SK Shlomo Interview: “The more I talk about it, the less frightened I am”
This year’s Threshold Festival headliner talks to Dan Spelman about Liverpool, his debut album and his mental health focussed podcast series.
Threshold Festival may have some big competition with the BBC 6 Music Festival happening in the city at the same time, but nothing is stopping us from making it our absolute priority.
Topping the bill this year is the sublime SK Shlomo.
After collaborating with Ed Sheeran, Bjork and Damon Albarn, the record-breaking beatboxer Shlomo turns electronic singer-songwriter on his debut album tour, blending his innovative live-looping and breathtaking beatboxing with epic synths, crushingly honest lyrics and lush electronic layers.
The album is released the day before his Threshold performance, and he chatted to us ahead of both. We had to be sure we were pronouncing his name correctly first, though (we were); “It’s quite funny because Shlomo sounds super cool,” he tells us. “But if I went to Israel, it’s the most Jewish name in the world!”
Planet Slop: So I want to start off by speaking about what inspired you musically because when I’ve listened to your work can hear all different elements especially Jazz, in certain things did you listen to much Jazz music growing up?
SK Shlomo: Yeah, so when I was a kid I started out playing drums, I started joining classical orchestras but my dad is a Jazz musician so I got the Jazz bug in my teens, and I started playing in my dad’s Jazz quartet and I was out gigging. But I was also playing in funk bands and rock bands so I was out gigging most of my teenage years. I was earning money making music with my drums. It wasn’t till I left home at 19, that I started replacing those drumming gigs with beat boxing gigs and becoming known for that.
PS: What was the transition from doing that to beat boxing? Was it a tough transition to make?
SK: No not really, I’ve always been doing beat boxing to help practise my drums you know, without making much noise. An then around the time I was leaving home in 2002 beat boxing was really new in UK they wasn’t that many people doing it and that meant that it was really a ripe, time and space for me to just go express myself so I started jumping on open mics, and before long I join this hip hop band called Foreign Beggars. And that meant touring around the world getting my voice heard internationally. I started getting a couple of breaks quite early on; I recorded with Bjork – she recorded a whole vocal album and not long after that I went onto Jools Holland and did my first proper TV performance so yeah after that my life was a world wind.
PS: It sounds it was it one of them things where on minute you’re doing open mics and the next your playing all these festivals and playing all these gigs and was just like ‘Hang on a minute!’
SK: Yeah it was a world wind but I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy. We worked so hard like so many shows, so much travelling and not getting paid or not getting fed or showing up and no-one’s there! [Laughs] There were so many hard times as well as amazing times, but yeah I’m super proud of it.
PS: A lot of upcoming artist say they owe a lot of favours to a lot of people whom have got them a gig, or a slot on festival, but do you prefer being in the studio creating music or performing live?
SK: That is a hard question, man! I didn’t really do much that much studio work for myself until quite recently, like in last few years. Before that I did a lot of work for other people, but I’d never do my own thing. I was always saying I was a performer, beat boxing is a performance. You have to witness it in person and it doesn’t really work in the studio. But I’m able to admit now that it was me hiding behind a bit of a mask of my fear of not succeeding in the studio. Finally taking that mask off spending last little while making an album that I’ve produced myself, I wrote and sang the lyrics. There isn’t that much beat boxing on it but there is bunch of other sounds like this explorative electronic music. It felt so empowering, but I’ve really, really missed the performing side of it. I haven’t been on road a lot in the last two years with a mixture making the album and struggling with my mental health, so like I’ve just started going back out on tour I started my tour just over week ago and in the last eight days I’ve done 12 shows [Laughs].
PS: WOW! That’s crazy, man! You’ve just mentioned mental health there I saw the podcast you have been doing and I wanted to speak to you about it. We Are Listening; tell me what made you want to talk about it, you’ve had some massive guests and a lot artist whom suffer from mental health don’t really talk about it, what made you want to talk about it?
SK: It was the process of stopping my whirlwind lifestyle to start work on the album, and I knew something wasn’t right. I knew I wanted to take it seriously, but the process of stopping meant I was left without the chaos of performing and that just left myself with this stillness and with my own mind for company, and I quickly hit a horrible depression, and it got frightening, to the point where I didn’t know if I could keep going. And that was really scary. But looking back on it now. I’m really glad it happened, because it meant that I was able to admit I wasn’t okay. I spoke to family and reached out for help. I saw my doctor and got referred to therapy, and through that process I was strong enough to finish the album, and also to be open about it because I just thought this whole album is about recovery and the pain of depression. It felt like I couldn’t just put music out there without speaking about it to, so I launched crowd-funding campaign, I posted video of me speaking about my struggles first time publicly and the reaction was incredible. So many people wanted to support me, and that’s when I started We Are Listening. We sit and talk. It’s a safe space. We don’t have to stigmatise mental health. We need to change, but for me I’m doing this for myself. The more I talk about it, the less frightened I am, and the more safe I feel. I just want to do more of that anytime I can because it reclaims the power the trauma has over you.
PS: I’ve watched a couple of the episodes and, as you said, it’s not the stigmatised “We have to talk about mental health to cover it”, it’s just two people talking about mental health one person talking to the other about the industry and pressure that goes with it a lot of people just see the glitz and glamour and don’t see the pressures of it what advice would you give to upcoming artists?
SK: Well I think you don’t have to do what I did and get up and broadcast to whole world that your vulnerable. Like, you can have a think about who you accept you. And also, who would like to be there. If you realise someone you care for was struggling, you would want to be there for them. So have think about who those people might be. And maybe you can share with them. It’s easy to get out of control, things that seem like there only minor things. I don’t have to worry about that and carry on, and keep pushing and pushing. That’s what I did for such a long time. Imagine you have a physical wound on your body, you wouldn’t ignore it. Don’t feel like if it’s a small thing it’s not worth your time or somebody else’s time to talk about it. The sooner you talk about it, the easier it is. So, yeah, definitely encourage people to be open about it.
PS: Man, I really look up to you for speaking about this in such open platform. But I want talk to you about playing in Liverpool because your here very soon. Have ever played here before?
SK: Yeah I’ve played Liverpool loads of times, I love Liverpool so much. Last time I spent a decent amount of time there was when I worked with Sense Of Sound, who are choir up in Liverpool and they had a theatrical show that I was a part of and that was really fun. I love being up in Liverpool the people are so heartfelt, and they wear their emotions on their sleeve, so I can’t wait to come up and it’s day after my album comes out. I’m going to be buzzing. I’m headlining at Threshold festival, it feels so recent that I couldn’t perform, or couldn’t be myself. Like couldn’t feel safe and couldn’t go through the front door. But now to be able to be back on stage and tell my story I just feel so lucky.
PS: I speak for a lot of people when say when we see you doing gigs, I get strength from that. So thank you very much, but I know you have a lot of these interviews to do but as you are Liverpool soon I thought help you with our way with words so it’s a little Scouse challenge that okay?
SK: [Laughs]Yeah, sounds fun
PS: Going to give you a few phrases want to see if can guess what they are.
SK: [Laughs] OK!
PS: “Go’ed! Is right”. What do you think that means?
SK: [Laughs] I have no idea! What does that mean?
PS: Well it means “Nice one, thank you”. Would be easier to just say “thank you”, like! Here’s another one bit of easier one; “La, I need some scran”?
SK: That means I’m hungry!
PS: Yeah! The last one, a bit of tough one but I think you’ll get it; “Dude they’re boss webs them, lad”.
SK: Webs? Does that mean shoes? Clothes? Trainers?
PS: Yeah, trainers! So when you’re on stage at Threshold you can throw some banter our way! [Laughs] When we catch you on Threshold?
SK: I’m there Saturday 30th March, as I said day after my album comes out. It’s also the day after Brexit, so feel like we all be feeling a little bit raw, but hopefully we can all come together and celebrate the things we can celebrate and commiserate the things we might need to commiserate.
PS: Well I can’t wait to see you perform good luck for Threshold, and thanks for talking to us!
SK: Thanks for having me man.
Threshold Festival takes place on the 29th and 20th March throughout the Baltic Triangle. Tickets are available by clicking here.