With a new EP being released later this year, we caught up with the fast-rising songwriter to discuss his influences
Fast-rising South Londoner, Love Ssega is a British-Ugandan singer and songwriter with a somewhat surprising parallel life in academia. On leaving school he landed a place at Cambridge, where he studied chemical engineering and completed a PhD in laser sensing. While at university, he formed a DIY classical-dance project with fellow student Jack Patterson, who would go on to create Clean Bandit (Love Ssega featured on the electronic group’s 2011 single Mozart’s House), but our interviewee saw out his scholarly pursuits before restarting his career as a solo artist.
As soon as we heard his single Hot Electrolytes (reviewed here last month) we had to grab a pad of paper and scrawl down what we thought had inspired him. Interestingly, many of these influences were from a different musical sphere to the expected pop genre – everything from Arctic Monkeys to James Brown, from Talking Heads to Warren Zevon.
Clearly, he was a musical magpie, not afraid to experiment with different forms. He wants his music to be out there; to be heard and to surprise. But make no mistake, his music is fun as well as serious. So we had a quick chat with Love Ssega to find out more his diverse range of influences and what drew him to songwriting…
Your songs draw on many eclectic influences which you credit from going through your father’s vinyl collection. Which of these records still resonates with you the most?
“I’ve been waiting for this question to show the receipts! Nowadays there aren’t many songwriting conversations, so excuse me if I go to town here. I’ve got to start with John Coltrane, as he was top on the jazz side of things and Coltrane Live At Birdland got me listening to more live albums. Then there’s Herbie Hancock Head Hunters for the synth baselines alone. James Brown is, for me, the ultimate artist and performer of all time. Plus he had the most incredible band, so that’s why for my solo project I made sure I had a five-piece band at least! And they are all great musicians.
“Marvin Gaye What’s Going On is the ultimate – a protest record so beautiful that even your enemies want to sing it. Lamont Dozier gets a shout-out for having great covers and being part of one of the most influential writing teams in pop music in Holland-Dozier-Holland. My family is from Uganda, so Franco Luambo gets a shout out because Congolese music ruled over all of East Africa, when my parents were teenagers back there growing up. Salif Keita is there to represent some of the percussion such as Balafon, Djembe and Congas that I like to add. Then finally War The World Is A Ghetto for the groove, gang vocals and mix of styles from funk to psychedelic. And the top drawer artwork. I could go on, but will leave that for another time. Or if I get given a BBC 6Music radio show…”
Are there any favourite artists which may surprise listeners of your music? Among many others, we were picking up vibes of Warren Zevon and The Clash…
“Those for sure, especially and then Kid Creole and the Coconuts for all the ZE Records aficionados. I’d throw in Tom Waits for how he uses his voice, Nick Drake for his beautifully potent words and Portishead for being Portishead. I’d probably say Kate Bush and the bizarrely overlooked Roots Manuva are two artists I look to in terms of their completeness, from visuals, performance and songwriting, whilst feeling uniquely British. I could throw electronic artists like Gesaffelstein to Gaslamp Killer on there too for production, and quite easily the first two albums by Laura Marling and Arctic Monkeys for their lyrics. Give me longer and I can keep going. I listen to a lot!”
How did you approach the songwriting sessions for the upcoming Emancipation EP?
“I write better by myself, so didn’t really have songwriting sessions as such. That’s not to say that I don’t collaborate at all, it’s just that I feel I’ve got a strong enough solo artistic vision that I want to get out. It took Radiohead a good three albums to really come into their own and that’s the problem these days, people are too quick to throw collaborators at people before the artist has shown who they really are. I’ve tried different things, but this EP was realising that I’m here to be me. The songwriting process is pretty fluid, as I don’t see it as a nine-to-five thing, so I’m set up so I can record pretty much anywhere in my house. I found some demo vocals end up making the final mix, because these often have that raw emotion and energy when I’m not overthinking the take or lyrics. When you’re on the clock in a fancy studio, you might not get that take and music has to be about the emotion, that what made Stevie Wonder a genius with Fingertips at just 12 years of age.
“As for the live instrumentation, that was recorded across London in East and South, with my live drummer Jack Savidge from Friendly Fires and also Olugbenga Adelekan from Metronomy adding his magic on bass. I’ve also got a track produced by Hugh Worskett that I’m excited about, which we recorded in his studio at The Dairy in Brixton. I really have to shout out PRS for Music Foundation for giving me a Momentum grant to support some recording costs for this EP. This shows their belief in me as an artist both now and going forward, and also gave me freedom to experiment, when the rest of the industry is moving too slow and in a way has lost some faith.”
Do you start with the music or the lyrics first?
“It’s got to be the music first. I feel that the music sets the tone and scene, and the vocal adds the detail. A lot of my lyrics can be quite percussive too, so I’m starting to play with the sounds like extra instrumentation.”
How do you hope new listeners to your music will react after hearing Emancipation!?
“With surprise. I want people to stumble across this EP, listen to it and become eager to hear more. All that matters to me is that my music is out there. It needs to live in the real world to see if it lasts or not. I’m old school in the sense I feel listeners need to hear musical projects to get to know an artist. I’m not going to give away too much, because art should be open to interpretation and people making it their own. Look forward to the serious, the frivolous and maybe the random – some bits raw, some bits with multi-part vocal harmonies, some lyrics flippant and some earnest. It’s whatever people make it. Like I said I’m here to make art not shift product. Listeners are smart and I’m sure they’ll get songs like Out Here Looking and even little ideas like Redemption.”
Do you have any tips for aspiring songwriters?
“Ask yourself if you go to sleep when tired or whether you’d stay up to try and finish a song. If you’re the latter, then you’ll probably have the staying power. Don’t be put off. Be a student of music. Enjoy it and listen to as much as you possibly can. If you look at the best people in their fields, they have an encyclopedic almost forensic knowledge: for instance, Quentin Tarantino with film. So personally I don’t buy the ‘I don’t listen to any other music’ stance. Unless you are Quincy Jones or the late Rod Temperton. Find out who Labi Siffre is. Also, think about your own personal story to tell. In these turbulent times we need different voices coming out. Diverse ones too. Radio will soon figure out people switch off because it all sounds the same.”
What’s next for you?
“It’s all about the live show off the back of this EP. I was lucky to play a few warm-up festivals last year including The Great Escape, Parklife, Secret Garden Party with my 5-piece band, so now it’s about taking these songs out and trust me, the energy on the record more than translates live. There’s lots more music and visuals to come, because like any songwriter, I feel like there’s so much more to say.”
Interview: Toby Sligo