Written by Molly Gorman
I’m greeted by a cheerful Samm Henshaw, who has joined our Zoom meeting having just passed his driving test. It might not be the only thing he is chuffed about – after the phenomenal success of his debut album last year, Untidy Soul, which saw the 29-year-old singer-songwriter and instrumentalist receive widespread critical acclaim, he is gearing up to release another album amongst other projects in 2024.
Before Henshaw and I met, I trawled through my Spotify playlists to find the exact moment I became a fan of his music. Successfully I found that his 2019 releases Church (feat. EARTHGANG) and The World Is Mine (Whole World Ahead) were the tracks that got me hooked, at which point, Henshaw had already been releasing music for four years prior, with his debut single and EP The Sound Experiment, coming out in 2015.
Signed to his label at 21, which Henshaw reckons is a fairly late start for most in the music industry, he is still getting used to the fact that he is a creative for a living. In February he’ll be turning 30, and I ask if the past nine years have been hard work to get to where he is today. ‘I’m grateful, more than anything. I guess it depends on how you look at hard work, actually.’ Samm says. I think if you look at it as quite a negative thing, then yeah, it has moments when it feels like hard work. But if you don’t look at it as that, you don’t notice if you’re working hard or not, you’re just enjoying it. There have been more times when it’s just been me getting on with it and having fun. You have the occasional feeling where this feels heavy and this feels like impossible – some days it feels like it sucks, but honestly, now more than ever, I really feel in love with what I do and it’s great.’
As Henshaw’s career has flourished year-on-year, the music industry, the consumption of music, and the way artists market themselves has shifted eminently. ‘I feel like an old man!’ Samm says. ‘It’s like the industry, or society in fact, changes every six months. Social media is obviously one of the biggest parts of it and the way that I had to use social media when I started, in comparison to how you have to use social media now. It’s the most important thing in an artist’s career – it’s a double-edged sword because on one end it’s great that artists now have more control over the idea of promotion and really getting themselves out there, but then on the other hand, it’s people like me who now like being more reclusive. I don’t really like the idea of having to show off everything that I do, I always want to leave it to the art and creative side, so I’m trying to find a balance.”
Creativity and innovation as an artist goes beyond sound for Henshaw as he reveals that his favourite part of a project is when he can begin to piece everything together to make a powerful marketing campaign. He says, ‘I actually weirdly like marketing. I could be wrong in saying this, but I feel like people don’t pay enough attention to where you’re actually creating a product that everyone’s going to become attracted to, that people are going to buy into – artwork, styling. You’re grabbing everything you’ve done and you’re piecing it together – creating the visuals, the overall narrative.’
As a consumer himself, he has recognised that there is so much he’s attracted to in regards to other artists’ campaigns, in so far that he knows he’s not just buying into someone’s music, but their whole image. ‘It’s not like one single by an artist has got me gassed enough to take in a whole body of work. It’s the visuals, the clothes that they wear, it’s the performances on Jimmy Fallon, it’s the brands that they’re working with, it’s the little trailer that they create for Instagram or TikTok. All these little parts gas me so much because it’s like, ah, this is really someone thinking about the audience and this world that we’re about to enter into.’ For Samm, it’s also the idea of eras. ‘When we think about the biggest artists of all time you’ve got Michael Jackson, Madonna, Kanye West – there’s always these very distinctive things about them that make us remember that moment in time where you are so captivated by them because they did something with the marketing that was just so undeniable and so memorable.’ And he is right because as he’s speaking so passionately about this, all I can think about is Beyoncé’s Renaissance era. I can’t look at silver, sparkly items of clothing or shoes without thinking of that album and before I know it, the Cozy intro is in my head.
Speaking of eras, Henshaw’s latest single, Jumoke, is sonically very different as he delves into Afrobeats while retaining his deep, smooth and soulful vocals. Described by Samm as a love song created for a wedding, Jumoke was released last month in honour of his uncle Steve who sadly passed away in 2022, with all royalties going to Steve’s four children. ‘Steve worked in the Afrobeats world, which is like the Afro-contemporary world of music – he always said I needed to do something with Afrobeats’, Samm says. Created during the pandemic with friends in the studio, Jumoke was finished in one night and not touched again, until now. When Steve passed away, he hadn’t heard it. ‘Steve meant so much to me. He literally was such a pivotal person in my life, so releasing Jumoke was the most important way I could honour him, and also be a blessing towards his kids and my family without needing to do anything crazy or extravagant.’ As Samm intended, it’s certainly a song of love and celebration with such touching lyrics – ‘I dey pray for your smile in the morning / Listen out for your voice in the air’.
Turning such pivotal life experiences into art isn’t necessarily something Henshaw finds easy. He writes after a period of reflection, needing time to figure out his feelings, using hindsight as his power, ‘I feel like I need to have gone through the full experience, and need to be in a place where I’m aware of what it is that I’m feeling, to be able to identify it and then go, okay, cool. This is what I felt at the time and this is what I feel now, and be able to give you a clearer, more bird’s eye view.’
So what brings him joy? It’s the little things that end up being the most meaningful – building his relationship with God, his family and friends. ‘When I accomplish something in my career it’s obviously amazing and beneficial, but in regards to just when I feel most at peace, it’s when I’m with family, friends, my girlfriend and building that relationship with God. It’s actually the stuff in my life that isn’t as extravagant. I guess it’s all the very basic stuff that most people probably find cliché and boring.’ But writing about everyday life is what Samm does best. In his song Enough from Untidy Soul, he sings ‘Why I always gotta be perfect? / Sometimes, I go, I try to make everything so perfect / But it’s not and it’s cool / ‘Cause it’s real when it’s true.’ As a writer I can relate to being a perfectionist and struggle knowing when a piece is truly finished. Henshaw feels the same, noting that his team around him often say when a song is finished. ‘If I was left to my own devices I’d probably always have something to say. The album’s been out for a year now – thank God I haven’t listened to it, but if I were to, I could go back and have notes. If it wasn’t for the people that I was surrounded by telling me it was done, I’d never put anything out.’
An overarching takeaway I have from meeting Samm is that he’s full of gratitude to have made it to 29-years-old, and that he can wake up in the morning and think of ideas, make music and be creative for a living. Reflecting on the fun he has had in his twenties, he acknowledges that not everyone is fortunate enough to live this long and can live the life they want. ‘There’s so much happening in the world and there’s so much going on with people individually too. Even COVID was great for me – it gave me time to spend with my family, to get to know myself a bit better and to build my relationship with God. It has been a great decade.’
Listen to Jumoke here