Ahead of his new EP and residency at Constellations, Shaun Ponsonby talks to XamVolo about diversity, touring with Paloma Faith and breaks down the larger concepts in his work.  

XamVolo is by far one of the most chill people you could ever encounter. Nothing seems to faze him.

We meet straight after he speaks on a panel for the LIMF Academy. Having never spoken on a panel like this before, was he nervous at all?

No.

He has, of course, just come off a massive arena tour with Paloma Faith in which he played to thousands of people a night. Surely, this was nerve racking?

No.

He was given the opportunity to duet with Faith during her set on the tour too. That must have got to him?

No.

How is this even possible?

If you take events too seriously, you’re more likely to choke,” he explains. “People are here to have a good time, so treat it that way. It should be a fun thing, it’s not an exam.

XamVolo is serious about what he does. Very serious. When we meet after his panel, he immediately starts raving about the inner ear monitor system he was using on tour. He’s a total audiophile, as interested in the science of sound as he is in the soul of music.

On stage, he is somewhat aloof. Dressed in black, sunglasses, so Goddamn cool that it’s almost intimidating.

In person, he’s softly spoken and greets everyone with charm and warmth.

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The shows with Faith represented the next major challenge for Xam. Having played smaller venues up and down the country, this tour not only featured the largest crowds of his career so far, but he wasn’t playing for his own audience.

With one possible exception.

Liverpool was definitely one of my favourites,” he admits. “It was the one show where I felt like maybe 0.1% of the audience might possibly have been there for me. Starting my career here, it was a big thing for me to play the Echo Arena, even if I wasn’t headlining.”

Of course, for any artist moving up to this scale, it required some tweaking of his set.

Although often considered a soul artist, his music contains a variety influences, especially true of jazz. At its best, his work is deceptively simple, yet pleasingly complex. And while this might work beautifully on record and in smaller venues, he was conscious that it may not have the same impact on an arena stage.

We took out a lot of the more intricate muso stuff. People might not want to sit and listen to something in 15/8 or something. My tour manager has a lot of experience in arena shows and he told me that there was no way you can be super subtle – nobody can hear it. At first I was sceptical, but after seeing Paloma’s sound checks I realised he was right. We wanted to feel that room.”

I’ve often wondered the kind of effect that such support slots have on the artist in question. It has definitely increased his audience. His already impressive social media reach has more than doubled, for example. But what has it done to his expectations? Now that he has a taste of the big time, has it made him more anxious to headline these venues himself?

I had to scrub my perception clean. I don’t want to start getting in over my head and be like ‘300 cap isn’t good enough’. So I’ve done that, and it was a great experience but its back to where we were, where reality is. I’m still extremely grateful to play a 300 cap, it still means a lot that 300 people would come out to see me.”

XamVolo duets with Paloma Faith – image from artist’s Facebook page

It turns out that the tour couldn’t have been more perfectly timed, as Xam is about to embark on a flurry of activity – especially this week.

On Friday, he releases his new EP A Damn Fine Spectacle.

Consisting of four songs, the EP is a spin off from the album that Xam will be releasing later in the year. Within it, he focuses on one aspect of the larger project, making the world he is building with his music feel more three dimensional – which he admits was the primary reason he was on board with the EP idea.

It is clear as he talks that his sights are set a little higher. He doesn’t want to just make music to distract people from their everyday lives, he wants to take us on a journey.

My first ever experience of music with a concept was Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid album. That album made me hear music a bit differently.”

Monae has built much of her recorded work around what she calls the “Metropolis Suite”. In the vain of George Clinton, she has created a whole futuristic universe that exists in its own unique timeline. It is science fiction and afro-futuristic, whilst also being a commentator for social-political issues, both past and present.

In it, she portrays her alter ego, Cyndi Mayweather – an android who falls in love with a human. The droids are slaves to the humans and both groups are completely segregated from each other by law.

Lyrically, she uses this setting to tackle issues such as gender, mental health, sexuality and most explicitly, the black struggle. So well are these embedded into the world she has carved out, that it is easy for the casual listener to miss, revealing itself over time from close analysis.

With this in mind, I wonder how Monae has influenced Xam’s work.

It would be a disservice to myself if I didn’t approach a project with an overriding theme. Why not make it mean something and be interesting?  If you think of other art forms, like film, or paintings – there’s discourse around it. People care about it. They want to know what is happening in Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones and they go deeper than what it is actually shown on the screen. People like to be challenged, but you need that bit to bite into it.”

“But music has been boiled down to simplicity, and it’s not cool to think about music in that way, and I don’t know why. Why does music only have to be fun? I mean, it should be fun, but why can’t it be more? I’m not saying I have the answers, but it is interesting to create a discourse on what ambition is. If you had that ambition, would you utilise it? Would you stay away from it?”

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Throughout our chat, he continually refers to the “pitch black hive”, from where the dark liquid (“black honey”) emanates in the video for previous single Old Soul.  He explains it almost like a punishment for living an artificial life, devoid of any real meaning.

The one thing that separates people from animals is ambition,” he says. “It can be a good or a bad thing. As human beings, we do great things, but we are flawed. If you introduce something that grants your every desire, you remove ambition and we’re no different from animals at that point.”

He cites a few songs from the EP to explain the concept.

The second track, Adored, is about keeping up with the Jonses. The character in the song, it’s about where her value is placed and what she feels like success is. Why does she care more about appearance than she does anything deeper? And this foreshadows what happens in the next song, which is Dark Teeth; do these people value me or are they just waiting to see my fall from grace?

It is somewhat surreal – and probably needs to be made a little more palatable to a passing audience. Of course, Xam is smart enough to understand this.

I kind of use wine as a status symbol,” he explains.If you drink too much wine, your teeth stain. Or if you think of something like meth; for an addict, it feels like a short term gain, but it is a long term detriment, and basically your teeth rot. So, if you eat the ‘black honey’ – if you have those delusions of grandeur, then your teeth turn black. And that represents the fall from grace”.

It is an endlessly fascinating concept. In fact, it brings to my mind Garmonbozia – the creamed corn substance from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks that symbolises pain and sorrow. Coincidentally, the EP’s title, A Damn Fine Spectacle, also brings Twin Peaks to mind, owing to Agent Cooper’s regular excitable exclamations of “damn fine coffee”.

Thematically, the moral core seems to be most potent during Cathedrals, the EP’s closing track. The song’s narrator exposes a scattered head space, and seems to babble a stream of consciousness; “I’m OK/I know it’s worth it/For all this weakness on the surface”.

By now, the hive is dripping with honey. The character has been more concerned with keeping up their outward appearance, to the point where they were willing to sacrifice their inner peace – hence the meandering, scattered lyrics.

A Damn Fine Spectacle

As if Damn Fine Spectacle and its parent album weren’t enough activity, Xam is putting his energy into a new venture at Constellations; The Art of Dffrnce.

The first edition takes place this coming Thursday (12th April). In addition to Xam himself, it will feature SPXKEN, a spoken word duo who have been combining poetry with hip hop, R&B, house and gospel.

But the most interesting aspect of the night comes at the end, when everyone gets together for a jam. Unrehearsed and completely off the cuff, it sets The Art of Dffrnce apart from most similar live music nights. It almost adds an element of danger. It’s a pretty public way to experiment.

It is described as a night for the patrons of the soul spectrum; neo-soul, hip hop, jazz and spoken word.

It’s just soul vibes,” he says. “Anything that’s coming out that isn’t necessarily four guys in a band. I just want to be giving these people a platform, because I have been given a platform. If they feel like they have a place to come and perform, it could be cool.”

This naturally led to a long discussion about the diversity problem currently facing Liverpool.

It’s funny, when you look at LIMF – in a way you would think that it was in Manchester, or London. Because it doesn’t fit with the overriding image of the city.”

“But that audience want to go to gigs too, we just need to show them that they are happening. A few might even be inspired to go and do their own thing. I refuse to believe that if you go to Toxteth, or Bootle, or Aintree, or wherever that you won’t find somebody who is almost ready to go out there. Even just statistically.”

He knows that he isn’t alone. He cites a number of people who are doing great work in the city, trying to actively create platforms for those who aren’t working within the standard formulas – he mentions DJ 2Kind’s hip hop collective L100 and community radio station KCC Live immediately.

He also makes special mention of Soul 4 Soul – a monthly night of soul artists, both local and national, that was housed at Studio 2 for a number of years, but hasn’t been staged for at least 18 months. “Soul 4 Soul was great, their presence has been missed in the city recently. I feel like it needs to come back.”

“So I’m not saying that this kind of thing isn’t being done, but I want to contribute to it.”

If his musical projects represent XamVolo the artist, it almost feels like The Art of Dffrnce represents Sam Folorunsho, the man.

Through it, he is giving back. It says a lot about his character that at a crucial point in his career, when his profile is rising consistently, he is creating a platform for struggling artists in the city. That he doesn’t view himself as a trailblazer in this area proves that he is level headed and realistic.

Most importantly, it shows his genuine passion for music.

The Art of Dffrnce launches on Thursday 12th April at Constellations. Entry is free.

A Damn Fine Spectacle is released on Friday 13th April.