The Rector’s Café was busy as usual on a Friday afternoon – friends gossiping, heads buried in books, a few flirting with their espressos. The anticipation of the weekend fluttered through the air as the bright gray light began to fade outside. I waited anxiously for him to arrive. Luke Sital-Singh is one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time and has been a staple of my “Recently Played” playlist for years. He was here to promote his new EP “The Breakneck Speed of Tomorrow.” Dark-haired, with a mix of Indian and Jamaican heritage, the South West Londoner with a Welsh background arrived at 4:45 PM in an Audi with just his tour manager and guitar. Wearing a cerulean blue peacoat over a light gray t-shirt reading “je t’aime” underlined by an infinity sign, and black jeans with New Balance sneakers, he walked into the Union and was met by Chris MacRae, the Director of Events and Services. He did a sound check, which, for anyone not planning on staying for his performance, must have caused a change of mind; all the while, I sat, fidgeting and shaking my leg out of eagerness, waiting to interview him.
He was ready to speak to me for a few minutes even though I had enough questions for a few hours. A table and comfy chairs were reserved for us, and Luke charmingly invited me into his “office.” He seemed somehow happily melancholic. Incredibly kind and warm, but clearly attuned to the intensity of deep emotion and the difficulties of life. With a smile nevertheless, he seems to not surrender to pure negativity, and instead focuses on truthfully narrating the reality of pain and struggle in his songs. This paradoxical fortitude amidst fragility is remarkable, and I found it comforting to be around, as I believe other strangers do as well, given that most of his fans break down in tears at the sound of his trembling vocals.
We spoke mostly about big moments in his musical career, favorite memories he has of live performances he’s done and attended, his writing preferences and inspirations, his thoughts on his current ‘Coffee House Sessions’ tour, and what he hopes to be doing in the future. You can see the full interview below. He speaks thoughtfully and is endearingly humble. He is a self-proclaimed pessimist, seems cynical and self-critical, yet completely aware of the beauty of humanity and the little moments worth living to experience. We finished the interview very pleasantly, as he had to start playing at 5:30 PM. I watched patiently as he set up, preparing to play standing in front of the windows that look out to the parking lot. A larger crowd started accumulating, piling in the space between the café and the student shop.
The Rector’s Café neared on being clamorous at this point, a striking juxtaposition with Luke’s gentle guitar playing and quiet, almost whispering voice. Without receiving an introduction from anyone, he began playing – his stripped-back, acoustic sound was calm and hushed, but its emotional intensity was deafening and blared over the crowd, which quickly recognized the weight of his words and became stricken with silence. Delicately plucking his guitar strings, and singing with his eyes closed, Luke won over the crowd, as he had hoped he would. He opened with ‘Bottled Up Tight’, his most well-known single, and perhaps the most cheery of them all. He was met with strong applause, and soon picked up with his next song, ‘Cornerstone’, a poignant, slightly folksy piece, followed by ’21st Century Heartbeat’, carrying a captivating beat, truly mimicking that of the heart. He spoke to the crowd for the first time during the next interlude, making a joke at his own expense – “Cheer up, mate…that’s what you’re all thinking.” After garnering several laughs, he continued with ‘Still’, harrowing in its vulnerability and lyrically akin to poetry, and then he thanked us for being a good crowd, saying that out of the many, many universities he has visited on this tour, St Andrews has been one of the best ones, “actually, probably the best one, and I’m not just saying that”. He closed the set with ‘Nothing Stays the Same’, a forceful, pounding track, with the emotive chorus: “cry your eyes out, fill your lungs up, we all hurt, we all lie and nothing stays the same”.
Luke had stated in our interview that he wished to sing songs in which the listener “knows exactly what has been said…just didn’t know it could be said that way…” This, I think, is exactly what he accomplishes – we’ve never before heard these difficult-to-articulate emotions expressed in quite the way he does. The audience on Friday evening looked solemn, as if Luke had just awakened past memories in them that they had previously put to sleep; listening to him is a nostalgic experience, for his rawness is harrowing. He blends happiness and misery in such a beautiful and breathtaking way that he almost makes you want to get up and change all of your priorities to focus on the inexplicable little passions of life.
And so, after clearly touching the crowd, he took his guitar strap off over his shoulder, spoke to a few adoring fans, and got back on the road.
OE: I have to tell you, this is quite exciting for me since you’re definitely one of my very favorite musicians.
L: Oh, really? Thank you, that’s very nice.
OE: But I do have questions that I personally want to find out about.
L: Mmh. Yeah.
OE: So since this is a coffee house session, I was wondering if you attend sessions a lot? Do you go to live music performances often still?
L: Very rarely, to be honest. It seems to be the pattern where the ones I want to go to, I’ll invariably be busy. Like, there was one, a show I wanted to go to during this tour back in Bristol where I live, but this tour comes up, and I can’t get to that, so that happens more often than not. But it’s weird because I only probably want to go to like two or three gigs a year, and I’ve just been too busy, which is annoying, but you know, it’s just one of those things. I sort of wish I did go to more sometimes, but if you are on the road a lot, the last thing you want to do sometimes is go to another musical thing.
OE: Right, that’s understandable. Is there any one live performance that you’ve been to that has stood out to you?
L: A big one for me – it must have been a good five years ago or something – was in Brighton. I was living in Brighton, and it was Ryan Adams at the Dome. I think this was pre-my first EP, and must have been before 2012, and I was in a bit of a rut. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like my music wasn’t going anywhere. I went to see him, and it was just one of those shows, where he was playing on the road for two hours, and it was like witnessing a master captivate 2,000 people on their own. I went away from that, I mean I enjoyed it, but I also felt challenged, like I really need to be better, because I can do it and I got fired up, like I really want to be “in” basically. So that was a big moment, and from then on, things started to go a bit better. I don’t think it was actually what I do. Maybe I just tried harder, but it started working after that.
OE: Was this just as you began playing as a career? Did you start music young or did you get interested in playing later in life?
L: Well, my parents weren’t massively musical, but I think that they wished that they were, and I’ve got two older brothers as well, and they all encouraged me to learn my instruments from quite young. I actually picked the violin as my first instrument. I did it for about 4 years I think. I did it from grade 1 in school and then I kind of got bored, and I discovered rock and metal and that kind of music. I was about 11 or 12. Yeah, and then once I discovered singer-songwriter music, at about 14 years old, 14 or 15, I’ve pretty much been doing that since that day –that’s over 10 years ago now. And you know, more seriously as I went on, I didn’t want to be a full time musician necessarily when I first started, but I just enjoyed that music, and I enjoyed playing it, and it just gradually grew into something that I thought, ‘yeah I think I can do this.’
OE: Do you have a favorite gig that you have played, or musical memory, or moment related to your music that you’re most proud of?
L: Well, I think since it’s kind of amped up over the last 3 years – it really grew. It really felt like I was getting somewhere, and that culminated probably in my album release in London, and it pretty much sold out. That was just crazy. That was so fun. It was mainly still mostly just me playing, and I had a friend who was doing some other stuff, and I brought on a choir and a brass band. And it was just this huge sound and people were really loving it, and I just really felt like I had “arrived.” (Chuckle) You know, I just really felt like I had done good. I got closer to that thing that people like Ryan Adams can do – just being able to stand up in front of people and being able to connect with them with just a guitar. Yeah, so that was a really big time in my life for me.
OE: That’s great. I think you accomplish that as well when you play. So, I love your music, for the musical arrangements, but also the lyrics are incredible, and very poetic. Do you like poetry? Do you read it quite a bit, and have favorite poets or poems?
L: Yeah, I do. I’ve had these phases with it. I think another thing that I’ve tried to challenge myself on over the years was to get better at lyrics. You notice that the people that you love are amazing at lyrics, and so you go, ‘well I want to be good at lyrics too,’ and so my thing for that was, well, I should drench myself in good words and things. So I got into poetry, sort of as a means to an end initially. But I thought, ‘obviously there are great words in poetry, so if I just read that, maybe I’ll get better.’ Sort of a clumsy way of thinking about it, but then I actually got into it. I love this poet called Billy Collins, and he’s probably one of my favorite poets. I think if I could write songs like he writes poems… I think the thing that I got turned off from – maybe the same reason a lot of people get turned off from poetry when they’re young – is that I think often it’s a bit overly poetic, overly metaphorical. But it doesn’t take you long to find the thousands of poets who just write amazingly normal things – the way that it’s all framed, and the things that they choose to talk about are funny and clever. Yeah, same with songs, I don’t like overly poetic, hard to understand songs, but I love lyrics that you know exactly what has been said, you just didn’t know that it could be said that way, you know what I mean? You’ve never heard it said quite that way before.
OE: Do you tend to write in similar settings? Public or private spaces? Do you have a place you feel most inspired?
L: There’s not really a trend. Some of it is just circumstantial, like I’ve done some collaborating and writing with other people, and that just happens wherever they work or in a studio. It can be nice to try new places. But I have a spare room in my flat, which is basically my studio – my go-to writing place now. I think I do a lot of my writing just anywhere because it’s a mental act, really. I’m churning away ideas for months, subconsciously really, because when I do come to the guitar eventually, music just falls out really quickly, almost as if I’ve done the work already. Which can be annoying because it’s really uncontrollable, like I’ve got no idea when. I could be writing a song right now. I’ve got no idea. It’s tough because it means I’m not very prolific when I write. I have to just let it come when it comes, and sometimes it doesn’t come for months. Sometimes I have two a day.
D: Ok, cool. Do you have a dream venue, or goal for the future? Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing more of? Do you like these small coffee house sessions or are you hoping to do something a bit different?
L: This has been a challenging tour just because I got comfortable and a bit complacent with playing to my own fans. I got used to having silent crowds who already know the words, so coming onto this tour has been sort of a wake up call – like, no one knows me. The odd fan comes up, but it’s mostly been people who are not interested, and who don’t really know who I am. They just want to have their coffee in peace. Basically, ‘who’s this guy…?’ It’s been like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to win some people over.’ But, you know, I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to doing something more atmospheric, and sort of, stripped back, and silent. I don’t really have huge dreams. I just really love this, and I love that this is my full-time thing. It feels like it’s a difficult thing to attain, so I’d just like to keep on doing it as long as I can. I’m a bit pessimistic by nature, so I’m always assuming that I’m going to get “found out” tomorrow, and so everyday that this journey continues is just great. That’s really all I dream of – just to be able to keep on doing this.
OE: Awesome. Thank you so much for sitting down with me!
L: Pleasure. Good to meet you. Thanks a lot. Hope you enjoy the session.