Nathan Thomas: Philosophical Soul

There’s something of the archetypically sensitive singer-songwriter about Nathan Thomas.  Guitar slung over his shoulder, slightly reserved on the verge of being shy, one can imagine him alone, eagerly composing heart-tweaking numbers by candlelight.  His unassuming demeanour also comes through in his pretty, understated vocals.  This might have a lot to do with the music with which he grew up.  The Essex-raised maestro was reared on a sonic diet that consisted largely of crooners and mellow grooves.

“My folks were really eclectic,” he tells SoulCulture. “I grew up with Nat King Cole in the house.  My parents liked soul as well, Marvin Gaye, Al Green… The first dance at their wedding was ‘Let’s Stay Together’.  My dad was mad on Cafe del Mar and all that chill out, too.  There were all sorts in the house… Simply Red, Lionel Richie, Michael McDonald…”

The variety of the Thomas’ family’s record collection has remained in Nathan’s craft. “I draw from all sorts of styles.  I love the vocals on people like Nat King Cole, that classic sounding vocal; just strong and natural.  I was always a fan of Eric Benet, Will Downing and that kind of intimate Soul which is a challenge to copy and learn from.”

It was through much trial and error that Thomas developed his own voice. For Nathan, a restrained vocal sympathetic to the song is nigh essential.  Showboating must be kept to a minimum. “I try to step back and be a little more gentle with delivery; actually sing the song for the song’s sake rather than the vocal’s sake. You set yourself up sometimes if you try too hard, as beautiful as it is to listen to…

“I’ve just more recently started to sing how I want to,” he says. “It sounds at least a lot more believable and natural to me than some of my earlier stuff when I was experimenting.  It’s about being honest isn’t it?  If for just a moment you think, ‘They’re trying to prove something at that point,’ you can get rid of the magic by doing something too clever. Especially if you’re delivering content. 

“If you’re putting across a narrative and you try hard to disguise the song, it goes out of the window.   [The artist] spends time trying to document things and yet it gets a little bit muddled up with [vocal] trickery.  People like that, but then don’t listen to the lyrics.'”

Back in 2000, fresh out of university Nathan signed to Universal Records as a songwriter.  His work took him across the UK and the world.  Amongst his credits is ‘Another Lover’ produced by Wyclef Jean and performed by Dane Bowers. Thomas worked on a couple more tracks for Bowers’ album that never saw the light of day.

More recently in 2006 Nathan once again got a taste of the limelight when ‘Yeah, Yeah’ by BodyRox featuring Luciana, a song on which he shares writing credits, received an Ivor Novello nomination for Best Contemporary Song.  In the end it lost out to Amy Winehouse’s monstrously successful ‘Rehab’.

Nonetheless Thomas looks back on the experience fondly despite the final version of ‘Yeah, Yeah’ as remixed by D. Ramirez being very different from how it started out on the drawing board.

“It was very, very adjusted from what I originally wrote.  It gets chopped up into little bits unrecognisably. It’s hard for me to take any real genuine creative credit for that because it was just split so many ways.  It was really random considering my background and what I was doing.   It was accidental almost but I’m glad for it. It opened a few doors and it was a good ride.”

Thomas has found something of an artistic soulmate in songwriting partner of five years Mark Rapson. “That’s got to be the best thing that’s happened to me musically,”  he beams.  “I’d co-written a lot of stuff over the years.  I travelled about, went out to Sweden, South Africa all across the UK, worked with loads of different people.  It was always to a brief, ‘We want a song that sounds like this for this artist. Here are some influences; deliver’.”

However when Nathan and Mark got together inspiration flowed more organically. “He was the first person I wrote with that I felt comfortable enough to tell a true story,” Nathan says. “It wasn’t a formula.  We were both so influenced by similar things and yet we still introduced each other to new music.  Mark introduced me to all sorts that absolutely blew me away.  He’s really intelligent musically; very well versed and researched.  As a co-writer I think you have to build that friendship as well.  In short I can just be honest with him.  We bounce ideas off each other regardless of whether it’s going to sound silly.”

Nathan has written quite a few down-tempo gems.  The irresistibly poignant ‘Fractured’ for example – topic-wise in the vein of Eric Roberson/Musiq’s ‘Previous Cats’ – demands multiple listens.  Neither is he limited to the subject of romance-gone-wrong.  His songs with a universal message pack an even bigger punch.

He describes ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ as, “A double-edged sword; it’s a song about how dreams of the “ideal” are falsely portrayed in old movies.”  The track also hints at how the spotlight has so far eluded Thomas.

Then there’s the delicate, sad beauty of ‘Sugarcoated’, inspired by the classic Italian film Life Is Beautiful in which a father uses playful means to distract his small son from the fact they are in a concentration camp.  “It’s an amazing film,” Nathan observes. “The reality never hits home at such a young age because of sugar-coating the truth.”

On ‘We Don’t Know S***’ Nathan takes his study of A-Level Philosophy and turns it on its head. “I was into finding the reasons for things, always intrigued.  I read all sorts from loads of people and just thought: ‘Who’s right out of all of these?’

“I started thinking I’ve had my head stuck in books and not looked up at the real world.  Life skills don’t come from books like that.  There’s a difference between being a philosophical man and a real man.  I wanted to write a song about how you can actually look too deep but on the surface we don’t know any of it.”

Nathan’s pensive side is all well and good but there’s a more upbeat aspect to his artistry, also.  Under the alias of Beardy Kid he makes what he calls ‘grimy, dirty-sounding’ House, Dubstep and DnB. “It’s just me mucking around in the studio.  I’ve got a little MySpace set up and I chuck a load of songs on there that have got nothing to do with what I originally learned on guitar.  It’s about sounds and me freaking out really.  Every now and then I have to vent that electronic side because I do love it but there’s a time and place.  I don’t ever think anything is going to be heard or released but it’s getting it out of my system.”

Nathan’s 2007 EP Chapter One released on iTunes received very encouraging reviews.  Still, he’s yet to go on the road and meet his public. “I very rarely perform – that’s the thing,” he says apologetically. “I feel safer in the studio, for a start. I like the creative process and once one is done I’d rather make another one than show everybody.”

Thomas’ reticence is a shame; such modesty can be taken too far.  He agrees he needs to make amends. “I think [performing] is the next step.  I’ve done the recording side now where I can at least share a bit live but I’m nervous.  It’s kind of like beginning again.  I just need more guts maybe to get out there and see what people think.”

Part of Nathan’s trepidation comes from uncertainty over the current musical climate. “In a way it stops you from making progress.  We’re in a musical culture that’s based a lot on fad – ‘Does it sound good next to that record it’s supposed to sound a little bit like?’  You’re swimming upstream constantly if you’re trying to go back to stuff that is based on structure- a strong song.  People haven’t got time; it’s like fast food. ‘Get to the chorus quickly’ and ‘Is there a dirty bass line?’  I’m biding my time a little bit I guess, seeing what happens.”

It’s somewhat ironic then that Nathan is a DJ on ultra-commercial chief culprit Kiss FM’s Breakfast show in East Anglia.  However he maintains a clear distinction between his day job and his creative pursuits. “Very rarely do I hear something that inspires me to get in the studio,” he confesses. “It doesn’t necessarily mean I hate what the station plays; everything has got its place.  What we play is great for commercial clubs.”

Nathan’s plans for the immediate future involve writing, writing and more writing with the likelihood of an album. “I think initially I just want to finish making what I’ve started…

“If when making music you’re happy and feel like you’re achieving anyway, don’t stop.  If I get someone behind me that is willing to help me expose that then brilliant but if I can finish the album [independently], share it with enough people and it touches them in whatever way, then great too.”

Keep an eye on new releases from Nathan Thomas at

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