“I’ve been addicted to women since I was three years-old,” Collard laughs between sips of whiskey. “I’ve been obsessed with women and sex… Religion doesn’t align. So fuck it. We’re only here to visit.” The 24-year-old singer sits across from me in a bar in King’s Cross, dressed pristinely in shades of cream and tan, already looking wholly the part of a star crooner. Explaining how his Mormon upbringing weighs heavy on his debut album Unholy is an instantly irresistible tale of rebellion.
“Not that I believe in it anymore,” the Londoner continues, “but I automatically go to heaven and hell, I automatically go to religious judgement on things. So Unholy for me is a combination of that upbringing. It’s like fuck that shit… I’m that person, I’m inclined to act off instinct and act off feeling and religion is too calculated and too judgemental. It’s had a big toll on me, my writing and my outlook on life and what I write about. Just off of half of my life, the things that I’ve done, I’m going to hell… It’s written for me now,” he says, nonplussed, before asking: “If sinning is bad, then why is it so good?”
First performing as a member of London rap collective Last Night in Paris, Collard’s been working on his debut solo record for three years with producer Zack Nahome. May’s Unholy opens on most recent single, the Prince-like “Hell Song”, a track that writhes with “sexual ecstasy” both lyrically and sonically. It’s Collard’s first exercise in falsetto, a pitch he didn’t even know he was capable of. “It was scary man,” he admits. “I was singing in normal range and Zack picked up the guitar for the first time in a long time… he was just like, ‘go higher, go higher’ and that’s how I found out my scale, I could keep on going.”
Top and Trousers FENG CHENG WANG, shoes JOHN LOBB.
Top and Trousers FENG CHENG WANG, shoes JOHN LOBB.
The result toes the line somewhere in that hazy space between pleasure and pain. Impassioned wails and hollers cut through the smooth soul-funk that makes up the first half of the album, and add another tone of heartache on the addictively melancholic latter section. After trying to make music that “sounded like a combination of Drake and James Blake”, when he landed on his high tones instead of trying to fit a mould, Collard found the vehicle in which he could deliver his truth, littering the record with biblical references to make his conflicted-sounding calls all the more mesmeric.
A brazenly honest account of what happens in the bedroom — or rather, inviting us all into his bedroom — “Hell Song” almost didn’t make it onto the LP. “I was like, ‘No, I will not put this on the album!’ It’s just too wild! My nan can’t listen to this shit, especially coming from electro-R&B, it’s like ‘nah, this is left, this is scaring people way too far’… In the journey though, you think ‘fuck everyone else’, no-one likes what they like until they get it… You’ve just got to think about what comes out of you… All I can think about it is the honesty of it. My favourite sex is honest sex, that pure connection. No rules, no boundaries. And that’s what ‘Hell Song’ is. And I’m Unholy. So, fucking let’s slap it on.” After a pep talk from his producer, convincing Collard his idols — the likes of Prince and James Brown — wouldn’t stop to consider what other people might think, “Hell Song” won its place on the record. “That’s the appeal,” he explains. “The honesty and rawness of it.”
(LEFT) Jacket and trousers HOLZWEILER, boots PAUL SMITH.
(RIGHT) All clothing and accessories PRADA.
Jacket and trousers HOLZWEILER, boots PAUL SMITH.
All clothing and accessories PRADA.
Collard owes his ability to tap into his emotions and extract them to his matriarchal family (he considers his nan’s opinion “god-level”). “It’s always been about conversations on reflecting and a deeper self-awareness,” he explains, “which I think women have mastered a long time before men ever will, they can discuss and explain pain better.” He reels off Aretha, Alabama Shakes, Solange, Sade and Janis as artists who helped him access a place of honesty, the latter’s “Ball and Chain” acting as an epiphany when writing more introspective songs like “Merciless” and “Blood Red”. “It was an emotion that I never really knew how to put into words until I heard a woman sing it, about feeling emotionally dragged around,” he explains. “I just didn’t have the words, and I don’t think a lot of men do, but I think women do. It takes time to be self-aware.”
With the help of his creative directors, Joe Shaw and Eseosa Ohen, he’s translated this sense of self for the stage and screen. “We had a two-hour conversation about what the album looked like to me,” he explains. “The best way I could explain that was film scenes.” Listing greats like Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson as his favourite directors, he explains uniformity, drama and aesthetic pleasure are paramount to the Collard universe. “I like stadium music, I like scoring, I don’t want to make anything that couldn’t be in a film.” Together, through imagery they’ve created a world that’s slick but sometimes dark; masculine, but not afraid to show emotion.
It’s an aura that unsurprisingly extends over his performance – Collard strikes me as someone who’d never talk the talk if he couldn’t walk the walk. “There’s nothing like it,” he grins, with the definition of a million-dollar smile. “For me, it’s the utmost ecstasy. I’m going crazy, we get real sexy. No rules.” It’s easy to see why he spent years cultivating who he is as a solo artist: Collard’s a man who’s true to his word.
Mario Brooksbank at Carol Hayes Management using Dermalogica, Bobbi Brown on skin and Moroccan Oil for hair