Having curated the soundtrack for Euphoria, with a fresh new perspective and his long-awaited sophomore album, Imagination & the Misfit Kid, on the way, get ready for the return of Britain’s finest. Allow us to reintroduce, Labrinth, in Notion 85.
“Um… I just had to fuck off, and say ‘I’m done’,” laughs Hackney-born singer-songwriter-producer Timothy McKenzie, better know as Labrinth — or as he, and just about everyone else, affectionately refers to him, ‘Lab’. He’s relaxed and chatty, sporting a fresh new look and hairstyle, replete with his signature feathers (that he wears to keep him connected to his true self and imagination). Casually strumming a Ramones song on his acoustic guitar, Lab starts to explain exactly where and why he disappeared after dropping his debut album, Electronic Earth, home to the chart-topping Emeli Sandé duet “Beneath Your Beautiful” and three other top-five hits, back in 2012.
“But, do you know what?” Lab adds, switching his tone to thoughtfully reflect on why he took a step back from his solo career, “When I started in the music industry, I just wanted to make music. I didn’t care about being famous. And then when fame came, it was like, ‘I thought this was about music’, but it wasn’t, it was about entertainment. What people don’t realise is that when you’re in the entertainment industry, it’s about constantly feeding the beast of entertainment”.
To be fair, although fans are still eagerly waiting on his upcoming second album, Imagination & the Misfit Kid, Labrinth hasn’t exactly been slacking. In 2014 he dropped a couple of singles from a planned follow-up LP that never materialised; before teaming up with DJ duo Sigma in 2015 for the club hit “Higher”. He also produced and featured on “Make Me (Cry)”, 2016’s excellent debut single from Miley’s little sis, Noah Cyrus. Lab just hasn’t been conforming to the high pressure, conveyor-belt pop machine that insists it’s biggest stars can’t take a break for fear of losing their place in the cultural landscape — the way previously had after initially signing with Simon Cowell’s label Syco back in 2010.
At that time, it looked live a curveball move for both Lab and Cowell: Lab being the first artist in six years that the X Factor mogul hadn’t scouted from a TV show. He had been making tracks and honing his songwriting skills since he was a teenager, but had recently broken through by producing a couple of sonically inventive, drum and bass-influenced hits for British rapper Tinie Tempah: “Pass Out” and “Frisky”, which he also featured on. Cowell, like everyone else in the British music industry, was clearly impressed.
But according to Lab today, “feeding the beast of entertainment” doesn’t necessarily mean spending hours working on your voice, musicianship or songwriting skills: “It’s more about, ‘does this make people laugh, does this make people cry, does it make them lose their minds with excitement?” And for me, that became pretty draining.”
“I believe that every human being on earth is multidimensional, but life and society kind of forces you to be very one-dimensional sometimes.”
Following his first flush of solo success, Lab left London and relocated to Los Angeles, purposefully keeping a pretty low profile as he began to figure out what type of artist he really wanted to be. Last year, he formed LSD, a supergroup that saw him team up with Sia and Diplo, and together the trio scored a big hit with the genre-blending bop “Thunderclouds”. Working with Sia was a game-changer for Lab on several levels. They’d hang out and catch a movie together, just like regular friends, and this shared experience almost became “like an artist rehabilitation programme” for him.
“She gave me perspective on letting go,” he explains. “Sia has gone through her own experiences as an artist — she’s had her own difficulties. You know when you have a dog that’s traumatised? I’m not an expert on dogs, but when you have a dog that’s traumatised, you get them around other dogs to balance them. Sia didn’t have to say much to me. What helped was just her energy and inspiring vibe as an artist. And the fact she’s the opposite of what most people in this industry are like.”
“Most artists in this industry, our focus is on ourselves; it’s on trying to make ourselves more successful and bigger than everyone else,” Lab continues. “So even lending a hand and being a friend to someone is almost a bit too much time to give. But Sia was just so supportive to me. She’d be like ‘I love you, you’re so talented, let’s do this’. You don’t expect that from people at her level. Most people aren’t that generous.”
Releasing an album with Sia and Diplo, this year’s carefully-titled Labrinth, Sia & Diplo Present… LSD, is only part of Labrinth’s return to prominence. He’s also co-written and produced a Beyoncé song, a glorious, gospel-y ballad “Spirit” which appears on The Lion King soundtrack. He says collaborating with the pop superstar was another pleasant surprise: “People call her Queen Bey, you know, so she really doesn’t have to be nice. But she is nice, and she’s very present as a person, and very down-to-earth.”
He also offers an insight into what working with Queen Bey is actually like, saying: “She’s across every element of the song: like, ‘maybe we should shake up the bassline, maybe we should get another guitarist to play that part, maybe we should cut that chorus?’ I really respected that.”
Perhaps most notably, Labrinth has underlined his comeback by composing the score for one of 2019’s hottest TV shows, the dazzlingly ambitious teen drama, Euphoria. A remix of Labrinth’s song “All for Us”, featuring the show’s star Zendaya, became a major internet talking point after appearing on Euphoria’s powerful season finale.
For Euphoria, Labrinth says he had to make “about 25 songs in a week”. At one point in the creative process, he tried to write “like a traditional score-writer”, but then Euphoria’s creator Sam Levinson reminded him why he’d been hired in the first place.
“Sam was like, ‘Lab, no, I need you to be Lab’,” he recalls. “After that, I think the only difficulty came in the fact that making a 10-minute-long arrangement that’s constantly moving and growing is very different from pop music, which is cut and paste a lot of the time, you know? It was definitely a challenge to make sure that each piece of music evolves and grows and still remains interesting.”
Labrinth says that in a strange way, his own experiences in the music industry helped him to relate to Zendaya’s character, Rue, a 17-year-old struggling to deal with drug addiction. “A lot of people don’t understand her condition, so they don’t have any sympathy,” he explains. “They just think she’s crazy or being difficult. As an artist, when you explode into fame, a lot of people you were friends with before don’t understand the difficulties you have dealing with that kind of pressure. Some people in the industry don’t even understand it. So yeah, I kind of empathise with Zendaya’s character in that respect.”
Some of Labrinth’s other music industry experiences sound incredibly frustrating. He laments that he’s never belonged to any particular “scene”, and today he’s making music that feels thrillingly post-genre. His awesome recent single “Miracle” is equal parts wonky gospel, industrial stomp, and Coldplay-style anthemics. But this hasn’t stopped people from trying to pigeonhole him in a way that’s lazy at best — and at worst kind of racist. “I’ve been called a rapper loads of times,” he says, shaking his head. “And I’m like, but I just fucking sang my last song?”
On any given day Lab will make a trap track if he wants to, or a “full-on indie record” if he prefers. “It might be a bit confusing for the audience — I think it has been confusing sometimes,” he concedes. “But the more people see me being myself, the more they’ll realise I’m multidimensional. I believe that every human being on earth is multidimensional, but life and society kind of forces you to be very one-dimensional sometimes.”
Though he doesn’t attach himself to any scene or genre, Labrinth is clearly thrilled by the exploding popularity of grime and British hip hop. “I remember ‘grime’ and ‘urban’ both being like a dirty word,” he recalls. “I remember bringing “Pass Out” into a label, and they were like, ‘We’re gonna put it out on a slow-release and see what happens.’ And I was like, ‘But the song’s sick, I think people will love it.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we think it’s incredible too, but it’s an urban record.’ That was the vibe. But now it’s like, Stormzy’s headlining Glastonbury. I’ve definitely seen a massive door open and I think social media helps with that because it allows the audience to choose their own champions.”
As he prepares to drop his long-awaited second album, Labrinth also finds himself in-demand as a co-writer, producer and now, TV and movie composer. “The world is my oyster,” he says, adding that he’s learned not to say yes to every offer that comes his way.
“I want to make sure I say something to people that helps them to find the true, honest version of themselves.”
So I don’t think he’ll mind answering a slightly tricky question: Why has Syco stuck with him for so long? After all, Simon Cowell is known for letting artists go when they’re not delivering hits any more — just ask Leona Lewis, Joe McElderry and Alexandra Burke. “Do you know what, I’m surprised at Mr Cowell,” Labrinth replies humbly. “I swear, I was like ‘bro, you should have dropped me ages ago!’ I would have dropped me!’”
Labrinth laughs, then backtracks a bit. “No, no, that’s too far… but I respect him because I think he saw my particular gift as something with longevity. He’s always said: ‘I see something in you, and I support your talent.’ It’s very easy when an artist isn’t putting himself out there [for the label boss] to say, ‘Fuck this, I’m out.’ And he didn’t do that. I think that might surprise a lot of people.”
Why? “Because we all know that Simon Cowell, he’s not stupid. But he’s also very loyal, and he definitely knows where to put his support.”
Lab details how his approach to making music has improved since he became a father — he and his partner welcomed their daughter around a year ago, and she even joins him on today’s shoot. “Being an artist, it can be a narcissistic kind of job, but being a parent kind of relieves you of that,” he explains. “Because I produce all my own music, it’s so easy to get very insular and really sucked into what I’m doing. But [my daughter] makes me think: ‘Right, gotta get it done, gotta let it go.’ Because I want to spend time with her, not just in the studio.”
He’s also excited for people, finally, to hear that second album. “It’s about a kid who exchanges his imagination with a businessman for success,” he says. “I want to make sure I say something to people that helps them to find the true, honest version of themselves. For me, I feel like my whole journey so far has been to find the true, honest version of myself,” he explains of the storyline’s personal importance.
Though Lab is quick to make clear that he doesn’t feel he “totally” knows himself just yet (who does?) it does seem that he’s figured out what type of artist he wants to be, and it doesn’t involve, as Lab says, “feeding the beast of entertainment”.
“For me, it’s about purpose instead of ambition,” he says. “It’s not about people saying, ‘Lab was very massive’. Because what does that mean? Making loads of money and winning awards doesn’t mean shit. For me, it’s about this: Can you help someone find peace in themselves, and be the version of themselves that’s the most true? That, for me, feels like a real reason to do this.”
- Jacket & Shirt Wooyoungmi