In Conversation With:


Stepping out of a North-West London flat, Original Shift met with singer Col3trane, who had recently returned from LA. Walking down the residential road on route to his local dry cleaners, he fills us in on the heavy night he had the previous day as well as giving us a preview of his upcoming music video he shot a few weeks ago. Returning from our wander to the dry cleaners, we head back to the flat where Cole connects his phone to the speaker, and sets the mood for our conversation with him. The mood in this instance was provided by none other than Jazz legend Chet Baker.

Listening to any one of Col3trane’s projects, it’s clear that the artist’s unique sound knows no limits. Revered for pushing the boundaries of contemporary R&B, he brings a fresh perspective to the genre. Reworking the name of the iconic John Coletrane, he often mixes elements of old-school jazz and pop into his sound.

Since releasing his debut mixtape Tsarina in 2017, the American-Egyptian-Londoner quickly amassed an international fanbase with many initially drawing comparisons between him and Frank Ocean -- but it’s clear that now he’s carved his own lane. We sat with the rising star to discuss his influences, the difficulties he faced being signed to a major label too early on in his career, and the new project releasing this November.

Original Shift: Who do you see as a main trio of artistic influences?

Col3trane: Definitely D’Angelo. I’d say Kendrick as well; been listening to a lot of Kendrick lately, remembering how much he made me want to make sounds. And then probably Usher, ‘cos everyone wanted to be Usher. He was the guy.

Your name references John Coltrane, how has he and Jazz as a genre inspired you?

A lot. Growing up there was always loads of different music playing, I was exposed to it all. My parents were always listening to Jazz, it has definitely influenced me. The nature of free-flowing music without boundaries and the musicality of it. I’ve always wanted my music to be experimental, have a feel to it.

Aside from Jazz, do you have any memories of music that has influenced your journey?

I have a really distinct memory of hearing “Go!” by Common with John Mayer and Kanye on the hook which is so cool. I think the first ever CD I bought was “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”, which I know is a lot of people’s first CD [laughs]. I remember seeing John Mayer live at Wembley Arena, that made me want to pick up a guitar. Seeing Prince when I was 6 or 7; it was a school night and I think I fell asleep but my mom was like “You may not get this now, but one day you’re going to thank me.” I remember at the end, purple confetti falling from the ceiling. It was amazing.

“I remember seeing John Mayer live at Wembley Arena, that made me want to pick up a guitar.”

When did you first start singing? Were you just singing along to songs and your mum was like “Yo you’re kinda good at this”?

That’s exactly how it happened. The first instrument I ever played was the drums. I loved it, but I hated being in the back corner, I wanted to be up front like Usher [laughs]. Me and my mum would just sing songs in the car. Eventually I built up my confidence, and it went from there.

I know SoundCloud is a big thing for you. It has made a lot of people’s careers because of how easy it is to upload music. How much of a factor did that play in bringing you to the forefront?

Big up SoundCloud. Bro, If I didn't have SoundCloud I don’t know how anyone would have heard my music. It’s crazy that at 14 or 15 it was just me on a computer with a MIDI keyboard making songs in GarageBand, and they were actually pretty good. I got lucky I guess [laughs].

Your sound is very eclectic, how would you describe it? Give me a few situations in which you imagine your sound would be perfect for.

There’s definitely some baby making music in there [laughs]. I think Christopher Nolan films for sure, movie theatres in general. Especially with this album, it's very dramatic.

How would you say the mixture of Egyptian and American culture has influenced your sound?

I’ve always said that I grew up in London, but in an American house. We celebrate Thanksgiving, and pancakes weren’t a thing that you put lemon and sugar on, it was blueberry pancakes and waffles. The Egyptian thing is interesting because my dad isn’t really connected to that side of his heritage, so I had to go find that for myself.

Have you been to Egypt? 

Yeah, I went at the beginning of last year. We went everywhere: Cairo for a little bit, went to Aswan, Abu Simbel, obviously went to Giza. It was a beautiful experience. But going there and finding that out for myself was necessary. I learned so much about myself and my heritage.

“If I didn't have SoundCloud I don’t know how anyone would have heard my music.”

What comes first, beat or lyrics?

I like both at the same time. Having a finished beat that’s already structured that I can’t play with and mould to my own way makes it difficult for me to write. More time I like to be in the studio and build a song, having them come together as opposed to just making a beat or writing a verse — I think that makes for the best music. But to be honest, the process changes all the time. It has to though, it keeps you on your toes and keeps things fresh.

Do you have a certain place you go to or a ritual you have before making a song?

Nah, no ritual. The process constantly changes and that’s the beauty of it. Every day is different, every song is different, every feeling is different. The process is always different.

I guess that’s good because you travel quite a lot.

I was actually going to say one place that I know I write really well is in vehicles that are moving really quickly. Like on a train or a plane or a car.

When you’re writing a song, do you have an idea of how you want the visuals to look?

Some songs are really visual, especially if they have lyrics that are describing tangible things, not just thoughts. The video I’m going to shoot on Sunday, I knew what it was going to be while I was writing it. I knew there were going to be aspects of it that were really dark and that there was going to be a party that was really over the top. Some songs I’m like “How the hell would I do a video for this?” and obviously not every song has a video.

In terms of videos do you prefer literal interpretations or more ambiguous ones?

Definitely ambiguous and more metaphorical. Especially if the song is hitting the nail on the head. But that always changes man. The first video we’re putting out is very literal and nail on the head — we’re just trying to tell a story and have fun with it. This next video that we’re shooting is going to be very metaphorical. It’s gonna end up looking super biblical.

Would you classify yourself as a British artist?

I don’t consider myself British really. I grew up in London and consider myself a Londoner way more than I would British.

It’s interesting that you make that distinction. I imagine that’s a sentiment a lot of people across the country would feel as well, that there’s something special and unique about being a Londoner.

Man, I used to spend so much in Birmingham, I’ve got my good friends like family up in Manchester and have played shows all over the UK. I got love for everywhere, I just don’t really feel British.

Would you say you feel more Angelino than British?

Nah, definitely not. There are so many people who flock to LA from all over the world. Being an Angelino is something you do with pride, and I would never claim that. I do feel American though but I can feel at home anywhere. 

When I first met you, you were signed to a major label, very much in a different place than you are now. What was that like in comparison to now, being an independent artist with a smaller team?

I was signed in a quite complicated and convoluted deal, in a way that could’ve made sense, but didn’t. I signed a record deal to my management and then they had a joint deal with a larger label, and it was all great for a while. Being signed to a major is sick, you have big budgets to do crazy things and you get to work with amazing and really talented people, make connections, record in sick studios which I'm very very grateful for. But somewhere along the way it all started to fall apart. The guy who was running the American label I was signed to ended up leaving and starting his own thing, and myself and my former manager had a falling out. Eventually, I realised that the environment I was in was really unnatural and controlling, I felt constantly at war with people when I was just trying to get stuff done. Whether that be songs I wanted to put out or video concepts I had, even down to the tiniest thing like who I was going to be in the studio with or what I was going to wear, it was a battle. If you know me, you know I’m a strong-willed person, in terms of my art I don’t like to compromise. I love to collaborate and of course there’s compromise in collaboration, but not with the business shit.

I was young and naive at the time, listening to people who I thought knew everything but no one knows everything. No one really knows anything, we’re all just winging it [laughs]. It took me a really long time to get out of that situation. Boot was the first record on a major label and it was around the time I put out Heroine where everything started falling apart. I was dropping singles through quarantine and I had a whole EP finished called It’s Safer Inside that I couldn’t put out because the label wasn't willing to pay for. I was just stuck, but then they let me go, which I am grateful for in some respects. If they were really awful people they could’ve kept me there and had me not put out music for the next 10 years.

Since then, I’ve worked my way to build a team of people that I love and trust, that have respect for me and I have nothing but respect for them. They’re creative, supportive, super with what I want to do and just real, which is so rare. I’m lucky to call my manager a big sister to me and my other manager is like my uncle. They’ve got me to a place where I’m about to put out my debut album which I’m about to fly to Barcelona to shoot the second video for and which I’ll own all my masters to. I’m very lucky and grateful. Even on the music front, I’ve got into a place now where everyone who's involved in this album business wise, music wise, creative and visual wise, they’re all my friends, all people I can call and chat to, which is something I’m very happy about.

“The process constantly changes and that’s the beauty of it. Every day is different, every song is different, every feeling is different. The process is always different.”

You’ve performed around the globe, what has been your most memorable show?

The second time I performed at Sunny Hill Festival in Pristina, Kosovo was mad. Something was in my belly, I was on fire. Everything was just right. Normally by the first or second song you can tell whether it’s gonna be a good show, but I came out on stage and instantly knew it was the one.

Then at the end of the first song I just heard a big noise behind me and I turned around and my keyboard player's stand had just collapsed on stage. He’s looking at me like “What the fuck?” I’m just standing there in front of 15,000 people like “What do I do? Do I stay on stage?” Everyone’s kind of freaking out a little bit and I walk behind his station for like 10 or 15 seconds and I grab the mic and I was like “Okay cool, we ready to get it going again?” And then it was the best show I’ve ever done. It was perfect. Something was in the air that day.

Have you done any small shows where you’ve been like “Wow that was something I’ve never experienced before?”

Yeah, around Coachella I did this small show for this brand at a hotel, and there was no one there except for my friends. It was me and my friend Lido on the keys, who is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, producer and artist. I remember I was in a phase where I couldn’t perform without a hoodie, so I was in death valley heat in a black hoodie [laughs] and it was just all my friends sitting there. That was a sick show. It was really fun. This is making me miss doing shows.

When’s the last show you headlined?

It was before quarantine. But more recently when going to the club people just be passing me a mic [laughs].

It seems like you’re more in control of your future than ever before. Do you ever just wake up and think “Oh fuck, this is all on me?”

Yeah, every day. But that’s just part of being an artist. Experiencing the highs and lows. From performing halfway around the world, somewhere like Kosovo in front of 15,000 people or in my hometown with 1,500 people screaming lyrics I wrote in my bedroom to meeting and getting props from artists that I’m inspired by, the highs in this industry are so amazing. But the lows are so low. It’s all on you, it’s difficult to know whether you’re doing the right thing or going in the right direction. Some days you wake up and think you’re the fucking man and others you’re like “What the fuck am I doing?” [laughs].

What’s one thing you think isn't appreciated enough in the music making process?

The emotional strain that it takes to actually do this. I don’t say anything in my songs that I haven’t done or felt at one point. Again the lows are very low.

Do you think people need to take more time and be nicer with the things they say to musicians online? Have you or any of your friends experienced unnecessary amounts of hate?

I don’t really get too much hate online, if I do I don’t see it but people just need to think about what they say more in general. Especially with the way women are treated in this industry, even in society as a whole. I think I’ve worked with one female producer in my whole career, a couple of female engineers. I wonder if it's because they’re just not there or that there’s a lack of opportunity. It has to be a mix of both. I’m sure there’s some female Chad Hugo who's a nuts keys player and can play the sax, but someone’s trying to make her feel like she’s not good enough which is a shame. I was actually talking to Miraa May about this just recently, she told me that everyone on her team is a woman. Everyone. Which I think is so great.

When’s the album coming out and what is it called?

It’s called LUSH Life (Love Until Something Hurts). It’s coming March 2022.

What can your fans expect with this in comparison to your recent EPs?

All I can say is a lot of work has gone into this album. A lot of time, a lot of love, a lot of passion, from so many directions. It’s a lot of different sounds that I’ve tried to make fit together, which has been challenging but really fun. It’s a journey, it’s a story, it’s a feeling. There’s gonna be hella captions for them [laughs].