British singer/songwriter Samm Henshaw has one of those rich voices that reminds you of dessert. But not just any dessert, the kind of dessert you skip dinner for. He effortlessly has combined his buttery voice with a sound that feels like a warm hug. Within that cozy sound is something soulful that beams Sunday morning at church. This threaded gospel isn’t only evident in his sound but also in his lyrics, like in his song “Church” featuring EARTHGANG which has over 14 million views on YouTube. Recently, he collaborated with another musical duo, Brasstracks, on “Change For Me”. The feel-good single reminds us why we need more horns in music and is accompanied with a music video that captures the beauty of New York.
With the weight of COVID-19 on the world, Henshaw sat outside his home in London as I sat in my room in New York. Birds sang in the background as we talked about his music-making process, the unorthodox way he celebrated his 26th birthday, and what artists he’d like to see battle on Instagram live. He even told me the title of his upcoming project: Untidy Soul.
FRONTRUNNER gets tidy with Samm Henshaw.
I read that you want your music to be a juxtaposition of an upbeat sound and music that’s actually saying something. Can you tell me about your upcoming project and its message?
A lot of it has been based on how I felt, experiences I’ve had in the past few years and the places I’ve been in my life. Places that have been great in my life and places that have been not so great. This whole project has been about me being real but also being able to have fun with it. I always reference Kanye’s early stuff because I felt like it was such a clever way to grab people’s attention. “Heard Them Say” is a really cool vibey song but he’s talking about real stuff. He’s talking about the experiences of black men and their experience in America and the world in general. There was a lot to relate to there.
I’ve heard that record so many times and as a kid it doesn’t resonate the same way until you’re older and you’re like, “Wow, this is what that guy was talking about the whole time.” For me, I want to be able to say something but people find it appealing and maybe after a hundred listens you’ll understand what I was saying. That’s essentially the idea behind the whole juxtaposition thing. I think it’s nostalgic to see how you can match the two.
What was it like collaborating with Brasstracks on “Change For Me”?
They are two of my favorite people. They’re great. I’m an awkward person and I struggle to make industry friends because I keep to myself. You also don’t want to force relationships with people because it’s not natural but with them it was organic. The way we got introduced to each other was because I sampled their horn part for my song “Broke” and they reached out. I remember shouting them out. From that, we stayed in touch and one day Ivan, who plays trumpet, sent me a beat and the music was already there. He was like “I’ve got this. Would you want to do something on this?” and I was like “Hell yeah.” We linked up, wrote the song, I cleaned up the vocals and worked on it in London and we ended up with “Change For Me”. It’s a really cool song. The music video is my favorite.
What was it like growing up as a preacher’s kid? Not only that, a Nigerian preacher’s kid? What were some of your favorite gospel songs to sing as a kid?
Growing up being a preacher’s kid was a lot of pressure to be someone that I didn’t know I was yet. I hadn’t figured out my identity and a lot of people would be like “You’re a pastor’s kid so you should be like this.” I don’t know that and you don’t know that so don’t tell me what I’m supposed to be. So because of that I was a rebellious child and I’ve got rebellious tendencies. People pressured me and I pushed back. To a degree it was hard for my parents. I was a difficult kid so it was extremely hard for them. Thank God they didn’t send me to Nigeria. They definitely thought about it.
My parents are amazing but as a kid you’re going to go through challenges and experiences. You go through the whole identity phase. It was interesting and fun and stressful combined. In hindsight, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
When it comes to gospel songs, anything from Kirk Franklin. To this day, he’s one of my favorites ever. I’m a big Fred Hammond fan. And Melodies From Heaven! There’s so many. Sort of the classical hymns like Amazing Grace. There’s also the Winans family, the Clark Sisters, Donnie McClurkin. Anything he does we were there for. It’s interesting because we never grew up listening to studio-made albums. We only ever heard live albums because we listened to mainly gospel music in my house. So, most of the albums we heard were live albums with all of these arrangements and chords and crowds in the background. Those are just a few, but there are many [more] that I can’t remember.
You used to be in a band called Ill Phunk. Can you tell me more about that? How have you seen yourself grow as an artist since being in a band?
When I was in university, I was bored and distracted and found it hard to make friends with people where we had a similar vibe and sound. I met a bunch of guys in university. Some with different years. It was a diverse group of people. We met up and jammed one day and we liked each other. I was getting asked to do some shows and I had to bring my boys. We did one show and then we did another and we just started doing all these gigs. And we needed a name and we came up with the name Ill Phunk, because why not? So we created a band and it was so much fun. I’m sure there are some videos floating around somewhere. In regard to how things have changed musically for me, I’ve grown as a songwriter. I’ve found my music identity. Being in a band was a time when I was trying to identify what world I fit in musically. That was an exploration, a great one that I still do to this day. Now I’m more comfortable and confident in looking for that and finding that.
There are so many remixes to your songs. How does it feel to hear your music reinterpreted?
It’s interesting actually. There are some where I’m like “Whoa.” One thing that I love about collaboration is when you work with different people, you always get different vibes and people interpret things differently. We can all play the same chord progression but your version is going to be different from my version because we all interpret things differently. When people interpret things differently, it’s always interesting and fun to hear because I personally never interpret it in that way. And it’s amazing and cool. It’s lovely to know that people like my music enough to try to put their own twist on it or even approach it. It’s a blessing and I’m grateful for it.
Your voice has so much soul to it that I was interested in your music-making process. What comes first when writing a song, the instrumentation or you singing a melody?
It really does vary. When we were working on this project, I was concerned with creating a sound for myself. I wanted people to hear something that sounded similar to something I’ve made and be like “That sounds like a Samm Henshaw song.” The music came first. I normally would create the entire sound before I even got to the writing and melody. I really wanted to hear and envision what the song was before we created it. In the past, I’ve definitely written songs just by sitting with the guitar or by the piano and playing chords then afterwards creating a sound around that. For the moment it’s been making the song first then doing the lyrics and melody.
What have been your most memorable moments on tour?
There’s too many. I’ll say a recent one. We were touring with Allen Stone in America. That was my first American tour. To just be in America and go to parts of the country I’ve never been to in life and you’ve got people singing lyrics back to you is mindblowing. That was incredible.
I bought a bow and arrow. I bought it in a Wal-Mart. I bought it like it was a pack of gum. I was like, “Why are you selling bows and arrows?” I got it in Arkansas. We stopped in a Wal-Mart and I bought it there and on my 26th birthday we just shot it in the woods, and that was fun. That’s how I celebrated my 26th birthday. We stopped in the woods and were shooting [with] bows and arrows.
One good thing that has come from quarantine are the Instagram battles such as Babyface versus Teddy Riley or Jill Scott versus Erykah Badu. If you could see two artists playfully battle it out on Instagram live, who would you choose?
I want to see Rihanna and Beyoncé. That’d be dope. You know why? I think I saw something online that said Jay Z was responsible for us having Rihanna and Kanye and Lil’ Wayne was responsible for us having Drake and Nicki Minaj. My sister and I got into a mad debate. I started going through Rihanna’s catalog and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I forgot how many hits Rihanna has. So I would love to see it.