We’ve all heard the prescribed notions of what a singer-songwriter is and should be, but basics are basics and it is time to clear the slate. Every artist deserves to be heard fairly, few find success and few are successful but many have talent. Joel Baker is one of the latter. A pure talent. His skill is honest and his voice is his own: precious and gritty enough to warrant more than just an invested interest but a lifetime devotee.
His first song was released in 2013 and went on to launch his name across the likes of Radio 1, Reading & Leeds festival and guaranteed him slots with some of the best emerging acts of the time (Saint Raymond, Orla Gartland and Ella Eyre to cite just a few). Baker’s music is more than simply acoustic pop with a hip hop aura and tangible charisma, his creativity isn’t bound by rules Baker has always followed his own path and his music reflects that. Yet there are constants that bridge his earlier embryonic ideas to his later music, the soul and character of his voice and message, and the palpable resonance of feeling he emotes so effortlessly (sometimes brutally). Far greater than one man and his stories but a real revolution.
Music has the ability to reach out and touch you, when listening to Joel Baker it’s easy to feel that there’s some truth in this. The songs aren’t arrogant ego boosts, they aren’t even self-centred, they speak of life in a way that doesn’t alienate, doesn’t avoid exhibiting depth or sentiment. In 2019 Joel Baker is the kind of artist we need, his writing and voice is naturally distinctive and his personality and performance style is humbling and uplifting.
Playing to an intimate crowd in Manchester on Thursday 11th of April, the atmosphere was comfortable and easy-going during his hour-plus occupancy of the stage, Baker ran through reams of tracks new and old to an actively buoyant audience. Taking opportunities to address every single person individually before joining them on the floor midway through to sing-song together, ‘Further than Feelings’ and ‘Every Vessel, Every Vein’ particularly bring the soulfulness out of Baker and make certain that the powerful presence of his innate talent is in eye line. No doubts are in mind by the culmination of the show that Joel Baker is, and always has been, the real deal.
Before the show we sat down in a room somewhere between the many bars and elevations of stairs in Manchester’s Yes venue to discuss the artist’s journey in music, from the start, up to now, and everything in between.
This is your first fully extensive headline tour of the UK – it’s no secret you’ve been working hard for years, playing shows consistently whether in traditional venues or unconventional spaces. To me, that speaks highly of the kind of person you are; passionate, driven and disciplined—
Joel Baker: “Thank you so much.”
Charlotte, BSS: “You’re welcome.”
When you have a moment of questioning (I feel like the Bran Flakes mixtape covered some of these feelings) what helps you find perspective and keeps you going?
JB: “Aw such a good question, and so hard to know. And that’s such a good analysis of the last few years. I mean, it’s so many things… I think you have to feel at peace with knowing that this is what you wanna do. It’s just, like, whether 10 people are there or whether 1000 people are there, you have to have the same feeling of, I just love performing. I think that’s all it is. I just really love performing.
“I know some people get really disheartened or unhappy then just quit, but I think if you’re happy with playing in front of 10 people then you’ll go further because sometimes that’s what it takes. Yeah. Other people help as well. Just other people being like, ‘Keep going. Believe in yourself.’ I think you need some people like that.”
How do you balance fears and limitations with your own drive and ambition?
JB: “Not very well. Everyone has good days and bad days, you know, so it’s really hard. I think gratitude is the key. I think having a solid foundation of gratitude… the first thing that you do when you wake up just being thankful for what you have, your life and everything like that. It means that when you go on social media or you can see all these people doing better than you, you can be happy for them instead of bitter and ‘why has that not happened to me’ or whatever. You can be like, ‘Well, I’m just so grateful for the life that I have. I get to wake up every morning. I get to walk on two feet. I’ve got amazing friends. I’ve got an amazing family.’ That’s the important things I think. Yeah.”
You write a lot about love and heartbreak, what is it about these emotional states that makes them so fascinating to talk about?
JB: “I love heartbreak songs because heartbreak songs were the first songs that I really connected to, when I was like 12/13, that’s just what really got me. And then it continues to be that, there’s something about heartbreak and sadness that, I don’t know… really, really just resonates with me, which is odd because my personality is actually, I’m actually quite a happy person, quite a positive person and stuff, but maybe it’s writing that sort of music that lets me be that because it gets it all out. You know, the first songs that I was obsessed with were some Jeff Buckley songs and things like that—really sad—so I love trying to emulate that and writing sad songs. I love writing love songs, too.”
Charlotte, BSS: “It just shows how layered you are, because everyone is.”
JB: “Right. Everyone is, yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
Is it easier to be honest when you put a melody to it?
JB: “Yeah I think so. I think so. I think it’s harder when you’re just writing words or poems. I think the thing that I really like about songwriting, more than spoken word or poetry, is that you don’t have to be too clever, you can be. At times you can be really clever but a lot of times, actually, you need to come away from the cleverness and just say how you really feel. And with a melody behind it, it just lands nicer. So, you know, with poetry, it’s more about the words and… I definitely think, yeah, you’re right.”
Your songs always bear a mark of authenticity and never feel overdone, which although seems fairly straightforward to point out in practise, it’s rarely achieved. How do you avoid falling into clichés – are you big on quality control because it seems like you might be?
[Joel lets out a burst of laughter here.]
JB: “Well, that’s really kind of you actually. That’s really kind of you.
“I really try to be. I hate clichés when I’m writing for myself. Or I won’t even mind if it’s a cliché, but I really feel like that’s how I feel. But I can’t stand… well, I just won’t sing it or won’t have the song when it’s just not how I feel.
“I’ve got a song coming out actually not too far in the future that is just an all’n’out love song. The bridge is like, ‘You’re all that I want, you’re all that I need.’ It’s like so cliché and so boring but it’s how I felt at the time and it felt right. But also the other thing, I’ll try—even in that song the verses are quirky—I’ll just try and, like, ‘Okay, so that’s how I feel, that’s the basic thing of how I feel, now how can I put this in a weird way?’ And that’s how I’ll try and write.
“There’s a lyric in ‘What’s A Song,’ I remember thinking about it and being like, ‘I wanna say that I’m gonna keep writing songs about you for the rest of my life.’ And that’s what I should’ve said [but] I was trying to think of weird ways to put it. [Recalling the memory of writing the track:] Ah, wait a minute. There was one time we went to Starbucks and you wrote some weird things on a cup. I was like how can I link that? And I was trying to link that into it.
“So that’s how my weird brain works. I’m just gonna mesh all these things, weird details, [together] to give you some authenticity that I mean what I’m saying.”
The first song we heard from you was ‘Further than Feelings,’ what are your present feelings towards that track right now?
JB: “Love ‘Further than Feelings.’ I’m so happy actually that [‘Further than Feelings’] did well and all that came out [of it]. The actual recording of it, I don’t particularly like that much [Joel lets out a loud burst of ‘Oh my God’ in a raised tempo signalling his mortification. His intensity increases throughout the next sentence:] When I did the vocals and stuff, I didn’t think it was gonna do anything, I thought about 200 people might view it or whatever, I didn’t think anything.
“I didn’t really know how to sing back then either… so the first chorus, I can’t even listen to it. I’m, like, whispering it [starts re-enacting the section: ‘Come a little closer’.] I hate it. But, you know, people don’t care about that.
Charlotte, BSS: “I think it’s bound to happen, yeah.”
JB: “Yeah, right.”
Charlotte, BSS: “Well, you make it new every time you sing it, anyway, so that’s something else. That’s what people take away with them.”
You recently played some shows in Europe, where you had a full band backing you. We’ve seen different formations of the live show over the years, what does each configuration give you – solo vs. band?
JB: “That’s a really good point, yeah. I’m trying to do some new stuff today actually with a little launch pad but I haven’t mastered yet—and I’m aware that I haven’t mastered it. But it’s like, I just need to do shows to master it. But I kinda like that. The reason that I kinda like that, is that I feel like I need something there that’s new and fresh to keep me feeling new and fresh, because I wanna be excited. If I’m not excited on stage, if I’m playing a song and being like, ‘Boring,’ then it’ll come across and people will feel bored as well. I want it to be at the point of where I feel like I can get it wrong. I like that feeling. I feel like as soon as I’m on autodrive, I feel like the ‘live’ element kinda goes out the window.”
Charlotte, BSS: “There’s a little bit of risk involved, you like that?”
JB: “I love that, yeah, that’s what makes it exciting.”
2019 has already given you some incredible career milestones, when you’re up on stage playing to an arena crowd does the thought process change?
JB: “That was one of the best moments of my life. That whole week. We did, like, six shows over eight days and it was just… it was like everything. It was a weird experience because it’s like, you’re given something that’s not yours [the headliner’s crowd] but you’re like, ‘Here, have a taste of it.’ And it tastes so sweet. And, oh my gosh. It was pretty much the best arena experience I probably could’ve ever had because everyone was so accommodating, they treated us as if we were equal to the main band, the crowd was super friendly (even though they didn’t understand much of what I was saying) and I got to do some things that I’ve always, always, always dreamt of doing. So it was incredible.
“And it’s kind of made me hungry to get that for myself, in any sort of way that I can. It has definitely given me that fresh burst of energy. And I just felt so at home there as well, that’s what kind of shocked me. I was thinking, ‘Am I gonna be nervous?’ I actually felt the least nervous I’ve ever felt, and I felt so at home, just felt like I could do this every night. I loved it. I loved it.”
Are you more aware of yourself in that moment when you’re playing to big crowds like that?
JB: “I would think that you’re less aware, in fact, far less aware. I don’t know why that is… it feels like you’re almost playing to nobody—
Charlotte, BSS: “Because it’s quite dark as well…”
JB: “It’s dark. You just see… ten thousand faces. None of whom you know. Can’t pick out anybody… you’re looking down the crowds and you’re not like, ‘Oh that’s George, or that’s John, or that’s…’ No, you’re just like, ‘I don’t know anybody.’ And so, in many ways I just completely and utterly let myself go, as well as having the energy of so many people, it’s like a lightning bolt just comes into you. You just feel so alive.
“And even things like, your vocal sounds so good, people are engineering your mic. Like, you know, when you’re doing smaller venues you’re much more, much more aware. The mic isn’t as good, the monitors might crackle or are not as good, you know most of the people in the room… you feel very aware of yourself. Yeah, I think it’s a lot harder.”
Nottingham, London, Leeds – places which hold significance for you. What does each city represent to you? How deeply have these cities inspired your songs?
JB: “Great question. That’s a flipping great question. Nottingham has influenced so much of my songs, so much of my sound and who I am, and everything. Even just wanting to leave Nottingham, my whole life has influenced it. Yeah, that’s my background, that’s my culture, that’s who I am, that’s why I like rap music, that’s why I like band-y music. I was in bands, I loved electric guitars but also everyone I went to school [with] was listening to Grime and Hip Hop so that, kind of, shaped me, who I am. I’m not from Suffolk, I’m not from a leafy countryside place, that’s, that’s who I am inside.
“Leeds shaped me in a way of… taught me about love and heartbreak and gave me all those experiences that I’ll always be writing about: they’re a University kind of thing. Also at University I didn’t take an electric guitar, I just took an acoustic guitar with me. I developed some sense of writing songs, the very early beginnings of it, but I owe a lot to Leeds.
“London, really, is 90% of it. I always thought I was gonna move abroad, always, always, always. I hated England. And then the first night I stepped in London, I put my head against the pillow and just thought, ‘I’m home.’ And it was such a weird experience… and everything about London: the ambition of it, the flair of it, the excitement of it, the electricity of it, the risk and the competition, and the loves felt deeper and the passion felt juicier. Everything. London really made me who I am. The adult who I am.”
Exploring the other side of the coin with Walks with Bear, interviewing artists yourself, how did that feel? Did you enjoy it? As a listener it felt like a natural fit for you, you get it from the artists’ perspective and you’re also very inquisitive by nature, it just works. Any plans to take it further?
JB: “Yeah there is, actually. I wanna try to start filming it because that’s the thing that I felt was missing. So at the moment it’s just a priority thing, I’m trying to finish this album so I don’t have tons of head space. There’s a few people I wanna interview but I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if I wanna waste this just doing it on a podcast.’ As good as a podcast is it’s a bit of a blind medium—and I like listening to podcasts and stuff but I listen to way more podcasts on YouTube, just oddly, I don’t even know why. It just helps me when I see them and I listen to it.
“I probably would still put the audio up on Spotify but I wanna be able to film. So I’m just trying to work at the moment how to do it. Honestly, it was the most enjoyable thing I did last year. I had so much fun. I loved every single second of it and got such a buzz out of it, to the point of where I was like, ‘Maybe after music or after a couple of albums and stuff, I’d love to go into radio’ because I just had such a good time.”
Charlotte, BSS: “It definitely suits you.”
JB: “Thank you.”
You’ve been lucky to connect with a variety of artists and producers through various collabs and tours, is the community aspect important – to be able to share in the experience and associate with like-minded people?
JB: “Yeah, with other artists and stuff?”
Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah.”
JB: “Oh. Yeah. Massively. It’s one of my favourite things actually about the industry, especially in the UK, people are really friendly. There’s a real sense of community. If you’re a good person and you want other people to succeed and stuff, people, you know. Especially in my scene, in the singer-songwriter scene, people are usually really nice. I really, really love it because I get such a buzz out of people and the community aspect of it. I just love it. And there’s just the shared understanding of the word, of like, how weird it is to be an artist and the good times and the bad times—it’s great.
“I’m living with my producer now, he’s produced a lot of my tracks, and he’s obviously… we haven’t worked together that much this year actually. He’s had tons of artists in the house all the time, and I really love it. I really love it.”
Charlotte, BSS: “I’ve been watching Mahalia on tour right now.”
JB: “Yas. Killing it. She was in Manchester a couple of nights ago.”
Charlotte, BSS: “She was, yeah. I saw that.”
Before we finish up, we must talk about the debut album. It’s planned for this year, what do we need to know? What can you tell us?
JB: “I can tell you it’s gonna be really good. Probably four songs that you’ve probably heard before and then maybe six or seven that you haven’t. I just think it’s great. I just want it finished now. I’m so, kind of, sick it to be honest with you. Part of me is like, ‘I just want it out and [start] working on some new music.’ But I’m really excited about the songs that are there. I just feel like it’s good music. I feel like you’ll be able to put it on and enjoy it. I’m proud.
“I wanted an album so badly my whole life that… but to be honest with you, I won’t be able to enjoy it until I actually see it in the shop. Until I see that thing in a CD case or something, I won’t be able to enjoy it. I need to see it. And then I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I made an album. That’s sick.’ And I’ll get working on number two. I’ve learnt so much from this process and I’m almost looking forward to getting another chance to do it again.”
Joel Baker continues his UK tour on 23rd April in London at The Lexington before heading to Leicester, Birmingham and culminating in Nottingham. Ticket info can be found here.
Joel Baker’s UK tour dates are, as follows:
Tuesday 23rd April: The Lexington, London
Wednesday 24th April: The Globe, Leicester
Friday 26th April: The Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham
Saturday 27th April: Bodega Social, Nottingham