For the next instalment of our FOCUS Nottingham feature, The Mic sits down with a bona fide pop star-in-waiting, whose driven mentality and divergent personality bolster the dominant soul-filled vocals that flourish on his debut body of work.
‘I never want to say the wrong thing…I don’t know, I want to say the right thing. I suppose I am quite masked, but then again I’m not.’ Twenty minutes into our interview beside the bar at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms and the young Jacob Fowler has finally relaxed and started to unmask the layers of his infectious personality. ‘An hour ago I was in my pyjamas playing Fifa. Like I am very normal and my mind isn’t always busy but I get into situations where I might say the wrong thing. My mind is busy, but also it’s not…I guess I’ll learn over time. I’m not used to interviews!’
Jacob Fowler has been a Nottingham resident for the majority of his life, yet his musical ability is only being noticed in the second year of his university degree in London. He has released one song, the brilliantly-produced No Warning, and has played just three gigs. ‘For my first gig, I wasn’t unbelievably nervous in that I was shaking, but I was almost nervously bored… bored was definitely the wrong word. I wasn’t bored it was just nerves and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. I remember coming off and just feeling really shit. It didn’t go bad, but it didn’t go good. It was just bland, but then again it was my first gig so I don’t know what I was expecting. I get a lot more nervous doing this,’ his ability to dig himself a conversational tunnel acting as equally impressive as his dynamism when talking of his passions.
"I am a bit of a diva really…I’m not really ashamed of it." Fowler
Fowler’s first gig might have had the nerves flowing, but his third live performance deservedly would bring nerves to the most seasoned of professionals: a main stage slot at the iconic Rock City. ‘I was very comfortable doing that, maybe because I’d had a drink before going on, which was definitely what I needed to have. At Rock City I was a bit more loose and wandered around.’
With a music career showing sure signs of promise, it’s impressive to hear that Fowler is still entertaining his possible career options. Currently studying at Trinity Laban in London, the singer lights up when talking of his love for musical theatre. ‘That’s more my kind of thing, but that means I’m hiding behind a character, which is easy…well not easy…easier than having to be me. I don’t like being me, not in a weird way but just on stage you can’t hide anything you literally have to be you. I wish I could dance but because I’ve never danced before, I get a bit narrow in my mindset and get into bad habits and don’t go. I went as a singer. I only act because I sing. I used to do school shows but that was just because I could sing. It was quite a good school in terms of the music and drama department.’
Despite going to an established school for performance-related opportunities, Fowler’s musical journey began at the age of four when he picked up the cornet after exclaiming his desire to play the trumpet. His desire to play piano led to him attempting to learn the instrument at the age of ten before subsequently dropping it a year later upon the realisation that simply memorising chords wasn’t the most effective way to learn. Fowler picked up the piano again at sixteen before his A Levels pushed him to try new things. ‘Everything I play right now is quite chordal but obviously you play around with it,’ he says.
"I think a lot of the best music ever is love-based, not just romantic love but love for whatever." Fowler
Whilst he dabbled in instruments, Fowler’s talent as a singer was more clear-cut; starting from the age of eleven, he posted YouTube videos which gathered attention amongst his school peers. ‘I sort of had no friends, not in a sad story way, but I went to a school where I didn’t really know anyone, he confesses. ‘I literally went by myself and had to find my feet, so I posted this video and then people wanted to be my friend! I carried on singing and I was good but it was nothing special.’ As years went by, singing become a skill Fowler took more seriously, taking on major roles in school plays, which sparked his wish to pursue musical theatre. Coincidentally, it was from a school performance that Fowler met Dino Franchi, his producer, songwriter and general advisor.
Speaking of his advisors, Fowler warmly says ‘Dino helps me a lot, we songwrite together and then he’ll do all the producing. He’s an amazing person to have behind me. He saw me in a school show when I was about seventeen and asked me to do a few things. He’d toured with Rationale before, so when I met him he was famous to me! He was famous to me anyway in that he was an older person who went to my school, so I recognised his face from pictures around school. I went to his house and covered two Sam Smith songs and put down vocals for a track that he’d written. It literally snowballed from there. It’s gotten to a stage now where we need to sit down and work out what we’re doing.’
He continues, ‘Elliot Labbate, who went to Trinity as well - I got introduced to him for the first time right before my first ever gig and he knows everyone. He knows the entire Nottingham scene. Both Dino and Elliot have a different set of contacts which is brilliant. They both know what to do and are a massive help to me.’
"At the moment I don’t think that I’ve found my own sound yet. I’m very lyric-based and the team will gel with more time." Fowler
The partnership that Fowler has struck up with both Franchi and Nottingham musical impresario Elliot Labbate led to Fowler’s dynamic debut single No Warning being released earlier this year. Recorded in Los Angeles as part of a five-song session, Fowler’s vocals are distinctive and captivating, his relatable lyrics highlighting a maturity from an artist with years of musical experience and intelligence. ‘Dino asked me to lay the vocals down for the track and then move on to something after,’ explains Fowler of the track. ‘I didn’t do it begrudgingly but I did just think it was a pop song and I was singing it. I did the vocals for it and kept hearing it thinking actually this is a very good song. The riff that Dino wrote was very catchy and we have something pretty great.’
No Warning might just be the first single of the writing partnership Team Fowler, but the singer explains there is more material on the horizon, partly due to the different creative skillsets of each member of the team. ‘We wrote about twelve songs and keep narrowing down the list to find the songs we want to work with in the future,’ he says. ‘There is still stuff I say no to and Dino is fine with that. The songs I have at the moment are quite funky and happy, they’ve had a great reception. Me and Dino have very different creative minds so when we come together, it’s naturally going to clash. We are slowly merging together and understanding how we work best together. We have a common love of jazz actually, he loves playing jazz piano and I love jazz because it’s so influenced by the voice; Aretha Franklin for example, that’s very me. It’s nice how we can both come in at different angles.’
For Fowler, his music is ‘very love-based, that’s just where my mind tends to go,’ he shrugs. ‘I think a lot of the best music ever is love-based, not just romantic love but love for whatever. I can’t just sit down and write lyrics, nothing comes out. The best lyrics just come sporadically, they tend to come when I’m about to go to sleep and I’ll have to pick up my phone and note them down. If something sounds good as well, just something that someone says in a conversation, I have to note it down. It’s very real…I can’t write stuff that isn’t about me. I also go down a rabbit hole of being too specific about things and writing lyrics where if someone knew me, they’d know exactly what I was writing about. Although if it ever blew up, I’m sure the person wouldn’t mind. The person Adele wrote Someone Like You about, I’m sure they know what that’s about.’
His mentioning of Sam Smith provokes the question as to whether he also is a diva at times. ‘I am a bit of a diva really…I’m not really ashamed of it. I’m a very normal person, I can’t even explain it…I suppose I am a bit of a diva in certain situations. I get very defensive as well,’ he says in a manner that hardly warrants that expression. ‘My mum’s my biggest critic, she’s always going straight in with ways to improve. She’s not like that anymore because I’ve now picked up on it! I’m happy to be very modest, until someone says something I don’t like, not necessarily about me. I was on Twitter earlier on and so many people comment such moronic things and they don’t even care, they’re at home on their phones and would be alright starting a Twitter spat with me. I get so wound up by some people. My tolerance for the general public is very low. Moving to London has made it ten times worse, like slow walkers down the street, they’ve doing nothing wrong, they could be tourists but I’ve got places to be and I’m being very unreasonable but I want them to just move. Whenever I see a group of lads doing wheelies on bikes, I just pray for them all to fall off! I get annoyed at people in checkouts who take their time.’
Hearing Fowler speak, it’s clear that he is incredibly industry-driven, something the singer nods at. ‘I think that’s come from meeting Dino and Elliot. I have to be able to sing something that I enjoy. I’m not a diva in that I’m picky but I thought that if I’m going to build myself up, I have to mix things up. At the moment I don’t think that I’ve found my own sound yet. I’m very lyric-based and the team will gel with more time.’ Is he a perfectionist? ‘Massively yeah! In day to day life as well. My room is spotless. I’ve definitely got some form of OCD but I don’t know what it is! I’ve not been diagnosed with it, but I’m very specific with organisation. My favourite time used to be before going back to school in September and getting a new pencil case sorted. I’d always pack my bag the day before. I’m very organised like that but then sometimes I can be the complete opposite. I’m quite forgetful as well, I’ve got an awful memory.’
As time passes though, there seems as if there has to be an inevitable choice between Fowler’s love of musical theatre and a career in the music industry. Yet for the singer, he appears happy to balance both facets. ‘It’s not hard to juggle them both at the moment because none of them have taken off at a point where I’m having to choose directly between them. My musical theatre I do Monday to Friday at university, but that’s not so taxing. Musical theatre makes me excited to do it, music hasn’t got to that stage yet. Rock City was up there with the best musical theatre experiences doing that. There is a lot of crossover…it’s all music and there’s a lot of theatrics.’
Asked if he could see his passion for musical theatre injected into his music, he offers blankly ‘I do like theatrical people like Freddie Mercury and Elton John, but my music at the moment isn’t like that. There’s definitely something inside of me that one day will get to that point. Trying to build yourself up in the music industry today, you have to cater for what people want. In order to get to a certain point, you’ve got to abide by certain rules. We write quite generic pop, that’s not meant in a bad way…I love generic pop, it’s what I listen to on the radio. Sam Smith is my number one go-to artist.’
'No Warning glosses over the true capabilities of the artist and the impressive team behind him, but fittingly it acts as a warning for what is to come in the near future.'
Currently indecisive over his future, Fowler attempts to delineate his goals. ‘This is going to sound very twatty but I want to stay true to myself - I never thought those words would come out of my mouth! I’m a very normal person, I want to stay true to myself and don’t want to do stuff if I know it’s not right for me. Obviously I still do musical theatre so being on the West End would be something I want to do. I’m assuming one day I’ll have to pick between the two. I do think the music has a chance of taking off because we’re in a very good place right now and people are interested. I haven’t played the Nottingham circuit, I haven’t built my way up and I’m already at a good level. All I’ve done is sing. It’s all because of people like Dino, Elliot and Dean Jackson at BBC Introducing, they’ve been incredible.’
A man of multiple talents, there’s no doubting that whatever Fowler chooses to pursue, we can expect to see him on the greatest of stages. His talent is impressive; his interview style less so, more unpredictable, possessing subtle flaws which make conversation more dynamic and genuine once he relinquishes the hypothetical mask he’s so used to donning on stage. No Warning glosses over the true capabilities of the artist and the impressive team behind him, but fittingly it acts as a warning for what is to come in the near future.