When Kwabs sings, soul pours out. His voice is richly textured and full of gravitas; a deep baritone that rumbles and reverberates, an instrument of both power and vulnerability. As it rings out effortlessly across East London's sold-out Wilton Hall, you can feel the crowd hold its breath. Between songs, the cheers are as hearty and excitable as the most loyal of fanbases: exceptional, given the bare handful of songs Kwabs has released to date. But then, he is an artist with exceptional potential.
Born and raised in Bermondsey in south London, Kwabena Adjepong's musical education was a wide-ranging one. He studied blues at school, where his precocious vocal talent first emerged; he listened to everything from classic soul (Aretha Franklin, Donnie Hathaway) to alternative groups (The Strokes) to innovative electro-pop (Hot Chip). But it was the rhythms and improvisational scope of jazz that Kwabs first gravitated towards -- and, remarkably for a kid from a South London comprehensive whose childhood had been spent in and out of state care, he won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, one of the most prestigious hothouses of young musical talent in the world. "It's almost scary, how do I fit into all this?" Kwabs remembers. "When you walk around the halls and hear what people are practising, you realise this is the next generation of talented musicians."
Midway through his course, though, Kwabs' own muse began to lead him down a more leftfield route. "I always loved soul and gospel, but I thought it would be cool to apply that voice to a different backdrop," he explains. "I never wanted to do anything that was throwback or backwards-looking." The idea of blending traditional, formally honed technique with experimental, forward-thinking beats appealed to Kwabs -- particularly in terms of framing the unignorable strength of his voice (he laughs that, in an age where many male singers opt for tremulous falsettos, his job is to represent for baritones everywhere). "A lot of modern music doesn't leave a lot of space for the most natural version of the voice," he says. "On old recordings, the space wouldn't be filled with extra frequencies that make you want to either push harder so you can be heard or change the way you sound to cut through better."
Conversely, to Kwabs and his collaborators, one of the most important elements in the music is space. On "Last Stand," produced by SOHN, digitally layered harmonies are set over atmospheric synths and the barest heartbeat rhythm; Kwabs' main vocal line is stately and unhurried, patiently prowling the low notes and swooping up to the high ones. The song builds to its emotional climax gradually and almost imperceptibly. Meanwhile, the vast acres of air in "Spirit Fade" provide room for all sorts of engrossing details -- an acoustic guitar riff, the echo of an organ, odd echoing percussion -- as well as Kwabs' own presence. "With the sparser stuff I'm doing, I feel more freedom," he expands. "It enables me to sing the way I want to -- it's the most honest way I feel I can be heard."
"Spirit Fade" was produced by The Invisible's Dave Okumu -- a man who has been coming into his own as one of the most formidable innovators in British music over the past two years, with productions for Jessie Ware, Ghostpoet and Lulu James demonstrating the wide scope of his ideas. And Kwabs credits him for helping him find his artistic voice. When the two men met, they talked about shared tastes, interests, all the expected subjects in a collaborative relationship -- but Okumu dug a little deeper. "Every now and then you meet someone you're very open to telling everything," laughs Kwabs. "We talked about ourselves as people, our life experiences, even before the music. That doesn't happen a lot. He always says: I want to go deep, and that takes time."
Going deep has paid off, and those experiences have been poured into Kwabs' songs. With a complicated life journey behind him, he has plenty to write about: "Strength of character; making decisions between wrong and right; love, but not romantic love -- the kind of validation you get from friends and family," he outlines. "And keeping on going strongly despite not knowing what that really is. The record's not a sob story, but I've channelled a lot of emotions in it."
With Kwabs' voice placed front and centre, this emotion comes through defiantly and with immense authority. On stage, he showcases his range to breath-taking effect: from the energetic house propulsion of "Saved" to his astonishing recasting of James Blake's "The Wilhelm Scream" -- and, as an encore, the delicate "Perfect Ruin," performed against a stark backdrop of upright piano, which reduces the audience to pure reverence. Kwabs has emerged at a time of immense creative fertility in British electronic soul -- and has grabbed the attention of some of the scene's biggest talents: both Emeli Sandé and Jessie Ware have taken to twitter to express their support of him. His performance tonight indicates that Kwabs is poised to join them.