Growing up on gospel music as the son of a reverend in South London, 26-year old Samm Henshaw has been heating it up over the past few months as he gets closer to the release date of his debut album Untidy Soul, due out January 28th via AWAL. Henshaw’s sound is buoyant, upbeat and a maximalist’s dream — it successfully blends his gospel upbringing with today’s modern soul and R&B to create a vivid universe for him to exist within. His vision is decidedly singular and exuberantly bright; already, he’s put out several iconic music videos for the singles of Untidy Soul that display complete attention to detail, creating an episodic story arc that will come to completion in the album’s release. In Henshaw’s world, despite the messiness of humanity (a frequent well that he mines from lyrically), things are colorful, beautiful, and vibrant. We talked with Samm about Untidy Soul and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on his new material, which you can read below:
You grew up in the church and have written music since you were 15 years old. What is the most significant way that you’ve grown since those days?
That’s a great question. I think I’m more vulnerable than I’ve ever been as a songwriter; my experiences and new vocabulary have helped me change how I think about songs and songwriting. There was also this recognition about what songwriting really was — I didn’t know as a kid that songwriting was its own entity. I just assumed everyone wrote their own songs if they sang it (laughs). So becoming more aware of that has caused me to really reflect on the art of the song and how I put them together. I think people might be able to hear that now; I’m very aware of lyrics now and want to approach that just as intentionally as I approach the sound.
I’ve interviewed quite a few artists recently that started as songwriters for other writers and then evolved into doing their own thing. At what point do you claim a song for yourself rather than give it to someone else?
Funny story on that, actually — I wrote a song for myself once and was adamant that it would remain my song. Then, this big artist — and when I say big, I mean stadiums — reached out and said “I want this song.” and I said “No.” And they asked again, and I said no. And FINALLY I gave in because I realized how ridiculous I was being (laughs). I just had this idea that if I give this song away and nothing ever happens with it, then I’d just be pissed (laughs).
(laughing) I could imagine, on the alternative, that it would be a weird feeling if this artist took your song and it went supernova.
THAT’S THE THING! If it got massive, I wouldn’t mind at all; I’m a part of it. But if it were to just sit around and not do anything at all, I’d be mad. Things just have a tendency to sit because of COVID, and it still hasn’t come out, and I’m just pissed (laughs).
COVID! What a beautiful segue — to put it bluntly, I first became familiar with you because I’m an Allen Stone fan.
(laughs) Oh, Christ.
You know where this is going. You were on tour with Allen when the pandemic shut it all down midway through the tour. I’d love for you to walk me through that week or so when everything locked down. Did that moment, suddenly being stopped, inspire anything on Untidy Soul?
No. Actually, that’s a lie. (laughs) Before I went on that tour, I finished the record. I was in Los Angeles finishing up, and then we flew to, like, Dallas to start the tour and I wasn’t thinking about the record. We got to do at least half of the tour — a good run of shows — and then the COVID thing started to become a much larger conversation. And I think we got to Memphis and everything just stopped, and that day was actually the day I figured out I had COVID. I felt super run-down, so I took a test, and lo and behold, the next day I couldn’t even get out of my hotel room.
I got back home to the UK after I recovered, and I just absolutely did not want to think about music. I’d spent my whole first part of the year thinking about nothing but music as a result of finishing the record and the tour getting shut down. I got back home and my dad was on his deathbed, the world looked horrible, and there were just more important things going on rather than my album. For around a month or two, I just didn’t care — it became a time for me to think about the most important, human things in my life. I was caring for my mental health, and my disciplines and habits, and it was actually great. After a couple of months, things started to pick up slowly — I got a song in a movie, I did a song for a Samsung advert, and we fell back into the normal a little bit. We wrote the last song on the record “Joy” for that advert, and as we were finishing up the album, I just realized that after the year we have had, it had to go on the record. So this is the longest answer ever to your question, but yes, the pandemic was actually a centering point for me to assemble this album.
No, I appreciate that answer. I don’t think anyone wants to hear any more songs about the isolation we’ve all been in for the past year, but I think there is a greater idea that this was a big centering moment for everyone to rediscover themselves. I am sorry to hear that you caught COVID though.
Oh man, it’s no big deal now. It was an opportunity to really remember what matters most in your life, you know? The past year sucked, but I do think I’ve come out of it a better, more put-together person, which is funny considering the theme of the album is how I’m not that (laughs).
Where did the name for the record come from?
It came from a few things. The one that I’m telling people now is that it’s a description of the record; I didn’t really know what I was trying to make, and I didn’t know what I wanted the sound to me, and I was just talking with a friend and I described it as “a messy, untidy soul.” It stuck around like that, and we just landed on it as the album title.
There’s also a human component to it, you know? Like, we’re all messy, complex people and this record carries a theme with it that embraces that — it’s kind of about being a bit of a mess as a person and needing this time and space to grow and change.
It’s funny — when I was thinking about the name I was thinking about the latter reason there rather than the description of the music. If you were to sum up the mission of the record in a single sentence, what would it be?
I think it’s about growth and reflection. So much of it is based on conversations and stories, or about looking through life from different perspectives and realizing where you’re at. I think the idea of acceptance plays a huge role, too in that same vein.
Something I really love about the record is the use of interludes.
(excitedly) Oh man, thank you! That’s so cool to hear!
I think it’s nice to hear interludes incorporated in a way that’s not super cheesy but also incredibly funny. What was your thinking in including them on this record?
Oh, there are so many answers to this question! There were a lot of different ways for this to go — we’d mapped out the record almost as if it was a story, almost like one guy in the back of a cab telling a story throughout the record. So, the interludes would act as a way to break up the story a bit. But we were going through the record and steered slightly away from that, but we wanted to leave the interludes on because they’re just so much fun, you know? Most of my favorite records have interludes in them.
I love that you had this big concept and just decided “No” to that.
Yeah, the next one will be concept-heavy, but we just had a moment where we wanted to love the record for what it was rather than make it super deep and confusing.
You’ve got some shows coming up soon — how was your return to the stage in London?
Oh man, it was insane. It was super weird, because obviously I had not done a London show in about two years, and I hadn’t played with my band in like, a year. It was weird and overwhelming in the most beautiful way — the crowd was incredible. You could tell that they’d wanted to go to a show for a long time.
What can we expect from the U.S. dates this month?
Songs that I’ve never performed before — not even necessarily from Untidy Soul. It’s going to be a good time; I know we’re incredibly excited to sing and dance a lot. I think that’s all I’m there to do now: assist and make sure that your day is not crap (laughs).