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A new phase: Jack Garratt's rise to fame

Melody Lau

Expectations are high for British artist Jack Garratt this year. While the 24-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been creating music since he was 11 years old, all of those efforts have culminated in recent months with two of the U.K.’s most crucial prizes: the Critics’ Choice Award and BBC’s Sound of 2016.

With just a few EPs out at the time — songs that acted as a melting pot of today's popular sounds of electronic, gospel, blues and pop — Garratt’s rise to stardom was put on the fast track by these notable wins. With that, of course, came a heaping amount of pressure for Garratt’s debut album, Phases (out now), to succeed. But when Garratt made a stop in Toronto recently, mere weeks after the release of Phases and playing one of his many sold-out North American gigs, the up-and-comer was poised and focused, talking a mile a minute about all things music.

Garratt was unabashedly confident, from the big, bold letter J stitched to his green jacket to the determined tone he spoke in while detailing his musical journey, but this was not only the by-product of his strong musical upbringing; this can also be credited to the career humps he’s already conquered on the way here.

Music was a constant presence in the Garratt household. His mother is a music teacher and his father played the guitar. The youngest of three children, Garratt’s musical tastes were shaped by those closest to him. "They still are incredibly important to my understanding and appreciation of music," Garratt said.

Surrounded by the sounds of Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and even Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (a staple in long car rides, Garratt recalled), he was taught to analyze music by “exploring how it evokes emotion out of people.” Garratt’s older brother would later widen his scope on music by introducing him to emo bands such as Taking Back Sunday and their 2004 album, Where You Want to Be. During a vacation in the States, Garratt remembers playing that CD front to back and on repeat, something his parents “gladly and happily let us do.”

It was around that time that Garratt began writing his own songs and moulding the sounds he was known for making — whether hitting a ruler on the side of his desk at school or on proper instruments at home — into original creations. When asked what those first attempts at songwriting sounded like, Garratt was immediately critical: “They were awful, just the worst.”

Those “mushy, acoustic ballads” were just that (though he admits they achieved his goal of getting attention from others), but it proved to be a starting point for Garratt and through some years of work, they evolved into a blues-infused project that secured the attention of a small audience and even a record label.

With the encouragement of those around him, Garratt recorded an album of acoustic songs but, by 2012, the part-time musician and full-time student (Garratt attended university to become a teacher) had hit a creative wall.

“I went through a weird break-up on Christmas Eve in 2012 and had just come back from my first term at university studying something that, while I loved it, I didn’t have a passion for,” Garratt explained. “I had all these shows coming up and I had an album that was ready to go, and I sat there and I just felt so little about everything happening.

“I felt like I was wasting this and it caused so much guilt and so much horror in my head that I had to tear myself away from all of it. I didn’t respect or really like any of those songs that I had recorded and I didn’t want to play them.”

Garratt later admitted that the reason he wrote those songs, and any songs at that time for that matter, was to please other people. “I was being encouraged to make this kind of music but ultimately, they were just trying to prevent me from being the person I felt like I needed to be.” With the realization that he was no longer happy, Garratt scrapped that album and started anew.

Working outside the confines of blues music, Garratt’s new sound — as witnessed on his EPs and debut album — strives to defy genre boundaries. Tracks leap from gospel (“Weathered”) to electronic (“Breathe Life”) and are often a fusion of multiple sounds on one track.

“The kind of music I make is no different to the dance music that I listened to growing up, which was funk and soul music; that still makes you dance but I do it with electronic instruments," said Garratt, of the added dance elements in his music.

That sense of freedom is something Garratt truly values now that he has moved past the old sound he felt tied to for years. “It’s about being confident and surrounding yourself with a team of people who don’t want to control you,” he clarified. This also plays into the reason why Garratt is currently a one-man band (though he likes to assure people that this doesn’t mean he’s completely closed to collaborations).

“I mix and produce and play all these instruments because I know I can and it’s quicker for me to do it than to try and get somebody else to be in the same frame of mind as me — no one will ever be in the same frame of mind as me," he added. "It’s not because I think I’m better than anyone else, it’s just because it makes sense.”

And so far, it seems to be a winning formula that has earned him the title as an artist to look out for in 2016. With such success three months into the year, it’s no wonder Jack Garratt is so confident.