R&B, you could say has been and gone through it’s own type of existential crisis coming back bigger than ever on the global stage. Whether it’s endured a little genre confusion through its ‘neo-soul’ or ‘alt-R&B’ phase, the urge to evolve has only driven R&B further forward and beyond categorisation. For a genre of music that has spanned from Motown – as the sound of young America, to it’s present day chart domination by the young Canadian contingent, R&B has always basked in it’s international appeal.
But, look a little closer to home and even though the UK’s been celebrating its own international soul stars in Adele, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, on the R&B front it’s felt like we’ve been selling ourselves a little short. While a new charge in the UK is being led by the rise and rise of artists like Nao, Ray BLK and Jorja Smith over the past year. When it’s comes to breaking new male R&B artists, we’ve somehow left a vacuum that, significant to note, has also left the way open for the return of Craig David to the top of the charts and secure his 2017 Brits nomination.
If it’s an indication of one thing, it is that our appetites have far from been satiated. It may look like we’ve taken our eyes off the prize, but over the past year something’s been brewing under the surface. A new wave of British R&B artists have begun to make moves and we have a feeling you’ll be talking about one of them, quite a lot in 2017.
You can’t help but feel the infectious optimism and lightness of spirit rising off Santino Le Saint. With a wide grin on his face and towering at over 6 ft, he’s got a quietly confident energy about him, self-aware in a way that belies his 18 years.
Santino’s discovered something in his own journey, one that’s evolved in transit between two homes, along the tracks between Brixton and Morden, “Traveling influenced me personally, just because I’ve always had time to relax my mind and write between travelling.” It’s in Brixton where we first meet up with Santino, to begin the journey down the underground at one end of the Victoria line, to the other end of the Northern line. Morden is the kind of suburb you don’t travel to wilfully but a place where, as Santino quips, you only end up if you’ve slept through your stop and woken up drunk.
As he strides out of Morden Underground station, it’s clear this journey isn’t about the beginning or the end of the line, this is just all he’s ever known. Assured in the way that growing up around South London makes you feel, its obvious these are his ends and as Santino strides down the streets he’s constantly bumping into friends and stopping to talk. Growing up between two homes, Morden is the place where Santino Le Saint found the space to grow, “This is kind of the break territory, when I’m having a break and when I’m getting away I can come back down here. I feel like this is my base, like if I’m gonna touch base anywhere, I’m still gonna call this my home. Even though I’m living at my dads more, I think it’s a lot more homey environment.”
Morden isn’t renowned for any particular music scene, or famous for any landmarks, it’s just a place where maybe one other UK stalwart we know of also found his sound – Sampha. I ask Santino if it’s ever bothered him having to travel between two homes, and he’s simply pragmatic about it, “I think there was a point growing up where I definitely didn’t understand it, but I don’t think it was a negative thing, I’ve never thought of it or looked at it as a negative thing. I think it made me who I am. That’s what I have to deal with, I mean I have no choice at the end of the day, but I can only take the positives from that, cos there are always going to be negatives and positives, but it is what it is.”
I’m a singer, because I can sing first of all, which is what I’ve been lucky to have.
We jump on the No.80 bus from Morden and take a short ride to his suburban backyard of terraced houses in deeper South London, all the while he’s talking as he walks us from the corner shop to an off-road car park where he used to hang out and then over to a leafy alleyway down the road from his house. Santino tells us about his connection with music and how it all began, “I’m a singer, because I can sing first of all, which is what I’ve been lucky to have. It’s crazy cos I feel like it’s been something that’s always there, it wasn’t really a choice, like it’s not something I chose to do, I’ve always been around it.”
That certainty of purpose can be put down to not only his own innate desire to make music but also to his own upbringing around music, “I’m on my dads album, I’m actually on the front cover as well as a little baby, if you zoom in, you’ll see me. He has a song with Estelle on there that I was on, but I sound like a baby”. And, as it turns out you can see and hear him, “I think I was about 6 maybe, young, I remember doing it in the studio as well, which is my room now. I think that was the first time me singing in the studio altogether”. Santino’s dad is Charlie Parker, one of the founders and producers of Brixton based rap group ‘The 57th Dynasty’, who alongside touring with the likes of Outkast and Eminem were considered the ‘Wu Tang’ of British hip-hop. “I think the willingness of my dad pushing me to make music, has made me think that yeah, I’m going to be doing this for a long time.”
Santino’s own music started when he began singing around 8, soon after taking up the keyboard, “I can remember also writing my first song, as he has it on video, I was like 11 in my towel, just come out of the shower, fresh playing my keyboard, with a little afro.” While the video is somewhere in the family archives, the music stayed so fresh and so clean, “At 14 I started really writing, writing songs properly – when I’d say I became a writer. I started to doing school gigs as well and at 16, I started putting songs out properly, like putting stuff on SoundCloud.” It’s around that time he also started messing around with beats, making melodies in his head he’d take it to his acoustic guitar and then start producing his own sound. His bedroom in Brixton used to be his dad’s studio and he’s grown up literally surrounded by instruments. “I’ve never had to force myself to make music or make songs, it’s always just come. I’ll sit down one day and make a song, even if I have a writers block or anything, I’ll just be able to do it, just because that’s what I wanna do, I don’t spend my time on anything else.”
Santino operates on two levels, at two different ends, and seems to successfully traverse two contrasting worlds. Somehow both sides come together, making him who he is – someone who hasn’t given way to cynicism or confusion about who he is and where he wants to be. Enjoying the contrast of being raised between his mother’s home in Morden with his little brothers, and his father’s homes in Brixton, Santino doesn’t suffer from divided loyalties, “I would say I’m comfortable with who I am as a person, I possibly think maybe being mixed race may have helped that. Identifying with two different types of cultures all the time, being able to go to the Jamaican side of my family and see how they act and then the English side and see how they act. I can understand the difference and I can understand who I am personally. I think I had a lot of friends early on who were kind of a bit questionable about themselves and I wasn’t really, but I understood where they came from and that helped me to also further identify with myself as who I am and become who I was.”
Although he’s been raised on “some old R&B stuff, some new type R&B stuff, mixed with my dads influence”, the inspiration to put his own stuff out there, unequivocally come from The Weeknd.“I was just starting to write songs properly and it just kinda made sense. So he was the first person that made me feel like ‘yeah I’m gonna go and make some music and I’m gonna make it and I’m gonna make it good’.” Santino didn’t feel like he needed to go through any formal music training, all the schooling he ever needed was right at home. The journey he’s on, is one he intends to continue for the long haul, “I see myself doing music for life, forever and even if I didn’t have a career in music and I had like a regular job, which I definitely am not going to have, I could still be making music forever, literally forever. But regular job is not something that I’m going to be having.”
You’ll only understand if I make it, you’ll only understand when I breakthrough, so I gotta do this.
Santino’s approach to making music comes from every angle and every aspect of his life, all kinds of “real experiences” that come together into each song. Everything he sings about and wants to create, is about what he goes through in his life – all the contrasts that combine together to make his own sound. Santino makes music about love but you can sense his real love is his music and it’s written into his songs – “I don’t know about love, maybe you never really know, it’s not something you’re ever sure of. But I feel like the journey from my early teenage years to now and whatever I go through up until I basically die, will always be the journey of finding out about love, finding out about other people.” On one of his yet to be released tracks, ‘Understand Me’, it’s his desire to commit to a relationship but the sense that he’s being pulled to commit to his music, that seeps through. When I ask him about it, he smiles knowingly, “It’s crazy, because I feel like a lot of the things I write about are about, like you said that push and pull. I feel like in songs a lot, I’m always contradicting myself. But I like that about it and I feel like that’s not what I pride myself on writing about, but that’s a key part of the song.”
Santino’s been releasing music steadily on SoundCloud over the past two years, beginning with cover versions and going on to release his own music – all written, produced and sung by him. Putting his first visual out late last year for ‘Hometime’, taken from his ‘Second EP’, Santino’s now starting to really feel the connection grow. That connection gets really real when you see him perform live, watching his intimate Sofar performance, there’s no doubt he can pull you into his zone. “Sometimes even singing songs that I’ve said I’ve left behind infront of loads of people, come back, the emotion comes back, especially when you can feel the emotion from the crowd.”
Life experiences are key to making my music real.
The next day we head over to his recording studio in Brixton, and while the temperature outside begins to drop, in the basement Santino eases into an acoustic performance for us. It’s here in the studio, where you can truly see how at home he is. Santino’s not caught up in any distractions and it’s clear he’s ready to put his heart on the line and the soul into his sound. “Music is the escape from the reality that actually happens in my life, it’s more like if I’m feeling a certain way, if I’m feeling down, I’ll go and make a song and it’ll just release all the emotion and all the energy I have inside me into the song. Almost to a sense that I can leave it behind once I’ve put the song out and the song is there, so the emotions go with the song. I realise that there’s no point holding onto negative things that are going to make me unhappy, like bring me down as a person, I just go on what makes me happy, which is making music and living my life.”
It feels like the British music industry is going through a kind of overhaul and having to face up to the real challenges of breaking new British artists. With The Brits now making moves to recognise the unconventional ways that artists are breaking through and rising to the surface, Santino has more than The Brits in his sights – he’s looking all the way to the Grammy’s. Till that time, he’s building his team and doing it his way and in his own time, “I think it’s crazy that it’s kind of the age of the independent artist and that’s kind of all I know. But I don’t feel like I have to necessarily be independent, or signed to a label, but I also think that starting off independent and kind of remaining independent for as long as possible, is good for me personally, and good for any artist really. Because you can understand the process of going through everything you go through, the periods of working hard by yourself, grafting and grinding and knowing where you stand.”
When it comes to his music, there’s no question he’s planning to go all the way, that journey has been one that started so early on that it’s all he’s ever known. What keeps Santino Le Saint driven, is his attitude – “I think being grounded as a person and as an artist is key to one longevity and two being successful.”