Jamie Woon: wayfaring stranger

By , Nov 25 2010
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Jamie Woon: ‘Night Air’

Jamie Woon may be a new talent to some, but this London-bred musician has been making music for the last ten years.

2010 has been his strongest year to date, recent single ‘Night Air’ a promising sign for next year’s debut album, and marking Woon out as a serious force to be reckoned with. Aged 27, he made a name for himself on London’s acoustic and open mic circuits, before being spotted by Polydor, who signed his label Candent Records and offered him an album deal. A spot in the 2008 Red Bull Music Academy led to collaborative releases with Subeena, Om’Mas Keith and Debruit, and he’s built up working relationships with Burial and Ramadanman. With Stevie Wonder, Radiohead and The Cinematic Orchestra cited as major influences, he’s currently working on his live show for a tour early next year and putting the finishing touches to his debut album, working title In The Middle, set for release in Spring.

FACT met Jamie to find out more about his background, his supposed peers in the UK and his forthcoming album.

What have you been up to the past two weeks?

“I’m in the last couple of weeks of producing my album, so I’m doing final tweaks with that. I did a session at Maida Vale for Benji B’s BBC Radio 1 show with my band and we’ve been rehearsing for a gig at XOYO, [tonight, in London]. I also made a video for ‘Night Air’, directed by Lorenzo Fonda, which was good fun and that just came out.”

When did you start making music?

“I’ve sung for as long as I can remember. I played a bit of saxophone at school but took up acoustic guitar at high school and wrote my first song not long after that, about 10 years ago.”

What sort of stuff were you making early on?

“Wrote my first song aged 16 on acoustic guitar, it was a really hilariously fast blues tune. My early encounters with production were more of a social thing, smoking weed and mucking about [with] Hip-Hop eJay on the PC, you could only use the samples that came with it and we’d alternate 10 minutes in the chair and make these epic 20 minute tunes. After that I got a copy of Cakewalk Sonar … the first tune I remember finishing was with my mates Lew and Kev. It was called ‘Banana Jim’, a sort of instrumental hip-hop thing made completely with samples from a music tech magazine cover CD.”

What did you listen to growing up?

“There was a mixture of pop, R’n’B, folk and soul music playing in the house. My mother, Mae McKenna, led a kind of double life as a singer-songwriter making Celtic, folk and new age music on one hand and session singing for pop records and commercials on the other, so I was exposed to both those communities of musicians and processes from an early age, both in the studio and live situations. It’s only since I’ve been making my own record that I realised how much of an effect she’s had on my sound. I hear it in everything I do now, and I’m more conscious of embracing some kind of lineage.

“My dad played stuff like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and loads of country music. When I was a kid I pretty much only listened to Michael Jackson, then Oasis and Britpop made me pick up a guitar … the music I discovered for myself after that was moody, groovy stuff like Radiohead, John Martyn, The Police, Jeff Buckley, DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, Lewis Taylor, Ninja Tune stuff like Luke Vibert and Cinematic Orchestra, and then I got massively into Stevie Wonder. He’s still the top boy for me.”

“It’s only since I’ve been making my own record that I realised how much of an effect my mother had on my sound. I hear it in everything I do now, and I’m more conscious of embracing some kind of lineage.”

You produce, write and sing these days. Which of the three do you enjoy the most?

“I started singing, writing then producing, in that order. I enjoy them all differently but first and foremost, I love to sing. Songwriting is the most satisfying of the three to me because I usually have to work very hard at it to be happy. I studied performance and music production at college and always dabbled with computers. I knew my way around studios a bit but never really took to it until the equipment got cheaper and more powerful, I got a laptop and realised I could actually produce my own songs a couple of years ago. That’s where most of my focus has been since then attempting to create my own space for my voice and my songs.”

For a lot of people, ‘Night Air’ would be the first they’ve heard of you. Tell us about your work prior to this year.

“I started on the London acoustic circuit in about 2002, I wanted to be in a band but didn’t seem to know quite how to go about it. Around then there was a real upsurge in the amount of open mics and acoustic nights in London. I left uni and I wanted to sing and saw there were all these places to play and I just got in amongst it. I don’t know what it’s like these days but you could play at one every night of the week in every part of London, try out your songs and improve your skills. After a while you get asked back for the featured slots or affiliated nights. I started to get paid a little and I’d sell my handmade CD-Rs with dodgy handmade artwork. I’d seen Son of Dave and Reggie Watts using a loop pedal with their voices and immediately knew that that was for me, so I incorporated vocal looping into my troubadour schtick and just played wherever anyone would book me.

“In 2006, Charlie Dark of Blacktronica and Mark Gurney, now of 2nd Drop Records, were running a record label funded by Lewisham council called LIVE Recordings, and they gave me an opportunity to put out a single, anything I wanted. I did a vocal recording of the folk standard ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and Burial remixed. His remix got me to a much wider audience when Gilles Peterson and Mary Anne Hobbs supported it.

“I then completely lucked out, got into Red Bull Music Academy and collaborated with some great people. I did a funny baby-baby vocal on Debruit’s ‘I’m Going Wit’ U’ feat. Om’Mas Keith, which came out on Civil Music, and ‘Solidify’ with Subeena and Om’Mas on Planet Mu. I did a cover of Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’ for a Tru Thoughts compilation and a track with a great French producer, Le Proffeseur Inlassible called ‘Akileus’. In late 2009 Polydor came in and made me a good offer with creative control and backing for my own imprint and it seemed like a good home for me to do what I want to do, so I gave myself another year to work on [my album] and it will come out in the Spring, The working title is In The Middle.”

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Subeena feat. Jamie Woon & Om’Mas Keith: ‘Solidify’

What do you think of the reaction ‘Night Air’ has received? People are calling it one of the records of the year.

“It’s been wicked, I don’t think it’s a conventional mainstream tune but I felt there’s a possibility it could resonate with quite a lot of people because of the sentiment of the lyrics and the soundscape. I’ve always fantasised about making music that kids, pensioners and everyone in between can get into; not on some personal payoff, but I’m loving that this tune caked in ambience has made it onto mainstream radio. But the breadth of support has taken me completely by surprise, Mary Anne Hobbs was the first person to play it and this week I found out that it’s on the playlist at ASDA FM. That’s mental.”

You just put the video out there, too.

“Yeah, it’s directed by Lorenzo Fonda. We were talking about doing something atmospheric and naturalistic to complement the song along the idea of things that come alive at night. He came up with getting all these exotic insects, praying mantises and jungle nymphs, etc, and submerging them in a beautiful forest and revealing them slowly. I always hoped the idea in the lyric is strong enough that it speaks for itself and didn’t need too much trickery or narrative, and I’d always assumed this video would feature me looking moody walking around alone at night time so there’s a fair bit of that too!”

What can we expect from the album?

“I wish I could just play it to you, I’m generally dreadful at explaining my tunes! But I think it’s basically a pop/R’n’B album that dips into some underground styles in places. The bass is pushed forward and there’s a few quite ambient passages, loads of very long reverbs all over it and it’s pretty melancholy, I think. It’s all groove music, but my voice and the songs are at the centre of the productions, there’s different tempos from slow jam, to hip hop, to ‘Night Air’’s disco tempo all the way to some 140bpm stuff as well. I’ve always loved that about Stevie Wonder’s records, the range of tempos, time signatures and feels, I’ve always had that in mind for my first record.

“The songs are from about the last four years and about all sorts of things, but lyrically I’m quite interested in conveying tone and atmosphere in the words. There’s some love songs, songs about balance, songs about places, songs about other people, songs about me.”

Inevitably I’ve got to ask you about Burial, how did you two get together? How much does he feature on the album, and do you have any future projects planned?

“I loved his first album when it came out, and it turned out we had a mutual friend who put us in contact for the ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ remix. I met him, we got on well and both felt that we could do something good together in future. It’s always a funny one talking about him as obviously he likes to keep a low profile which I really respect, he’s had a massive influence on me and the way I make music.

“At one point, in summer ’08, we were working along the lines of him producing my album and started some wicked ideas but it didn’t work out like that for a few reasons. Firstly, my first album has been a long time coming for me and I had songs, things I needed to get off my chest and put to bed and I needed to do that first before I could jump into full collaboration with Will, especially in the way he works. If we do make tunes like that, which we still want to, I want to be jumping in fresh with no baggage and I realised even though I wanted to, it was too big a gap from where I’d come from and I need to finish that first. That’s one of the reasons why the working title of my has been In The Middle; I think my record really sounds like that.

“On ‘Night Air’ there were percussion fragments and some sounds from that abandoned session that I loved; I built a new arrangement around it and he was really into it. One thing about Will is he is really enthusiastic about working on any kind of music, so if he’s into a track he’ll sometimes offer to do a little bit on it just for fun and it’s in that capacity that he’s worked on ‘Night Air’ and a couple of other tunes on the album, as a friend with good advice, and that’s why we credited it as his real name doing additional production. He wasn’t overseeing the whole tune or working as Burial, so to speak, more contributing like a session musician. I can see why some people thought he produced it but it really wasn’t like that. In the same way, Royce Wood Jr has worked on a lot of tunes on the album with me.”

“This week I found out that ‘Night Air’s on the playlist at ASDA FM. That’s mental.”

Have you produced records for anyone other than yourself?

“I co-wrote and produced a tune for a great Swedish vocalist, Cornelia, when we were at Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona. I really enjoyed it and it’s something I’d like to do a lot more of. I can sometimes be quite precious with my own stuff and you get a completely different perspective working with someone else’s material. I’d like to get into remixing songs by other people. Next year I definitely want to get on with some collaborations because making my record has deliberately been a relatively solo thing for quite long periods, and it would be cool to see how other people work.”

I read the Guardian piece comparing you to James Blake, how do you feel about it? Are you a fan of James’s work?

“I think he’s brilliant, if I’m going to be compared to someone then he’s someone I’d rather be compared to. I’ve not heard much of his vocal stuff but I Iove how he’s injected lovely chord progressions and longer looped sections into his instrumental work. He’s got such a great sense of space, I’m sure his vocal record will be great.

“There’s a thought form out there with some people that there’s this box to be filled by a ‘dubstep, male, singer-songwriter-producer’. I can see reasons why some people might compare James and I, and I’m cool with that, we have some similar influences but I’m pretty sure our records are going to be very different and there’s enough room enough for both of us to do our thing. That’s the only thing that annoys me, people who talk with some kind of authority like only one of us can ‘succeed’ ‘next year’. Which citrus fruit is going to prevail in 2011? Limes or lemons? I’m not really buying that.

“Most people don’t know I produce because I haven’t put out anything very produced out ’til now, I’d never call what I’m doing dubstep, or even electronic music because I’m not knowledgeable enough about the tunes in those scenes and I don’t really go out to clubs. But what’s been nice is that a lot of people within those communities have supported me and acknowledged my work which I’m really grateful for, it gave me confidence and a kind of license to try and combine elements of those styles into my sound.”

What can we expect to hear from you in the future?

“I’ll be getting Candent, the label I started with Royce, up and running this year and I’m really looking forward to playing live again, building understanding with a band and developing my songs on the road. I also just want to keep making and releasing tunes regularly and hopefully get on some interesting collaborations. My next single is called ‘Lady Luck’ and it’s a kind of moody r’n’b tune with a Jacko-ish groove about whinging that’s out in the New Year.”

Zainab Jama

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