Exclusive Interview: Novelist – “My album sounding exactly like I wanted it to sound; that’s success fam.”
There’s a lot going on at Novelist’s Lewisham headquarters.
Every few seconds a phone buzzes or a laptop pings, and words carry over from a discussion that’s taking place upstairs.
His long-awaited debut album, Novelist Guy, is just days away, and at the centre of the madness Novelist remains in a state of zen, fielding questions while potential distractions fill the atmosphere around him.
The 21-year-old’s ability to take his own pace in the midst of such chaos is unsurprising. For the past few years he’s navigated the music industry on his own terms, unfazed by temptations that could easily knock a rising artist off course.
Having established himself as a teenage grime prodigy, Novelist remains proudly independent and has taken his time to release an uncompromising debut LP – entirely self-produced and with no guest features – that exists more for himself than his listeners. After all, he only really has himself to answer to.
Despite the buzz of activity currently occupying his home, Novelist generously dedicates half an hour of his time to discuss his debut album and what he’s learned from the process of creating it…
We spoke a few years ago about the album and you said that you just wanted to make sure you had a timeless record before you put it out. How do you know that it’s ready now?
Just how it sounds and how concise the message is. The message doesn’t really sway song to song, it’s basically all about the same stuff: keeping focus, being positive, doing your own thing.
How long have you been working on Novelist Guy?
To be honest I just work on loads of songs and put things in the right order. So it’s kind of hard to say. Maybe three or four years in a sense, where some of the songs are that old, but not all of them are. So I can’t really directly say I’ve been working on it for two months or two years. I’ve just been working on songs that aren’t out, on the whole, for quite a long time.
What are the earliest songs that appear on the album?
I recorded ‘Gangster’ ages ago, I recorded ‘Smiles’ quite a while ago. I’m trying to remember all of the songs on the album because I’ve got so many songs!
What is it about those songs that make them timeless?
Because I don’t make my music based on time, or what’s happening at that time in particular. If I do then it’s monumental, I’m talking about what’s actually going on in life. But generally my songs are not hype songs. They might be hype in vibe, but the message stands throughout whatever season you’re going through. I’ve got songs from ages ago that I could drop right now, and people wouldn’t know they were from ages ago because I was talking sense.
After people listen to this album, what do you want them to walk away with?
Just being focussed, being their own person. That’s what I’ve conveyed about myself. There’s a lot of music out there that serves many different purposes, but I believe that my purpose that’s being served through this music is first and foremost my love of God – because I’m a believer – and secondly me just doing my own thing regardless of what’s going on. So if people can decide in their own lives, ‘I’m just going to be my own guy, make my own choices and think for the better of all situations,’ then I think that would be cool.
Could you tell us about the process of sequencing this album? It feels as though it unpacks your thoughts, then builds up to this uplifting ending. And it’s bookended by the same beat, which makes it sound cinematic. How much thought went into that?
I was just making the music, and because it’s all produced by me and it’s all me, I wasn’t really worried about how it would work. I was just making loads of stuff, and I said to myself ‘What sounds right in what place?’ I just had to make some quick decisions rather than dwelling on it for too long.
The first track, ‘Start’, is interesting because you’re not spitting verses traditionally, it’s like you’re repeating mantras. How did that one come together?
I believe it was God making that song through me. I felt an overwhelming sense of love when I made that song. I was actually going through a mad situation when I made that song, and then that was God’s message to me personally. Every song on the album is like a note to self. The sounds and stuff are byproducts of the messages that were given to me. That’s what was going through my head when I made ‘Start’: pick yourself up in the morning, acknowledge God’s creations, be cool man. No matter what’s happening, remember that there’s always something good to look forward to, even if it’s just nature. I put birds chirping in that beat as well, it’s a proper wake up song.
Obviously we know you can spray bars at a radio set, but how the process of writing songs differ from that?
I’m better at writing songs than just writing bars. The thing about writing bars is you can just say anything that rhymes, and that’s what most people do. But when you’re writing a song you’ve got your topics, you theme the chorus around it and I theme the beats around topics sometimes, or vice versa. It’s more to think about. I feel like the more I’ve got to work with, the more that the picture gets painted. I feel like there’s a better structure.
Do you think there’s an advantage to creating a full song from scratch, as opposed to working with other producers?
Yeah, because it’s me, I can’t go wrong. I do what I like when I’m producing and it’s just me. When it comes to me doing my thing, I know that I’ve definitely got to make it sound however I want it to sound. But when you’re working with other people you have to be open to their suggestions and stuff, and that’s cool, but I don’t have to take anyone’s opinion on my stuff. And I feel like I get my most creative when it’s just me.
Was the intention always for you to produce your entire debut album, or did you try working with others on it?
Nah, it was always 100%. I didn’t want to work with another producer on the album ever. I’ve never wanted that since the beginning of my career, before I did any features with anyone. I know the public might have expected different, but I don’t care. I was a producer before I met anyone. Before I even started spitting I was a producer, so it had to be done this way. That’s how I look at it.
Is the production something you enjoy more than the lyrics, or does it come hand in hand?
Not more, but just as much. You can’t love your child more than the other one. This might sound cliché, but it’s not cliché because it’s the truth: music for me has never been about money. I’m just glad that I make money from it, and I’m grateful to God that people like the talent that God’s given to me. But generally how I feel about music is that I’m going to make what I’m making, and if people like it they like it. If people don’t like it that’s their problem, it’s obviously not for them if they don’t like it. That’s my angle.
Last time we spoke we discussed grime a lot, but this album doesn’t sound tied to a particular sound. Would you describe this as a grime album?
No, it’s not. It’s just me. This album is literally just me. People are going to call it grime, because I’m the grime guy as far as they’re concerned. But that doesn’t bother me man. People just do what they like anyway. I can’t get mad. I can’t be bothered. It just has to go like that sometimes. You just have to be open to people’s views on stuff, and just make sure you’re being authentic. I feel like that’s what I’m good at, so I’m not really bothered, I don’t fret. It is what it is.
How important has your independence been to where you are today?
Very incremental. I’ve had to do do it in slow stages. But it’s been important because I can’t afford to be tied to anyone’s brand unless it’s my own. That’s how I’ve always seen it. I’ve been so DIY my whole life, that literally anyone else coming in now is still a bit late.
I just maintain my independence because I know that when I die I’m only going to be with me, and when I was born I was with me. That’s why my Mum is my manager. She’s been managing me, basically. That’s a big part of my life, keeping my foundation what it is. People expect a lot of things, but they can keep expecting.
How does working with family give you an advantage?
There’s just no dilly dally, no confusion about anything. We’re all in the house, we live with each other. We’ve always kept it real. As far as I’m concerned, I ain’t concerned.
What was the most challenging thing about making this album?
Just doing it. That was literally it, just actually doing it. Nothing else. It weren’t that challenging, just separating from everyone and completing what I was supposed to complete. Sometimes being a young teenager, especially someone who’s popular, people just want to be around for no reason, and that can get a bit much, so I had to really just focus.
What helped you to focus?
Just separating from everything. Literally just saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to do this, that and that. Get it done, turn your phone off.’ But that’s the most fun part as well, because you actually see sides of yourself you’ve never been around. You’re just making music. You might listen to a beat in a couple of days like, ‘Did I make this? I didn’t even know I could make this?’ That was very exciting to me.
What are you most proud of about the album?
The message. I believe I have managed to convey a message of positivity without making it sound… you know some songs just sound wack, when people are trying to be positive, but it just doesn’t sound right? When I listen to this it sounds like something I would happily listen to without being like ‘Ahh what’s this guy on about?’ So I’m happy about that.
What does success look like to you?
It looks like this. It literally looks like what I’ve just done. I don’t see success in the way that other people see it. My album being done and sounding exactly like I wanted it to sound; that’s success fam. That is literally, ‘I did it. Thanks. Cheers.’ Now we can have fun and do shows and all the other stuff. But if it wasn’t like that, how could I feel like it was a real success?
Novelist’s debut album Novelist Guy is out now.
Interview by Grant Brydon