Stubborn Heart - Interviews - Soundblab

Stubborn Heart

by Priscilla Eyles Rating: Release Date:

South London's Stubborn Heart, although vogueishly labelled post-dubstep, call themselves electronic soul and, with their heartbreak lyrics, emotive vocals and down-tempo electronica, you can see why this term is apt. They arrived on the scene in 2011, seemingly out of nowhere with a non-descript white label of 'Need Someone' ensuring a scurry of record labels eager to sign them. Their self-titled debut album was released last year on One Little Indian to great acclaim and recently won album of the year at Giles Peterson's Worldwide Awards. We spoke to them before their sold out show at Birthdays about the unexpected buzz, writing sad music and singing quietly.

How did you first meet and what brought you together to make music?

Ben: We met a long time ago. I'd just finished college so I was 18 and I went to a local music shop and there was an advertisement saying, 'Keyboard player wanted for a band'. So I phoned up and the next minute I was in rehearsal, and low and behold Luca was the vocalist.

Luca: Yeah, the band didn't go anywhere. Then we went our separate ways, and I got back in touch with Ben in about 2000 and asked him to help with some music I was making. And every now and then we'd just meet up once a year and make music together, and then in 2010 we made something that we both thought was quite good. And then we put out 'Need Someone' on a white label in 2011, and that got a really good reaction and things snowballed from there. So, for the last two years we've really been heads down making music everyday.

So it was really all down to you guys putting out white labels ?

L: I don't know what would've happened otherwise. Because we always got together and made music for ages and never did anything with it, we just do it for fun. Drink loads of wine and make lots of crap music [laughs]. And then we started to take it a bit more seriously.

So you never thought it would take off in the way it did?

L: Not really, no. I mean we knew 'Need Someone' was good, it had a nice melody. I remember when we put the vocal down and that felt good.

B: I thought it was going to be good because I remember Luke phoned me up and said, "I've got this song you've got to hear it", and he literally sang the whole of 'Need Someone' to me on the telephone. I thought, "Right, there's something there". And so immediately I just came round and put a beat down.

L: If we hadn't put that white label out we probably would've sent an mp3 off to record companies and been ignored.

There was probably an intrigue about the record too because I read the only information it had on the record was your e-mail.

L: It got people's attention, they thought it was just a couple of kids.

B: We didn't show our identity and we didn't tell anybody that we'd made the record.

L: It was quite exciting. We've got a few friends who are DJs and on the radio and we didn't tell any of them about it, and then they ended up playing it not knowing it was us.

B: It was an old-school ethos of discovering music, rather shoving it in front of their faces and saying "Play this".

And how it was for you to get the Rough Trade Album of the Month, did that really help?

L: Yeah, that was amazing as well. We've been really lucky because that was a big boost, because it's really hard to sell any records. I thought it might be a bit too lovey-dovey for Rough Trade. It's all heartbreak songs and I didn't think they'd go for it. And then tonight is our first London gig and it's sold out, so everything's a bit of a surprise.

What are your biggest influences?

L: Well, its black music really in general. I'm massively into all sorts of music, but through my brother and sister it was always about soul and reggae, and just growing up in South London you were just surrounded by black music. And then house and hip hop . It's just always been my obsession right back from Motown and before that Sam Cooke and jazz and everything. And Ben's really similar.

B: I liked a lot of classical music when I was younger because I started playing the piano when I was six and I sang in a choir as well. But for me it was more hearing pop music or whatever my mum was playing at the time. So she was playing Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones. And I did the usual recording Top of the Pops off the TV. Pretty eclectic taste.

L: We're both really into pop and dance music and we make really sad music [laughs]. I don't know why that is. We love upbeat music but we can't seem to make that music.

So you didn't have any intention to make downbeat music?

L: No, it's just what happened when I opened my mouth. We are a pair of miserable fuckers [laughs]. We both like to dance but we are quite miserable

B: We were both completely skint, no job. He'd [Luca} recently split up with his girlfriend. I suppose those kind of things in the back of your mind tap into it.

L: But then you've got to write stuff that you can feel when you're singing.

There's a very atmospheric sound to the vocals and the music sounds very spacious. How did you create this during the recording?

B: We had very limited equipment; we had a Mac running Logic and we had a tiny keyboard and we had a crappy microphone. That's all we had.

L: We just tried to keep things minimal; we tried to use three or four sounds on each track to give space to the vocals and let them breathe.

B: Having listened to a lot of northern soul and soul tracks, I noticed there was a lot of reverb on the vocals but it was shrouded by the other instruments. I wanted to try and get that effect on Luca's voice so there were a few tricks that we did, but it was mostly about using a lot of reverb. It filled in the gaps between the keyboard and drum parts. I wasn't thinking we must use reverb on every track. But a lot of the tracks do have that effect. You're able to create something great that's very soft and intimate but yet sound big. We didn't really double-track many vocals.

L: We were trying to capture emotive vocal performances. They might be the first or second take but some of them are like the 100th.

How did you develop your vocals, Luca, as its very unique sound you have?

L: The whole thing with this album was singing them softly, because if I belt things out I fall into clichés or I end up singing in an American accent and doing soul mannerisms, and sometimes it sounds quite strained. I discovered if I sang really softly, it could sound quite beautiful.

Ben, how did you source the samples that you use in the album?

B: The samples I use are mainly drum samples that I have collected over the last 10 years. All the other sounds on the album are mostly synth sounds from Apple's Logic Audio and maybe the odd SFX sample. In 'Starting Block' I used a free cello patch from a very old copy of Computer Music Magazine. I tend to use whatever is in Logic and add effects to it to make it how I want it to sound.

How do you approach translating what you call a studio album live?

L: Making loads of mistakes and just learning from every gig! You know, don't do that song, don't do that bit, and just turning the microphone up very loud [laughs] so I can sing very soft.

Do you do anything else with the music. I know a lot of electronic artists like to add other live musical elements?

B: It's funny, my whole ethos is you spend, say, a year-and-a -half making this album and you mix it all sonically, and that's the sound people listen to, and then to go out live and play it with a guitar and a drum kit. It just makes no sense to me. You spent all this time creating that music - surely when someone wants to go and watch it they want to hear that or at least something very similar.

L: We're on a limited budget so we're basically just running a lot off the track as it is on the album, with Ben doing live keyboards and me doing live singing. And hopefully it will sound different to the album. It will be stripped of all the backing vocals and be a different experience.

Is there a second album underway?

L: We've got loads of songs, and we've got the next album all worked out but it will probably change. It will probably be quite similar to the first album feel. I like the albums to be a listening experience and quite like it to be moody and dark. And then we've got other tracks which are more dancefloor which won't go on the album but hopefully we'll put out some free downloads or maybe put it out under a different name without telling the record label.

Stubborn Heart release new single 'Better Than This' on April 15 and DJ at a Bit-Phalanx night at Babble Jar on February 26.

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