One of the greatest pleasures in gig-going is watching a new voice, free of expectations, silence a room. At the start of this year I saw Rationale do it, last on the bill at Radio 1’s Future Festival in Maida Vale Studios, where an eclectic bunch of eight box-fresh acts were broadcast doing a few songs live and anointed as the station’s next big things.
Despite being in the same closing slot that Brit-winner James Bay occupied the year before, the London singer, whose real name is Tinashé Fazakerley, didn’t believe he would be noticed. “I’m a very pessimistic character, which helps to write the songs I want to write. Being last on, I’d expect people to have already switched off,” he tells me. Then he sang his song Fast Lane and a gaggle of competition winners in Maida Vale, who were principally excited about being in the same room as DJ Annie Mac, found their jaws dropping as one. You could have heard a pin drop into a box of cotton wool on the moon.
“At the end of the night, people came up and said the nicest things. Not just nice things – I’ve been doing this for a while, I know the difference. It was one of the first chances I’ve had to win a cold crowd over.”
It was only his eighth performance as Rationale, but as the 31-year-old says, he has been doing this for a while. In 2010 he released an album on Island Records as Tinashé. Confusingly, there is now a successful female R&B singer in America called Tinashe without the accent, but his version sank without trace. He was making energetic pop music, not a million miles from the indie-soul of McAlmont & Butler, but it didn’t connect with the wider public.
So he retreated to music’s back rooms, becoming a songwriter for hire in the orbit of producer Mark Crew, who is best known for his work on Bastille’s multi-platinum album, Bad Blood. He wrote for an up-and-coming soul singer, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, “and did some other stuff I don’t think I’ll talk about ever”. It changed the way he approached his own music, to the extent that he even changed his singing voice.
“Going off as a hired gun, doing a couple of writing sessions a day for other people, you have to mould yourself to be that person. It bent my voice into places that I hadn’t thought I could reach before,” he says. His transformation into Rationale is like Bruce Wayne’s into Batman: darker, deeply serious, more muscular. You can hear the influence of the popular Drive soundtrack in his Eighties synths, but there’s no easy comparison for his voice, a mountainous baritone that could make him the most remarkable new singer since Sam Smith.
“I grew up listening to to Michael Jackson, a lot of pop and R&B, so it was natural for me to sing very high. The first song I wrote as Rationale was called The Mire, and that was the first time I’d experimented with staying really dead low. I had been trying to copy any style that was happening at the moment. But for the first time I let all that go, I found a really great place in my voice, singing with a sincerity that I’ve never been able to grasp before.”
He launched this phase of his career last April by putting his song Fast Lane on Soundcloud and keeping everything else mysterious, including his name. “I know there are other elements that need to align, like your character and what you look like. I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted people to listen to the music and to see what the reaction was.” He was unable to stay in the shadows for long. The song, with its smouldering feel and a delicious pause before the guitar line arrives, was played and praised by Pharrell Williams on his Beats1 radio show. Now it’s on 1.3 million Soundcloud plays.
Past experiences mean he’s not taking any of this for granted. He’s sincere in conversation, a polite holder open of doors, touchingly grateful for some press attention. He escorts me to the room where his songs come into being, a cramped broom cupboard beneath a Battersea housing estate with three chairs, musical instruments on every surface, no windows and a Seasonal Affective Disorder light so he knows whether it’s day or night. He plays me three songs from a debut Rationale album due later this year, one of which has a gospel feel, another which piles on the instrumentation to such an extent that it almost, but not quite, manages to overwhelm that extraordinary voice. I can hear the moment for the confetti explosion when he reaches the size of live audience he deserves.
“I used to write fictitious songs, songs that don’t derive from any real life experience,” he says. “Now I take an approach that’s quite brutal to myself. I sit and tick off words, tick off lyrics and hold back songs until I feel that I believe them.”
It has been a solitary journey to the lonely studio he calls “The Bunker”. He arrived in Camberwell from Zimbabwe at the age of seven with his three siblings and single mother, who trained to be a mental health nurse. “It was horrible. It took me about a year to blend in. I had this deep accent that kids couldn’t comprehend and found amusing,” he says in what is now crisp Queen’s English.
By the time the family moved to Hackney, when he was 11, he was already spending all of his time practising the guitar. “I was always thinking about music. I had this massive idea of stardom, that was what I wanted as a kid. I wanted all the adulation.” But as he grew older, he discovered more esoteric enthusiasms such as the music of Pat Metheny, Donnie Hathaway and Manu Chao, as well as the hip hop of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. “My mind changed and I just wanted to be a good musician.”
That plan didn’t sit well in what he terms “a stereotypical African home”, where creativity was valued far lower than academic success. “My mum told me at the time that if I wanted to be a musician I should go and live somewhere else for a bit. I was turning 16.” He only moved over the road to a friend’s house and signed up to a BTec National Diploma in Music, and was eventually permitted to come back home. “Her attitude calmed down to: ‘If you want to ruin your life go ahead and ruin your life.’”
Fazakerley has had to wait longer than most for success, but feels that his life has been far from ruined. “I don’t feel like it’s been a struggle. I don’t want to have that kind of attitude with it. Most people will never understand that feeling of waking up in the morning and having to go back and finish that thing, and keep chipping away at it until it feels like something that you can then give to people who are going to enjoy it. And then you end up performing that piece and it’s magical. That’s why I wake up and do it and keep doing it.”
April 7, Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk); May 10, Scala, N1 (020 7833 2022, scala-london.co.uk)