Zara Larsson, Starley
Wed, April 19
Doors: 7:00 pm9:30 Club
Clean Bandit - (Set time: 9:15 PM)
What does deep house, the work of Stockhausen, a self-programmed snake and a frozen Lily Cole have in common? No, it's not the contents of a lost episode of Skins. Nor is it the XX's Christmas list. It is, rather, just a few of the details that make up Clean Bandit, a new four-piece that in their playfulness and willingness to trample over musical boundaries offer a refreshing new direction for dance music in 2013.
Forget your rock revivalists or your retrofitted soul crooners, Clean Bandit could not have emerged at any time other than now. Comprised of brothers Jack and Luke Patterson alongside the classically-trained pair of Grace Chatto and Neil Amin-Smith, the group formed in 2008. One night , in the dingy confines of a Cambridge nightclub, classic music met bass music, and it never looked back.
"It was at the band's own club night called National Rail Disco. We set it up because we thought there was a real lack of new interesting music at the time. The first ever one was basically set up so we could perform. But as it carried on it became more of a straightforward club night we DJ'd or played live most weeks alongside other DJs and electronic acts we loved."
The students, not normally thought to be a particularly clubby kind of crowd, were into it. "They loved it, it was really successful and always completely packed", says Jack. "People didn't expect the students to be into it, but they were. They all had a real appetite for the music. One of the coolest things was the night we had James Blake down. Three quarters of the way through his set he just played a Destiny's Child acapella on its own. Even though there was no beat,. people just went completely off. That was amazing."
National Rail Disco provided Clean Bandit with a blueprint for everything that was to follow. First, there was a willingness to take risks. Second a desire to blend beats and strings. Third, it was done in a DIY fashion, using whatever resources were to hand.
But first they decided to move to Moscow. Grace to learn the language and play cello. Jack followed her, and ended up enrolling in Russia's famous film school, The Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. "I didn't have much to do in Moscow and someone mentioned a film course that was open to international students so I thought I'd give it a try. It was a five year course," Jack recalls. "I didn't do the whole thing, but the whole of the first year you only do black and white still images. In the second year you do moving images but still only in black and white. It was all in Russian too, and to begin with none of the students spoke a word of it."
It was at the Gerasimov that Jack's ideas of blending music recordings with filmmaking began to take shape. "I was making music on a laptop a lot while I was there", he says. "It was still a hobby though. I had long days at film school and then would come home and have a go messing around making music. I wrote Mozart's House while I was out there. I was listening to a lot of house music there, there was a little boutique outside our flat that would blast out house for 24 hours. Maybe that seeped in."
Now, in 2013, Clean Bandit are still mixing things up. Currently residing in London, this electroquartet are applying their principles to a whole new range of possibilities. Listen to single 'A&E' and you'll hear classical, bucolic strings intertwining with UK funky bass and a melody of modern electronic pop. It's a new sophisticated sound, but one that's distinctive of our capital. The soulful vocals, meanwhile, are sung by guests Kandaka Moore and Nikki Marshall, found by chance in the group's new home of Kilburn. "They were part of local community singing and dancing group next door to our studio", says Jack. "We thought they would be perfect for this track." And so they are, sharing the enthusiasm of the track and, also, the versatility of the group. Moore also volunteered as a dancer for the video, which necessitated her being part of a stop-motion animation. "She was completely unfazed by being painted gold over the course of two hours", notes Jack.
That was far from being the most complicated part of the production, by the way. The video for A&E also required the creation of a golden snake. A serpent that, as in a real life game of Snake, slithered across central London. It was a challenge, one that Jack -- typically -- took it upon himself to rise to. So how do you make a snake? "We made it on the computer", he says. "I taught myself to use Cinema 4D. I studied architecture at uni, so I had kind of got into 3d graphics, modeling and animation. Luke learned how to do the fluid dynamics, because the snake had to go through water at the beginning."
Clean Bandit have also been getting a taste of a different experience closer to home whilst on tour this spring with teenage chart conquerors Disclosure. "The tour was really fun", says Jack. "It was great to see how that world worked and to be in these really cool clubs up and down the country was brilliant. There were screaming fans. We had people who knew the words to our songs, which was quite amazing to see. It was unexpected."
The stakes were raised even higher for new single 'Dust Clears'. This concept video, also directed by Jack, was half-filmed on the frozen lakes of northern Sweden in winter. "In this video all the band work in a factory, but the lead singer is an older guy who's got this fantasy of being an ice skater", says Jack, with a smile. "We filmed the skating in Sweden and that was great, we used some special techniques. Two of us were towed along on a sled with two different lenses, two cameras filming our dear friend Nick as he skated past. Nick is our friend's dad and while we were thinking about making the video we heard that when he was 17 he was a Scottish figure skating champion. When you see the video, you'll see why we found this quite amazing."
Quite clearly kids of the internet generation, Clean Bandit aren't precious about where they find inspiration or how they deploy it (the aforementioned Lily Cole volunteered to stand in a freezing cold swimming pool for the video to UK Shanty, in return for Jack giving her a tutorial on her new video camera). Neither are they devoted to one type of creativity. They make music, they make video, they perform live.
"We try to think of each piece as being a music video rather than a song", says Jack. "Videos for songs is the output. That's how we'd like it to be digested. Now we're doing more and more music, we're having to make stuff without the videos, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up."
Zara Larsson - (Set time: 8:10 PM)
Earlier this year, the ambitious, dynamic young Swedish pop star Zara Larsson noticed a Twitter tirade building concerning a female artist, very much one of her peers. ‘In music there is a lane that you’re expected to stay in,’ she says. ‘People have certain expectations about what you should do and what you can be. Being pretty, being skinny, dancing.’ This artist, she saw, was getting hate for doing just that. So Zara started thinking about some of the male artists who define their era. ‘They stand on the same spot for two hours on stage, in literally the clothes they woke up in that morning, doing nothing.’
The flagrant inequality started to gall. Certain personal experiences started to make sense. ‘Women are expected to be everything. Smart, but not too smart. Have an opinion, but not too much of an opinion. Stay in the middle but don’t be boring. It’s like walking a tightrope. There are so many expectations.’
The most excitingly powerful woman Zara has met in her short pop life so far is her boss at Epic Records, Sylvia Rhone. In Sylvia she saw a sea-change coming that she wants to be at the vanguard of, facilitated by social media (‘where we can be our own editors, not relying on magazines to tell people who we are’) and ennobled by the metoo movement. ‘I love Sylvie,’ says Zara, noting that she wrote about her in one of her blue-chip pop numbers, Make That Money.
‘She’s a boss,’ says Zara. ‘She’s been around. She’s very aware of not just the music but what’s going on outside of it, because she’s so plugged in. She’s not caught up in ego the way most powerful men can be. You notice the difference. Even when we go for dinners, it can be just me and her. It doesn’t need to be us and the whole staff who will sit around applauding everything she says. That’s very male. She’s genuine and supercool. Sylvia’s the boss I want to be one day.’
Welcome to the world of Zara Larsson, a new high watermark for bristling, bright, young ambition. Zara believes in the power of pop. The signs of her attaining all she dreams of are already good. As Zara steadies her ship for the release of second international release, at 20 years of age she can look at some impressive statistics already clocked up on her all-conquering pop wall chart.
Her last album and global breakthrough, So Good is the second most streamed album by a female artist ever on Spotify, with Zara since surpassing a staggering 5 billion streams across her career to date. Her biggest Youtube hit, the unmistakable ear-worm Lush Life has had over 580 million views. In 2017 she enjoyed a stream of sold-out European and South American live shows. She has performed for the Nobel Prize committee, Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Fallon and picked up a couple of MTV EMA’s en route. Yet still she longs for more. ‘I’ve got to get out there and make hits,’ she says, with no small urgency.
Yet still Zara has something to prove to herself. Early in the industry she’d notice wandering hands at business dinners, men of power asking for hotel names and room numbers openly. ‘Men’s egos can be fragile, even at the top. Especially at the top. Feminism is a tool,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t mean equality, it is something you use to reach equality, whatever that takes. I’ve fought the bad guys. I argued with everyone. There are other people who might do this differently and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to be a feminist. It’s an ideology used for reaching equality.’
Zara cannot explain where her absolute faith in the redemptive power of pop music comes from. It might be something she accrued in the atmosphere, growing up in Stockholm suburbia. ‘Whenever I walk into a session and meet people who I’ve never met before, I say “I’m a pop singer from Sweden”, they’re like, “oh wow”.’ Maybe it was passed down from her dad. ‘He’s in the military, my mom’s a nurse. Very classic jobs. But he did play bass in a punk band when he was 14,’ she laughs.
Or, maybe, it’s in the national psyche. ‘We have a really good reputation,’ Zara says. Walking in the lineage of Abba, Robyn and Max Martin, even Ace of Bass and Roxette is a neat path for Zara Larsson to traverse, upending the magical touch they all have for a winning hook and an alchemical melody and rinsing it out with her whip-smart contemporary club sizzle. She’s cool enough not to worry about mentioning some uncool forebears. ‘Once one group paves the way, the easier it gets. I think people wow at the country because we’re such a small place. 10 million people live there.’ Zara’s intention is to follow in her countrymen’s lineage, to make good on all their groundwork.
Zara is one of the special ones. Straight-talking with an infectious enthusiasm for her skill and calling, pop feels like a vocation in her hands. Performance was in her bones from a young age. ‘I’ve been doing it my whole life,’ she says. ‘If there’s a chance of people looking at me performing, I’ve taken it. I’ve never been shy. It’s just who I am.’ Her stage manoeuvres developed precociously young. ‘We couldn’t have furniture at home. After every dinner it was like, “clear the living room, that’s the stage. After every dinner I performed for my mom and my dad. Sometimes I wrote my own songs.’ She knew she was different back then. ‘Me and my sister were raised in exactly the same way, exactly the same parents and she’s not like me at all. Whenever she started to perform she’d want to start again. She’d get shy. I’d just be like, “no, MOVE!”’ She laughs at the memory. ‘I was terrible. But I had no time for that. You’re shining or I’m shining.’
At the age of ten, Zara got her first break on Sweden’s Got Talent. After winning the competition, she thought her early dreams might resolve themselves. ‘I expected the record contract and it never came. So I thought my career was over and nothing was going to happen.’
At ten year’s old?
‘I know! But I was just very eager.’
Eventually Zara picked up a contract at 13. It was here that her rock-solid ambition began turning into something more wilful: artistry. After a year in development she heard the song Uncover and knew, instinctively, not only was this a hit, but this was her hit. ‘My record label didn’t like it,’ she says. She fought for the song to go out to radio in a version with no drum track, just the orchestral strings to cushion the gut-wrenching effect of her powerhouse vocal. When it strode to number one in Sweden, Zara was only 15 years old. It was her first industry battle won. The segue from young ambition and nerves of steel was translating into mass popular appeal. A star was born. The song spread across the continent, from Scandinavia through the rest of Europe.
‘You have to trust your own ears,’ Zara says of her pop process ‘I really had to fight for that song. I trust my guts. When I feel it, that’s the right thing to do.’ It’s a pattern that has stayed with her since, clocking up an astonishing hit portfolio, as both central artist, on the irresistible Lush Life and So Good, as duetter, with MNEK on Never Forget You and Tinie Tempah on Girls Like, and as the featured lead vocalist on global smashes for David Guetta (This One’s For You) and Clean Bandit (Symphony). These songs feel like they’ve lived forever. That’s the way it should be in the gospel according to Zara.
For Zara, creating hits is all part of the pop star’s job. The clarity of Zara’s pop ambition means that she has set herself a fabulous goal for her second international release. She wants it to have the platinum plated feel of a greatest hits album, eclectic in style or mood but uniformly strong and empowered in message. First single Ruin My Life ushers in the new era, blending a lifelong love of hip-hop and R&B into a frank admission of heartache (and its more masochistic qualities). “Ruin My Life is a song about that unhealthy relationship that everyone has at one point in their life. It’s toxic but passionate and addictive." On Pill For This, meanwhile, there’s the up-tempo airwaves banger; elsewhere, on Clubben, the downtown nightlife anthem. Wake Up is the great climactic swooning ballad, the one that might’ve pricked the ear of her other heroes, Whitney Houston or Celine Dion. And Nobody’s Home is her very favourite she’s recorded so far. When Zara talks about her songs, her eyes light up. ‘That song is a little heartbreaker,’ she says. You can see the shiver down her spine at sniffing out an inarguable hit.
Who will Zara Larsson at 30 years old? ‘An international superstar,’ she says. Her ambition is deeply infectious. ‘I will have stadium tours. I don’t know about family, but career-wise I’d like to have my own label. I want that. Hopefully a team of producers and writers I work with. I’ll have a house in LA, one in London, one in Paris but I don’t think I’ll ever 100% never leave Sweden.’
And what about Zara at 60? ‘Hopefully, exactly like Madonna,’ she says laughing, ‘Still going strong, still putting it out there, being edgy, provocative, amazing, taking no bullshit. Madonna didn’t just write those rules. Rock stars, men have done this forever. Now pop stars, women can too. She invented those rules.’
Starley - (Set time: 7:30 PM)
Starley’s breakout hit “Call On Me” — a record written as a symbol of hope for herself waswritten at a low point in her life — serves as an appealing introduction to this Australian singer-songwriter. Her potent sound is a mix of warm indie folk and dynamic dance-pop powered by her affecting melodies, emotionally resonant lyrics, and soulful voice that makes each song sound intimate and vital. Not surprisingly, “Call On Me” is resonating with fans around the world, having racked up over 220 million Spotify plays (between the original acoustic-driven version and a remix by Melbourne DJ Ryan Riback) by the start of 2017. It has cracked the charts in several countries including the U.S. where it’s climbing Billboard’s Hot AC chart. “I think ‘Call On Me’ resonates with people because the sentiment is genuine. It's a song about never losing hope in a dire situation, which a lot of people can relate to” Starley says. “To add to that, the music production is infectiously catchy.”
But “Call On Me” almost didn’t happen. The song was written at a time when she nearly gave up on making music altogether five several years working as a London-based songwriter-for-hire. Though she landed a publishing deal and collaborated with a wide range of producers and writers in Britain, Sweden, and the U.S. placing cuts with major artists eluded her. Heartbroken and out of money, Starley returned home to live with her family.
“I went through a slight period of depression,” she recalls. “I'd made sacrifices, moved countries and worked so hard, but it just wasn't working out the way I envisioned. I questioned God about it many times. Asking for answers, wanting to know if music was really part of my purpose. I was thinking of walking away from music altogether and becoming a personal trainer. Then I wrote ‘Call on Me’ on keys in my bedroom and it felt really special. I’d asked one of my friends to play guitar for the song which I then sent out to a handful of producers. One of those producers was New Zealand based P Money who took my guitar vocal and created the majority of what the original version of ‘Call on Me’ sounds like today. I got his version back, played it in my car. I cried my eyes out. Because I realized that it was meant to be me the whole time. I was meant to be representing myself and singing my own songs. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to give it one last shot.’ The song is about encouraging myself to follow my intuition and essentially call on myself. I'm an optimistic person. My surname is Hope. I've always been that way.”
It was optimism that led Starley to pursue a career in music from a young age. She grew up in a musical family, her mother, who is part Australian, part Filipino and part Japanese, was a lounge singer who listened to the Carpenters, and her Mauritian father, who owned a blinds company, favored George Benson and his native Séga music. One of Starley’s earliest musical memories is watching the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba over and over and falling in love with his music. She was also enamored with Mariah Carey whom she cites as a major influence. “I was good at creative writing and I knew I loved to sing, so I naturally decided to put those two together and write music,” she says. “I knew Mariah wrote her own songs, so I thought if I wanted to be a singer, I should do the same.”
When Starley was 14, she recorded a three-song demo and began to attract attention from managers. From the age of 15, she had classical vocal training. She had some interest from labels around that time but nothing really panned out. “This guy said I would have to lose weight and straighten my hair if I was going to do a deal with them.” Jokingly, she recalls, “I was different in Australia. There were a lot of people trying to fit me into a box which was never going to happen with the size of my Afro!”
Starley wound up spending five years based in London, which she describes as a crash course in finding out how tough the industry can be. “I took all my own A&R meetings where they’d listen for ten seconds to something I'd been working on for weeks and say, ‘No, next,’” she says. Over time, opportunities would arise and it would feel like the tide was finally turning; but, inevitably something would happen and it would never quite make it over the line.
Discouraged and feeling as if she had the wrong people around her, Starley ended relationships with both her business team as well as her long-term boyfriend and retreated to Australia, which is when “Call On Me” appeared in her consciousness. The song has opened many doors for Starley, including resurrecting her desire to be an artist and leading her to a deal with indie-dance label Tinted Records. They connected her with Australian DJ duo, Odd Mob, with whom she scored the multi-week No. 1 ARIA Club track “Into You.” Now signed to Epic Records, Starley is writing songs for her debut album.
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