- Fri, 2011-03-18 13:29
Following a week long trip to Nashville to watch his mum make a bluegrass album, sixteen year old Jamie Woon returned a changed man. Whilst away, he was taught how to play the classic American folk song Wayfaring Stranger, an experience and song that left such an impact on the young musician that in 2007, he released the track as his debut single. This led to his hook up with the mystical, Mercury nominated, dubstep producer Burial, who went on to advise Jamie throughout the three year creation of his debut album Mirrorwriting.
Written and produced by Jamie Woon in its entirety, Mirrorwriting has been heavily anticipated ever since the album's opening track Night Air surfaced late 2010. The quality of his rich soul-led vocals, sparse bass and cinematic production led to a worthy nomination in the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll, further confirmed by A-list placed tracks, follow-up single Lady Luck and a host of breath-taking acoustic sessions, including his Live Lounge cover of Someone Like You by fellow BRIT school alumni Adele.
With just days to go before Mirrorwriting is launched into the musical abyss, I Like Music caught up with Jamie Woon for a lengthy chat at The Book Club in Shoreditch. We chat about the hype surrounding the album, the hurdles and highlights throughout its creation, learning from Burial's rigorous work ethic, The King of Limbs and getting funked-up with his live band for a summer of festival sets - (mark this down on your 'not-to-be-missed' list now).
"I Like Music because… It's invisible but it has such power... and there's so much to learn” JAMIE WOON
ILM: There's been a huge build up to the release of your debut album Mirrorwriting. How have you found that attention, that hype?
Jamie: It’s been cool. It’s been good for me actually. I spent the last couple of years sort of holed up and not really speaking to anyone, so it’s been an amazingly social time. It’s been quite nice actually. A lot of people have been finding my music and saying some really nice things. I spent a lot of time making it, so it’s great that people are accepting it.
ILM: Are you pleased with the finished album?
Jamie: Yeah, I’m pleased! I haven’t held the final copy yet.
ILM: Are you still listening to it?
Jamie: I am. I listened to it yesterday, I had to test the vinyls.
Jamie: Yeah it was for the deluxe one. That was a bit of a moment, hearing it on vinyl and just having that extra sort of wave, it all feels a bit more serious on vinyl.
ILM: It always does.
Jamie: Yeah, haha. But um...the album...I think it's alright...!
ILM: And now people are asking you to articulate the record, what it means, how it came together... How do you find that side of things?
Jamie: It’s weird. It seems that journalists read each other’s questions and then keep asking those same questions! I've been finding my way round the album and an easy way of describing it. I’ve sort of come to the conculsion that it’s an R&B kind of album.
ILM: In the broadest sense?
Jamie: In the broadest sense, yeah. I think it’s the broadest genre. If I had to pick one then I'll pick that because it goes way back, you know, Rhythm and Blues.
ILM: I understand you come from a very musical family, when did you realise that music was what you wanted to do?
Jamie: When I was a kid I just always really liked singing. I was quite an exhibitionist, there’d be family parties and I’d be up there singing a song. Then I decided I wanted to be a journalist or a writer or something like that. When I was about fifteen, sixteen, my mum made an album in Nashville and I'd just picked up a guitar. I was into Britpop, Oasis and Blur and then I got really into Radiohead. So I think it was a combination of all that. My mum made her album in America, it was like a Celtic, bluegrass crossover thing with all national musicians. She did a two week stint and I went along for one of them. Plus I’ve always liked the idea of the studio. We had one in our house, just a tiny bedroom. I always just thought that looked really fun. She'd have her friends over and they'd write songs and just be chipping away at it, then when it was over they'd have something...
ILM: What did you learn about music and yourself as a musician while you were at the BRIT school?
Jamie: It's a funny one because I'd only just taken up the guitar, so it was quite a whimsical move to apply. I hadn’t written any songs at that point, I did The Unbelievable Truth song for my audition. It was weird because there didn’t seem to be any overarching philosophy. For most projects they’d put you in a group with a drummer, a bass player, two keyboard players and then say ‘okay you lot, go and write seven songs, you've got a gig at the end of term and you all have to have one song each.’ They wouldn’t generally be people that you would choose to make music with, they put us in those situations, so I guess it taught us to be adaptable. We got a bit of training about the music business. Essentially it’s just a sixth form where you get to do a bit more music. You could borrow guitars and there's a thing called The Hut and they'd have The Hut concerts, every Thursday there would be a gig in there and anyone could sign up. There were just a lot of opportunities like that, which thinking about it now, were really valuable.
ILM: Your first release was a cover of Wayfaring Stranger, released in 2007. How did that come to be? Why did you choose that song for your debut single release?
Jamie: On that same trip when I went to see my mum make her album, I went to a week long summer camp for grown ups, like a guitar and song-writing camp in North Carolina near Nashville. I got to see this guy called Scott Ainslie, who is like a Robert Johnson style blues historian, and a great singer song-writer. He taught us how to play that song on the slide guitar. He’s an amazing singer, I based my version on his version and the lyrics that he had, which just spooked me out. They were always in the back of my mind. When I got into the loop station it came back to me, the cyclical nature of it works really well. So I just did a recording of my version. I got an opportunity to put a record out with Live Recordings. Everything about that label seemed really nice, it was like ‘put out whatever you like’, it was funded by a charity in Brixton and there were young people working there. There was just a lot of heart around the whole project. I didn’t have many of my own songs that I was that pleased with or that I wanted to put out, so I just thought I’d put out a really good song instead, so I chose that one!
ILM: With the release of that track you came across Burial through a mutual friend, who ended up providing the remix. I understand that Burial went on to advise you during your work on Mirrorwriting. What did you learn from him?
Jamie: He’s just so rigorous and so in control of his output. He doesn’t let anything come out that he’s not happy with, which is surprisingly difficult as an artist, especially when there’s a lot of people around you. And he’s completely uncompromising about it. There’s no bullshit around it and I really admire that about him. So there’s that, and also just the rigour that he puts into the music and the time that he spends on the music he makes that no one hears. He really did guide me to a set of frequencies and sounds which really grew from working with him. I actually did think he would end up producing my entire album. The reason he didn't was that I'd been carrying those songs around with me and his identity was already so distinct, while mine was still forming. I ended up playing him the record a few times while I was working on it and he gave me some advice.
ILM: A sounding board of musical knowledge, rather than a collaboration with Burial...
Jamie: Yes. That’s why we quoted him with his real name on the album; he wasn’t really working in a ‘Burial’ capacity. Burial produces tracks that sound a lot different. What’s interesting is that he works completely in the domain of sampling, he doesn’t play any instruments. It was really interesting rubbing up against that. He really did turn me on to sampling and the meaning you can inject into sampling, how it can completely change the sense of space. I got really excited about that, so I went and spent two months in Cornwall working on it...
ILM: How lovely!
Jamie: It was gorgeous! I was in a cottage by the sea and I just had my gear there, just cooking dinner everyday. It had an aga in it! Haha! That place is in the record a lot.
ILM: Did you have a clear vision for the type of record you wanted to make?
Jamie: The only thing I had when going in to make it was that I wanted it to be a calming record. Nearly all of the songs on the record are about my anxieties, it's all quite angsty! I listened to it when it was finished and I was like ‘cheer up mate, it’s not that bad!' Haha! But these are my blues, you know? I guess in a lot of ways it is very selfish. I deliberately avoided any sound that stressed me out. Delivery wise it's a soothing record, that’s why it sounds like it does.
ILM: What were the biggest hurdles throughout that process?
Jamie: I think probably just no perspective, working on it all by myself.
ILM: You needed to keep the faith...
Jamie: Yeah, having that faith and not feeling that confident as producer, but being in the position where I was producing my record. Just rubbing up against your own limitations I guess. And my voice as well. I did hundreds of takes!
ILM: Did you?
Jamie: Yeah! Throughout the whole thing. Auto-tune. Cutting up tiny portions. Trying to perfect something that can’t be perfected. I knew it was going to take as long as it was going to take – I knew I was going to rub up against these things.
ILM: What were the biggest highlights? Were there any eureka moments?
Jamie: I think when I put the bass on Night Air, off this Casio keyboard my mate found in a skip. It just had this real gnarly, smooth, glidy bass. It was really nice to find a way of injecting weight into the tune without it being aggressive, that was exciting. That locked that track together. It was the first track where the mood and the sentiment fitted with the sound of the song, it was working as a whole.
ILM: Over the last five years we've seen an exponential rise in the popularity of dubstep. Obviously you were well aware of those sounds, having worked with Burial back in 2007. However in the last two years it's really landed smack bang in the middle of mainstream consciousness. What were your thoughts on that? That must have happened while you were creating the album...
Jamie: I was as excited about it as anyone! The bass right at the forefront and how that can sound, how it gets inside you. There's a side to it that really reminded me of Timbaland productions, big R&B. I also loved how British it sounded, how much it sounded like where we come from. And the philosophy behind it, it’s not about a lot of bullshit, it comes from a real culture, it's grown up through soundsystem culture and garage and all these homegrown styles, which doesn't happen much in mainstream music. And that's interesting, since it’s having sort of a mainstream moment it’s gone off in a million directions. It's the first music that I can think of that’s come from this country, and has spread out worldwide in such a way, maybe drum ‘n’ bass might be able to say that as well...
ILM: A lot of people seem to be hanging dubstep associations upon your music, how do you feel about that?
Jamie: I feel like, well...fine! I wouldn’t want anyone to put on my album expecting to hear dubstep! If they know some of my music, then they’ll know it won’t be like that. I’ve certainly never tried to make dubstep or a dubstep tune. But if people are hearing that in it, then fine!
ILM: Comes down to enjoying it I suppose. If you want to label it, go ahead.
Jamie: Yeah. Exactly.
ILM: What's your approach to lyrics? They seem to cover some very personal feelings, how do you feel about sharing so much with so many?
Jamie: That's one of the reasons it's called Mirrorwriting. The personal reflections. A lot of the songs are about a specific moment in time, an ephiphany or a scene. Even though that might be very personal, to try and describe a scene and the way it feels and the way it smells and tastes, well that's something that anyone can relate to. I definitely make my music for people to hear. I wanted it to have a calming affect. That's how I wanted it to be.
ILM: How are you approaching the translation of the record to live?
Jamie: Yeah. That's a difficult one. I've got a band. The record wasn't made with a band but it needs to, to be able to get across some of those important sounds. We've funked it up basically. Haha! I think some of the tracks were maybe a bit too fragile to exist live in the way that they do on the record, particularly in a festival setting. Well, it probably could be done but it's tricky. We're still chipping away at it. We've basically funked it up. And I'm singing! That's really fun!
ILM: You're a front man!
Jamie: Yeah, yeah! Front man! And I'm learning a whole load of things about that. I guess the thing I want most is for everyone to have a good time. I want to have fun with it, for the band to have fun with it too. Almost to flip it on its head.
ILM: What have you been listening to recently?
Jamie: I like the new Stateless album. A wicked hybrid of stuff, the production is really great. I'd like to see that live...
ILM: Have you heard the new Radiohead album?
Jamie: I haven't given it the amount of time I've given some of their other albums. It's not the most immediate. It's still brilliant but it doesn't sound like that great leap forwards sonically that I'm always used to with them. I think that's quite cool. It seems that they're a bit more relaxed about it now, like they're having fun with it.
ILM: What are your future plans?
Jamie: I'd like to get started on my next record as soon as I can. That probably won't be until the end of the year. I don't think I'll produce that one! I'm kind of looking for a producer, I've got a few ideas. I'd also like to get into doing remixes for other artists as well, just to keep that muscle trained! So yeah, that's my main plan. Keep songwriting going but keep the production side of things as a seperate entity and enjoy them both for what they are!
ILM: What is it about music that keeps you creating?
Jamie: Wow. Just the fact that, well...it's just a universal language. Music has always been a part of my life. It's always been very good to me. It feels like we're friends! So...just how universal it's been. After being locked away with the album it's been so good to get out and meet so many great people and have such a good time. I think it's a really exciting time for music right now. We're coming out of this weird hundred year experiment where music has been monetised, who knows what is going to happen. There's still much we don't know about. It's a really exciting time...