After working with Kanye West and Beyoncé, scoring ‘Euphoria’ has drawn the artist into the spotlight.
Two things become apparent about UK songwriter and producer Labrinth after a thirty-minute interview. The first is that music is a spiritual experience for him; when it comes to genre, he’s an omnist. The second is that though he has written for some of the most famous musicians in the world, he hates fame.
Labrinth first grabbed the UK’s attention in 2010, when rapper Tinie Tempah’s single “Pass Out,” which Lab produced, sang on, and co-wrote, topped the charts. Soon after, other gigs rolled in, and after a short few months of prodigious songwriting, he garnered a Brit award, a platinum single, and the attention of mega-producer and television host, Simon Cowell.
That same year, the wry creator of American Idol signed Labrinth to his label, Syco, making him the first person in nearly a decade to join without having first been on one of Cowell’s reality TV shows. With Syco backing him, he would produce his first album, Electronic Earth. But it wouldn’t be for another seven years that he would put out another. Instead, feeling the pressure to manufacture pop hit after pop hit put him at risk of creative sterilization, Labrinth opted to take a musical sabbatical, like many of the old-guard jazz musicians he admires, and practice his craft. Unlike those jazz musicians, however, his efforts to find his own voice led to a songwriting career that would include album credits for some of the biggest names in pop music, such as Ed Sheeran, Kanye West, Beyoncé, and The Weeknd.
For most of his life as a producer and songwriter, especially in the States, Labrinth was often heard but seldom seen. However, this is starting to change. After scoring the hit HBO television show, Euphoria, and releasing his second studio album, seven years in the making, Imagination and the Misfit Kid, Labrinth has begun to experience an unprecedented amount of attention.
In the wake of these two career-accelerating projects, Document caught up with Labrinth to talk about his relationship with fame, the McDonaldization of music, and one of his biggest sources of musical inspiration: Oompa Loompas.
Labrinth: I like what you got going on there. [Points to the photo of Rev Run and Slick Rick on my shirt]
Kedar Berston: Do you like hip hop?
Labrinth: Hip hop is the worst genre every crea—nah I’m just kidding. Nah, I love hip hop, man. I love it. It basically raised me. That was in my house: gospel, funk, and then once I got older and went to school that’s when guitar music and classical music started coming in.
Kedar: I’m a bit of a hip hop head, so I’m curious: Were you more raised on London garage and grime or American hip hop?
Labrinth: It was Mos Def, that kind of side, which is conscious—Busta Rhymes. Then I heard Mob Deep. Then Biggie, and of course, Tupac were always raging somewhere—they were the legends. And it was basically like the whole genre slowly coming over.
I think I got into ‘classic’ hip hop when I got older. That’s when I started hearing it from my friends and uncles and stuff like that. Like RUN DMC and Wu-Tang. 36 Chambers got killed in the house. I’d love to have a chat with RZA. I wouldn’t even have to work with him. It’d just be like to have an encounter because I feel like I would get on with him on a spiritual and vibes level.
Kedar: Have you ever thought about making hip hop music?
Labrinth: Yeah, I have, you know I had a little MPC. It’s just that it felt too close to home for me. It didn’t feel adventurous. I grew up on it, so it’s like I wanted to travel as far as I could to somewhere I don’t know. But, as I’ve been getting older, it’s been slowly like, ‘Oooo I miss that mothafucking shit!’
Kedar: You’ve described yourself as a musical schizophrenic before, so you must have many influences.
Labrinth: Yeah, a lot of people get surprised when I say that when I’m creating music, I get inspired by the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Oompa Loompa song is like a vibe for me.
Labrinth: Back in the day, like in the ’60s, when they used to record people’s voices, they didn’t have the same compressors and technical equipment they have now. So their voices used to distort. And when a voice distorts with reverb around it, for me, it just sounds so sick. And so that whole song sounds like toilet reverb and distortion, and I always feel like I can use that in a track, so I get inspired every time I hear it.
Kedar: Have you used it on a track before?
Labrinth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Quite a few. There’s a record that I did on Euphoria called ‘Nate Growing Up,’ and the choir vocals on that I kind of made…
Kedar: Into Oompa Loompas?
Labrinth: Yeah. [Laughs]
“I don’t believe in one religion; to me, God is life. God is musical theory, a source of energy.”
Kedar: Aside from the Oompa Loompas, who would you name as some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Labrinth: I was never inspired by someone, it was more a genre or a sound. So it would be like the drums on a DJ Premier record or a J Dilla record—and it’d be like, woah how do I get that? It’d be like a scrapbook mentality, where you tear a piece of this, you tear a piece of that.
Kedar: Why do you think you’re attracted to so many different genres?
Labrinth: Because life is not one dimensional. I don’t believe in one religion; to me, God is life. God is musical theory, a source of energy. All of these things become subgenres to this source of energy, and that’s what music is. Music is 12 notes, and all of these different genres were created out of these 12 notes. It’s weird for people to say that only one way’s the right way. For me, to be able to planet hop all of these genres and different energies—that feels like I’m getting a taste of the full breadth of life.
Kedar: You’ve mentioned that film is maybe the best home for your music—is that because you’re encouraged to explore different genres when writing a score?
Labrinth: I feel like film is more open because there are a lot more places you can go. It’s not [as geared to a specific] demographic. There was a time when I was a trap head, and I’d wear certain clothes, I’d say certain things, ‘I’m not listening to that style of music.’ And with movies, it’s like we need a pop song for this moment. And that makes it fun.
You said you love hip hop, why do you love hip hop?
Kedar: Well I have a jazz background, and I think it’s kind of natural to progress into liking hip hop.
Labrinth: Yeah, they were sampling jazz, so it has some of the same soul. But like a remixed version of it, which is sick.
Kedar: Yeah, that’s what I like about it. I’m a big fan of Dilla, also.
Labrinth: Yeah, J Dilla’s a bad boy. So you came from jazz first. Who was you listening to?
Kedar: Oh jeez. I was a pianist so…
Labrinth: Oh sick! So [plays air piano and sings a jazzy melody]
Kedar: Yes, exactly like that. Some Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner.
Labrinth: Some Thelonious Monk? [plays the air piano with his elbow and sings a dissonant jazz melody]
Kedar: Yeah exactly, anyone who can pull off playing the piano with their elbow I’m there for. So I’m guessing you listen to a lot of jazz?
Labrinth: Yeah, I used to listen to the Love Supreme album for a long time. Every time I moved to a new place in my life, I listen to that record again and it means a whole different thing to me. So I’ve always loved that record. And of course Miles Davis… Do you know Weather Report?
Kedar: Yeah, Wayne Shorter’s group.
Labrinth: When I was growing up, my brothers would be playing Yellow Jackets and Weather Report, and—because my family’s a massive family—we’d be having R&B going on somewhere else, too. All the musicians wanted to sound like Jaco Pastorious and Elvin Jones. My whole house was mixed with the lot of it.
“Even in jazz, even in these different genres, I’ve seen musicians be like, ‘I need to sound like so-and-so’ to feel like I’m worthy. And it’s like, no. You have to find your worth.”
Kedar: You’ve mentioned being worried about making music that sounds like McDonald’s. Where does that fear come from?
Labrinth: I think McDonald’s is anything that becomes a franchise, and you’re almost becoming a gimmick of yourself to make as much financial gain as possible. And then you’re not creating anything, you’re just like, ‘Copy that thing again, they like it, cool.’ For some people, it’s worked really well, and respect to them, it’s their business. I get bored.
Kedar: I think few people who listen to A Love Supreme regularly can make music like McDonald’s.
Labrinth: Exactly—it’s like, I just went to the best, most gourmet restaurant ever, and now you want me to eat McDonald’s, and I just can’t. For me, some people are supposed to be McDonald’s, and that’s not a dis to them. We all have different callings. I believe as long as it feels honest to the artist—because some people have made some incredible pop, and they’ve stayed in their land and that’s their sound. But I think when it feels contrived, and it’s constantly like you’re banging them out—putting the lettuce on the patty and sending them on their way—it feels soulless to me.
Kedar: Do you ever feel pressured to sound like someone else?
Labrinth: I think it’d be fun.
Kedar: I mean, you do write for a lot of other musicians, but do you feel that pressure in your own music?
Labrinth: I did when I started. I think it’s a human problem, where you’re constantly wanting to belong. Even in jazz, even in these different genres, I’ve seen musicians be like, ‘I need to sound like so-and-so’ to feel like I’m worthy. And it’s like, no. You have to find your worth.
That’s what’s beautiful about jazz. Someone goes away, they lock themself in a room, and they say, ‘I’m fucking me now.’ You know—and I know you’ve seen it—when it’s like, ‘Shit he went to fucking Pluto, and we see him now.’ And, for me, it’s really special to see any artist or musician explore that.
Kedar: Is that why you like collaborating and songwriting with other musicians?
Labrinth: I think with the collaboration, I needed to get out of my own rut, because I got kind of caught up with trying to find success and find what was going to make me successful.
Kedar: The McDonaldization.
Labrinth: Yeah. I’ve always believed that I’ve had the potential to become a successful artist, or a wildly successful artist—no, actually, a lot of other people have seen that in me. So I felt like I need to live up to the high expectations that they have. But I can only live up to what I’m supposed to be. And I don’t know what that is. I’m finding that out every time I make a record.
Kedar: If I remember correctly, you had a seven-year gap between your first album, Electronic Earth, and your second, Imagination and the Misfit Kid. What changed that made you feel like you were ready to put out another album?
Labrinth: I guess it was going to Pluto and back. That’s what it was. I think everything happened in those seven years, and I didn’t even know it happened. I didn’t know I was on a journey to learn.
In that time, I was trying to release music, incessantly. I was trying every avenue, speaking to my A&R, trying, trying. I changed my team, I did loads of things, but every time I came to that point where I could release music, I would tee it up with the fans and be like, ‘Yo! We got music coming soon,’ but something would happen that would stop it. And that was really, really frustrating, emotionally, mentally, whatever. But, at the end of it, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I understand.’ You got to get slapped up to get some hairs on your chest and grow to become who you need to be. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do Euphoria if I didn’t do those seven years. So it all makes sense at the end of the day. But it wasn’t nice though.
Kedar: You’ve likened your songwriting for different projects to method acting. Each project requires a different character to embody. There have been a lot of crazy stories about actors getting into their roles. What’s your process like, and do you have any crazy stories?
Labrinth: It’s more of an energy. A lot of people, when they’re in the studio with me, they think I’m talking to people. When I’m working in the studio, it’s like someone’s going, ‘Try F major with a sharp eleven, wait no actually, add a major seven,’ and then I’m like, ‘Oh cool, cool, that’d be sick!’ It’s like I’m having this conversation in my head with all of these different thoughts and creative ideas. And some people think it’s a bit wild. And it is weird; it’s like I’m speaking to music, and I’m also speaking to the soul of what it’s intended for. So if I’m on a Ludwig 1960s kit and I’m like, ‘Yo I need some Elvin Jones,’ I’m gunna find a way to [imitates the stumbling sound of Elvin Jones’ drumming]. Like I’m going to hear that.
Kedar: You try to embody whatever it is you’re doing.
Labrinth: Right, embodying the energy of whatever that sound, that person, or that vibe is. I remember, Sia laughed. She was like ‘Ah, I love you Lab.’ She was accepting my issues. But Sia’s got issues, also. So I guess that’s why we enjoy each other.
Kedar: You guys came from similar backgrounds, too.
Labrinth: Yes, that’s true. I love that we kind of had that same experience, and I think it took her to dark places as well, so that’s why we understood each other in the studio.
“I want to use David Attenborough on a record. I’ve tried so hard. David Attenborough and Morgan Freegan—it’s so hard to get these guys.”
Kedar: So you’ve written for a lot of big names. Sia, Diplo—but also Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, Beyonce, Kanye. Is there someone that you would really like to collaborate with?
Labrinth: I want to use David Attenborough on a record. I’ve tried so hard. David Attenborough and Morgan Freegan—it’s so hard to get these guys.
Kedar: It’d be hysterical though.
Labrinth: It would be so sick—so sick. Whoever can make that happen. Maybe Drake could make it happen. I’ll try to get in contact with Drake and be like, ‘Can you get these guys to just jump on a record with me.’
Kedar: I’ll make sure to look for them on your next project. You’ve had a lot more popularity in the UK than in the States. After Euphoria, do you think that’s changing?
Labrinth: Definitely. I started getting noticed in like LA, in The Grove. I’m just slowly noticing people are starting to go like, ‘Hey, you’re that guy.’ And I’m like, ‘Aww shit. That scary place.’ I don’t love it. I don’t love being in the public eye. I don’t love fame. But I know that my work brings it. So I’m just like ‘Cool, fuck it.’
Kedar: I’ve heard you say in an interview that if you hate fame, but aren’t Taylor Swift or Kanye West–level famous, go to LA because no one will care.
Labrinth: That’s what I love about it. But it’s weird because I’m going into lanes that do create that allure. Especially with Euphoria, since it’s a teenage show. A lot of young kids are like, ‘Oh, shit!’ But I didn’t think me doing a score on a show would bring musical fans. I never thought that would happen. I just thought that it’d be like, ‘Okay, cool. Hopefully we get an Emmy or some shit.’
Kedar: Why does fame make you uncomfortable?
Labrinth: Because it distracts you from your purpose. It makes you want things that you never wanted in the first place. As a pianist you just want to be great at translating as fluently as you can what comes in. But when it’s like, ‘I’m doing this to get a reaction.’ It’s a problem. It’s tainted. It messes with my qi.