Sometimes in life, you have to hold up your hands and accept defeat. As Sway Clarke II (‘the second’) did, after a brief flirtation with rap.
“I thought I was a rapper. I was a rapper. I just wasn’t good.” His laugh spills into a gap-toothed grin, as he sits within the lime green-licked offices of Island Records – his new home. “I just realised there was a big difference between me and Kanye. So I started singing.”
Growing up in social housing in Toronto, Sway was one of eight children – but it wasn’t quite happy families. “We were f*cked, man, every family’s f*cked. That’s why I moved to Germany.” His city of choice was Berlin, being cheap and “so young”.
“The Wall came down in ’89 and it’s still trying to figure itself out as a city. It’s liberating – I can just go to the supermarket in my f*ckin’ joggers. You’re allowed to be creative, economically.”
Despite missing out on the scene when it was alive and kicking, Sway developed a fascination with Britpop. “I picked up a guitar, started trying to teach myself and learned about what an ‘Oasis’ was. I love Ride and Blur and The Verve.”
Shades of early ’90s UK sounds materialise on debut single ‘Secret Garden’, which employs a lairy harpsichord stomp. “I really love Damien Rice-esque kind of music; melancholy, cry your eyes out type of shit,” he adds.
But Sway’s early hip-hop influence still provides the building blocks for his songwriting. “I’ve always found writing with an instrument a bit limiting, because I’m not a virtuoso,” he explains. “But I’ll write for words – a line that comes to me. Guys like Bob Dylan are kind of rappers. You listen to him, it’s not huge melodies – he’s a f*ckin’ folk white rapper!”
“I tried to shake [rap influence], actually,” he continues. “I tried to be Liam Gallagher… I wanted to be a white guy.” Since launching his music into the stratosphere, the Frank Ocean and Miguel comparisons have flown in, but Sway points out that ‘Secret Garden’ is just “one song. OutKast are a great example of that – when they started to put out more and more stuff it’s like… these guys are a circus!”
What people make of his music is a constant source of surprise to Sway. “But I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” he finishes. “I’m just giving my spin on it.”
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WHAT: Soulful Britpop with rap-informed songwriting
GET 3 SONGS: ‘Swimming Pools (Remix)’, ‘Secret Garden’ (video above), ‘I Don’t Need Much’
FACT: Sway is colourblind and lost 30% of his sense of smell after a bout of late chickenpox (“I had pox in my ass… any possible place a pock could be, I had one!”)
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Words: Felicity Martin
Photo: Christopher Fenner
Fashion: Candice Bailey