Loick Essien: Is The Mainstream Ready For UK R&B?

“In my time it was like N’Sync, Michael [Jackson] and Usher,” 20-year old singer/songwriter Loick Essien says of his childhood musical influences. You’d expect any sentence containing the phrase “in my time” to be the opener to a nostalgic jaunt for a person much older than Loick, but that’s what makes him a bit of an anomaly. His old soul counters his energetic, youthful spirit.

“[As a child] I always knew I had a love for singing, but I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do.” In fact, it was acting and dancing which captured his attention as a kid. His mother supported his penchant for performing, which led to him attending two theatre schools and appearing in British programmes including Holby City and The Bill.

It was a few chance relationships which introduced Loick to a new passion. “I met [music and film director] Jake Nava; and he really liked me, we built a relationship. He said, ‘If I’m doing any more stuff I’d like to get you back down, as I’m starting to do music videos’.”

True to his word, Nava invited Loick to feature in a video for urban/pop group Big Brovaz. “That’s where it all started, on the lunch break I had my headphones on and I was singing out loud, but I didn’t realise, and the producer for Big Brovaz was sitting behind me. He said, ‘You’ve got a good voice, have you ever recorded anything before?’”

Then just twelve years old, Loick experienced life behind the booth for the first time.

I ask how being exposed to the studio so early has affected his approach with it now. “Studio feels like home now. It’s always fun to go in and know that you’re creating something new, and you don’t know if it’s going to be a special one. And you know, after a while of being in the studio, when you’ve got that song and it’s always exciting to go in there and see if you’re going to get it today, and what kind of song you’re going to create that day.”

Before creating his own songs, though, first Loick came to the public’s attention via UK rapper Bashy. “I had a mutual friend between Bashy, and he always used to say, ‘You two should hook up!’, but [at the time] my voice was a bit too young for the stuff Bashy was doing. But then ‘Black Boys‘ came about. Following that I featured on Chipmunk’s ‘Beast’, and I got my features game up.”

Loick’s ‘features game’ made A&Rs pay attention to the burgeoning singer/songwriter. Days after his seventeenth birthday he inked a deal with Sony. Liock claims he wasn’t like most young new artists who naively believe major label signing means instant stardom. “Rather than being over-excited I felt like ‘Okay… I’m signed now, now it’s just to maintain it’.”

However, he does admit he still learned some valuable lessons pretty swiftly; “I think it’s definitely been a learning curve, being at the label, finding out how it all works. I think a lot of people think that the work ends when you sign the deal. It doesn’t, it’s just as hard as doing it independently – it’s still a grind, you still have to get in the studio and record, and keep your place in the label, as there are a lot of other artists at a label and you have to be able to stand your own ground. You have to be producing good enough music for them to keep you on.”

An increased work ethic wasn’t the only change Loick experienced following his signing. He also found the music scene around him changing. “A lot of people that broke the boundaries, I didn’t expect them to, and I’m sure a lot of people would say that. It’s just really inspiring to see. I think it all started when T2’s “Heartbreaker” number one, and it was like, ‘Wow, T2 just got a number one, like whoa, wait a minute, that’s like…garage!’. Then Tinchy Stryder came and had his number one, then Chipmunk reached number one, JLS and Tinie [Tempah] had their number ones, and you saw the scene looking a little more healthy. I think it’s a beautiful thing, I’m hoping to be a part of the success.”

Loick doesn’t feel that a moniker needs to be attached to the spate of chart-topping UK black and urban artists. “I don’t think it should called be ‘Team UK’, I think it should be ‘Team Good Music’ because it’s about good music; America doesn’t have ‘Team America’, it’s just good music – and I think good music speaks for itself. I think because it’s such a new thing they’re trying to label the success as something.. but I feel like when we get more used to the success and the fact that we are as good as the Americans and everyone else, and we can do it to that degree I think that everyone will start recognising it as good music.”

That said, a perceived sense of camaraderie and peer-to-peer support has been born from the artists branding themselves as ‘Team UK’. I ask whether Loick feels if all artists using the phrase believe in the sentiment.

“I feel that some people are, some people aren’t on the same page – just being real. Some people say they support it but they don’t, some people are scared that they might get rubbed out or their place might be taken. And I think that’s where ‘Team UK’ comes out of it and it just comes down to good music. And why I think it’s so important just to support good music. There’s some people that don’t support and some that do – and I’m speaking about artists as well.”

It seems that Loick views many of the scene’s emerging artists as catalysts of a major shift in British mainstream music. Beyond citing all of the chart toppers and his good friend Bashy as inspirations, Loick also fondly name-checks Talay Riley, Labrinth, Rita Ora and Jessie J as talented new artists who keep him healthily competitive.

But while British urban-pop, hip hop and even dubstep acts have all achieved chart success in the last year, so far UK-bred R&B and soul acts have been pretty nonexistent. Loick thinks there are two reasons behind this. “At the moment the music that’s being portrayed as R&B from here, it’s not really being done to the level it’s supposed to be done at.”

However, it’s more than just quality-control. Loick muses over whether the mainstream audience is ready for UK R&B right now. “I don’t think you can come straight in [with R&B], it needs to be diluted at first for this market to ‘get it’.”

He’s confident that he’ll make the audience ‘get it’, though. “I think I definitely have a lot to give in terms of music, and my imagination and approach to performances. I definitely want to fill a gap that I don’t honestly feel has been filled over here.”

His debut album, which he describes as “kind of like Usher meets Coldplay” sonically, took two years to make. A self-admitted perfectionist – perfectionist, “not diva”, he vehemently stresses with a grin – Loick wrote on every track and was heavily involved in the creative process, ensuring the music came out the way he envisaged. “A lot of hard work, sweat and tears went into it. ”

But Loick’s work isn’t done yet. “I don’t feel like I’ve seen any of the success I want to achieve yet, so it’s always that excitement of wanting to go on, and knowing that I’m nowhere near where I want to be yet… I’m still hungry.” He says with an air of determination and a wide, infectious smile.

Loick’s new single ‘Stuttering’ is released January 30th. For more information visit loickessien.com.

Words: Tahirah Edwards Byfield
Photography: Steve Rutherford

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