‘The most jealousy-inducing of all emerging artists’ – This Is Fake DIY
‘(Joel) has just invented a new paradigm for British R&B’ – Guardian New Band of the Day
While most debut artists propose to offer something ‘different’ and ‘unique’, 20 yearold Londoner Joel Compass is a particularly rare talent who delivers on every level. A singularly talented male singer, songwriter and producer, as visually interesting as he is lyrically and musically arresting, Compass combines effortless credibility with huge commercial appeal.
Joel’s debut “Astronaut” EP was released to huge acclaim this summer on the impossibly cool Black Butter label, home of amongst others Rudimental, Kidnap Kid and Gorgon City. His debut track Back To Me had over 30,000 SoundCloud plays and 150,000 YouTube views in just one week, attracting coverage on Hypebeast, Clash, The Hunger and The Guardian to name a few. Produced and written by himself and Maiday (Jakwob, Wretch), the eerie track is beautifully complimented by a haunting video that sees a young boy shoot his father. “My mum and dad split up when I was six years-old and I didn’t see my dad a lot so I could relate to some of the themes in this video,” says Joel. “Initially I wrote the song about a girl, but I’ve realized that, after the initial inspiration comes, songs can take on different meanings, and the meaning on this song has definitely changed.”
The mysterious Kiss Love Goodbye is taut with suspense, almost cinematic in feel and execution. The uptempo ep title track, Astronaut, is an amazing showcase for Joel’s wide-ranging vocal that teases the best out of every note. Completing the 4 track EP line up is the compelling Fucked Up. It describes waking up after a hard night partying with a woman in your bed and your girlfriend calling your phone. ‘Why is she still asleep/ How can I get her to leave? I’m so fucked up.’ Co-produced with Kid Harpoon (Jessie Ware), the song bristles with regret and a slowly building sense of creeping dread.
These are songs written by a young man navigating his way through life, mistakes and all. Innovating and compositionally complex, his tracks are full of atmospheric preoccupation and contemplation, yet there’s a wit to be found within the many and surprising production flourishes aided and abetted by a vocal that is full of character and emotion.
Following his Black Butter released EP, Joel’s debut single “Run” is out on Outsiders/Polydor in November and his debut album is due Spring 2014. He may be signed to a particularly British label, but aesthetically Joel has more in common with American singers like Miguel, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, D’Angelo and Maxwell. There’s no ‘popping bottles in the club’ or generic Euro Dance bangers, this is music with heart, emotion and a vulnerability rarely seen in someone so young. At turns dark and disturbing, at others boldly witty and markedly candid, this is indie R&B at its best.
While it might be premature to compare Compass to a Kanye West, he is certainly showing huge promise as a singer who is as strong at producing as he is composing. With newcomer K.Flay and Grammy winning John Legend having already recorded his tracks, there’s little to stop Joel becoming as renowned a beatmaker as singer. “I’m just as ambitious about producing as I am singing; I want to work with all sorts of artists and I want people to come to me for my sound.”
Despite beginning life as a self-taught producer, it was his effortlessly free falsetto that initially caught the attention of songwriter and music executive Amanda Ghost. Ghost contacted Joel after hearing a song he had posted on Soundcloud. The track featured him singing but he had only intended it to be a guide vocal. “I had no intention of being a singer, whatsoever,” he laughs. “I was hoping a vocalist would get in touch via Soundcloud so we could re-do it. I thought if anything I would be signed as a producer,” he admits. Ghost however immediately recognised Joel’s potential and within weeks, via her recommendation, he was signed to Black Butter for his debut EP. For Joel, it was almost too much, too soon. “Signing was actually a tough decision because I was just about to go to university to study medicine,” he says. “I really had to think about what I wanted but ultimately, science and medicine would always be there. It was a big compromise and a big decision but I might only have one shot at music.”
Born and raised in South London, Compass – his real name – had a fairly average childhood in Penge until his parents divorced when he was six years-old. He’s rarely seen his father since and his mother suffered on and off with bipolar disorder, so he quickly became the head of the household, often taking care of his younger sister and his mother. Things weren’t particularly easy, but his mum actively encouraged Joel’s creative interests. Drawn to the keyboard at the age of 8 years-old after spotting one in a second hand market, they haggled the price down, and, later, when Joel’s teacher later noted his perfect pitch, his mum saved to buy him a piano.
“I didn’t have a typical upbringing but I think that’s worked out well for my music,” he muses. “I don’t really care a lot about a lot of things. I don’t see barriers or worry about showing who I am. I don’t worry about what people might think. As a musician, I suppose that’s quite freeing. “
It was around the time he began learning piano that Joel pretty much stopped listening to music. “My points of reference are really pre-2002,” he says. “My dad listened to a lot of house and garage, hip hop and jungle and my mum used to listen to Pink Floyd, Lemon Jelly and Aphex Twin. But my influences stop around that time. Of course I heard songs in passing but I didn’t actively listen to music, and I still don’t. I put myself into a bubble and concentrated on playing it rather than listening to it. In some ways I think I’m making music off of memory.”
Science has also been a major influence and inspiration in Joel’s life. You can almost picture Compass as an 8-year old boy, determined expression fixed on his face as he roamed his South London home ‘fixing things’. “Light fittings, TV’s, the radio; anything that was broken, I wanted to mend it.” Now, he carries that fascination into his music, continually experimenting with the science of sound. “A lot of the times I’m actively trying to make mistakes, because some of the best things come from mistakes. I want everything to feel rough and experimental. I find that exciting.”
Above all, like many of the great musicians before him, Compass is deeply driven and highly ambitious. “I like to reach certain goals and never go back. So where I am now, I won’t go back, ever,” he points out. “I know there are other artists doing a similar ‘atmospheric R&B’ sound, but the music I have coming is a progression on what’s come before. I hope I’m making music for tomorrow, today.”