Interview / Zak Abel

It’s set to be a big year for Zak Abel. His new album, Only When We’re Naked, is set for release, and he could form a small army with the amount of collaborations he’s worked on. From KAYTRANADA to Gorgon City, Kwabs to Tom Misch, now he’s managed to nab a track from Wretch 32. Talking of single, ‘Rock Bottom’, the track was ‘initially for his album and for whatever reason it didn’t come out. It was just me singing a hook, he had three verses, so I thought, why don’t I write a couple of verses and get him on a midlay or something’. On how he made the song his own, Zak explains: I elaborated on what the song meant to me and once I’d written my lyric, he rewrote his to fit the sentiment’.

From one collab to the next, he’s even planning them in his sleep. ‘I just had a dream I was collabing with Kendrick [Lamar], only he had much longer hair’.

Before trying his hand at music, Zak had set his sights on being a table tennis star, turning semi-pro aged 15. However, he realised fairly quickly that music was his true passion. ‘I’d always been singing because I’m naturally quite a copycat… I like impersonating and my mum would play incredible soul music around the house’. Citing the likes of James Brown, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, Zak says he grew up singing their songs. ‘I started writing songs when I was about 13 or 14 and it was quite cathartic, making sense of the world around me. It seemed like such a wonderful thing to do and I received such joy from doing it so I thought, “Why don’t I do this for the rest of my life?”‘

The influence of soul is evident in his previous releases, and in order to not be producing just generic pop music, it’s clear that he takes further inspiration from a real master of the genre: the King of Pop himself. ‘Long term, Michael Jackson is a huge influence on my music. I feel like he was the master of so many elements of music, whether that was lyrically, melodically or through production, taking elements from all over the world. It feels like he had every element covered. The best people do – they are masters of many things, not just singing or dancing’. Can we expect dancing from Zak himself at one of his gigs? ‘Definitely’Count us in!

Back in February of this year, Zak played his biggest headline crowd to date at London’s SCALA, reminiscing he gushes, ‘…it felt like a family, everyone knew the words and everyone was singing together. I was looking out and seeing familiar faces and I felt really confident and warm inside’.

Dancing his way into festival season, on the bills for the likes of The Great Escape and Secret Garden Party, he acknowledges that each comes with very different audiences. ‘That’s always a bit of a tough one [The Great Escape] as it’s an industry crowd so not many actual fans, people there are already in the industry with straight faces like “go on mate, impress me.” But saying that, the room was rammed and people seemed to have a great time. At Secret Garden Party, when we arrived there were like fifty people, but we did a huddle before we went on stage and vowed to give those fifty people the best show they’d ever seen… when we went onstage there were like 800 people which was a nice surprise.’ The crowd featured ‘a couple of people I went to school with and a couple of ex-girlfriends were there – I even had my first stage invasion’.

His next big festival booking is El Dorado, created by the founders of Cirque de Soul. Featuring several big acts including Groove Armada, The Sugarhill Gang and Jax Jones, as well as cabaret, body painting, fortune tellers and fire-breathers, Zak is set to play The Garden Stage alongside good friends Bondax. ‘They are the best DJs I’ve ever seen, I’m going there to dance and get extremely sweaty.’ Will he be checking out the alternative entertainment on offer? ‘Unfortunately I don’t come across fire-breathers that often, I have a missing connection with them, that’s a shame’. It seems the fire-breathers may have a new fan very soon.

And as for the karaoke, let’s just say you won’t find him there during the weekend. ‘It’s always like, a really bad backing track and it’s never the right instruments, and also you can’t control what key the song is in, for some reason the singer sings way higher than you…’, he complains. Not unless he’s dressed as a Cheeky Girl, anyway. He’s easily persuaded and starts planning outfits and picking out a partner. Cheeky, cheeky, indeed.

It appears that he’s as eager to release his debut album as his fans are to hear it. However, with the release being delayed, originally slated for a July 2017 release, it could be a while yet before we hear the finished article. ‘There’s always going to be a bit of nerves, wishing I could have changed this or that, but after a certain point you have to let it go and let people hear it. I’ve been making it for a very, very long time and I’m proud of it, and when people do eventually hear it, I hope they like it too’.

Though we are promised that it’s all of ‘soulful, pop, and naked’. Whilst sounding quite promiscuous and mischievous on the surface, the title track is ‘a song all about being honest with each other, whether that’s a friend or someone you’re in a relationship with, your family, or even someone in the street. A lot of the time there’s a barrier we put up day-to-day, and when we get rid of those barriers we can truly be ourselves, and you know what, actually? It should be the title. It reflects the music; it reflects my debut’.

It seems that from listening to the majority of his back catalogue, we can already expect a lot of emotion from this debut. Zak explains how he started ‘writing songs and the ones that meant a lot to me or carried some emotional weight or value, an emotional truth if you like’ were the ones who built the collection.

‘‘Deserve To Be Loved’ is the song I’m most proud of, it’s a sentiment that I really believe is true. A lot of the time there’s things on social media or we see in adverts that tell us we need this in order to be loved and be happy and I feel like no matter where you’re from, your sexuality, your skin colour, the bad shit you’ve done, everyone deserves to be loved.

‘My music comes from a very specific, personal place but related to people on a broader scale, it feels proper, like, “yeah okay, I’m making music, it’s resonating”. The purpose of music, art in general, is to connect with other human beings and resonate with them – what they’re experiencing is normal. I can relate to them and me, we’re all experiencing this human condition that is common.’

On the subject, we speak at length about the One Love Manchester concert organised by Ariana Grande following last month’s horrific attacks in the city. ‘What Ariana did was amazing. I almost cried, I wish I cried more to be honest! For me, it was Coldplay’s performance. Chris Martin is a prime example of someone who just makes you feel so euphoric, so human, that there is home, there is acceptance, there is confidence, all those things that were in a negative head space. But when you watch him, you’re reminded of those positive qualities,’ he says. As artists came together to honour the lives of those lost, and to promote love and hope in the city, Zak suggests that whilst we often forget the power of music, we never should.

Zak’s debut album Only When We’re Naked is slated for release in October, with his latest single ‘Rock Bottom’ featuring Wretch 32 available now.

[Originally written for tmrw magazine]

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