Next Up 2020: Sam Tompkins
Next Up is a campaign by UNILAD, celebrating some of the most exciting new and emerging music artists in the UK today.
Not many people can thank a hat for launching their music career.
In fact, some people might think a hat is a bit of an odd reason to start doing something you’ve never done before. Sam Tompkins, however, begs to differ.
Having spent all his birthday money on ‘rubbish’, Sam, who had just turned 16 at the time, found said hat and knew he had to have it. Without the necessary funds, however, his friends suggested busking in order to raise the money.
A few years later, and that busking has paid dividends. He got the hat, thankfully, but then followed more performances, an online buzz for his emotionally raw songs, gigs, tours, and eventually a recording contract with a major label. Not bad for a kid who just wanted to keep his head warm.
Of course, the journey wasn’t as simple as ‘guy goes busking, gets signed’. For Sam, it took a long time to build up the courage just to show his mates a few of the songs he was writing. As he says: ‘I remember being frightened of what my friends would think. I come from such a small town, no one ever makes it out. You’re stuck there’.
Sam, however, was determined. Growing up in a small town on the south coast of England, before moving to Brighton and eventually London, the now 22-year-old took his time finding his place and, indeed, his unique voice, which gave him the chance to get out.
Writing songs while working ‘dead-end jobs’ around Brighton, Sam’s commitment and passion was clear in his performances – often captured out on the street by passersby.
Smart but, as he puts it, not academic, Sam searched for a way to connect with people through music, no matter their background or station in life. As he puts it: ‘Everyone’s journey is different. Every person’s problem is unique, but that’s the beauty of music. If you can hear that emotion in the music, you connect with it almost straight away’.
In fact, the emotion is what Sam sees as the ‘key’ to his career.
He told UNILAD:
The way I got from busking on the street to where I am now is mainly just being myself, and portraying that in my music, and letting other people into my own personal experiences with life. I think that’s the key thing that’s got me to where I am, it’s because I’ve actually been honest.
Openness and honesty are arguably the first things you notice about Sam’s music. Writing songs that are largely autobiographical, the 22-year-old lays himself bare with each performance.
As he puts it:
The thing is, when you’re writing songs that are autobiographical and they are about you, it’s kind of… I think if you get the emotion out, people can understand it, and they can either resonate with it or they can see that you’re using your experience to help people and they can appreciate it that way.
I don’t think with music you have to have been in every single person’s position who’s written the song to get it and understand it. I think if you respect the artist enough and respect what they’re saying enough you can kind of take what you want from it.
My songs, sometimes they can be about heartbreak, but someone could completely interpret them in their own way, and that’s OK as well. Even if it is a personal thing for me, I’d rather it was personal for you than if it wasn’t, so if you want to interpret it a different way then go do that.
I think that’s the beautiful thing about music, it’s open to interpretation.
Indeed, not everyone will have Sam’s life experience and inherently personal stories that he puts into the music. Standout single Follow Suit, for example, was written in the aftermath of a close friend’s suicide, while You Broke My Heart So Gently is Sam’s take on the bittersweet dissolution of a relationship.
Just because these are Sam’s stories, however, doesn’t mean others won’t connect with them. In fact, he wants to use them to inspire others who may, for example, feel unfulfilled or who are also working ‘dead-end jobs’.
Talking about his autobiographical, but largely relatable music, Sam said: ‘I want to reach people like that as I feel like I was that person for a long time. Locked within themselves. I want to have a voice and speak for people who feel like nobody represents them’.
Much like the music he makes – a mix of singing, rapping, pop, RnB and soul – Sam’s driving forces seems to also be a mixture of inspirations. Not wanting to make ‘pretentious’ music for other people, but also using it as a therapeutic outlet for himself, Sam’s incongruous concoction is made with both an unlimited creative instinct and a perfectionist streak in the studio, saying: ‘I love to be super on top of everything. From the writing all the way down to the editing of the music video or artwork. All of it comes from me’.
And though he says he likes to ‘make music that I would listen to, a lot of the time I’m making music for myself, because it’s therapeutic,’ he also says a lot of what he does is purely creative, and without any specific purpose.
I don’t really ever do anything intentionally in music, I just kind of stumble upon things that sound quite cool, and then it becomes its own entity, and then by the time it’s become its own entity I’m just super excited about it.
I think the beauty of the music industry now is that you can just be what you want to be, you can write a rap record and then you can write a ballad and you can write a jazz-infused glitch-hop madness, and it’s OK because it’s 2020 and you’re allowed to be who you want to be.
And that’s how I channel it, I just don’t care, I make music for me, and if it sounds crazy to one person I know that’s a good thing, because crazy is normally innovative, so that’s why I do it. I don’t really mind why I’m putting two things, that on paper don’t really go well together, together, because it makes something new that hasn’t been heard before, and that’s the beauty of music.
Sam is also using his music to help others. Intentionally open in his lyrics, he sees mental health and everyday issues as incredibly important topics, and things that should be part of everyday conversations.
As he puts it:
That definitely inspires me to write – the idea of being able to help even one person get through or battle through their problems or at least spark something in someone else, for them then to spark it in another individual, is amazing to me, and it’s the only reason I do what I do.
Speaking about the importance of music in helping mental health issues in particular, Sam added:
I think it’s been proven time and time again – over time music can help people through the worst times in their life.
I think that mental health should be talked about at all sections. We should all be talking about it every day, because people aren’t talking about it and then they’re killing themselves, or they’re just forced to be super unhappy because they think it’s OK [or] that the right thing is to just keep it bottled up inside.
When, actually, the most manly and courageous and brave thing that you can do is talk about it – because it’s such a daunting aspect and prospect, but it is the only way you can survive, by releasing. And the more we talk about it and the more we make it normalised, the more people can feel comfortable enough to open up and talk. And that’s what we want.
It’s something he feels he could have learned himself at a younger age, rather than perhaps having to figure it out for himself once he was a bit older. Because, although he can be his own harshest critic, the 22-year-old is also aware he could have ‘mentally prepared’ himself better for the road he was going to take in life.
As he suggests:
What would I say to someone who was like me a few years ago? Don’t listen to others and take others’ opinion to heart too much. Because, although I’m still dealing with that now, I feel like if I’d mentally prepared myself for the amount of people that can bash you for what you do, a few years ago, I would have grown some thicker skin by now. So probably that.
And also, spend more time with your family and appreciate life when it’s pretty simple and you’re not busy everyday. I think that’s the most important thing. Appreciate what you have, for sure.
Sam’s story is no doubt an inspirational one, telling us to not only appreciate what we have but also, if there’s something you want – even if it’s just a hat – go for it. You never know where it’ll take you.
Listen to our Next Up 2020 playlist here:
Check out the other artists featured on our Next Up 2020 series here.