We’re big fans of Untidy Soul, the excellent new album by British-Nigerian soul singer Samm Henshaw, so we were already aware of a connection the artist has to Houston when we began our phone chat to discuss his June 8 appearance here at House of Blues. One song from the LP, which was released in January, features Houston’s own Tobe Nwigwe. Before we asked about that pairing, Henshaw told us about a different association he has with H-town.
“I have family in Houston,” Henshaw said. “I’ve been going to Houston since I was like four. Houston was the only part of America I was going to for like 10 years,” he shared. “Houston is like basically a second home to me.
“I’ve never played there before, it’s so weird. I genuinely can’t exaggerate how much I was in Houston before I did music, so I think it’s really fun to be able to come back and actually do music there and do it properly. But, yeah, as far as I know it’s just my family into my music there in Houston,” he said with a laugh. “So, we’ll see if the people show up.”
We predict fans will indeed pack HOB’s Bronze Peacock Room for Henshaw’s "homecoming," particularly those who love the old school contemporary genre of R&B Henshaw practices. Maybe they caught him on The Late Late Show with James Corden earlier this year or opening for artists like Chance the Rapper and Tori Kelly. Perhaps they read praises from Vibe or NPR about the singles and EPs he released leading up to Untidy Soul, his first full-length record. The album was recently anointed “a timeless classic” by Atwood Magazine and “a wry, low-key take on the modern self” by The Guardian. Some maybe even caught the south Londoner on his first true outing as a headliner in the States last year.
“It was kind of a small tour but we did our first run of headline shows last year actually and that went really well. We played New York, L.A. and Atlanta. It was a lot of fun, really cool, the crowds were great, everyone was really welcoming,” Henshaw said. “I’ve been doing showcase-type things in America for maybe the past five, six years, but I feel like last year was the first time we did our proper thing for the fans. And this is the second time we’re doing it. I’m really excited.”
We are, too. We try not to pigeon-hole Henshaw’s music. Other folks have mentioned Sam Cooke, John Legend or Kirk Franklin. But, there’s a buoyancy to Henshaw's music. Whether he’s singing about getting chicken wings and curly fries with a special someone, being broke or using life’s painful moments to grow, the music is infused with optimism and positive vibes. There's even a song called "Joy" on the album, its closing track.
“A lot of people I know will talk about the gospel stuff. I guess it’s because I’ve got a song called ‘Church,’ and yeah, raised in the church and my dad’s a reverend. I grew up on gospel but it’s weird, it’s not the thing I listen to when working on music almost ever,” he admitted. “I think it’s because from growing up it was so ingrained in me and the stuff that I was learning, naturally it came from gospel - types of chords and the progressions I was learning were that type of thing. So, I think naturally what goes into my music, it comes from that place and soul music, I grew up on that a lot. Everything I heard just kind of connected.
“That naturally just kind of went into whatever it was I did. It was never really much thought behind it or going out of my way to listen to that stuff to put it in there,” he said. “I grew up on a lot of hip-hop, a lot of country music as well, actually.”
Country music? In south London? We’re reminded he often had boots on the ground in Houston growing up and explored that further.
“I love country music. I love the way that country musicians write, specifically I think there is just something about the imagery, the mental imagery that country and folk musicians create. I obviously love their melodies. There’s a simplicity to what they do but just this beauty to it, as well. You can feel everything. I think one of the main things I really love from country music and folk music, there’s a feeling and an emotion that you get from listening to those types of songs and I’ve always loved what it kind of draws out of you emotionally.
“Trying to find a way to connect that within my music was always very important,” he continued. “Most of the time what I’m always searching for when I create music is a feeling. And I’m always trying to imitate the feeling. It’s not necessarily a sound. I’m not trying to copy a sound I’ve heard, I’m trying to copy a feeling and I’m always trying to put that in what I do.”
“You know, when someone’s just a great musician and human being you just love and admire them. I remember seeing his Tiny Desk first and I was like this has got to be one of the best ones I’ve seen. I’m a big Tiny Desk fan. There was probably a point where I just kind of went down this rabbit hole of different people’s Tiny Desk performances,” Henshaw said. “I remember seeing his and being super-intrigued. The songs were beautiful, the band was great, everything about it was just amazing.”
To learn more about Nwigwe, Henshaw did what many new music fans do.
“You go onto Instagram. Instagram’s kind of like the new Google. It’s kind of like this sort of search engine. So, I went and checked out who he was and to my surprise he was following me already. And I freaked out. I was like, ‘What?! This guy knows who I am?’ I didn’t know he knew who I was and I didn’t know who he was and I kind of instantly felt bad that I didn’t know who he was sooner.”
Henshaw said he eventually reached out to Nwigwe and they connected and kept in touch. He said he’d already written “Take Time,” the track featuring Nwigwe, for the album. There was space open on the song for guest vocals.
“Tobe instantly kind of came into my head because I felt like Tobe’s the kind of rapper that could rap on anything. Let me not even say rapper, but he’s the type of artist that can be on anything because obviously he sings on stuff as well,” Henshaw noted. “He was the first person that kind of came to mind because he can basically do anything, so I felt like him being on something like this would be a breeze and it would be interesting to see how he would approach a song like this. He came on and was great. It was amazing.”
Once we heard Untidy Soul, we circled back for the back catalog. We told Henshaw it’ll be fun to see him live for the first time and asked if there’s anything he learned for his live show from all those Tiny Desk viewings.
“One of my natural things to do is to just watch live performances. I’m such a fan of live performances, so I’ll watch if I’ve got a favorite artist or maybe just someone I don’t know, I’ll watch a live performance because I’m always interested to see how different artists from different genres approach their live performances and how they approach what they do.
“I wouldn’t say I was looking for anything particular when I watch, I just watch to learn and to take away something,” he added. “I literally couldn’t tell you what I’m looking for, I just love live performance, so it’s always great to see someone’s interpretation of it and to see how someone would approach live performance, no matter the genre.”
Samm Henshaw heads “home” to Houston Wednesday, June 8. With Bando at House of Blues’ Bronze Peacock Room, 1204 Caroline. Doors at 7 p.m. for this all ages, standing room only show. $20.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.