If you haven’t heard of Tom Misch yet, it’s all right by him. The 22-year-old south Londoner has already sold out major London shows at Somerset House and the Roundhouse, sent his debut album into the top 10 in the spring, and has two even bigger gigs at Brixton Academy on the way. That’s quite sufficient for a reluctant star who wasn’t even keen on doing this interview, one of just a handful of promotional engagements he has agreed to since rising to fame as a sixth form Soundcloud producer.
“I don’t really want to get much bigger. I’m quite happy where I’m sitting,” he tells me over a lunchtime Coke in Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema café. He’s still living with his parents in East Dulwich, meeting me on his way to play tennis with his sister. All very normal, apart from the fact that a week earlier he was in the studio with Craig David, he’s just been invited to work on new music with Lianne La Havas and Gregory Porter, and is not long back from a month-long tour of the US and Canada.
“It really scares me, the idea of keeping on growing and becoming more well-known,” he continues. “I don’t like how my life has changed in some ways. A lot of people know who I am before I’ve met them, which is a weird dynamic. It’s a bit stressful. It doesn’t really suit my personality.”
Even so, he’s an affable guy, friendly and far from shy, with a tracksuit top and a small ear stud. Clearly a passionate music lover, we exchange album and gig recommendations. He wants to know about other musicians I’ve met and about my past involvement with the Mercury Music Prize, for which his album, Geography, will surely be a contender when the shortlist is announced next month. It ticks plenty of Mercury boxes as a collection of serious but accessible musicianship worthy of a wider audience, containing elements of jazz, hip hop and electronic sounds, and featuring a guest spot from a past nominee: Misch’s rapper friend Loyle Carner.
A violinist from the age of four thanks to the influence of his psychiatrist father, who plays the same instrument, Misch picked up the guitar at nine and has developed a fast-fingered style that gives a bright jazziness to his relaxed sound. He loved American rock guitarist John Mayer, but it was his later discovery of pianist Robert Glasper’s blend of jazz and R&B, and the organic instrumentals of late hip hop producer J Dilla, that cemented the direction of his own music. While studying Music Technology in the sixth form at St Dunstan’s College in Catford, he became a prolific producer of songs for his Soundcloud page. “I’d be making beats pretty much every day after school and it just grew and grew. I wasn’t precious about my music. I just loved creating and putting stuff out there,” he tells me.
In 2013, Follow, a woozy ballad featuring his saxophonist older sister Laura, was picked up by the influential YouTube channel Majestic Casual. Misch began a four year Jazz degree at Trinity Laban in Deptford but dropped out after six months because he was succeeding fast. “My music was taking off at that point. I was already doing what I wanted to be doing,” he says. “I like jazz but actually I didn’t love it enough to study it for four years. It was boring.”
Instead he’s found a bridge between that cerebral world and the cooler bounce of old school hip hop. As well as Carner, US rappers De La Soul and GoldLink feature on Geography. Misch’s dream was to secure the smooth voice of Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, but it didn’t happen this time.
When I saw his show at the Roundhouse in March, guest vocalists Carner, Barney Artist, Poppy Ajudha and Zak Abel brought much of the spark to the evening. I suggested in the review that Misch might be a reluctant sideman taking centre stage under duress, and it seems he might agree. “I’m not a songwriter at heart. I’m foremost a producer and musician,” he admits. “I started singing because the tracks that I sing on have a bigger reach. But I’m not one for lyrics really. It takes me a long time to write a song. My forte is instrumentals.”
He only played his first live show in May 2016, when he was already popular enough on the internet to sell out Peckham’s sizeable Bussey Building. It still doesn’t sound like it comes naturally. “I guess it’s not my style to hype up the crowd, to get everyone to put their hands up. I either have amazing shows or not very good ones. People sometimes chat, especially London crowds.”
However, he’s generally a big fan of London, as you might expect of a lifelong resident. His single South of the River, with its distinctive swinging violin melody, makes the case for his favourite part: “Watching the sunshine blaze the gray/I don’t know why you wouldn’t stay/You should come South of the River/Where the loving is gold,” he sings.
“I just like the vibe in south-east London. It’s way more relaxed. There are some great parks,” he says. “I’ve lived there my whole life so I don’t really know anywhere else.”
Staying close to his family has worked out nicely for his career, too. As well as saxophone player Laura, his other older sister, Polly, is an actress who has a spoken part at the beginning of his song Movie, and his mum Carol has provided the artwork for his album and preceding EPs. Both sisters usually appear on stage at his concerts.
It all helps to keep him grounded as things get bigger and busier. It sounds like he was underwhelmed to hear that his album was at number eight in the charts while he was on his way to perform at California’s Coachella festival in April. “I wasn’t expecting it, and obviously I’m happy, but what does it mean? I don’t rate the people I was surrounded by.” Kylie Minogue was number one that week.
He seems to be saying he won’t hesitate to step away if this really does become too much. He’s currently enthused about a new trio he’s formed with drummer Yussef Dayes and bassist Tom Driessler. “It’ll have a different name, more leftfield than my stuff,” he says. “I’m mostly happy that the album’s done well because it will allow me to do exactly what I want from now on.” And if that means becoming less popular but more happy, he’ll be absolutely fine.
Tom Misch plays the Love Supreme festival, June 29-July 1, Glynde, East Sussex. lovesupremefestival.com
Nov 15-16, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9. o2academybrixton.co.uk