really do it anymore. Even with things like a photo shoot or an interview, I’ll be sitting at home before feeling so anxious and nervy about it. I have to really reign that in and make myself realise that what I’m actually doing is just having a conversation. I think that is what happens when you grow up; your worries change. Say, for example, that when you’re young there’s a big circle that is your life and you’re living on the outskirts, and as you get older it all kind of compresses and you have more things to worry about, and you have more issues to think about, and then you reach your mid-20s and you’re like, “Ok, there is more to life than just running around doing things that 19-year-olds do.” So I’ve definitely changed a fair amount.
Now you’ve kind of moved away from the pop world and your songs are so personal, do you feel more comfortable?
No, it’s the complete opposite! I’ve been told from many past relationships and girlfriends that I’m an emotionally detached human being, and that I’ve never been able to grow a proper relationship because I’m too emotionally disconnected. So when I put these really personal songs out and then have to perform them, exposing myself in front of a room full of people, that’s way more unnerving than when I was 19 or 20 and singing songs about mums dancing and shit.
So that was like a different kind of mask?
Yeah, now it’s more me…but it’s fucking terrifying. I really struggle with it; I haven’t performed in like two years.
Yeah, there was a moment you had on stage where you suddenly had an overwhelming sense of stage fright, is that right? How do you look back on that now?
It was really horrible. I was just confused at first because I’d done thousand shows before and never even slightly felt any kind of anxiety or nervousness, and that had even been in front of hundreds of thousands of people with just a microphone and a guitar. But if I had to do that now…I wouldn’t be able to do it basically, because I don’t think that I’d make it up there before having a panic attack. It’s just bizarre how quickly your mentality can just switch like that.
I always tell myself that I’ll be able to perform again, but I’m always going to remember that that happened, and I find it hard to detach things from my brain, to detach feelings from certain situations. Even if I’m comfortable walking onto a stage, I’m always going to remember that I have the potential for that to happen. When I used to hear about stage anxiety and people like Adele who would find it hard to get on stage, I’d be like, “I just can’t get my head around it.” You just can’t fathom it until you’ve been there, and then it happened it was just the most disgusting thing.
Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind “Highbury”?
It’s all kind of based on one person, and I guess throughout the EP I’m gradually trying to get over it. I’m over it now obviously, but during the writing period it was like therapy really. I had never had my heart broken until then, and that wasn’t even that long ago, it was like a year and a half or two years ago, and it was like, “Shit, I need to capitalise on this feeling immediately!”
I remember as soon as the relationship that I talk about in the songs ended, I was in a pub with her, I walked straight from the pub to the studio and wrote “Shame”, and then the day after I wrote “Only You”, and the day after that I wrote “Prolong the Pain”; it just happened in about a week essentially. Now I look at her and I’m happy for her in life, I’m not upset about it. I really think that us creatives are so lucky that we have another form of expression, that we can get stuff out of our system whichever way that is.
You’ve said previously that you use Jimi as another form of expression, helping you to release the thoughts that you find it difficult to convey as Harley. Is that still true, or has your latest EP helped you to become more united within yourself?
You know, I’m currently in a relationship and when we started seeing each other we were very similar in the way that we didn’t like to talk about our feelings at all, and that happened for like a year where we wouldn’t say anything, or if something bad happened we would just rather not talk about it. But since the beginning of the year I’ve made an effort to actually connect with myself.
When I feel like I need to say something emotional, it feels like there’s like a little circular metal grid in my throat and my fear of saying that something just bangs up against it, and I just can’t do it. But now I’ve kind of broken through that and I definitely feel like Jimi did help do that because I was I was like, “If I can write a song and put it out there and have that many people listen to it, why can’t I express my feelings with someone that I actually love?” It’s actually ridiculous when you think about it! I haven’t gone too far in terms of my emotional expression with my friends and in relationships and stuff, but I’ve definitely found a nice balance that I can deal with and that I’m happy with.
What about your mask? Is that here to stay?
I am going to try and think of a way to slowly eradicate it because it reminds me of a time I’m not very fond of, but I need to figure out the best way of doing that which I haven’t yet. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to slowly put it out of the picture, because then it becomes a different thing altogether because Jimi is a character essentially, and if there’s no mask it’s just me, so I have to figure out how to do that.
Totally. So what are your plans for the next year?
Well I really want to figure out how to do it live; I was considering doing an opera. I don’t know who I’d do it with but I think it would be quite interesting. I’d have minimal theatrics, and maybe I wouldn’t be on stage, but I would write a script and all the songs on my EP are the songs that would tell the story, and I’d have people singing them. But I don’t know, obviously I’d have to sit down and write a script which is difficult.
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