Interview: Luke Sital-Singh

Luke Sital-SinghLuke Sital-Singh is a self-proclaimed pessimist. He describes himself as a “melancholy chap” by default, with a “glass half empty” outlook on life. Listening to his recently released debut album, The Fire Inside, however, it’s not always easy to gage that.

“Music is a cure for my negativity sometimes. It helps me to think,” the dark-haired, denim jacket-clad figure facing me explains as we sit in his dressing room, not long before he’s due to play a sold-out show to Bristol. “You can tell yourself to cheer up, but it’s not helpful in any way when it’s someone else telling you to. I never really wanted to write a song which simply said ‘It’s all going to be fine.’ I wanted it to say, ‘This is shit, but it might get better. It probably will get better.’ ”

Luke sings about how intense and difficult feelings can be. So then, no different to most songwriting, guitar-wielding troubadours? Perhaps not, he agrees: “I’m not some groundbreaking thing. I’m a dude with a guitar. I’m not breaking the mould,” he confesses, the creases of his lips tickling a smile. “I just always want to be truthful to the reality of pain and frustration, but not completely negative.”

“Of all the songs on the album, I particularly like “Nearly Morning”. It’s probably the one I’m most emotionally attached to. In some of the others, I feel like I got lazy and didn’t try with certain lines very much. But with that song there’s no filler and I’m proud of every single word on it.”

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“Nearly Morning” is about trying, crying and being alone, as the lyrics quickly reveal. It’s a poignant mixture of guitar strings delicately-plucked and wavering fragility. And then comes the absolute conviction of the statement that, “Any second now, morning will arrive.” On this occasion, hope-instilling certainty is paired with a wilting melody. What it fundamentally comes down to is the weep-worthy meeting of happiness and misery.

Reverse the dynamic and you get the cheery catchiness of “Bottled Up Tight.” The single is the most well-known of them all.

“On this tour, even just saying, ‘This next song is Bottled Up Tight,’ makes people start cheering in recognition of the title,” Luke tells me. “People know the big songs and sing along with them,” he smiles. “It’s the predictable ones, but it’s flattering. It’s been a great tour.”

Radio-friendly and inevitably stuck in your head before long, the song which has people singing along the most has likely been the key to getting his name rolling off of the influential tongues of radio DJs and music blogs.

“It’s a cheery number; that’s probably why it works. It’s the oldest song that I still play and it sounds younger because it doesn’t have the weight of some of the other ones. Even when I wrote it, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I have no idea what it means.”

“When I’m trying to write a song, sometimes it just comes. In that moment when I sit down and it all feels right and the stars align, or whatever happens, everything comes really fast. When it actually happens it’s like a summation of all the things I’ve been feeling. It’s definitely subconscious. That’s the only way to explain it. I wish I knew more; I wish I could control it better.”

Listing Neil YoungLeonard Cohen and Elliott Smith amongst the “greats” who’ve influenced his songwriting the most, Luke says: “I like people who write honest stuff; not things that are overly poetic and so nonsensical that you don’t know what’s going on.”

“It’s nonsense,” he mutters, when I mention the numerous comparisons he, and his debut EP Fail For You in particular, has drawn to Bon Iver in the media. “I’m a massive fan, but Bon Iver was never a songwriting influence. He’s a sonic one.”

Lyrically, and more recently, it’s lesser-known artists such as Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and David Bazan whom he really looks up to.

 “I want stuff that gets you,” he says. “The stuff that hits you in the gut and makes you think, ‘Shit, that’s right. Maybe I need to change something about myself now because that’s right.’ ”

It’s the way that the tracks on The Fire Inside turn what would, on paper, be a downtrodden ballad, into something innately positive, which sometimes makes them as hard-hitting as he wants them to be. Straightforward observations and relatable messages combine with a slither of positivity and course with varying degrees of subtlety throughout the album, underpinning the negativity about which he croons. Luke stirs up the nostalgia in an audience by the simplistic articulation of difficult-to-articulate emotions, awakening memories put to bed long ago. Remaining professional whilst doing so is an art that he’s still learning to master.

The 26-year-old reveals that, sometimes, the act of performing is just that: a performance. “I’ve learnt the emotional buttons to press and it just comes. Sometimes I do feel like I’m on autopilot, but my best gigs are the ones when I can tap into something real and get that element of humanity in there. Finding the balance is something that’ll take a lifetime to perfect.”

“I’m usually quite cynical and critical, so if it isn’t perfect then I’m not happy at all,” he admits. “Before playing at the iTunes festival supporting Robert Plant last week I was thinking, ‘Why did this have to come at the start of my tour?’ I was wishing we’d had a few more gigs under our belt to get into the swing of it. But when I came off stage, everyone who knows me was saying, ‘There’s something wrong with Luke; he’s smiling!’ So it must’ve gone well!”

Clearly, this is somebody who doesn’t settle for anything less than spot on. It’s an attitude which infiltrates every element of his music-making process. At the same time, however, he unknowingly and consistently recognises his own faults throughout our interview, for instance observing that some tracks have weaknesses lyrically and depreciatively dubbing himself “nothing groundbreaking.”

When I mention Film Songs, a record of covers from the soundtracks to his favourite films, Luke becomes animated, saying: “I really enjoyed it because it wasn’t a major release and there wasn’t any pressure for it to be huge.”

Regardless of the pressure he feels to meet expectations and the way in which he seems to think less kindly upon his talents than others evidently do, the fact that some part of him has come to realise that not everything is perfect all of the time is an admirable quality. When he forgets the words to “Bottled Up Tight” later in the evening, I hope he realises that.

These little imperfections are what make Luke Sital-Singh so relatable both musically and in conversation. From accidentally stumbling across a big photograph of his face whilst reading the Metro and putting it down out of embarrassment, to being continuously amazed by the fact that “anyone would bother to write about [him],” he’s unmistakably down-to-earth and endearing because of it.

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