BRYN CHRISTOPHER: Soul Sorcerer
In today’s female-dominated retro-soul climate, 22-year-old, Birmingham-born singer/songwriter Bryn Christopher is most definitely taking on the likes of Amy, Duffy and Adele at their own game with this month’s release of his eagerly-anticipated debut album, ‘My World`
Described as “soul-steeped authenticity in 21st century togs”, Bryn’s album confidently channels the give-it-all-you-got, rootsy spirit of original soul over clever modern-day arrangements largely crafted by London-based Australian producer/writer Jarrad Rogers; alongside occasional input from US urban studio dons Midi Mafia. Who, in a massive coup, prestigiously secured the exclusive rights to sample songs from the legendary Stax/East Memphis catalogue for the first time ever for Bryn’s project. All of which results in Christopher’s blend of old skool, passionate vocal intensity and melodic songwriting accessibility creating a freshness, exuberance and spontaneity whose nouveau/retro appeal has already been dubbed “Edwin Starr meets Gnarls Barkley” on uptempo, northern soul-tinged stompers like ‘Help Me’ and the brassy, strutting title track. While ballads like the string-laden ‘The Way You Are’ and heartfelt anthem ‘My Kinda Woman’ showcase Christopher’s gritty, soulful delivery at its most yearningly sensitive and tuneful.
Brought up in Great Barr, Birmingham as one of four children born to a black father and white mother, a young Bryn saw his parents separate before his seventh birthday. After which he was raised by his mother and paternal grandmother. Painfully skinny with different interests from the other kids, he was teased mercilessly at school until he joined a young theatre company at the age of 12. Where he finally discovered a sense of confidence in singing and performing. Joining a soul band at his secondary school, Christopher actually wrote his first songs as part of his music GCSE. Though arguably the pivotal moment in his aural education came while attending a play with some school-friends - when he heard ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and became introduced to the raw, enduring talents of Sixties Soul King Otis Redding.
With a crash-course in Redding’s music turning his musical life upside down, the fact that Bryn was still living in a small town with no music mentor nevertheless led him (as with many aspiring young singers today with no real idea how to break into the industry) to audition for the reality TV talent-show-of-the day ‘Pop Stars: The Rivals’. And, while being thrown out after managing to make it to the last 100 hopefuls left him temporarily devastated, a timely move to London nevertheless found Christopher getting a scholarship to the capital’s famed Italia Conti stage school. A relocation which, despite his two years at the school itself being unhappy ones, ultimately led to his being signed to Polydor Records by seasoned A&R bod Colin Barlow
All of which is indeed now bearing fruit big-time with the release of Bryn’s soul-charged, bass-thumping single new ‘Smilin’’ and aforementioned, all-important debut album ‘My World’ - with Polydor counting on Bryn’s strategically-unshaven, handsome looks and surprisingly big, old-fashioned soul voice to hopefully make him a household name this side of Christmas. As, speaking in identifiably-strong, West Midlands tones, an enthusiastic and charismatic Mr. Christopher meets with ‘B&S’ for the first time at his record company’s bustling Kensington offices for an in-depth on his music and his life to date.
The background to Bryn’s new, second single 'Smilin''
"Basically it was a track that took quite a while to get finished. Because, when we first sent it into the label, they were like 'Hopefully this is our big single' - which meant they had to make it perfect. So I decided to change the lyric to make it mean something more specific to me, while still being relatable for everybody else. And, with everybody having this thing that makes them smile in their head - whether it's a bad person, alcohol, whatever - I decided to make 'Smilin'' about people's addictions in general. Though what inspired it originally was actually FOOD addiction. Basically my mum used to work in a mentally-disabled place. And one day, when I went there, there was a guy just sitting in the corner of the room with a little tiny lunchbox. I was like 'What's wrong with him?. And my mum told me how he was addicted to food! Though he was only 14, he had to be in the home permanently so his food intake could be constantly monitered. And it was actually that situation - which at the time I found quite weird - that first inspired me to write the song."
Titling his debut LP ‘My World’
“It comes from a track on the album called ‘My World’, which is talking about going into your own kind of sphere, away from your unpleasant surroundings. Which in my case was the stage school I went to in London, where they treated you like complete imbeciles! The song is basically me saying ‘This is MY world now, and not your world with you telling me how to act. I’m starting again; I’m forgetting about all that stuff. I’m just getting on with my life, doing what I love and doing what I enjoy’... So, when we were thinking of names for the album, I just suggested ‘My World’. Because to me what the record represents, above all else, is basically just a little exploration into my world.”
How the album came together musically
“The guy who produced most of the album - Jarrad Rogers - listened to about 30 songs that I’d already done, and then presented me with his ideas - which basically blew me away! You know, I’d told him how dramatic and epic I wanted the music to be. And here he suddenly was, presenting me with this big brass and these massive, massive strings - which fitted in exactly with my love of old skool artists like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. But then, while I do love the live aspect of old skool music, I also wanted to make sure there was a poppy contemporary element to it all too. Just like, say, on Eminem’s productions. Which are really pop music, but with his own hip hop personality thrown over the top. So yeah, basically I wanted it big and bold - and Jarad managed to achieve exactly what I wanted in my head. Which was something I just didn’t think anybody’d be able to do! And that in turn totally inspired me to write and go a bit crazy over the tracks.”
The quirkiness and subtle depth of Bryn’s lyrics
“While some of the themes are quite specific and personal to me, the lyrics are still open to other people’s interpretations. Like with ‘Stay With Me’, a lot of people could think it’s a conversation between two people. Whereas it’s actually written about the moment you die! It’s about the soul leaving the body. So the first verse sees the soul saying ‘See you later’ to the body - you know, ‘I’m going home to wherever we were before we first came into this world’. While on the last chorus the body is saying ‘Wait a minute, I’m not ready yet - there’s so much I haven’t done. Just give me a few more years.’. Then with ‘The Quest’, I wrote that because my brother had just gone to Iraq and I was contemplating life, what exactly he was fighting for, and whether I believe what England’s doing for America is right... Plus, it was also making me think ‘What am I gonna do that has the same impact as what my brother’s doing?’... And eventually I just came to terms with the fact that I’m 22, and I’m still so young to be answering some of those questions. Because, at the end of the day, some of the answers I’m gonna have to learn when I’m 40 or 50 or 60… And some I’ll NEVER know. But, while the song was based on a personal situation, it is still relatable to most people. Because I think EVERYBODY at some time goes through that phase of thinking ‘What can I do in my life that’s gonna have some kind of effect on everybody else?’.”
The importance of SugaRush Beat Company producer Jarrad ‘Jaz’ Rogers to the project overall
“He was the first producer that allowed me to be totally me vocally. Like he wasn’t telling me to sing it softly, or to sing it in ANY particular way. Plus he just totally let me WRITE about what I wanted as well. Like with most producers, if I’d said ‘I wanna write a song about death’, they’d be like ‘Hmm, not sure whether the record label will like that’. Whereas Jarrad was totally cool with ANYTHING. He basically inspired me every time I worked with him, and I genuinely had lots of input.”
Working on some tracks with US urban producers Midi Mafia, who have exclusive rights to sample the old Stax Records catalogue
“Initially I was a little bit sceptical about having samples on the record. But, when I eventually got the chance to go through like 10/15 tracks of the old Stax stuff and choose which ones I wanted to do over, it completely changed my mind! Basically because I was blown away by the old skoolness of the music, while at the same time amazed how these Sixties tracks still sound so fresh that they could have been recorded in 2008! So to get the chance to work on a Stax track, write over the top of it and bring my own elements to it for me was an amazing experience. Plus Midi Mafia were really cool to work with. They came over here to record with me. And, to collaborate in the studio with these really American urban guys who’ve produced artists like 50 Cent, for me was totally refreshing and different.”
What Bryn feels he’s bringing that’s different
“I’m definitely bringing the drama back to soul! You know, while a lot of male singers are more like ‘I wanna be seen as cool and I wanna be able to play the instruments’, I just don’t CARE! I’m this big singer that wants to be dramatic and just enjoy myself making good music. Also, in terms of the soul thing in this country, aside of James Morrison - who’s guitar-based - there aren’t really many males out there doing it. You know, it’s basically about the Duffy’s, the Amy Winehouse’s, and the Adele’s right now. And, even if you look at the bigger picture, even in America there’s very few males today just standing up there and vocally bringing the drama. All the big male US R&B artists nowadays are up there doing the dances and the Justin Timberlake moves. Whereas I just feel it should all become more natural again. Because to me it must be almost impossible to TOTALLY get the lyrics AND the vocal out perfectly, if you’re constantly thinking about dance routines.”
His early West Midlands background
“The area we lived in was kind of midway between two very different neighbourhoods. If you walked 15 minutes in one direction you’d be in a really rough area. While if you walked 20 minutes the OTHER way you’d be in a posh, posh area. So in my school I had literally loads of posh, rich people and loads of really rough people. Which made for quite a weird mix, and actually made me realise early on in life that I did need to strive to be successful at whatever I did. But at the same time I actually experienced lots of negativity at school, due to me being stick-thin and having long eyelashes. Because I looked a bit like a girl, I generally had a hard time. So it was only when I started going to youth theatre at the weekend, when I was like 12/13, that I started to enjoy myself. ‘Cause I was suddenly amongst a load of kids that wanted to do the same as me - to be onstage and perform. So in that way singing became my escape. Because, while I wouldn’t be able to get up in front of people and talk, SOMEHOW I’d find it really easy to get up in front of my peers at school - including the people who bullied me - and SING to them. It was like as soon as I started singing I was in another world, and all that negativity and stupidness just didn’t matter. And that was what I guess ultimately proved to me that music and singing was where I wanted to be, and what I wanted to end up doing.”
Bryn’s late-teens discovery of Otis Redding and classic soul music
“After I’d done my GCSE`s, I started going to a posher secondary school that had a soul band which I auditioned for and joined. We’d sing The Commitments’ version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and songs like ‘Midnight Hour’ at school concerts. Then one day I was watching a play with the school, when ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ was played. And I was like ‘This isn’t The Commitments. Who is this singer?’… And, once I found out it was Otis Redding, I asked my mum’s boyfriend if he had any of his music. Then, once he gave me a CD, I was just off into another world! You know, when I listened to Otis singing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, ‘Pain In My Heart’ and ‘Love Man’, I was like ‘Oh my God! This guy writes brilliant tracks AND sings with so much passion! And most likely it would have been done in one take!’… So that in turn led to me discovering Al Green, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone… You know, it trailed off into this world-of-discovery of these amazing artists from the Sixties and Seventies. Which was a big, big experience for me. Because it made me kind of strive to wanna be as good as THEM! Even though at the time music was all about out-and-out pop people like Steps and Blue, I was suddenly like ‘I’m not looking up to THEM! I wanna be as good as OTIS!’!”
How moving to London to stage school led to his current record deal
“I’d actually met my management while I was still living in The Midlands. But, because they weren’t doing much for me, I was like ‘I’ve gotta make the move to London and LIVE there!’. So, with my best friend already being at stage school in London, she was like ‘You’re a tall boy. You’ll get into this school for that reason alone!’. So I got a scholarship, and absolutely hated stage school with a passion! But, while I was there, I went back to my management and had a meeting - which escalated into me recording a couple of tracks. So, at the end of my second year, I left stage school. And - literally the day after - I got a call saying I had a meeting arranged with Colin Barlow at Polydor Records for the following Friday! So we had the meeting; he put me in the studio to work with people like (UK soul/rock singer/writer) Andrew Roachford... And then, six/seven months later, he signed me to Polydor!”
Supporting Amy Winehouse on her high-profile 2007 tour, which led to America’s biggest live agency (William Morris) taking him on board
“I actually totally remember the day I was told I was doing the Amy Winehouse tour! You know, there’d been like a three-month wait to find out. And, because I knew EVERYONE was going for it - including Jarrad Rogers and his band (SugaRush Beat Company) - and there was only one spot available, I’d completely put it out of my head. But, with Amy getting to choose whoever she wanted, I guess she must have liked my music! Though I never actually got to ask her, because she’d always just turn up and go straight on stage. And, with her husband having just been sent to prison, I was hardly going to be going up to her and say ‘Hi! What do you think of my music?’! You know, I wasn’t exactly expecting her to stop and chat! But, even though we never actually met, getting to support her was an amazing experience. And the fact that the William Morris Agency took me on following the tour has been really great. Because so far they’ve done an excellent job at pitching my songs to the right people in America. I mean, the fact that ‘The Quest’ got featured on (high-ratings US TV drama) ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in itself led to over 200,000 views of the song’s video. Which blew me away.”
Bryn’s take on criticisms aimed at the UK industry for currently backing primarily white soul artists
“I can totally understand what those people who are making those criticisms are saying. I mean, I have a friend called Vanessa Brown, who’s gonna be releasing next year. She’s this black girl from London who is the most AMAZING singer and the most AMAZING musician. And she and I discuss this whole situation quite a bit. ‘Cause to us it’s very much a thing at the moment where a young, white blonde-girl from Wales - who sings with this massive soulful voice - is very special. But if a black girl comes along and sings in the vein of Aretha Franklin, it’s like ‘Oh, seen it all before. That’s boring’… And it shouldn’t BE like that! As long as the music is good, we should all just be appreciating EVERYBODY’s music - you know, Duffy AND Adele AND Vanessa! So yeah, to me we definitely do need - in this country - more good black artists that are singing properly and getting the support from the UK industry that they deserve.”
The single 'Smilin'' is released September 1. The album 'My World' follows September 8, both through Polydor/Core Entertainment
Bryn's first headline UK tour runs September 1 to September 14 inclusive
Words PETE LEWIS