LABRINTH/iTUNES FESTIVAL – Evening Standard, 17 Aug 2012

Normal service has resumed in London, which means football, patchy weather and, most promisingly, the return of the annual iTunes Festival to Camden’s Roundhouse. A look at the list of stars involved in next month’s 30 days of free concerts is a vivid indication of the power of Apple — for a long time now providers of the overwhelmingly dominant means by which we buy and listen to music. It’s a galaxy of chart-toppers among which Hackney lad Labrinth might look like a relative newcomer, until you realise that he’s sung on five top five hits since 2010.

Once pegged as a backroom guy who’d provide hits for others, his debut album, Electronic Earth (Syco), earlier this year pushed him into the glaring spotlight.

“If you put it in film terms, I’ve gone from being the director to basically creating my own movies and starring in them,” he tells me, “and, man, it feels good. It’s been amazing, I’ve had some crazy experiences that I will never forget.”

Born Timothy McKenzie but known to all as “Lab”, the 23-year-old has become one of our most bankable urban pop songwriters, starting with a bang as the co-writer, producer and singer on Tinie Tempah’s No 1, Pass Out, which won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song, and going on to score big as an artist in his own right with his singles Let the Sun Shine, Earthquake and Last Time.

Not short of self-confidence, which partly explains his shift into the limelight, he insists that there is much more to come. “A No 2 debut album has been a great start for me. I’d hate it if there was no headroom and the only way to go was down. The first album was me stepping out of my comfort zone. I really want to make more music that’s going to change the game.”

Maybe further success will give him the excuse for a trip to Japan, the subject of one of the odder lines on his album, on the song Last Time: “I love Tokyo. I’ve never been,” he sings in the robotic Auto-Tuned voice that has become so ubiquitous in today’s chart pop but somehow, in his hands, still has a personality. “I still haven’t been,” he says. “I need to bow my head in shame.”

Even so, he is popping up in the right places. A memorable cameo at February’s Brit Awards saw him getting yelled at by host James Corden for walking in front of him as he gave a live TV link. “That was funny. I don’t know how I do that. I think there’s a weird little guy in my head telling me to go to the toilet at the wrong time.”

He also carried the Olympic torch in Brent and performed at several relay welcoming concerts around the country, though he was missing from the closing ceremony slot that would have suited him perfectly — the union of current pop stars that was Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz. “A lot of my fans were upset about that, they were tweeting to ask where I was. But I was over the moon to be involved earlier on. Britain doesn’t smile much — we’ve got bad weather — but there was so much energy and people smiling, it was really special.”

Then there was Radio 1’s giant Hackney Weekend in June, at which he performed but more importantly acted as a mentor, alongside fellow locals Leona Lewis and Plan B, inspiring young people as part of Project Hackney. “That was special. Plan B had a chat with me and we decided we need to show these kids we’re from the same place as them, and they can go the same way and be successful. At 13 I was getting in a lot of trouble in school, but luckily my headteacher showed love and didn’t kick me out. I was right around the corner from drug dealers and crazy criminals but I stayed clear of it. I was really feeling music, started working in a studio and wised up.”

He co-wrote and produced a song on Plan B’s new Ill Manors album, Playing With Fire, and says he admires the rapper’s decision to eschew chart pop to rap about the inner-city deprivation that angers him. “I have great respect for what he’s done. It’s a brave move in a money-making industry. What you have to say is really important, it’s what leaves an imprint. I’ve made a fun record but I know I’m much deeper than that.”

To date his biggest songs, Pass Out and Earthquake, are about getting drunk and partying hard, but there’s definitely more to this guy than a robot voice and a big drum beat. His album includes snippets of songs by Joni Mitchell and early Seventies soul singer Charles Wright, he enthuses to me about a Bob Dylan documentary he’s been watching, and speaks of a trip to Nashville during which he wrote acoustic songs for a “songwriter album” somewhere down the line.

“People get scared as they want to stay relevant,” he says. “Musical freedom is what I’m about.” He’s in intimidating company at the iTunes Festival, but Labrinth sounds confident enough to make himself right at home.

Labrinth plays Fri Sept 14 at the iTunes Festival,(Sept 1-30, Roundhouse, NW1). Apply for free tickets in a lottery at itunesfestival.co.uk; each draw closes seven days before the gig.

BEST OF THE REST ITUNES GIGS

Ed Sheeran

The double Brit winner, quadruple-platinum seller and the charts’ resident scruffbag, Sheeran still hasn’t got himself a backing band despite huge success so expect more loop-pedal beatboxing here. Sept 2

Plan B

Ben Drew’s, right, discography now contains two albums of grim hip hop misery versus one of chart-topping soul pop, so it will be interesting to see how he divides his time in front of a crowd hungry for the ones they can sing. Sept 4

Emeli SandÉ

The power ballad belle of choice for the Olympics, with key roles in both the opening and closing ceremonies, this cockatiel-haired Scot will be back to singing songs from her big-selling debut album here. Sept 5

Elbow & Bat for Lashes

A nice double bill here, topped by the people’s favourites Elbow and their sporting anthems, with wispy Kate Bush-type Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, in support. Sept 7

Jack White & Band of Horses

The country-tinged rock of Seattle beardies Band of Horses will set the scene for Jack White’s entertaining solo incarnation — but will he bring along his all-male or all-female backing band? Sept 8

Pink

This show is good timing for the shouty singer, whose new album The Truth About Love is released the following Monday. Her sixth, it features guest appearances from Eminem and Lily Allen — might the latter pop up here? Sept 13

One Direction

Scream! The boy band have become one of the biggest X Factor success stories despite placing third in the show, even converting American girls looking for five Biebers for the price of one when their debut album went to No 1 in the US this year. Sept 20

Biffy Clyro

The Scottish trio have earned significant commercial success since smartening up their powerful rock sound. This show should preview tracks from their imminent sixth album, Opposites. Sept 22

Robert Glasper

The hippest name in jazz right now — Houston pianist Glasper is uniting jazzy textures with soul and hip hop, featuring the likes of Erykah Badu, Bilal and Lupe Fiasco on his recent Black Radio album. Sept 23

Mumford & Sons

This will be a hot ticket, the banjo-plucking purveyors of rousing folk anthems appearing on the day their eagerly awaited second album, Babel, hits the shops. Fans will have a whole new collection of air-punching choruses to learn. Sept 24

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