Did you like Plan B? While he busies himself with his next album, meet the singer we could call Plan C, aka Irishman Michael Stafford – another soulful skinhead who looks like he could go either way between crooning a lovesick retro ballad and nutting you. Like his sometime flatmate and mentor, the 21-year-old, who calls himself Maverick Sabre to match his initials, has been through a wayward youth and a minor kind of stardom on the hip hop scene before revealing a remarkably smooth singing voice to the world.
His debut album, released a week on Monday, should improve on his two top 20 singles to date and capitalise on the current Adele-led vogue for music with a big tearful voice as its focal point. He points out the similarities between his sound and that of his fellow next-big-things Michael Kiwanuka and Emeli Sandé – the trio were the nominees for this year’s Critics’ Choice award at the Brits, the industry-picked prize anointing a guaranteed success for 2012 that was won by Sandé.
“I would have been more annoyed about not winning if I was beaten by someone shit,” he tells me in a heavy brogue that occasionally veers into cockneyisms, the result of being born in Stoke Newington, raised in the small town of New Ross in County Wexford and flitting between Ireland and London since his late teens. “If you like one of us you’ll probably like the rest of us too. There’s a similar tone there without us being exactly the same.”
However, Stafford probably has the most unusual singing voice among his peers. Just as his stage name evokes images of a dreadlocked rastaman from the Seventies, he shares some of his vocal style with white reggae star Ali Campbell of UB40 and reminds me most of briefly successful reggae-soul revivalist Finley Quaye, whose sunny debut album Maverick a Strike was a major UK hit in 1997.
Stafford has also retained some of the lyrical dexterity that made him a star in the tiny Irish rap scene as a teenager, switching into a sing-song rhyming style in the middle of the rolling piano and shuffling beats of standout track Open My Eyes. He plays guitar, too. It was Plan B who spotted his potential when Stafford supported him at a Dublin gig, one of several unlikely bookings for a then 16-year-old, small-time rapper – he also played with major US hip hop acts G-unit and The Game at that age. “I’ve been gigging since I was 15, missing school days and failing exams because I was doing music,” he says. “At that age I had great belief in myself. It was very tough but I didn’t have a back-up plan and I didn’t want one.”
Impressed by the young rapper’s style, Plan B invited him to enter a talent competition on his MySpace page, the prize being some studio time with him and his producer, which he duly won. “He told me if I came back to London he’d help me out with more studio time, contacts, friends: ‘Don’t feel like you’re alone’. So at 17 I moved back and he stuck to his word and helped me out. He’s still one of my very close friends and a lot of his mates have now become my best friends over here.”
It turned out that he was glad to escape Ireland, not just to improve his musical potential. Around that time he’d been in and out of court over there facing charges of assaulting a police officer, which were eventually dropped. “On a night out in Kilkenny I was drunk, got into a fight and had my nose broken. The break was so bad I was choking on my own blood, so when the police officer came over to me he thought I was spitting blood at his face when I was just trying to tell him what happened.”
He admits such trouble wasn’t unusual for him back then but says that was the old him. “Even though I’m only 21 I’ve calmed down a lot since I was 18, 19. I wasn’t wild but I was one of those teenagers that if there was something going on, I’d always end up getting in the middle of it. I did have a bit of an extreme side to my mind and I could be quite aggressive but what saved me from getting into worse situations was music. If I didn’t have music I would have gone down a totally different route altogether.”
He’s still down on the police, as indicated by his sparse, anguished ballad Shooting the Stars, on which he sings over an acoustic backdrop: “Tell us now how we’re not supposed to fear/If I get stopped and searched for the way that I look/And then charged with a crime that was never ever true/I’ve seen my mum crying tears/When they mention a year behind bars for what they said that I did/But they could never convict/Yeah they can kill you and get away with it.” Such gritty subject matter makes his music something different from the usual smoochy soul fare – like putting explosions in a chick flick.
Yet today he boasts plenty of the charm for which his countrymen are famed, chatting and sipping orange juice in the most rock ‘n’ roll venue his current Crouch End home can provide – Banners café, with its blues music on the stereo and a plaque above the table where Bob Dylan allegedly once sat. Plan B is not the only major musician he’s converted – before his solo career took off he also provided guest vocals on tracks by rapper Professor Green and dance duo Chase & Status. The latter sang his praises when I met them last year, telling me: “You can really hear his hunger. He’s going, ‘I’ve got an idea, I’ve got an idea!’ and that’s what you want.” More famous fans such as Wretch 32 and Chipmunk will also line up to endorse him in a Channel 4 show about him next week.
Then it will be our turn to get on his team. He’s certainly keen to be liked. “I wanted to make my music as universal as possible, so no one would say, ‘I can’t listen to this’.” He needn’t worry.