“He’s the future,” – that’s how BBC Radio 1 DJ and tastemaker Mistajam described XamVolo. It’s a fair assessment. In the last 12 months, the 23-year-old artist has risen to the attention of critics and music fans the world over thanks to his impressionist reimaginings of neo-soul, jazz and pop. He’s played Glastonbury, sold out a headline London show, and been compared with everyone from D’Angelo to Anderson Paak. Now, he’s on the cusp of releasing an inventive concept EP, with the promise of a debut album titled ‘All the Sweetness on the Surface’ to follow quickly after.
XamVolo grew up in South East London. Neither of his parents bothered with music; he never studied it, had singing lessons, or even played an instrument at school. “Then one day back in 2007, one of my school friends gave me Fruity Loops 7,” says XamVolo, “and I became obsessed.”
His friends were into grime at the time, and at 14 years old he became consumed with crafting instrumentals in a bid to replicate the songs he was hearing everywhere. He was a natural. Then as the interest in grime wore off, he moved to UK rap. “I was jumping between genres and it was a big lesson: it taught me how important drums were in music. For me, drums define the genre.”
A paradigm shifting moment came when he first listened to Soulquarians such as D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, and he was drawn to the passionate, rule-breaking weirdness of it all. “I thought that’s what I’m gonna do with music,” says XamVolo. “I wanted to take the weird time signatures and mad chords of jazz, the attitude of neo-soul, and then some of the art rock of artists like Pink Floyd.”
At 18, he moved to Liverpool to study architecture at university. The city inspired him, but not in an academic sense. He was suddenly surrounded by musicians of all different genres, and Liverpool’s indie rock identity and passion for live music began to fuel him. He spent more and more time at shows, and the rest of his hours in his bedroom on his laptop with a £30 microphone, playing with different ideas.
In 2016, he released his ‘Chirality’ EP, a collection of heartfelt songs that resonated immediately, all written and produced by XamVolo. Breakthrough hit, “Down”, quickly surpassed half a million plays on Spotify, with radio love from Annie Mac, Huw Stephens, Gilles Peterson and more. It’s a powerful song, packed with cavernous choral voices, jazz harmonies that make the hairs on your neck stand up, and XamVolo’s butterscotch voice cruising gleefully through the instrumentation. A remix by the South London production duo WiDE AWAKE has gone on to surpass 250,000 Spotify plays.
Following that came the single, “Old Soul”. Written in London during sessions with Bruno Major (SG Lewis, Liv Dawson), it opens with a teasing slice of Spanish guitar, then transforms into a cosmic and transcendent pop song, reminiscent of Flying Lotus or Janelle Monae. It was followed last October by “Feels Good”, an emphatic jam with a timeless sample of Thelonious Monk.
Forthcoming EP, “A Damn Fine Spectacle”, is an evolution of this approach, and a testament to XamVolo’s cinematic method of creating worlds within his music. Across four songs, it tells a neo-noir story of a young girl who finds herself confronted with a hive containing magical black honey (that Xam has named ‘Slaize’) that can grant her every desire.
He explains the symbolism of the honey: “Everybody wants something, whether it’s money, power, justice, a clean slate, or a new pair of shoes. Some people would go to great lengths to acquire the things they want, but whenever there's an easier option available, most people would rather save themselves the hassle. This EP [and the album to follow] are all about the nature of our desires. When someone is told of this black honey – of an easy way to obtain everything they’ve ever wanted – their curiosity is piqued.”
The EP opens with the bouncing groove of “Lose Love”, which was created with producer Freddie Joachim (J Cole, Aloe Blacc) during sessions in LA. It sees the girl slowly seduced into consuming the black honey, and she soon finds herself chasing after a life of greed, excess and grandeur. “She has more than some people could ever dream of, but she still desires more,” explains XamVolo. In the dreamy and Frank Ocean-esque “Adored”, she finds herself constantly yearning, before everything comes crashing back to earth in “Dark Teeth”. The final song “Cathedrals” finds the character left with a messy state of mind after compromising her identity for so long.
Like the blurb on the back of a novel, the EP serves as a teasing distillation of what is to be explored on XamVolo’s forthcoming debut album, All The Sweetness on the Surface. This conceptual collection of songs will open the story even wider, into a haunting world of fate and jealousy, tinged with hope. “It’s a genie-in-a-bottle story,” explains XamVolo, “but with a dark and existential twist.”
The album is split into two parts, life before the discovery of the black honey and the grim consequences of life after, in which we’re shown the dark side of getting everything you ever wanted at the click of a finger.
Standout tracks “Sins of a Soldier” and “Gold Again” capture this dualism perfectly. “Sins of a Soldier” captures the protagonist spiralling into a self-destructive sea of delusion. “If I hit the button now, only I know how it ends,” sings XamVolo, hinting at a personal apocalypse over a soundtrack of dark, sci-fi funk. The song came together during sessions with AV and Paul Phamous (Zendaya, The Jonas Brothers).
On the flip side, “Gold Again”, written and produced by Xam, finds our character coming out of the other side of their black honey experience. It’s a slow and enchanting pop song, that makes you feel like your head has floated into the skies. “It summarises everything about desire and how deep rooted it is in human nature,” says XamVolo. “We all want and need things. Finally sober, the character is nostalgic; they remember a time when everything was golden.”
XamVolo is a creative genius, whose talents go far beyond songwriting. He produces his music, designs his artwork, directs his own videos, and carefully crafts his live shows. “I’m a strong believer in cohesion throughout a project across media,” says XamVolo. “The live show is very different to the recorded music – it’s more about connecting with the people in attendance.”
And yet, probably the best example of XamVolo’s creative spirit is not in the album’s biggest tracks or its finest instru- mentation, but in the things many listeners might not even notice unless they dig for it. The album’s opening track, “The Surface”, is a gentle beat with twinkling piano and XamVolo speaking over it, and the closing track “All The Sweetness” is a cruising slow jam. Seems simple enough. But if you play both songs at the same time, they create an altogether new polyrhythmic track, and the lyrics lock together to realise the album’s title: All The Sweetness on The Surface.
It just goes to show just how formidable and innovative XamVolo is as an artist. Perhaps, beyond the infectious big hits and staggering vocals, it’s his attention to detail on these tiny little flourishes of genius that keep garnering him so many comparisons to the true greats of music.