It’s tips list season and Elmiene, whose extraordinary voice is set to make him one of the biggest breakthrough artists of 2024, is in the thick of the conversation.
“I’m always writing new music and doing new things, but holding the vinyl versions of my records is really exciting,” says the singer, looking ahead to next year. “It’s because that’s what all my heroes had and I’ve started collecting my favourite records of late. Having a physical version makes the music more real. When it’s sitting on your shelf with the artwork, it’s more than pixels on your screen that you’re going to scroll past.”
The British-Sudanese singer-songwriter (real name Abdala Elamin) had no aspirations to be a musician, and was more than comfortable with the concept of a nine-to-five life in his Oxford hometown. Fate stepped in, however, when his single, Golden, came to the attention of Louis Vuitton’s musical director Benji B, and was subsequently used as the mesmerising soundtrack to Virgil Abloh’s final show for the label.
"When we started working with Elmiene there was very little music written or recorded, let alone released,” says Jos Watkin, senior A&R director at Polydor. “What we did have was an artist we truly believe in with an incredible voice, a big personality and most importantly, authenticity. Alongside management and Def Jam Recordings in the US, it has been a year of artist development in its truest form; giving Elmiene the space to find his voice and rhythm and hopefully an audience along the way too.”
His management team at Two First Names are equally excited.
“The obvious answer as to what to expect from him would be more music, shows and success but he's not an obvious act,” says Daniel Tuffin. “He might tour the US on a white horse, playing Johnny Cash covers in dive bars, or he might start wearing an LED mask and playing shows in football stadiums…"
Co-manager Scott Jason offers a further appraisal of their act’s talent.
“As a songwriter who wrote his first fully formed song a year-and-a-half ago, he has an incredible way to paint a raw and honest picture of who he is and how he sees the world in his writing,” he says. “His pure innocence brings forth great innovation and we’re excited to see how that grows over the next few years.”
Aside from releasing his recent EP Marking My Time, a soulful meditation on faith, family and exercising caution in the face of impending fame, Elmiene has collaborated with the likes of Stormzy and Sampha, with the latter producing confessional recent single, Mama.
“He is the career template that I’m chasing,” Elmiene says of Sampha, the 2017 Mercury Prize winner and recent Music Week cover star. “He’s done it beautifully…”
Here, we quiz Elmiene on how he plans to leave his mark on the industry…
When did you notice your voice was special?
“That was in year seven at secondary school. That age is a funny time, as the world expands beyond what your mind can really handle. In music class at the start of the year, we had this project around the famous pop four chords, where we got into groups and had to create a mashup of the songs we loved that use those chords. I did Man In The Mirror by Michael Jackson, and when my teacher heard me do it, he got his iPad and recorded me. He proceeded to post it on YouTube and show it to every class that walked in after ours. This was on a Friday, by Monday I had kids coming up to me saying, ‘Yo! You sing like MJ!’ From that point I realised that not everyone was able to copy what they hear on records.”
What was your musical upbringing?
“My parents weren’t really into Western music, as they were more into Sudanese music, traditional, but my cousins were into Craig David’s Born To Do It and [2004 Usher album] Confessions and they gave me those little hints of Steve [Wonder]. While my cousins went on to listen to grime and stuff like Skepta and JME, I became obsessed with that R&B and soul sound, so I started going back decade by decade, from the 90s and stuff like Joe and Jagged Edge and Jodeci and Boyz II Men, then I thought, ‘Where did they get their influences from?’ I was very privileged to have grown up with the internet, so I was able to have all those records at my fingertips. I kept going back and became obsessed with Stevie and Musiq Soulchild and D’Angelo. I’m still in that world, deep, finding new records every day.”
Everyone has a chance to make it, the musical landscape is more the Wild West than it’s ever been
You’re a big Craig David fan too, which makes sense given you both have exceptional voices. How has he influenced you?
“It started off with 7 Days, that was the track that changed everything. That whole record, [2000’s] Born To Do It, was everything to me. Vocally, he was a pioneer. He was part of the age of Musiq Soulchild and D’Angelo, and that way of controlling your voice and applying that technique to the modern sounds of the time. He was masterful. The song Rendezvous, for example, is a perfect song to me from that era. It sits comfortably alongside the likes of Musiq Soulchild’s Just Friends or Love or Mary Go Round, or One Mo’ Gin by D’Angelo. Craig David has always occupied his own pocket, musically, and is definitely underrated.”
Is occupying your own space what you’d like to be known for?
“It’s more about being a part of the journey of soul as a genre as it evolves and adapts. I want to be part of that team. Because I feel that’s what D’Angelo was - and all the [musical collective] Soulquarians, Erykah Badu, Common, J Dilla, The Roots. They were their own pocket of style, but more importantly, they were a clear evolution of what Soul was. They were the next chapter. I want to be part of that lineage. Sampha, right now, is a big leader in that wave.”
Sampha produced your track Mama, what is it about his trajectory that you most admire?
“From the people he’s collaborated with like Drake, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar and more, to having his voice being that anointed and sought after, as well as his lyrics. That’s a reputation that anyone would wish to have. Along with having those popular and highly acclaimed contributions, his own work is appreciated in a very deep way by a really dedicated fanbase. Working with him in the studio, I started to see why his music is so pure. He loves to see everything as a jam.”
You, along with Sampha, also worked with Stormzy on This Is What I Mean. What did you learn from him?
“I learnt about the importance of being proud of where I’m from. Where I obsess, musically, is obviously very based in America, but working with Stormzy made me realise that I’m proud to be from here and I want to represent that. Having that opportunity with him, that little cameo, was amazing. It made me feel like I have a home here, which is a worry with my music, as it’s so focused on that soul that’s from [the US], and I used to think maybe it wouldn't be as appreciated here. Being recognised by Stormzy made me clear that something was happening.”
Do you feel your big breakthrough moment has arrived yet? Golden being used for Virgil Abloh’s final show for Louis Vuitton feels like a persuasive contender…
“That felt more like a solidification of what I was doing, especially because I hadn’t been writing music for long before that. I was unsure if I was doing anything right, so to have that moment with the Virgil show was a sign that I should keep going down that path. The big break came right after that, when I wrote Why [Spare Me Tears] and the response that had. Seeing people correlate my music to my inspirations without me telling them that’s where they’d come from was special. That’s when I realised I was an artist and fitting right where I wanted to be, without forcing it and without imitating anyone.”
What do you think of the current pop landscape?
“I’ve always thought that pop music exists for a reason, and there’s a job for it, but I can’t equate that with the music I’m impressed with, like soul. Soul was never obsessed with being in that part of the world. Soul has always been its own being - its own world with its own hits. Chart music always reflects what’s going on in the world, so whether there’s a million songwriters on a track or whatever, that’s how it’s meant to be right now. It always goes through cycles. It’s no different to the 2000s with, say, The Backstreet Boys - they had loads of writers and everyone knew their job. I think chart music is always going to be a place where everyone does their job, and does it to the best of their ability. I don’t find fault with where pop is going right now - it just is what it is.”
How do you get powerful, soulful music to break big in the age of streaming?
“This is an era that has its pros and cons. But I think the positives are bigger in that there’s a world now where you can build a really dedicated fanbase, a niche, neighbourhood style of fanbase, but across the world because of how accessible everything is. Before, it felt like you could have a mad movement that could be incredible but only stretches across your side of London, but now that same kind of microcosm can be worldwide now. That means you’re competing with everything at once, so the idea of being the No.1 artist is crazy. I think that goal is more accessible than ever, though, because everyone has a chance to do it, so the musical landscape is more the Wild West than it’s ever been.”
Your latest EP is called Marking My Time, which you’ve suggested is “a checkpoint to anchor yourself”. Is that in terms of diarising your life at this point, or more to do with keeping yourself grounded in the face of a steep ascent to fame?
“It’s both of those things. Having these opportunities in your face is an amazing thing but also terrifying for someone who never really had these aspirations for himself in the first place. I never wanted to be a musician; I was content to be a security guard in my hometown in Oxford. I was down for that kind of lifestyle, so having all this come is a lot. So, number one, I have to believe this is real; and, number two, I have to keep myself true to my character I’ve had during my whole life.”
Lastly, what role does your faith have upon your work and your outlook on success?
“It has a big role and a lot of my songs, like Mama and Marking My Time, are about it. My faith gives me this magnifying lens on the whole world of music and my career as very finite things. I look at my career, and my life in general, as something that is very close to ending at all times. Neither will last forever. That’s why I try to appreciate what I’m doing. With music, it’s sometimes hard for artists to find their real reason for what they’re doing. Trying to find meaning in that is something I’ve struggled to do.”
Words: James Hickie
Photo: Pierre Girardin