On a very cold afternoon in late November, IDOL joined Team Labrinth at the Hoxton Street Studios. In the (rare) event that you are not aware of Labrinth by now, he is a singer-songwriter-producer extraordinaire, a triple threat, who first found fame working with Tinie Tempah on smash-hit tracks like Pass Out and Frisky. The last 12 months couldn’t have gone better for him, featuring on a number one track which he also penned and produced; performing to huge crowds at Glastonbury, Wireless and Global Gathering; and being whisked under the wing of Simon Cowell.
In person, Labrinth is every bit as impressive. Hailing from Hackney, at 22 he has achieved more than any aspiring musician could dream of, yet he is without affectation. Natural and smiley, he tells me that he has been in the studio every morning from 7.30 am, and has already had one other photo-shoot today – and has another after us. His team are visibly baffled at his boundless energy, explaining that they, unlike Labrinth, need to get some sleep. His real name is Timothy McKenzie, but everyone calls him “Lab”. The focus and determination is obvious – Labrinth is a man on a mission, and a highly intelligent one at that. When discussing his musical intentions, he has wisdom and insight well beyond his years.
On set with our photographer Elliot Morgan – who coincidentally shot the single cover for Earthquake – Labrinth was relaxed, chatty and undeniably stylish. He clearly loves fashion, and was mesmerized by the rubber t-shirt pulled by our stylist, unafraid to take risks with what he was choosing to wear. In front of the camera he launched into handstands and acrobatic moves, demonstrating his (very) fit physique. The most memorable thing about Labrinth, however, is how he obviously has his head screwed very firmly on his shoulders – clearly a testament to the tight-knit team he has had around him since his early teens and whom he later thanks in his interview with me…
YOU FIRST CAME TO EVERYONE’S ATTENTION WHEN YOU PRODUCED AND FEATURED ON TINIE TEMPAH’S PASS OUT, AND FOLLOWING THAT FRISKY. HOW DID THAT COLLABORATION COME ABOUT?
Tinie found me through hearing an album I produced called ADHD for an artist called Master Shortie and he really loved the stuff on it, very eclectic, kind of left. He found me through my publisher and was like “I need to work with this guy”. The first time he ever came in, he jumped on Pass Out.
HAD YOU COME UP WITH THE BEAT FOR IT ALREADY?
Yeah, I make all the tracks myself, so he came when I had an idea. He wanted something different, crazy, and that’s what I live on. So he heard it – I played Pass Out and he left the room. I thought he didn’t like the track, personally. But he was thinking up lyrics and a chorus and was outside going crazy. He came back in with an idea, and it all went off from there. We actually made three tracks in that session – Pass Out, Frisky and Wonder Man all in that one day. It was a very intense crazy session.
THE SOUND ON THOSE TINIE TRACKS WAS VERY DISTINCT – DID YOU WORK TOGETHER ON CREATING THAT SOUND FOR HIM OR WAS THAT WHAT YOU HAD IN MIND FOR HIM?
Not for him. What I saw in urban and grime music…they were creative and individual in the way they approached records and they were different, but it was like they had the knowhow but not the mechanics in music. They didn’t understand what they were doing. They were just having fun with their sound. Whereas I have the formula. I understand the way it works – I could mix it with things and really translate to a wider audience, which is hip-hop, trance, jungle, all these sounds, and they’re UK sounds. English people…when we make commercial music, we make a second-hand version of what Americans already have and I felt like why don’t we make our own swagger music? That’s what Pass Out was.
YOU FEATURED VOCALLY ON PASS OUT BUT WAS YOUR AMBITION ULTIMATELY TO BE A SOLO ARTIST, OR WERE YOU HAPPY PRODUCING AND WRITING FIRST AND FOREMOST?
I think I had the ability to be a solo artist. I didn’t know when it was going to come. I sung on the chorus of Pass Out just as a guide. It wasn’t like I was going to be an artist on the record! But Tinie really liked what he heard and it just ended up working and we just left it on there. That was the first mainstream video I did.
AND THEN WHAT WAS THE DECIDING FACTOR THAT MADE YOU FOCUS ON BEING LABRINTH, THE ARTIST?
Well after that it just got crazy. Labels were coming at me from all over the place. They knew about me originally as a producer but they didn’t see me as an artist. After that I had insane amounts of offers from every label you could think of. Everybody throwing Dom Perignon at me. It was crazy. In the midst of that I was about to sign to a major label and Simon Cowell called us to work with a few of the artists off the X Factor. His second in command heard my music and was like, “you’re an artist man, look at the way you dress, look at the way you sing, what’s going on?” I was like, “I’m about to sign to someone” and he was like “but you haven’t signed yet?” And then I signed to Syco!
BEING A MUSICIAN WHO IS FULLY INVOLVED IN YOUR ENTIRE CREATIVE PROCESS, WERE YOU NERVOUS ABOUT SIGNING TO A LABEL LIKE SYCO WHERE THE OTHER ARTISTS ARE MORE MANUFACTURED?
No, not at all. I knew I was going to be the odd one out. Every other label was signing urban artists. I don’t wanna just call myself an urban artist, but at the time I was seen as an urban artist. I really felt that I would end up just being pushed to the back because there were so many in every other label. So I thought why not go for a label where you’re definitely going to be getting different attention. I felt like that was the perfect place.
Also, who doesn’t want to sign to Simon Cowell and have the ability to almost work with anyone you want to. Of course they don’t produce my music or write my songs, so I knew I was going to be fine.
DO YOU WORK CLOSELY WITH SIMON?
We have chats every once in a while. I go and have a little meeting with him every month. We have good chats about how I can develop and take things to another level.
IS HE SCARY?
Not at all. He’s a good guy.
HOW DID IT FEEL WHEN YOUR FIRST SOLO SINGLE ‘LET THE SUNSHINE’ REACHED NUMBER 3 IN THE CHARTS?
It felt good. It felt like things were moving, stepping up. It felt like Labrinth was starting to begin. I was still nervous, like oh my god can I do this! When you start you’re always nervous. I call it the Year 7 period. You’re at school, you have that big back-pack that doesn’t fit you, and you’re just nervous. But as you take more steps forward into the business it becomes easier to deal with what’s around you, and I’m ready to play in the playground man!
YOU WROTE, COMPOSED AND PRODUCED SINGLE “EARTHQUAKE” YOURSELF. IS IT LIBERATING OR NERVE-WRECKING TO HAVE THAT AMOUNT OF CREATIVE CONTROL?
It makes me feel free. It is stressful at the same time. It’s just time. There’s no time to do anything. To have to be the producer, the writer and the artist at the same time is stressful but at the same time it makes me feel like I’m whole-heartedly being myself. That’s what I feel like I’m doing in my album.
HAS IT TAKEN YOU A LOT LONGER TO PUT TOGETHER YOUR ALBUM BECAUSE OF THAT?
What took me a bit longer was to find out who I am. To be an artist you’ve got to know who you are, what you’re presenting. Even though I don’t like to put it this way, every artist is a brand really. If you’re presenting a brand to a person, any brand you can think of out there has an integrity – and I was like, what do people come to Labrinth for? And I had to work that out while making this album. It’s just been growing and organically coming together which is healthy.
TAKE US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF WORKING ON ALL THREE ELEMENTS – WHAT DO YOU COME UP WITH FIRST? WHAT IS YOUR SONG-WRITING PROCESS?
If I’m writing a song, it’s always about the title first. Title, then the melody. I like to have a strong melody and then fit the lyrics to the melody. In terms of making a beat it’s like styling someone. It’s almost from the basics and foundations of what you know and trying to twist them as much as possible. That’s what I try and do with every song I make.
LIKE A LABRYNTH?
Yeah man, basically, that’s exactly it!
WHAT CAN THE IDOL READERS EXPECT FROM THE ALBUM?
Surprises. Loads of surprises. Maybe things that you hate and things that you love, all at the same time.
HAVE YOU COLLABORATED ON MANY TRACKS?
Yes, with a few artists. Really cool artists – some that are coming up right now, that are doing insane things in the business and are going to do amazing things next year – and then some that are already established.
HOW DO YOU SPLIT YOUR TIME BETWEEN YOUR CAREER AS A SOLO ARTIST AND WRITING AND PRODUCING FOR OTHER PEOPLE?
Prioritizing is the hardest thing, especially being a 22 year old who wants to have fun. I always have to learn to be professional and just prioritize my time. My manager is very good at that. He’s my mentor and has been supporting me since I was 15. His name is Mark Williams. We have a label together. To do all these things you need a strong team. My team is like a family. I’ve known all of them for years and they’re going to take me to where I need to go. I’m very, very secure.
YOU MADE A DEAL TO CREATE YOUR OWN IMPRINT LABEL WITHIN SYCO NAMED ODD CHILD RECORDINGS. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT AN IMPRINT LABEL IS AND WHY DID YOU DECIDED TO DO IT?
It’s a joint venture, so I sign artists, and Simon Cowell’s label has all the facilities I need to take that artist to where they need to go – some of things I wouldn’t necessarily have if I had my own label without Syco. But, I have full creative control, I make all the decisions in terms of releasing the tracks. Our first artist Etta Bond is on a record called Forgiveness with Wretch 32.
DID YOU DISCOVER ETTA?
I’ve known her since I was 17 – before things kicked off we were working together. I always thought she was amazing, and I felt she needed her moment. She has a lovely voice. When you meet an artist that doesn’t need one drop of auto-tune on their vocal then you know they are special.
YOUR HEADLINE TOUR STARTS FEBRUARY 23RD. ARE YOU EXCITED?
Do you know what – I can’t believe it! When you’re sitting in your room, and you’re watching MTV and watching all these artists do amazing things, to be one of them sends me over the moon. I can’t believe I’m on my own tour, I’m really excited.
YOU’RE ONE OF 9 VERY MUSICAL SIBLINGS – ARE ANY OF THEM GOING TO BE JOINING YOU ON TOUR?
You never know. My brothers and sisters are as busy as me. One plays for Tinie Tempah, two of them are singing for and playing with Wretch 32, everyone plays and everyone’s busy. Maybe I can pull some of them on stage if they have the time.
WHO WERE YOUR MUSICAL INSPIRATIONS GROWING UP?
I wouldn’t say single people, but I would say sounds. I was listening to gospel, country because my mum loves country, funk, all these sounds. But mainly gospel because it incorporates all these sounds. I almost knew them before I heard them. I didn’t know about Prince for ages, or James Brown when I was younger. When I heard all these sounds it was like I’d already experienced them in church.
WHO ARE YOUR IDOLS?
IDOL magazine is my idol!! No, I’m terrible. My idols…Mark Williams who played an instrumental part in my career and has done amazing things for me. Mum has always got to be your idol because my mum found my manager for me. Whenever I need advice I’m on the phone to my mum – she’s a very special woman.
If I had to say someone famous, I’d have to say Quincy Jones, the things he has done for music is amazing. There’s too many man! I’ve got loads.
I respect people like Simon Cowell, Richard Branson – amazing entrepreneurs who take their business to the next level. And finally, Ray Charles, as a business man, he did amazing things.