British troubadour Connor Selby had a clear idea of who and what he wanted to be at a very young age. Upon discovering blues, soul and folk music at ten years of age, he started on a journey that has taken him into the heart of the music he loves. Back with his brand new self-titled release, Nick Jennison sits down with the bluesman to discuss the new album, songwriting, note choice, guitar tones and more.
Raised in an Essex village, he has already trodden a path less travelled. Spending part of his early years in Connecticut, USA, he moved back to his home county before relocating to Dubai, UAE, between the formative age of ten and fourteen, and then back to Essex. Those young eyes soaked up the travels and the changes that were passing him by. Too young to remember Connecticut, he has fond memories of Dubai, "It was quite a contrast to England. I remember going to an international school and meeting lots of different people from all over the world, who like me, had recently been thrust into this new environment. There wasn't the division that you might expect in a community comprised of people of so many different nationalities. We all bonded over the fact that we were in this new place, that none of us really felt we belonged to. Strangely, when I returned to England, I found people to be colder and I didn't feel that same sense of camaraderie and community that I experienced in Dubai, despite being back in my home-town."
One thing that kept with him was his burgeoning love of American roots music. "I got interested in not just the music itself but the history and everything around it," he says. "I wanted to learn and listen as much as I could. The artists, their lives and their lineage. Tracing it back to see how it connects, like a tapestry. I think it's important for someone who isn't from that cultural background to treat it with the respect it deserves. You can't separate the music from its historical context."
"I love the directness, the simplicity and earthiness of it," he adds. "I love really how down-to-earth; it is both lyrically and musically. I think with the blues, it's fundamentally about very basic human emotions. Things like sorrow and pride and exploring the way we deal with everyday situations and problems. I've also always been attracted to the authoritative quality of the music. As a kid and teenager, I was quite shy and not very self-assured, so I think it was a place for me to find a sense of power."
Returning to the UK in his mid-teens and adapting to a new school in time to prepare for his exams. "I've always wanted to make music," he continues. "I remember having conversations with my schoolteachers and them not really taking me seriously." However, his guitar tutor nurtured his love of the blues and roots music. "I can be quite intense and really focused in when it comes to my interests, and he understood that. So, he didn't try and push me to do something that my heart wasn't in."
As a teenager, he found his way into barroom jams through the local circuit. He released his debut album, Made Up My Mind, in 2018 while studying English Literature at University. Now here he sits, only a few years later, in his mid-twenties, as one of the brightest talents on the UK blues scene. He has been voted "Young Artist of the Year" at the UK Blues Awards for the last three consecutive years (2020, 2021, 2022).
With those bar jams in the rear-view mirror, his already impressive venue checklist includes Wembley Stadium, where he was asked to open for The Who in July 2019 and has since gone on to play Hyde Park, London, on a bill with Pearl Jam, Stereophonics and Johnny Marr in the summer of 2022.
His musical palette incorporates not just blues, soul and folk but jazz, big band sounds, country and singer-songwriters. However, Eric Clapton was the ignition. Aged thirteen, he went to Clapton's 2010 Crossroads festival in Chicago, featuring B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. "I think probably the most pivotal live music experience for me," he reflects. "Being in the presence of the guys who started it all really put it all in perspective"
Ray Charles is another major cornerstone for him. "He completely reshaped me as a person and the way I thought about music," he says. "Before that, I never really had any interest in singing and how to convey a story with my voice. He's very much the meeting point for everything I love."
As well as absorbing Robert Johnson, Skip James, Muddy Waters and old Delta records, he was also turned on to soul artists like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Bill Withers and the Stax sound to Jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. But he also draws influence on singer-songwriters such as Van Morrison, Townes van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Nick Drake to contemporary artists like Ray LaMontagne, Norah Jones and Foy Vance. "I was obsessed with Nick Drake for a time. I love the honesty in his song writing. Ray LaMontagne is one of my favourites too. Very straightforward songs performed directly, soulfully, and emotionally. It's very down to earth, very rootsy."
"Blues, for me, is like a language or a vernacular. For me, it isn't just a genre of music. It's much bigger than that. You can take any song and make it the blues if you want; it's a feeling. Look at LaMontagne, none of that is blues, but in a way, it is. It's the way he delivers it, with blues sensibilities. That's what Ray Charles did. His version of Georgia on My Mind - there's no blues in it really, but it's completely drenched in it at the same time."
There is a casual composure to his presence on the stage. Calm and collected, he moves unhurried but exudes a passionate soulfulness. "For me, it's the only time in my life when I can go into a different headspace.
For two hours to be able to just completely lose myself and get out of my own head. It's almost like meditation. For me, that's what it's all about."
The sky is the limit for Selby, who has already picked up numerous plays on BBC Radio 2. It's easy to see why with his soulful blend of blues and his emotional and introspective songwriting, which sits alongside his impressive armoury of guitar playing. "I'd say soul is as big as part of my music as blues," he says. New album 'Connor Selby' is a truer realisation of his debut, one that's more reflective of who he is. "I accumulated songs over a little bit of time. They're little vignettes into the different styles of music that I like."
There's a timeless melancholic quality to his music. Relatable in its honesty and openness, he draws from anxiety and vulnerability but delivers it with a world-worn elegance. He sings about accountability on "The Man I Out To Be," unrequited love on both "Hear My Prayer" and the Staxy/gospel of "Show Me A Sign," but on the other hand, he touches on enduring love on "Waitin' On The Day."
He discovers rebirth on "Starting Again." "This was me addressing a lot of big changes that I was feeling. It's both about my musical identity and my identity in general. I was losing touch with myself."
Relationship troubles find their way into "I Shouldn't Care" via regret and anger. "Love Letter to the Blues" is a homage to what he loves the most. "Growing up, and to this day, I never felt that I was the same as my peers. But despite the ups and downs in my life, the blues has always been there. A constant source of comfort and a way for me to express myself," he says.
He puts his footprint on the cover of one of Ray Charles' more obscure songs, "My Baby Don't Dig Me," and on the album closer, "The Deep End," he comes full circle emotionally. "The deep end was written as a way to tell myself that sometimes in life you need to be brave and take risks and really to put that sense of conviction I hear in so many blues records into practice. Sometimes you have to put yourself on the line to get what you want," he explains.
He adds, "everyone has thoughts throughout the day, but not everyone acts on them. In those idle moments when you just daydream, it's about recognising when that's happening and turning into something."
There's an intimacy to Selby's lyricism and delivery, with emotion being the instrument deftly played throughout, knowing when to expose wounds that we will all feel throughout our lifetime. It's then left for us to think and wonder about those, What if moments.
Connor Selby's self-titled new album is available now via Mascot Records.
Connor Selby 'Connor Selby' — Tracklist
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