Jessie Ware, Laura Mvula and Emeli Sandé have nothing but high praise for him. From time to time, apparently, India Arie checks in on him. And music heavyweights can’t stop tweeting about him:
While Kwabs (short for Kwabena) Sarkodee Adjepong rides a wave of affection from music’s elite, he is here today thanks to the viral vote of confidence of ordinary listening fans. There’s a total of 800,000-plus views for his YouTube covers of Corinne Bailey Rae’s Like a Star and James Blake’s The Wilhelm Scream from three years ago. That’s how his current management got wind of him, and eventually landed his recording contract with Atlantic Records.
More recently, you’ll find 25-year-old Kwabs’s distinctly soulful brooding baritone on a gorgeous acoustic version of the foreboding Look Over Your Shoulder, which follows Fight for Love, both from his album Love + War with a slated 11 September release. Willing and Able, the outstanding deep housey number by producer duo Disclosure that premiered at the UK’s Wild Life Festival last month, will probably not have escaped your notice either.
Every word he uses, pronounced with a faint lisp, sounds well considered.
When he was still a lead singer for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Amy Winehouse was also an alumna), Kwabs got drafted into the BBC2 reality TV three-part series Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment. Its premise was to follow the drum-and-bass pioneer’s quest to discover young talent, proposing music as a catalyst to change the lives of its participants, whose unconventional circumstances might be considered challenging. It was here, recalls UK-born, Ghana-descended Kwabs, where his solo music ambitions, of which he had been completely unaware, surfaced for the first time.
‘Once a producer asked me if I preferred performing in a group or on my own. That question stuck with me from then till I put out my first videos on YouTube. It showed me how much I wanted to shine,’ he admits to me when we meet up in Brixton’s Ritzy Picturehouse café one crisp spring afternoon. A skullcap pulled over his tiny afro, denim trousers and jacket, all black, add to the earnestness of his aura as he cups his hands around the tea he just ordered. Every word he uses, pronounced with a faint lisp, sounds well considered. ‘I am an inherently solitary human. I keep to myself,’ he says. ‘I guess that’s balanced out by being observant. That helps me understand and relate to people.’
Hotly tipped by the BBC, MTV and the Guardian, Kwabs’s first three EPs Wrong or Right, Pray for Love and Walk introduce him with moody, modernistic electronica steeped in grand, traditional choral textures.
‘It’s a sound where the song is king but the identity is also key, you know what I mean?’ Kwabs explains, ‘I’m not going to make something that feels weird and wonderful just because it’s cool. It has to support the song and it has to have something that feels like it has an edge as well.’ Its emotional palette hints at a deep well bubbling under.
Kwabs lived with his mum and little sister, seven years his junior, in a Bermondsey council estate. When he turned 11, family life as he knew it changed forever when he and his sister were taken into foster care. The next eight years would see the siblings placed with two different foster families, with one constant that Kwabs would insist upon: they would never be separated. His new school, the Charter School in Dulwich, became a place of respite for him, with helpful teachers who not only picked up on his potential but also cared enough to guide his attempts to enter a professional music career. One in particular, Miss Xanther Starr, remains actively invested in his well-being to this day. She texted him not too long ago after seeing him on Channel 4’s celebrity cooking show Sunday Brunch.
‘They helped me to seek the opportunity. I didn’t have the money, the resources or even the motivation, to be honest. I really felt like it was always the place where I could get away from stuff that was going on.’
This balancing act was made all the more delicate by the relationship he has with his mother.
‘It was great because it was a new beginning and a life away from home life which was up until this point tricky.’
I want the music to show an example of what it means to be human, flaws and all, without everything being perfect or without everything being awful.
‘Any mother is going to have difficulty having their children go away from them,’ he reasons. ‘As difficult as it was at the time, it just had to be. I feel like she might not necessarily be at peace with that but she sees how well I am doing for all of those experiences.
‘There was a time when I wasn’t seeing her at all and there were times that I was and that was down to where I was as a human being. I rediscovered my relationship with her in my twenties when I felt settled enough in myself to understand the circumstances under which it all happened. I am at a stage where I get it, I understand what she needs and I give her what she wants, which is to see her son.’
Interacting with her for the first time as an adult, two summers ago, shaped the very first meeting Kwabs would have with Sohn, the British Vienna-based enigmatic electronic soul producer.
‘I was feeling flustered and unsure about what I don’t know,’ he recalls. ‘I went in there and talked to him about everything and he seemed to get it. Few people can get you on a creative level and personal level and let these things breathe. It just felt like the start of a relationship.’
‘The album is the scripture and the gig is the sermon.’
That relationship endures over those three well-received EPs – Pray for Love, Wrong or Right and Walk. Sohn takes the production reins again on Love + War along with the Invisible’s frontman Dave Okumu (who has also produced Jessie Ware and Eska). So far Kwabs has racked up more than 60 million views on YouTube. Furthermore, Walk has had more than 35 million Spotify streams worldwide and is currently on more than half a million track equivalent sales.
Supporting Sam Smith’s tour, a sold-out Somerset House headliner show last month, festival appearances at Roskilde, Montreux Jazz, Latitude Festival among several others are testament to Kwabs’ fast growing reputation as one of the most electrifying live acts around and heighten the expectation around that all important debut album.
Quietly confident, Kwabs has a level-headed view of the future: ‘I want the music to show an example of what it means to be human, flaws and all, without everything being perfect or without everything being awful. I really believe in being settled in one’s full spectrum of emotions and be OK. People always ask me what I think will happen. The music will dictate what is going to happen. I wouldn’t mind winning a couple of Grammys. You gotta put it out into the universe. I’ve always said that the album is the scripture and the gig is the sermon. I want when people see the performance it will resonate even more when they listen to the album.’
Kwabs’ debut album ‘Love + War’ is out on 11 September.