Interview | Samm Henshaw [Mar 2016]

The stage is set for Samm Henshaw, who has come a long way in a short period of time. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist arrives at the location of our shoot following another media obligation; such is the packed schedule he now abides by since signing a record deal with Columbia, and much like his music, Samm Henshaw’s presence emits a sense of warmth throughout the room, taking the chill off of the winter’s day.

As is to be expected for someone so young, Samm is still adjusting to the rigours of what a career as a musician entails, though the man himself suggests, It’s not really changed much because I’ve been signed, it’s just changed because I’m growing as a musician”. It was not too long ago that he was a student at Southampton Solent studying Popular Music Performance, at which point a music career had hardly been thought of, “I didn’t realise that I wanted to be a musician until I was at university” he reveals. “When I started [university] I wasn’t doing many shows, because in my first year was the first time I’d done an actual gig. From the first gig that I did, I started doing more”. This demand for Samm’s services – though positive in hindsight – was deemed slightly unhelpful at the time by his parents, with regard to how it affected his studies, “It got to the point that I started going to more shows than I did to my lectures”, he confesses, his voice tainted with an intimation of guilt. This led to Samm being restricted to just one public performance in his third and final year as a student and it happened to be as part of his dissertation assessment. Not only was the show a success in aiding his status as a graduate, but it was also the show that helped him secure his deal with Columbia.

Though it was not until his time at university that he truly acknowledged his ambition to cultivate a career in music, his musical foundations were being laid well before. Being the son of a reverend, Samm’s earliest musical memories are based in church, where he was first exposed to the use of musical instruments. He began playing drums at the tender age of four, influenced by witnessing other young people doing the same, before teaching himself to play keys at the start of his teenage years. His musical thirst could not be quenched as Samm learned how to play the guitar from sixteen, which coincided with his singing and songwriting exploits – something he subconsciously partook in beforehand, “I was naive to it all. I thought as a singer, you were supposed to write your own songs, I didn’t know that people didn’t do that. So, I came up with my own little ideas and never really considered it a separate role”.

This professed subconscious act was undoubtedly induced by Samm’s musical influences, most of which originated from Gospel. When speaking of the people that impacted on his style the most, he mentions the likes of Kirk Franklin, Helen Baylor, Fred Hammond and Alvin Slaughter. Among these names from the Gospel genre, Samm was also quick to profess the mark that Pop music made on his formative years, citing acts such as Michael Jackson and Maroon 5 as personal favourites. It is only in more recent times that Samm has adopted another group of influences to add to his already diverse palette, “In the last seven or eight years, I’ve started listening to people like Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo”, he states, “I guess I was a little later with [listening to] them, but I eventually picked them up and studied them to a tee”.

A name not mentioned amongst those is James Bay, however, it is clear that he is someone who has had an immense effect on Samm since the two toured together in 2015. “He’s the guy”, Samm proclaims, “I’m going to look back on that tour and say that he’s the best person I’ve ever performed with”. Samm explains how he did not plan to watch every performance of Bay’s whilst on tour with him, but he could not escape the magnetism of his stage show, “I went to every single show, because he’s that good. Every night [his show] changed. His performance levels are insane”. In addition to being impressed by James Bay’s performances, Samm was also quick to divulge the lessons he was able to absorb from his peer. Upon receiving the information that he would only be accompanied by two members of his band during the tour, Bay offered the advice that, “If you can perform a song in its purest form, if you sing it ‘A cappella’, and people can connect with that song, people will connect with the song however you play it”. The guidance humbled Samm, and enabled a different approach to his future performances, commenting that it has allowed him to “add simplicity” to what he does.

Talk of simplicity seems scarce in the complex world of the music industry. No matter how assured anyone believes they are or appears to be, the pressures of the industry will always have an affect, especially on an emerging artist. “I’m trying to keep a level head about everything”, evaluates Samm, “the worst thing I could do is get ahead of myself and cover myself with pressure that stops me on focusing on what I want to achieve. I’ve spent all this time learning to not be affected by it. We’re drawing people in and as long as we’re drawing people in, we’re pretty sure that regardless of what we do next, people are going to stay with us”. One of the key elements of surviving in a competitive music industry is learning how to effectively deal with any pressure you may be under as an artist, which, being a developing artist, is something Samm still has to master, “It’s still something I’m learning now”, he admits. “The amount of pressure I put on myself when I’m writing a song – it’s ridiculous”, Samm says, before giving an insight to his creative process. “Recently, before writing a song, I haven’t been thinking about creating the song, I’ve been thinking about the body of work and what the song is going towards. I should be thinking about creating the song and then the body of work will come together. I think that way of thinking has slowed me down in terms of making more songs”. For someone so young, and so early in his career to recognise how certain thought processes can affect his creativity, Samm demonstrates the principles of a more experienced artist.

Unfortunately for many artists, the sense of pressure they may feel is not always due to factors within their control. In any career where fame is likely to be a part of the journey, artists are often subjected to the difficulty of living up to their new-found celebrity status, which is somewhat of a concern for Samm, “I want to be known just for my music”, he affirms, before his consideration interrupts the fluency of our conversation, “so sometimes I do get a bit nervous about the fact that if I am successful, it detracts from the music. I’d rather my music was known more than I was. Some people look at it and think, ‘That’s cool’ and that’s the life that they want to live, but it can’t be. It seems awful, your life just becomes… It doesn’t become your life anymore”. Despite the seemingly unavoidable idea of celebrity that is forced upon people, Samm offers a different perspective, “Those sort of things, you can allow them to happen. I look at someone like Adele; they don’t bother her because she doesn’t want to be bothered. As much as [the media] can try and catch you out, I honestly do believe it’s as much as you give them. If you give them a lot, they’ll take it and use it against you”.

It would be understandable if the aforementioned aspects were Samm’s foremost anxieties, such is the unassuming nature of the man, but that is not the case. Instead, he feels that failures in relation to his art form are his most notable worries. “Making a song that doesn’t impact someone’s life”, he responds when asked about anything he may fear with regard to his occupation. “When I make a song that I want to be for people specifically, and I want to connect with a person, if it didn’t do that I would be so devastated”. This pure, unadulterated focus on his musicianship is one of the fundamental reasons why he can achieve anything he wants to, if circumstances allow. The stage is set for Samm Henshaw.

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