We catch up with emerging South London musician Jamie Isaac, revered for his own strain of soulful, downtempo electronica, in our second edition of Over the Counter Culture.
“I think it’s just a love of playing, you know…” Jamie Isaac remarks in a distinctly nonchalant manner when asked what led him to pursue music. “I was always crazy with playing when I was younger and I used to be obsessed with movies and soundtracks; I would turn the sound down, play my piano to the TV and just be really into it…” His father, a rare groove and soul fanatic, instilled in him his passion for music and some of Jamie’s most significant memories centre around the piano. He’s been playing as long as he can remember, having been introduced to the instrument by his grandmother. Many years ago she would play on Burmese radio whilst his granddad would stand next to her and sing. “They had a weekly slot, and they went into a studio and did it live. There’s a picture in her house, he was just standing next to her. It’s such a sick photo, I wish I could have it...”
Growing up in South London, Jamie got the chance to attend The BRIT School, famous for providing the formative experience to a huge number of prominent singers and songwriters. Amongst the ranks of notable BRIT alumni sit Adele, Amy Winehouse, Katy B, and many others. He explains that it’s actually more about the people he met who’ve remained in his circle ever since. He’s forged his own path having dropped out early. Since then he’s built up a string of releases including 2016’s critically acclaimed debut album Couch Baby, an album that carefully traverses the space between jazz, soul, R&B and electronica, and he’s been on the up ever since.
His South London roots seem apparent, not just in the quiet, cool confidence he possesses but also in the relaxed, effortless way he’s dressed. Immediately he’s drawn to anything labelled YMC, and remarks that he got his jacket (the brand’s ecru Pinkley 2) originally on a press loan but liked it so much he went and bought one himself. It’s paired well with neatly cropped trousers, and a bum bag customised with a small pin badge. With the jacket, it’s all about the cut, something that YMC nails in his opinion. “I’m a little bit scared to put it into dry cleaning, I don’t want anyone else touching it! Do you know what I mean?”
Listen to Jamie's Good Vibes mix here:
He’s also sporting a pair of Asics, a shoe that’s particularly prevalent south of the river. Assessing the style of an area that possesses a large student population isn’t exactly effective unless you talk to those actually from there, so it’s interesting to get Jamie’s take on the South London look. He says it particularly features baggy or plaid shirts, baggy jeans, and old battered Vans. “I think the South London style’s really chill. It's just like, it's kinda like wearing for comfort more than anything.” It’s an assessment that’s certainly at odds with the hordes of ostentatious ‘90s sportswear pieces emanating from the immediate area surrounding Goldsmiths.
He’s just released a new album, (04:30) Idler, which builds on the sound he established with Couch Baby, albeit with a distinct touch of Bossa Nova and 70s analogue synth running throughout. Jamie’s built a reputation on this new wave of hazy, soulful electronica artists like him and his friend Archy Marshall (King Krule) have pushed in recent years, and this next step seems a more refined progression. He reckons his songwriting has developed, and he’s also learnt how to mix and produce live drums. Overall it’s a big step up but it’s not been without its own anxieties. “People say it’s a cliché but it’s actually true, I didn’t think how difficult it would be to write the follow-up.” He explains this difficulty lies in the balance between producing something that’s going to be well-received whilst also evolving as an artist. After all, you don’t want to make the same record twice. Achieving that, he says, is the crux.
One thing that’s striking is how Jamie says that he doesn’t really know what led him to be in the established position he’s in and that he’s really into performing as well as producing. It seems like he’s got the ideal combination for a successful musician. Asking why he likes performance elicits a pause for thought. “Because it’s different, it’s a bit… I think it’s a strange ability to have, being able to stand in front of people and perform something. I think that’s kinda weird…” It’s an interesting point to make; the concept of baring all to a group of strangers for their own entertainment is neither run-of-the-mill or something everyone is innately able to do, but Jamie explains this fascination in a distinctly curious and casual manner, explaining that trying to look comfortable whilst performing is a big challenge, but he thinks it’s kinda funny. It’s a completely different game to public speaking or your typical politician’s charisma. “It’s weird, especially when it’s so personal to you. You write the lyrics at 4 am in your bedroom and then go in front of people who then know them, it’s the weirdest thing!”
It’s currently an interesting time for South London. In recent years the area’s scene, long-established yet comfortably under the radar, is now in the spotlight. There’s a new recognition of a huge variety of sounds from Grime – having relocated from its East London origins – to Peckham’s own take on house music, to the downtempo, modern jazz of artists like Jamie. He explains that whilst people seem to be catching onto it more now, South’s always had a flourishing scene. This can, in part, be attributed to the range of small, local venues that give license to a wide variety of acts, as well as the conservatoires such as Trinity Laban in Greenwich.
“I think it’s always been there and I think that it’s based on having a lot of people who love making music, and will just keep on making it whether they’re known or not. It’s something about the love of it. And I think there’s definitely a certain sound to it, there’s definitely a lot of jazz in South London.”
Illustrating this idea, Jamie explains that when he was younger he and his friends used to go to a monthly night, Steez, that always used to be in a pub in Honor Oak, a couple of stops south of New Cross, before it moved up to Deptford. Loads of bands would perform every month but there’d be only about 70 people there. Everyone, he says, had been doing it for ages and some have gone on to become known. Jamie says he still does small shows in and around South London and that because it’s his home, he’s more comfortable performing there. “When people know you’re from south of the river and you’re there, they’re more with you. I think it’s a nicer vibe in terms of how they react to your music.”
It seems there’s a distinct sense of community within the area’s creative scene, but this is also something reflected in the area at large, part of the reason Jamie likes living in Peckham. Like many parts of South London, it’s an area that’s seen a lot of change in recent years, something we discuss at length. Being a South Londoner, he explains the strange dichotomy of enjoying a rich supply of good coffee whilst remaining cautious about the wider effect this has on local businesses and communities, although ‘gentrification’ is a term he says he hates having to use so much these days. “As soon as you see a Waitrose on Rye Lane that’s when you know you need to get out quick...”
As part of the wave of young creative talent emerging from the capital, it’s interesting to get Jamie’s view on what the city offers people like him. They say that London is a distinctly prohibitive place if you’re trying to make it, and in a city where the average tenant spends up to 50% of their income on rent, compared to a national average of around 27%, it’s easy to feel like you’re fighting against the current. But this is surely in stark contrast to musicians like Jamie, and the swathes of talent that have established themselves regardless. “I think London is one of the best cities in the world for being creative, and I think it’s something about the city itself. It’s just a really accepting place for you to do that.”
There’s the idea that with a city of such size there’s an intrinsic freedom to pedal your own agenda, something people are willing to accept. London’s a hugely diverse place, after all. It’s a nice point to end our conversation on and we discuss the idea that since big cities are hard places to live, they breed a certain confidence in doing your own thing. You may well get shouted at on the New York subway for being slightly in the way, and you may get a softer, albeit more passive-aggressive scolding here on the tube. But it sits alongside that famous idea: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Jamie's album '(04:30) Idler' is out now. Visit jamieisaac.co.uk for more info.
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