“The benchmark always moves, that’s the thing. It’s similar with lots of things in life. It’s like: ‘Oh, once I do that I’ll be happy.’ Then you get there, and you’re happy… but then the happiness is gone and you need to do something else.”
Charmingly self-deprecating but plainly ambitious, Luke Sital-Singh pulls at the heartstrings of the singer-songwriter tradition to create unvarnished, highly charged folk ballads. Often starting misleadingly simply, his songs will swell and then implode—leaving you nostalgic and a little heart-sore. In the past, he’s shrugged off comparisons to the greats, but the romance and influence of Jeff Buckley et al. is plain to see.
After signing to Parlophone, he released his debut album, “The Fire Inside,” just a month ago, and has been on the road with it ever since. It’s been a long time coming, too: Sital-Singh’s first EP came out two years ago, but he’s been playing shows of all shapes and sizes for far longer than that. Originally from London, he studied at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and cut his teeth on the seaside gig circuit—but, as he described, a lot’s changed between then and now.
“When I was in Brighton, I did my music under another name,” remembered Sital-Singh. “I thought it was cooler. Like Bright Eyes, or Bon Iver. It’s sort of cool to pretend to be a band… and also I thought my name was stupid.”
But since then, after several different guises, a steadily growing fan base, and a couple of nationwide tours, he’s embraced his “stupid” name and released three critically acclaimed EPs—and finally, “The Fire Inside.” The album is an almost fifty-fifty split of material old and new, which, as Sital-Singh explained, was an extremely conscious decision. “I look at [the EPs] like little mini albums, and you could just tack them together and you’ve got an album… but that would have felt a bit disingenuous. [Nor] did I want to re-record the same songs and pretend that that was ‘new.’”
Sital-Singh’s newer material is marked by a more collaborative edge. Laughing, he described himself, hesitantly, as a “cooperative person,” and his long-standing partnership with writer and producer Iain Archer (of Jake Bugg fame) has clearly yielded standout results: “There’s a lot of trust there. We have the same taste and temperament and outlook. ‘Nothing Stays The Same,’ ‘Nearly Morning,’ ‘Greatest Lovers’—I wrote them all with Iain. And they’re probably my favorite ones, too.”
However, he admitted to feeling possessive of his more “personal” material: “When I look at the ones I’ve written on my own, like ‘Fail for You’ or ‘Bottled Up Tight’… I don’t know if it’s a pride thing, but I am a little more proud of those. They came from a very pure place. I mean, I wrote them five years ago with no more external motivation than, ‘I like writing songs.’”
Sital-Singh’s music has a distinctly organic feel: it’s songwriting in a traditional sense, weaving stories and emotion into a shareable, communal form. Drawing from a broad range of life’s material—from whales at sea to tales of heartbreak—it’s no surprise that he described his writing process as purely instinctive. “The Fire Inside” makes repeated use of elemental, weather-beaten imagery—but almost entirely unintentionally. A self-proclaimed “not” outdoorsy type, Sital-Singh haltingly explained, “It… just seemed an apt metaphor for a lot of things. I don’t really think. Really, I have no idea where it comes from. Most of my songs aren’t crafted at all.”
It’s no surprise that this emotion, felt rather than created, makes for an intense live show. After most nights on his UK tour, Twitter’s been busy with proudly tear-filled fan reactions. Sital-Singh is victorious: “GOOD!” he laughed. “Although I don’t actually see them cry, so if I did it would probably be a bit weirder. And I don’t think anyone’s bawling. I don’t even cry that much, but I sort of find it quite helpful sometimes, you know? Similar to throwing up. But I’d rather [the audience] to be crying than throwing up, obviously.”
Behind all the jokes, Sital-Singh’s ambition shines through when he discusses the increasingly larger stages he’s been playing. Typically he tours with one multi-instrumental bandmate, and he’s reluctant to have a “proper, normal band” again: “When you’ve got something quite intimate and emotional, as soon as you’ve got a guy on stage hitting things as hard as he can, it’s risky.” So, he’s been searching for ways to translate that intimacy with some added theatricality, feeling “compelled… to widen the sound.”
When supporting Robert Plant during the recent iTunes festival, that extra “something special” turned out to be a full choir and a brass quintet. Although keen to create a spectacle, Sital-Singh ensures that the essence of his music isn’t lost: “Those things are all swooshy and nice, and not too in your face. It’s still centered around my guitar and voice.”
So three EPs and one album later, here we are: in Edinburgh on the penultimate night of his UK tour—and just a few days ahead of Sital-Singh’s Berlin debut. He’s played the city before, in a support slot for Villagers, but Monday will see his first ever headlining show.
Musing that he’s gained “perspective” since the album, he said, “I never thought I’d get to the point where people who didn’t know me would come to my gigs. All these little things feel like dreams. You never think you’ll go around the world… I’m just a glass-half-empty kind of guy. But that also stops me from enjoying it, a bit, when it happens. It’s something I’m always trying to teach myself, to enjoy it. I mean, this is great—right now.”
Luke Sital-Singh plays tonight at Kantine am Berghain in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.