Record of the Week: Samm Henshaw’s ‘Untidy Soul’

British singer-songwriter Samm Henshaw was born to be a musician — that’s what his grandmother told his parents when he was born. Raised by Nigerian parents in South London, Henshaw’s love for music developed quickly in his household, but that love grew even greater when he learned to play instruments in the church where his father was the pastor.

He drew inspiration from the music he grew up listening to — from gospel, traditional R&B, soul and hip-hop — to begin to craft his own sound. The name he came up with to describe that style became the title of his debut album, Untidy Soul.

Henshaw built the album on the sounds of R&B love songs, blended with hip-hop, and included interludes throughout the project that tell the story of his journey. He opens the album with the gospel-inspired production and lyrics of “Thoughts and Prayers,” and the album comes to an end with the self-reflection of his song “Joy,” a reminder of his growth and the relationship with God that brought him to a place of peace.

With tracks like “Still Broke,” a follow-up to his 2018 single “Broke” that offers a different perspective on what it means to be “broke,” Henshaw explores the concept of money not solving all of your problems. But there are also more fun and light-hearted tracks like “Chicken Wings,” about sharing a loving moment with someone special while enjoying chicken wings.

Henshaw expands his creativity even further with the visuals for “Still Broke,” “Chicken Wings,” and “Grow.” Those music videos follow the story of Sonny, a character played by Henshaw, influenced by the similar character-driven storytelling behind the hit TV show characters Earn Marks (“Atlanta”), Issa Dee (“Insecure”) and Dev Shah (“Master of None”).

The album Untidy Soul balances everything we live throughout our day-to-day lives, from growing relationships to internal change and enjoying life, especially a life with chicken wings.

On the Record: A Q&A with Samm Henshaw

Marquis Munson: You grew up in South London. Your father was a pastor so you grew up on gospel music. But what other music did you grow up listening to and do you see yourself drawing inspiration from it now?

Samm Henshaw: I grew up on all types of vibes. Obviously there’s a lot of gospel music, from Kirk Franklin, Helen Baylor, Alvin Slaughter, the Winans family. There are so many people. I definitely see myself drawing inspiration from it now with everything I do. Most of my knowledge of music came from the church and those records and things I listened to when I was younger. So it’s just super big for what I do now and it’s a big part of it for sure.

MM: A lot of singers start in the Church and move on to make different styles of music. Was it hard to convince your parents to let you pursue music?

SH: My parents aren’t that strict, which is funny. I think in the African conventional sense, they’re not strict for African parents. I was sort of a troublesome kid growing up. So I think they were just really appreciative of the fact that I had found something that kept me in check. There’s this story I don’t tell often, but my grandma told my dad and mum when I was born that I was going to be a musician. So she was like, “Buy him instruments, because he’s going to legitimately become a musician.” So they were never too strict about it.

The most they were strict on was your education and get that sorted. But my parents have been nothing but supportive of what I do. They’re the best, man. My dad also was an actor, writer, and director in Nigeria. So he understood the creative side of it. So it was just like, “If I can give advice, I will.” But it was never opposed to me doing it in any sort of way.

MM: When I listen to the album, I can hear so many different elements, from your gospel inspiration with the choir background to traditional R&B and soul. How would you describe your overall sound?

SH: I always felt like it was a mesh of gospel, hip-hop and soul music, because those were the things I wanted to combine and those are the genres I grew up on and connected with me. Some things are sort of seamless and it’s just easy. You just connect to it without ever needing to think. That was my earliest memories of those sounds. Anytime something hit me in my core and I felt something, it was from listening to anything from those genres.

I remember people asking me, “How would you describe your sound?” I think one day I said, “It’s like messy, untidy soul,” and that just stuck. That’s how I ended up with the title for the album. Now if people ask me it, that’s basically how I describe it. It’s just “untidy soul” because I can’t think of an actual way of describing it.

MM: Early in your career you were signed to Columbia, but now you’re on this journey as an independent artist. What went into the decision to leave the major label and go the independent route?

SH: I think the decision to leave was not necessarily within my hands. However, it wasn’t something that I was opposed to. It was nice to know that we were on a similar page, but the final call wasn’t mine; it was the label’s. So it wasn’t a situation where we were like, “Alright, we’re ready to leave,” and then we just stepped out. It was their decision, which benefited me, because I think by that point, I was sort of over the idea of being with a major label. I was over the way they approached things, no shade and no issues or anything. I think we just saw things a little differently. My aspirations were different, the things I wanted to accomplish were different to what they wanted to accomplish. Sometimes it just didn’t feel like a good fit for me personally.

Weirdly, I’m grateful for the pandemic. Because I kind of eased my way into [being] independent. It’s been different, and there has been some difficult moments, but nothing difficult to the point that I’m upset about it. Everything for me has been a learning curve. I don’t have anything to really complain about, so I’m grateful. Obviously there’s always going to be that difficult side of it in regards to financially it’s very different to operating with a bigger machine like a major label. But that also makes me more proud of what I’m doing, because I’ve worked hard to make money and now I’m using it to fund my own career. I’m putting my own album out, so it’s great.

MM: Even with your rollout for this album, it seems like you have this creative freedom. It seems like being independent has given you the freedom to explore your creativity a little bit more on this record.

SH: I always wanted to do that before, but bless the label. They never really stopped that. But I think to a certain degree, it was always going to be a compromise of, “Okay, this is what I want to do,” and then from their perspective, “Well, this is what we want to do and we kind of need you to just do it.” Whereas now it’s, like, 100 percent me. If I’m compromising with people, it’s people that I want to compromise with and it’s not people I have to compromise with.

It’s great to come up with the videos and I’m collaborating with Jim Pilling, who directed all of them. And it’s great to be able to work with someone that understands you, understands your vision, and at the same time, just wants to contribute really great ideas and help make it the best thing that they can make it.

MM: I want to go back to talking about the pandemic and how it helped you grow as an artist. Did you start working on this album during the pandemic and bring these ideas together during isolation?

SH: So truth be told, I’d written most of the album already. The last song I wrote that went onto the album was “Joy,” and I wrote that at the end of 2020. I wrote it at the same time I wrote “All Good,” but prior to that, I’d written the rest of the album in Los Angeles at the beginning of 2020. Just before the pandemic started, we had flown out to L.A. and we just created. We had a few songs that we knew were going to be on the album, and then we just basically created the rest in L.A. to round off the whole project. I think the missing piece to the whole puzzle at the end was “Joy.”

Honestly, I didn’t spend too much time in the pandemic working on completing the album. Technically, I did complete the album last year, in regards to finishing off the last pieces and making it sound how I wanted it to and actually putting it together as a body of work. But in regards to the writing process and creating, most of the record was done. So it never felt like I created this record in isolation, which I’m kind of grateful for, because I just don’t know if I would have been able to do that. But yeah, it was cool because way more creative things came out of it. We wrote a bunch of other songs during the pandemic for other things.

MM: We not only share a love for soul music, but we also share a love for chicken wings. You took it a step further than I would ever do and you made a song about chicken wings, but you tied it back into the concept of love. How did you come up with the concept for the song “Chicken Wings”?

SH: I just wanted to write a song about chicken wings. I didn’t care about how we fit in contextually. I think we had a few tries and it just wasn’t coming out. And then I think eventually we sort of landed on it and we banged that out in a day or two. Yeah, it was fun. I think in my head, I was like, “I need a fun song on this record.” And “Chicken Wings” was the one.

It felt similar to vibes we’ve done in the past. I knew this album wasn’t going to entirely feel like things people have heard from me or [are] used to hearing for me. So I was like, “Alright, let’s give them something that feels a little familiar.”

MM: You have deeper songs like “Joy” and “Thoughts and Prayers” on this album. But life is all about balance. Sometimes people need something that can uplift them, but also something that can make them  smile and laugh. So that’s what I feel like “Chicken Wings” does for this album.

SH: 100 percent. I don’t like things that are always just one way and can’t embrace a bit of all the parts of life. Sometimes you have to embrace that things are fun, things are funny and things are just enjoyable. It doesn’t always need to be so mundane, dark, moody and grim.

MM: You song “Still Broke,” the follow up to the 2018 single “Broke,” seems to provided a different perspective on the term “broke” as your life begins to change around you. But you still seem to offer the same concept that money doesn’t solve every problem.

SH: Yeah, you’ve pretty much hit it on the head right there. The original “Broke” was kind of like, “Oh, maybe if I had money, it would solve my issues,” and “Still Broke” is more like, Oh, I got money now and I’m not as good internally as I thought I was.” Money doesn’t always solve that.

I know there’s a bunch of people that will argue against that, which is fine, because I don’t disagree. I think there is an element of having wealth, money and stuff that can bring joy or some type of happiness. But there is also another side to that: if that’s what you think is going to bring you peace, joy, and change whatever’s going on inside of you, you are probably going to learn a lesson from it. I’d had that experience of thinking that fame, money, and a bunch of things were going to fill a void or were going to make me feel better and change certain things in my life. And I sort of learned the hard way.

MM: You’ve released visuals for songs “Still Broke,” “Grow,” and “Chicken Wings,” creating this semi TV series out of these music videos. Each visual reminds me of an episode of “Insecure” or “Atlanta” with the main character being your character Sonny. Were the visual concepts and the storytelling for the videos on your mind when you were making this album?

SH: Yeah, I can’t write unless I see it in my head. I remember writing “Broke” and I remember envisioning in my head this idea of a person that was just in a bad state and was trying to get their life together. So I wrote based off of that and knew where I was going.

I need to feel excited about what I’m seeing in my head as well before I can go anywhere. So I think that’s how these concepts came around. Honestly, it wasn’t even seeing them as a TV show. It was seeing things in my own life. First, it was just memories of experiences that I had and experiences that friends had and stuff that I just seen.

I think it wasn’t until later on when I listened to the album that I thought to myself, “How do all of these songs connect? Oh, they’re all just stories about one person.” And I remember sort of going, “What do I find familiar records to that?” and then remembering those TV shows like “Atlanta” and “Insecure,” where you’re watching Issa Rae’s character and she’s just living her life. And maybe not every episode is a direct continuation of the following episode, but the story is still about her and it’s just follows her life. Every episode of “Atlanta” is pretty much its own thing about these sets of characters, and “Master Of None,” where it’s very character story-driven. I love shows like that. I got excited about the idea of maybe creating my own and making it in a world that I got to create. And we did it. Maybe one day I’ll make a second season and get to dive in a little more and go creatively deeper into it.

MM: All these songs seems to be a reflection of you, and also the growth throughout your life. I was reading an interview you did with Vibe magazine talking about the closing track “Joy” and how emotional that song made you when recording it. What made that song hit different for you than any other song on the album?

SH: I think in 2020 I actually can properly say I experienced joy. To me, joy is like a form of peace. So no matter what circumstance you’re in or what the situation is, there’s peace within you about anything. It was such an incredible, overwhelming and beautiful feeling. It was exciting as well, because sometimes when you go through things, you never know if you’re going to come out of it, if you’re going to move on or if you’re going to grow.

So I think it was this realization that I’ve actually progressed, I’ve actually moved forward, there’s been some change, there’s been a shift. I did a year of feeling at peace and having a relationship with God that truly brought me to a place of peace. It was just an overwhelming, beautiful feeling and it was what I needed. It was almost impossible to not feel emotional and not feel somewhat proud of myself for progressing. When I look throughout my life, I like to see how far I’ve come. I don’t always give myself a pat on the back for progressing. So yeah, it was just a big moment.