There was palpable anticipation in the air as Jamie Woon took the stage last Saturday 19th February. The Jericho Tavern was the first night on a 16 date tour that will see Woon criss-crossing the UK until the 7th March, before hopping across the pond for a handful of US dates. As one of the new-found darlings of the music industry, having been recently voted fourth on the BBC Sound of 2011 poll, it is unlikely that we will get to see him perform in such a small venue again anytime soon. The intimacy of the Tavern was one reason that I was so excited for this gig. Ever since I saw Woon performing as part of One Taste, a collective of acoustic, jazz and spoken word artists, in the tiny Chai Wallahs tent at Glastonbury in 2007, I have been hooked on his music. Then, he was a lone figure who carried the tent and a handful of onlookers, with only his mesmerising vocals, and an acoustic guitar or a sample box, into which he would loop and layer beats and vocal tracks. But for his show at the Jericho he has a full band.
Meeting Woon before the gig, surrounded by the early evening hubbub of the Tavern, he was as friendly and unassuming as his captivating voice and sensitive lyrics imply. I asked him how he was finding the sudden hype that was surrounding his first album Mirrorwriting, due for release on the 4th April. “I’m really into the way things are going. The exposure has been really great, in terms of people looking out for my record now. I’m really happy with it”
In 2007, he released Wayfaring Stranger EP. The title track was a contemporary soul take on the old spiritual classic, which was remixed by elusive dubstep producer Burial, and subsequently noticed by Radio 1 DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Mary-Anne Hobbs. Yet this critical recognition did not hurry Woon into making his first album. Now signed to major label Polydor, he explained that he had been “waiting personally to feel like I knew what I wanted. I’ve had quite a few offers, but I knew I didn’t really have enough songs. I wanted to be sure of my sound, so that I wouldn’t get pushed in a direction I didn’t want to go in. “Last year I was making my album, but I’ve been gigging since I left university. Playing on my own, doing the troubadour schtick for quite a long time. I just kinda stopped for a while, to take time over the album. I took my time writing, enjoying it, getting a sound palette I was happy with. I’m really into making the soundscape match the lyrics.”
Self-taught singer, songwriter and producer he is an artist who is clearly dedicated and patient enough to spend time perfecting his craft. The tracks I had heard from his new album certainly had the mark of someone who was assured in the sound that they had found, adding, “Looking further down the line I think I’d like to make my next record a lot faster.” Whilst his new material is more synthesized and funky than his older acoustic songs, the Brit School graduate is still influenced by the musical pedigree of his upbringing. His mother is Celtic folk singer Mae McKenna, who did backing vocals for artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Banarama and Bjork. Woon was taken to sessions and became comfortable in the studio, whilst listening to the music his mother played around the house, such as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
Before discovering electronic artists such as DJ Shadow, Woon was into Britpop, and formed a band at school, “we just played Greenday and all that teenage band stuff.” It spurred him into taking up guitar, as he explained, “I was the only one who would sing, but you can only play what the guitarists play, or are able to play.”
Having got into sample-based music, the real liberator that motivated Woon was getting a laptop, and he believes that “Technology is really driving creativity at the moment.” On stage Woon had a guitar, but mostly used a bewildering array of loop and effects pedals, and an electronic pad on which he manipulated the sounds that flowed through his songs. He was accompanied by a drummer, a guitarist and keyboard player. The latter two sported laptops. He uses all the electronic devices at his fingertips with consummate skill, looping, vocoding and reverberating into the crowd’s appreciative ears. New single, ‘Lady Luck’, which was being simultaneously debuted on Mista Jam’s Radio One and 1Xtra show, is upbeat and garage-infused. Recent single ‘Night Air’ got the crowd grooving the most, with an extra slice of funk to end the song.
For someone like me, who is isn’t immersed in the ambient electronica of artists such as Mount Kimbie, who Woon will be supporting in the US, this fusion of rhythmic soundscapes and smooth melodies seems unique. He is certainly at the vanguard of so-called future pop, in a similarly progressive post-dubstep vein to fellow ‘Sound of 2011’ artist James Blake. When I asked if he would be increasingly creative and experimental with his music in the future, he was keen to brush off the label of eclecticism. “I don’t know if I’m really that experimental, I mean I don’t see myself that way. I think what I do is pop music…RnB really. Atmospheric RnB!”
And the gig was indeed “atmospheric”. There were times when the bass threatened to overwhelm Woon’s soulful sounds. As a long time fan, one of the things that had first captured me was his use of looping to build up a haunting wall of sound. With a full band, Woon’s sample box has gone, which is a shame as it could have elevated the set even further. Though one can’t blame a performer for moving on from something they describe as a “needs-must thing”. Songs such as ‘Shoulda’ and ‘Spirits’ had been given an electronic revamp that somewhat swallowed their delicacy. An acoustic guitar for ballad ‘Gravity’ wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
Having said that, the gig was an enticing flavour of what is to come on the album, with the numerous catchy melodies still snaking through my head a week later. Woon’s stunning, soul voice was hypnotising, as evidenced by the many doe-eyed females at the front of the stage. As he took his applause, before heading into the crowd to talk to fans, Woon was grinning from ear to ear, and the buzz around The Jericho Tavern indicated that those who were lucky enough to see him felt the same way.