He’s worked under this moniker for less than a year, but the wheels are well in motion. Since releasing his debut EP Fuel To The Fire, he’s attracted the likes of Pharrell and Justin Timberlake, he’s featured on countless ‘Ones to Watch’ lists, and his new release Something For Nothing has already become Annie Mac’s Hottest Record just 2 weeks into 2016.
With lyrics that cut to the core and a sound that stretches across genres and eras, Rationale already has the formula to meaningful music. To top it all off, his is a voice that’s truly unique in its baritone depths and powerful projection. Once you hear his music, I promise you will not forget it. Read our interview below, where we discuss how his upbringing impacted his career, the vast breadth of musicians that influence him, and the stories behind his biggest tracks.
How did you begin working in music?
I think I’ve just been writing songs ever since I can remember. I left secondary school, and I remember telling my mum – who’s intensely African – that I wanted to be a musician. And she was having none of it. She always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer; classic African upbringing. The minute I said that, her reaction was to kick me out of the house, to tell me that if I didn’t go to college to study or begin to do some sort of mathematics degree, I couldn’t live there. I lived out of the house for about three months and skipped around from sofa to sofa, but in that time I learned so much. It was a cool time, because it was kind of like a period of time where you don’t really understand what the industry is at all. And from the age of about 21 I started to take it really seriously, because I started to get interest from A&R people, who just really wanted to know more about me.
Who would you say has influenced your music most, whether in terms of genre or otherwise?
In terms of family, it’s definitely my mum in terms of playing lots of music in the house. She used to play lots of Donny Hathaway, lots of New Order, lots of soul, jazz musicians such as Pat Metheny; huge, old school musicians. She didn’t really ever believe in [music] as a career, she saw it more as a fantasy. When it comes to musical tastes, it’s so broad that it’s tough to call. At the moment, I’m making stuff that’s very electro, 80s… The funny thing is, I never listened to a lot of 80s music growing up at all. Bar Prince – but he’s just across the ages, isn’t he? I definitely love Morrissey. Not when he speaks, I prefer it when he sings.
I love modern people. I love hip-hop so much, that to a point where I think that’s been the heaviest influence in terms of beat-making and production. I’ve always found it culturally fascinating. At the moment, I love Drake, obviously. I love anything that comes out of the old crowd, per se. Going back into old classics, Notorious B.I.G, 2Pac… I love Naughty By Nature, A Tribe Called Quest… Influences in my music that have come about now have only just come about listening to really interesting people like James Blake. If you think about it, James Blake has been going for quite some time, but he’s actually not put out a huge amount of material.
It’s carefully curated isn’t it?
Yeah, and I love musicians like that. Jamie Woon, for example, who I recently bumped into – I love the fact that he’s taken years and years to put out a record but it’s a record that’s musically tinged. It’s maybe not going to [be] the biggest album of all the charts, but to me that’s real music; music that’s taken a long time to put together. I love a band called Rhye, who are brilliant. I met with Robin Hannibal, who is one of the producers in the band, and he had a great stance on making music. Check out a track called Open – it’ll just… you’ll thank me later. They don’t make a record every two seconds. You have to wait a while, but when it comes out, it’s really considered great.
It’s always worth the wait?
Yeah, completely. And that’s the kind of music I want to make. I mean, in a way, if I could do this without having to be this kind of ‘character’, I suppose – not a ‘character’, maybe that’s the wrong word – but if I could make music and not have to really put my face out there that much and spend more time on the music, then I probably would. Because I think there’s something to be said about that complete artistic dedication. Really pure. Another one that comes to mind is Tame Impala. Love that band. I love the frontman’s method of basically tucking himself away for a long period of time and making music without interruptions or any suggestions from peers. Those are the kind of people that influence me.
It’s interesting when you mention how they make music. When you create your music, do you isolate yourself or is it more of an open process?
I definitely isolate myself. I think I’ve had very little music out under this moniker. When it comes to the Rationale project, I’ve put out a song with one other person on a track called Re.Up, and that was a complete accident. That was the only time I’ve worked with another vocalist or another writer or singer in the room. I remember going “I need this to be sexy. It needs to be really sexy!”, and I couldn’t achieve that because I’m not hugely sexy. I’ve got a deep voice and that’s about as far as it goes. I played her a bit of the track, and she literally started singing a line and it was gorgeous. But it won’t be repeated, because the rest of the time, I’m just alone in a room going nuts about whether something is great, spending the day going “This is amazing” and then I’ll go “This is terrible”, and then eventually having to let it go.
“Music isn’t about a quick flash. Music needs to be really protected.”
By the time I’ve gone through my own process – my own personal, torturous production on an instrumental level as well as a vocal level – and give it to someone, I think the majority of the time they’re like “Dude, what’s your problem?”. I kind of need to do that. I went to LA recently and […] there were a couple of sessions set up. I think I did about 19 sessions. We came out with some really cool stuff, don’t get me wrong, and no disrespect to any people I worked with. But if I could’ve chosen one or two people to work with for a week or a month, I probably would prefer that, because music isn’t about a quick flash. Music needs to be really protected, and thought-of if possible. So yeah, my music is very solitary.
You touched on your moniker Rationale. Do you think you would ever step away from that, and come out as ‘you’ the person?
You know what, I think not. Because I’ve already had my one trip with myself as a person, to a degree, and I think I enjoyed elements of it, but sometimes I think a moniker or a pseudonym sort of helps you to create a world around it and gives you some colours to put on some sort of canvas. You can escape and remove oneself – because […] I can’t really write fictitious songs. As sad as it sounds, The Mire is about someone who I played the song to, actually, and told me to go to hell. It was quite funny. Re.Up was about somebody. [They’re] all kind of observational on my life. So I think there’s enough of ‘me’ in there. It helps to create a world around me.
The video to Fuel To The Fire is very personal. It’s very much ‘you’…
Are you avoiding trying to say the word nipple here? It’s ok, we can talk about nipples.
How was that for you? Letting someone in to get up close and personal in a video?
The guys I work with are sometimes sneaky. I rocked up to the shoot and they were kind of like “Uh, yeah, so just going to run something by you. Maybe take your top off and see how it goes”. And that was that really. I fought it for a little but, but because of the nature of the song, it felt right to have some sort of stark image portrayed, so that worked.
It works very well.
Thank you. I was quite nervous about that one, because I’m not the kind of person who is massively in love one’s outer protection, as it were. So I think at the time, it was a really tough process to try and film – I know that for a fact. But as soon as I saw the results, when I went back to look at the VT, I knew it was the right decision, because for the little money that we had at the time to try and make a video, it was put together so well.
Fast Lane obviously has a really interesting video too – how did you arrive at that?
We worked with a guy called Luke Monaghan, he’s an old friend of mine, [it goes] years and years back to films and acoustic videos. It’s funny with people – I love making relationships. I think probably for the worst, sometimes. I’m too friendly for my own good, which gets me in trouble. I’ve always been a connection kind of person. So this chap, it was keeping up the connection and watching him grow, and he managed to get to the point where he was shooting videos for Sam Smith. So I called him, and went “Dude, this is amazing. You’re doing really well, but I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind helping me out”. So […] I played the track and he was like, “I’ve heard this track! It’s you! It’s your voice!”. First of all, the voice that I’m singing in, it’s something new that I completely hadn’t explored. I loved that, I loved the fact that he’d heard the song before but hadn’t even seen me in it. I kind of asked him if he’d be up for shooting it, and the rest is history really.
“I’m always really involved in the videos. It’s probably to my detriment, because I get really messed up in the head.”
The idea of the video was just about portraying the emotion of complete despair, and not being able to come to terms with one’s lot, as it were. We managed to find Jim Ortilieb, and he looked and fitted the part of a really distressed guy. It was cool for me to not be in it. I always find videos where the artist isn’t in it really interesting, because you don’t have to focus on whether they’re shaking their leg right. It’ll come – there’s going to be some dancing, don’t get me wrong. But I think, yeah, the concept worked really, really well in terms of capturing the emotion of the song. We shot it in California, which worked out really well. There’s some interesting police dances there as well. But I’m always really involved in the videos. It’s probably to my detriment, because I get really messed up in the head. It’s so hard, honestly. I swear. You know when you look at your own piece over and over again, and you’re kind of like “This is good. Or is it? How are people going to receive this?”.
Just torturing yourself all the time?
Yeah, all the time. We’re doing the next one now, and I’ve got to: a) Get buff, b) Get really fit, because I’m doing some dancing in it – I’ve got a history in breaking and hip-hop so that’s fine, but I haven’t done it in a while, and c) Learn how to sing the entire song in reverse, which is just great.
Fast Lane has some really poignant lyrics and the overall sound is amazing. What would you say the overall message is behind that? You touched on despair…
I think I wrote it when I was sitting down on the train, really annoyed because I had a lost a lot of things at the time. […] I’d lost my record deal, I’d lost my publishing deal, and I’d lost my girlfriend of like 7 years, like in the space of a week. I remember, I was suddenly kind of thrust back into ‘normal life’ as it were, as I had to get a job. It was really difficult. At that point, I was debating giving up making music for a period, because I was like “It’s too tough”. I remember having to rush around to get everywhere; my family and friends were always feeling like they were under the crush. I remember we were having a conversation, and I was like, “Oh, you know when you’re in the fast lane, and you just want the guy in front to go faster”. And the person I was speaking to was like, “What do you mean, the fast lane?”, and I was like, “Well, you know… The fast lane. The one on the right hand side.” “But there is no fast lane.” “Yeah there is, the one where you go 70… Well, not above, but 72, 73”, and he just said “Well, I’m sure everybody speeds in that bit”. I remember just going “Oh, maybe I should write that down”, and think about my life and put it to paper in terms of how tough life can be, and how we’re all under the same crush. The emotion was there.
“I’m growing with the moniker, so I’m enjoying that and bringing people along on the journey.”
Do you find that lyrics pop into your head? Or do you really sit down and bash them out?
I’m not the kind of guy who has lyrics pop into his head on a daily basis. I’m more of a man who’s inspired by sounds. I love painting music aesthetics and fitting my words and emotions around them. I think the emotion is caught up in the melody and the chords. Once you’ve got that, you kind of roughly know what you’re going to sing about. The lyrics are built into the song a lot of the time for me. I’m not the kind of guy who sits there with a bunch of words and constructs them around the music or build them into a song already written. It’s like a journey.
I want to talk a bit about your new track coming out, Something For Nothing. This is the next release after your debut EP – do you think you’re stepping away from that sort of sound or is it still weaved into the sound of Fuel To The Fire?
Fuel To The Fire was definitely vocally-led and it definitely had that 80s tinge to it. This stuff is definitely closer to Fast Lane in terms of groove. It’s still in the same world. If anything it’s just getting more – I hate this word – it’s just getting groovier. I can’t put it any other way. It just makes you want to dance, this next one. Sound-wise, I don’t think anything’s going to massively change, it’s just going to get more mature, more concentrated I suppose. Because I’m growing with the moniker, so I’m enjoying that and bringing people along on the journey.
I’ve noticed you’ve been on lots of ‘Ones To Watch’ lists and have had lots of support from publications and radio stations. Do you feel supported out there?
Yeah, it’s been awesome. I remember somebody said to me, “Oh man, you must have been doing this for ages. You’ve put out all these songs”. I’ve put out 4 songs [at time of writing] and have collaborated on probably about 2, and that’s it. This has been going for 8 months. So to have people from Apple, Radio 1, Beats, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams… Ridiculous names, people I love and listen to on a regular basis. I’m extremely honoured. It sounds so, like, ‘beauty pageant’, but it’s just amazing. The lists are great – they give you a bit of pressure which is sometimes good, because it means you’re going to work harder. I can’t complain at all. I’m really happy about it.
What’s next for you?
There’s definitely an album next year. I want to release at least 3 songs over the next I’d say 3 months if possible. I want to have a bigger live setup. I’m working really, really hard on my set and making sure it’s a real experience to come and enjoy it. I think I sold out my first venue. It was mental – the Courtyard Theatre [in Hoxton, London]. So there’s a bit of an expectation for everything to feel bigger, for me. That’s one thing that I do expect when I go to a gig, for an artist to really entertain me and not to go by halves. I think the biggest expectation is definitely going to be the live element, having the chance to go out and play the music to as many people as possible.
“It’s interesting to suddenly be thrust into the limelight like that.”
There’s a lot of production involved in your music, so how is it performing live?
I think performing live has been the hardest bit of this project so far for me, for my music. It’s very production-based and I play all the instruments on the songs, so when it comes to trying to give that to people, it’s a hard process to let go [of] and to make it translate live without it sounding like some sort of boxed, computer-processed music. So you have a decision to make – you can either run it off the track, as in run lots off the computer and have the instruments fit around that, or the other way round, you can just run it completely live. But the completely live element, sometimes you lose a piece of the soul of the music. For example, for Fast Lane, you’ve got a synth that sound like they were literally taken off Drive itself, the movie. It’s hard to make that come out live, so I’ve had to strike a balance between the two and that’s worked out really well. It’s hard work, but it’s working well.
So you’ve got a formula?
Yeah, and that’s going to be the interesting thing. We’ve got an amazing set of gigs coming up, we’ve got Future Festival with BBC Radio 1, then I’ve got a couple of MTV things going on, and Eurosonic Festival as well. For me, it’s a chance for us on a different platform. I think we’ve done 5 gigs. So it’s interesting to suddenly be thrust into the limelight like that, which means I have to work extra hard. It’s a challenge but it’s something that we’re definitely up for.