A lot was pinned on this young man. Expectations had gone through the roof. That maybe here was another Ed Sheehan or Sam Smith on their hands. Someone who could shift records en masse in this day and age of declining sales.
He has’t quite got to that point and it’s unlikely he ever will. Not because he isn’t any good. It’s just that expectations were way too high to begin with and because he’s Jack Garratt: a self-described “musical sponge,” growing up on the likes of Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Waits. A man so in love with music and the craft of music making that he’d probably be doing it anyway, whether anyone was listening or not.
At the beginning of the year he won the BBC Sound Poll, a hugely significant award for many artists down the years. The annual award aims to predict the artists who are likely to have a fruitful 12 months ahead of them. Adele, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J and the aforementioned Sam Smith have been previous winners and now Garratt. He’s also won the Brit critics’ choice award, hence the anticipation that things might go stratospheric. Certainly, as far the business side of the industry was concerned, there might be a little disappointment that his debut album, Phase, ‘only’ made it to number three, and that some of his tour dates didn’t sell out. But, by any measure of success, for one so early in his career, this has been a good year. Moreover, Phase is a remarkable album, a stunningly inventive electro-pop creation that has, rather bewilderingly, not been given the reviews I think it deserves. There might be a little snobbery here. Garratt is not particularly cool in the eyes of some tastemakers; there is a discernible geekiness about him; he’s from the very Middle England village of Little Chalfont in Buckinghamshire and he can come across as uber-eager, a little irritatingly so!
Ignore all that though and you’ll find an album that is soulful, passionate, imaginative and eclectic. There’s loads going on. ‘Breathe Life’ is a snapshot of today’s styles: electro-synth rave, sub-bass, meets earnest singer-songwriter. It sounds both raw and exciting, technically accomplished and modern. He’s mashing sounds from everywhere, some even captured on simple devices like a phone. The nearest musical analogy is James Blake, although Garratt has perhaps stronger pop melodies within his armoury, Blake’s penchant for downbeat electronica and experimentation perhaps the one thing holding him back from stardom. Then there’s ‘Far Cry’, which has an acoustic piano at its centre, which does sound like it was recorded on his handy iPhone, before it morphs into a late night neo-soul groove. “The way that technology lends itself to creativity is incredible”, Garratt says. The voice memos on my phone are filled with vocal ideas or rhythms that I have heard, or tones. If I've accidentally hit something and thought, ‘that sounded cool’, I'll get my phone out and record it. It won’t be the best audio capture in the world, and there would be mixers and engineers around the world who would be horrified to know there are things on my album I recorded on an iPhone, but there are. It sounds fine because it sounds exactly how I wanted it to.” There are plenty of examples on Phase of this approach. ‘Weathered’ features what sounds like a battered guitar, somehow wedded to gospel voices and keys, then dubstep bass, before expanding into big stage euphoria, topped off by his expressive voice, a sometimes under-appreciated instrument in its own right. It’s also put to good effect on ‘Worry’, along with distorted bass wobble and spooky keys, that beautifully sublimated within an urban RnB style tune. There are also hints of his long-term love affair with old fashioned acoustic blues and soul, especially on the closing track ‘My House Is Your Home’.
“I write on the road”, he says about the ability to write anywhere. “Even now I have my laptop already set up and there's a little keyboard attached to it. I have everything I need on that and a hard drive I travel around with. I've always responded better to restrictions. I've done a couple of studio sessions before where I've had all the toys in the world available to me, and I hated it. It was too much for me, I don't like having the option of doing something else. I will always ask, ‘what else can I do?’ I will always say to myself, ‘what more can I do for this, how can I push this more, what other ideas are there?’ If I have too many toys I get confused.”
What does he say about the meanings behind his songs? “It's a little of everything”, he says. “I’ll often wait for the song to tell me what it wants to be written about, and I'll start writing it. It's interesting writing a song from the very beginning. Especially for me as I start with the music, a beat, and then flesh it out. And maybe spark ideas in my head, and then a melody, put down a really rough dumby vocal – as I call it – I just say syllables into the mic, to the melody I've written. And then I'll go back, and a word will crop up. It will just be there, and I'll decide in that moment whether or not that word is right, whether it fits the song, or if it’s the right kind of word. Is that melody I've just written telling me I should be singing something else? I know Tom Waits (of whom Garratt is a big fan) has been quoted as talking about it in this kind of way as well, that the song will come to you if you let it and you are ready for it. If it comes to you and you're not ready for it, you just let it go and it goes to someone else. Waits was quoted as saying that if he is not ready for it, an idea, he'll tell it to go and find Bob Dylan instead. The songs exists, the ideas are there. It’s easier and less pressure if you think of yourself as a vessel for the music you make rather than a creator of it. We are not creators of thought. We are vessels to allow thoughts to become words, and then share those words. This is my interpretation of an idea that someone else could have had.”
Whether or not he’s a conduit or a vessel for music, Garratt is his own man. In love with music and its endless possibilities. Gently nurtured from a young age, he’s pretty darn passionate about it all. His mother was a primary school music teacher and would bring home an assortment of instruments to play and his father likes to play guitar. “I question a lot about myself as a person”, says Garratt by way of introduction to the subject of his early musical education. “I am very inquisitive, and that usually comes from an insecure place, rather than a confident, I-want-to-know-more, position. A lot of the questions I ask are because I am insecure or scared about something. Music I have never been afraid of. It's always been an encouraging and welcome home for me. My Mum and Dad have enabled that in a way, to the extent that they will never understand. They never questioned the musical or artistic choices that me and my brother and sister made. We weren't encouraged to do exactly what we wanted, but we weren't told not to dress a certain way, or to not listen to a certain kind of music. If we showed passion and wanted to be a part of something my Mum and Dad would do what they could to enable and encourage us to embrace our own identity. What I showed instinctive signs of… there's an instrument standing up in the corner of this room, and I'm going to pick it up and play it… I was just interested in how music could be played in so many different ways. My Mum and Dad saw that at a young age and encouraged it. They could see it made me happy. It was something to be proud of, to have my ears and hands talk to each other very well, and I tried as best I can to not get in the way of that conversation.”
It wasn’t until sometime in 2013 that Garratt decided to properly go for the one-man band thing. Previously, he would be your typical singer songwriter, with maybe some added foot percussion. By discovering and falling in love with the Roland SPD-SX, a piece of kit that enabled him to trigger beats, drop samples, and use it as electronic drums; he was able to replicate, to a greater degree, the music he was making on his computer for the live stage. “I was making electronic music and wanted to find a way to play it live, accurately, to get the best sound from these recordings.”
Has he always been solo? Has he ever worked with others? “I did have a few rehearsals with a band and we put some songs together of mine, to see if it worked. It felt great, but there was something missing about it. In many ways, as in other parts of my career, ultimately I decided to do it myself. I know what I want to do, I'll just figure out how to do it on my own. That's how I've always done stuff. It's the reason I produce a lot of my own music. It's not that I hate the idea of using producers but I know the songs in my head and I know how they have to sound. The quickest and easiest way to do that is if I do it myself. It is the same with the show. It's not to steal the limelight or hog the stage. It's because I believe it is the best way for me to present my songs, in the most accurate and honest way.”
“It was always me and a guitar, and me and a piano. All my favourite songwriters and performers are able to hold the frontman's position in a band, but they are also able to sit down and present songs in their bare bones. Ultimately, I've never questioned anything I’ve done unless its been obvious. If it's working, I just go with it.”
On stage, Garratt is surrounded by gear and his limbs are sometimes working over time in reaching for the right beat, the right keys, the right pressure, whilst sometimes triggering digital beats. He’ll have a drum pad in front of him, a drum kit to his right, and a keyboard and synthesiser to his left. He might also have a guitar strapped on, and he sings. This veritable one-man band has swiftly moved up the bill since he made his first appearance in Brighton back in 2013, at the Great Escape. “My manager at the time was running one of the sideshows, that isn’t part of the festival (known as The Alternative Escape), and he put on some acts. I opened up the afternoon. It was just me and an acoustic guitar. I then went off, wrote a bunch of songs, released a couple of EPs, and came back in 2015 and did a headline slot on the Vevo stage. Oh yeah”, he then remembers, “the year before that I played this pub (The Mesmerist) which was rammed. I had just released my first record. Again, it wasn’t part of the official Great Escape, it was another mate of mine who took over a pub and put a load of music on. There was a mirror behind me… angled down at what I was doing. There was a mirror on the stage for some reason. It was amazing for my set because I was doing my one-man band thing, and I remember lots of people coming up to me afterwards and saying that it was fascinating to watch, because they could see the front angle, and they also had the mirrored image of my backside, essentially, chopping between drum pads and guitars and everything. I then tried to get a mirror for my show because people said it worked so well. But, couldn't afford it!”
Now, for the final date of his tour, and the final show for the foreseeable future he’ll be setting foot in Brighton again, to a sold out Dome. He’s looking forward to it, but he’s also very much looking forward to going home, which is now Chicago. At the time of his winning the BBC Music Sound Poll he said: “Winning the… poll has left me feeling pretty stunned at the end of one of the most emotionally and physically intense years of my life.” Now, as we speak at the tail end of 2016 he must be even more exhausted. He’s hiding it well though and stays cheery throughout the interview. “It's been a long couple of years”, he says. “I’ve just come off a five week run of the USA and now I’m doing a UK tour with not much break. Come Christmas I have nothing booked in my diary. I could just quit!” It’s a joke, of course, “It's the same way that any person who has a job thinks that the grass will be greener somewhere else. But I am proud and honoured to do what I do. I'm not going to give up what I do.”
Chicago is where his home has been for the past year or so, although he’s barely been there. Unsurprisingly, he can’t wait to get back there and spend some time with his fiancé: “I moved to Chicago about a year ago. I've been stopping over there every now and then but essentially in the same way that any musician lives anywhere: you don't live anywhere if you're touring. Which is amazing, but also shit! It’s very much a double-edged sword. But, I’m very much looking forward to experience this home I've had for a year but still haven't quite made mine yet.”
What with Trump the President-elect it will be interesting to go back to the states and see what the hell is happening! “I believe Chicago is called the ‘windy city’ – I don’t know if I have this right, it could be one of those Albert Einstein quotes that turns out to be not true! It's called the ‘windy city’ not because of how windy it is but because it's politically windy, kinda of unpredictable.” Indeed, a glance at Wikipedia informs me that Chicago acquired its nickname because someone from a rival city alluded to the fact it's full-of-hot-air politicians. “Whatever the case it'll be interesting to go back there.”
“Although I have moved to America, I'm not an American, I don't have dual citizenship or anything. I'm living with the family that I am starting to build my life with. I would call myself a Chicagoan rather than an American. But I am definitely British, proud to be from England, and to have grown up there. But I also identify myself as being a resident of the world. I spend so much time travelling.”
Once the tour is over and he gets a flight over to Chicago the following day, that will be his home for the foreseeable future. As he said earlier, he has nothing in his diary from Christmas onwards, and can reveal no plans at all apart from making some music, and trying to do it better than before. As he has mentioned before he admires those artists above all others, who were able to change, and adapt over time, such as Bowie and Waits: “It’s all coming from the same place of integrity, the same place of creativity, although the voices can sound different, or they sound like coming from a different version of that person. That’s the thing that inspires me the most, it’s the change that they wanted to be within themselves.”
And so to Chicago, a world away from Little Chalfont. Perhaps he just wants to get his feet under Chicago, as it were, and see which way the, er, wind blows! “Creatively speaking, Chicago is at the forefront of millennial creativity at the moment. There are journalists, photographers, artists, rappers, producers and managers. This hub of creativity of a certain generation seems to exist and blossom there. In the time I have been based in Chicago, Chance The Rapper's career has blown up in the global sense. All of his team are from Chicago. Chicago has always been known for its culture and respect for music. It's one of the few cities that is able to hold on to its legacy but also still keep itself fresh and progressive. And it appears that Jack Garratt will fit in very nicely to this worldview: expect the unexpected.