In life, there are some people who are annoyingly good at basically anything they turn their hand to. When he’s not busy selling out worldwide tours with Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson can be found piloting planes and coaching fencing, while Brian May has a PhD in astrophysics to fall back on should his estate ever hit rocky terrain. For these Renaissance men, learning is all but a matter of patience.
North London soul protégé Zak Abel is another polymath to have emerged recently, having traded in a promising career in table tennis to focus on music. Zak was good at table tennis. Like, really, really good: he was ranked as the number one player for his age group in the country. “At one point I thought I’d take it all the way and do it for the rest of my life,” says the singer, who joins Clash over the phone during a shopping excursion to adidas. “It was only after I went to France as a 15-year-old to do it professionally I realised that music was taking over.”
On a road trip to Cornwall as a kid, Zak listened to Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ for six hours straight: “That [album] was a gateway to loving soul, funk, pop and R&B. I then found out about people like Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin.” He started writing when he was 14. “I remember having these big life decisions that age about whether I’d move to France. Writing was my way of dealing with the situation rather than being overwhelmed.”
Zak’s clean-cut vocal harks to a bygone era of crooners in the ’50s and ’60s, yet still remains utterly modern - thanks in part to the context in which it’s framed. For his pragmatically titled ‘Joker Presents…’ debut EP, it was dubstep pioneer Joker who took charge of controls. “Look at Marvin Gaye or Al Green, they’ve done soul in a live aspect to the best that anyone will ever do it. I don’t want to recreate that. I want to take the inspiration, but also use some of the technology we have nowadays that they didn’t.”
Paloma Faith and Kaytranada are just some of the stars that Zak has linked up with so far, but understandably he’s tight-lipped on names from his forthcoming album. Like everything else he’s attempted so far, though, you can safely bet it won’t disappoint.
WHERE: North London
WHAT: Floor filling neo-soul
GET 3 SONGS: ‘Everybody Needs Love, ‘These Are The Days’, ‘Wise Enough’
FACT: Zak’s relationship with Kaytranada stemmed from Twitter after Kay followed him back. “I said: ‘Look, if you ever want to make music, I’ll be down.’ He then sent me a load of beats!”
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Words: Graeme Campbell
Photography: Sophie Mayanne