WORDS: CHARLOTTE GUNN
For 20-year-old Kamal, life has changed somewhat in the last couple of years. From uploading his first song, Smilingdownthephone, to SoundCloud as a BRIT School student in 2019 and catching the ear of Neighbourhood Recordings, to collaborating with Dave and reaching the ears of Billie Eilish, the indie-R&B artist is on a pretty steep trajectory. Now, with a first full-length project on its way – 10-track mixtape So Here You Are, Drowning – he’s set to have a huge 2023.
“In a sense, it feels really fast,” says Kamal (real name Kamal Prescod), from his home in Harlesden, North West London. “But there’s another element where it feels like nothing’s changed at all. The core of the job is to still just go in a room, play some piano, find some chords and write a song. Because I’m viewing it that way, and everything else is blossoming from that, I’ve been able to not panic.”
Music was always the goal. His earliest steps came through playing classical piano at home (where he still records), but it was never just a hobby.
“It’s kind of strange,” he says. “I always knew, down to a very specific plan, that I wanted to study music at college, then go to university to study English Literature. I saw uni as a buffer, where I could study this thing I enjoyed while focusing on getting to where I wanted to be as a musician.”
Well, best laid plans and all that… His academic ideas were scuppered when his single Homebody became a low-key lockdown anthem in 2020 (it has now been streamed over 25 million times on Spotify, where he has over 708,000 monthly listeners).
“I’ve said since primary school that it didn’t matter to me where I landed in the industry, as long as I could make a living,” he explains. “I was aware of how unrealistic the whole artist’s career path is, so I was always like, ‘I might end up being a music teacher, a manager...’ I didn’t know what A&R was back then. I was totally on board with any way to plug in.”
There’s a universality to his homespun pop that spans genres and moods. Set to a woozy sound that sits somewhere between Frank Ocean and Clairo, his lyrics delve into the beauty and pain of relationships, with his upcoming mixtape focusing on the heady early stages of new love.
“I wanted to encapsulate the fact that the start of a relationship can feel like the pinnacle, which is sad,” he explains. “But there’s also a magical thing when you’re hoping that it’s going to be sustainable. Overall, the tape tells the journey of a love story, but I didn’t want it to be too specific. I wanted it to feel like something that was applicable to everyone.”
Clearly, Kamal is learning to consider his audience, but at its core, his music is still born from an inherent need to create.
“I came into this industry with the attitude that it’s disingenuous for an artist to pander to their audience by making accessible music,” he says. “But the more I’ve grown into writing, the more I realise it’s also a beautiful thing to be able to craft a song that is open, but also specific enough that people can form an attachment to it. But at the same time, my writing is still very much selfish in that I do it because I feel like there’s something I have to go through, say, or express.”
The mixtape’s title, So Here You Are, Drowning, is a nod to Caleb Azumah Nelson’s 2021 novel Open Water, which particularly spoke to Kamal.
“I just immediately fell in love with the characters and the storyline and the way that he depicted Black love in London; specifically the way that he tied musical references in throughout,” he says.
Azumah dropped a playlist alongside the book, featuring Solange, Erykah Badu, Mysie and Sault, among others.
“I just thought it was a properly magical thing,” says Kamal, clearly impressed. “The title uses a quote from the book and there’s a running theme of water and trying to keep your head up in a relationship, when you know that being together is dragging you both down. I thought it was quite a pretty phrase to pull from.”
Neighbourhood encourage all of Kamal’s ideas and it seems that he’s found a supportive home with the Music Week Award-winning label and management business.
“I feel like I’ve fallen into such good hands very early on,” he smiles. “My manager, Ruby [Atkin], is the most amazing woman and very hard-working. I’ll wake up to five text messages every morning, questions I’ll have to go through about what we’re doing, or notes on music videos or whatever.”
He has equally kind words about founders Jack Foster and Benny Scarrs, who manage Dave.
“They are really supportive,” he adds. “They’re obviously hands-on with Dave a lot, but when I see them, there’s always love and they’ve always made it obvious that I can go to them if I have any questions or anything I want to talk through. I feel in a properly comfortable space and I’m happy that my team is small because it means that I know everyone and I feel cared about.”
Neighbourhood has plotted a patient strategy for Kamal as he builds towards his big breakthrough moment, ticking off an early nod from the Ivors on its Rising Star shortlist in 2021 and a performance on Later… With Jools Holland last year. Bar his War Outside EP in 2021, releases have been scarce, while his debut live show came only in May last year.
“My Village Underground show was the craziest moment ever, to the extent where afterwards, I actually felt like I was on a comedown,” he says, replaying it in his mind. “I felt really miserable after it because I’d been up there and absorbed so much love. And then I was just riding my bike around Harlesden like, ‘What is life!’ But the moment itself was like ecstasy, it’s actually quite indescribable. I will definitely never forget it.”
As for what’s next, Kamal’s taking everything one song at a time, focusing on “keeping a good momentum up and not getting bogged down by the numbers”. He’s been teasing his new project’s lead single Essential on TikTok (where he has 1.2 million likes), priming fans for what’s to come.
“I’m tunnel vision, so I’m thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to make next?’” he says, his steely focus clear. “There’s definitely a scene growing in London in alternative music, specifically amongst black and brown people, and it’s just about feeling like I’m ready to accept my place and feel like I belong. It definitely feels like I’m on the cusp of something.”