- 24 Apr 19
Back with the superb When I Wake Up, Maverick Sabre talks about creative inspiration, the growth of Irish hip-hop, mentoring R&B star Jorja Smith, and more.
Maverick Sabre hasn’t done the press wheel in Ireland for a while. When Hot Press meets him in a Dublin hotel, he’s at the tail-end of a day of speaking to the Irish media. It’s late in the evening by this stage – a piano player has even taken up residence in the hotel bar where we’re sitting – but the man born Michael Stafford is still in a talkative mood. He has reason to be. For one thing, he’s not doing this latest run of interviews under the instruction of a major label – his latest album, When I Wake Up, was a purely independent release, meaning he’s more than motivated to discuss it. For another thing, Maverick Sabre has a lot to say.
From the Grenfell Tower disaster to inner-city living, the Wexford man’s third album is about how the fraught politics and social upheavals of the modern world seep into inter-personal relationships and internal psyches. A heady blend of everything that originally made Maverick Sabre such a unique artist – jazz, blues, gospel and reggae – the album also takes a wider arc, encompassing atmospheric folk and come-all-ye Irish rock balladry as well. Brewed while Maverick Sabre was working on making music for others (like Jorja Smith, who has since gone on to become an international star), the album took form while Mr. Sabre’s mind was, admittedly, elsewhere.
“D’you know what? In a weird way, writing for other people inspired this record,” he begins. “After the second album in 2015, we toured throughout 2016, and then the writing-for-other-people thing kicked off a bit because I’d been working so much with Jorja. I enjoyed it. I was going in, five sessions a week, making my mind up about what offers I’d take, just enjoying the challenge of writing for other people.”
Maverick turned to write purely for himself when he’d finished with his day job. “I’d just moved into a new place where I could actually make music. My last place kicked me out for making music. So in the new gaff, I was doing the sessions during the day, then at night I was teaching myself to make music again. About six months into writing for other people, the album just started to form.”
The material that he was working on was more experimental than anything he’d done before. “It was so unrecognisable. I even had this idea that I’d make that music under a completely different name, wear a balaclava on stage, and have no one know it was me,” he laughs. “That didn’t happen obviously, but the more I started doing this experimental thing, the more I got excited about it.”
Did it feel like a different Maverick Sabre writing this? “Yeah, it felt like a different style,” he says. “I think that carried a lot more through with my voice this time. People were used to hearing my voice in a certain way in my music, but with the melodies that were coming through, for example, on ‘Drifting’, I felt like there was a real uniqueness there. So I knew that that was the first thing I wanted people to hear.”
That song in question – Maverick’s first from the album – proved instantly divisive when it was released at the end of last year. It was closer in style to something that Tame Impala/Mac Demarco might make than your average hip-hop artist. For Maverick Sabre, though, this was where he felt comfortable. At the same time, he put imagery first on this album. “When I sat down and wrote this, I had music videos or films on mute; things made me say, ‘I can make something to respond to this image.’ ‘Drifting’ really came from that.” The video for the song was filmed in Ballymun. It’s a powerful examination of young males living in the suburb, who are faced with the prospects of freedom, fatherhood, Garda intervention in their lives and an ever-present, all-consuming claustrophobia.
“When I sat down with the director Hector Dockrill, I showed him everything that I was watching while I was writing the tune,” he explains. “Hector came up with this rough little story which became the video. We talked about coming back to Ireland to do it and I said, ‘Listen there’s a couple of people who I want you to link up with.’
“So he went over to Dublin and I gave him a few phone numbers and addresses and said, ‘Hit these people up.’ Then he came back and we went out together and spent three days shooting. I remember when he finished shooting, he said: ‘There’s a wealth of talent and imagery in Dublin.’ You can be at the beach, the mountains, the city centre, all within half-an-hour. He loved it. We could say (clicks fingers), ‘Right, we need 40 bikes down on the green in Ballymun in half-an-hour’, and it was sorted. (Laughs) Everything was quick. We had the people do it. And it tells this very Irish story, which is what I wanted.”
Having been raised in Ireland, Maverick Sabre has now been living in London for over a decade. Does he still keep his ear to the ground in terms of Irish music? “Yeah always in tune,” he nods. “Paul Alwright’s always been my brother. Kojaque’s doing great things. There’s a young MC from my area called Skripteh who I really like. Then I was listening to Jafaris’ tunes, and he’s got a great voice. I also like bands like Fontaines DC, David Keenan, The Ocelots – there’s a lot man.”
How does it compare with when he was coming up? Maverick had to leave to make a name for himself whereas now, more people are doing it independently in Dublin... “I was just saying this earlier on, you know, I’m 28 now. But when I started I was 15. And the scene was like – unless you were in this small group, you had no notion about what was going on. When I started gigging, we did Lloyd Banks, G-Unit. We got good experience. But I felt like the coverage and the reach was really non-existent. There was Hot Press, but apart from that, there wasn’t much support from anyone. Now though? I’m getting people telling me about these big Irish acts. I’m speaking to people high up in Spotify in London saying, ‘Have you heard of this, have you heard of them’? So it’s an interesting time for Irish acts, in every field of music, but especially hip-hop because that was so shunned for a while.”
Maverick Sabre was mentored in the beginning artists like Plan B. Now the roles seem to have flipped, and he’s helped to raise the profile of a number of younger artists. Does he think of himself as a mentor? “I’d like to be,” he admits. “I don’t know everything there is to know about music, but I feel like I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. And yeah, a lot of people helped me out when I was young. So many people put me up in their flats for weeks when I had no money, or gave me studio time or gigs. So there’s no question that I have to give that back. As well as that – I enjoy giving that back. Because I feel like young artists are the most susceptible to being fucked around with. Whether it’s their own minds fucking them around or everyone else. And that’s one thing I really get out of writing for other acts. The writing side is great – exercising my craft – but also, just being able to help someone with their vision. So yeah, I would like to offer my hand mentoring in whatever way I can.”
Maverick was writing with Jorja Smith from the start, and has now witnessed her become massive internationally. What’s it been like seeing that evolution? “She’s the first act apart from myself where I can say I’ve watched from the first moment that she put a tune out,” he smiles. “I was writing with her for two years before she released and she was just stocking up, getting ready….and it’s just been beautiful. Look at her now, she’s selling out shows, 4,000 in New York, 4,000 in Toronto. It’s beautiful.”
Fellow Irish-born, London-based music maker Annie Mac recently shared an article about British injustice during the Empire and how much of it is ignored by British people themselves. Has the singer noticed ignorance and anti-Irish sentiment in the UK capital? “It’s funny, but when I first moved to London, I probably experienced it a lot more,” he says. “And in a weird way, it made me go and learn about my Irishness more. I got called a Paddy for the first time, which was strange for me because I had a bit of an English accent! So yeah, there is a sentiment. I don’t think it’s that strong. I still think there’s an old-boy mentality that exists there, but it exists in many places. There’s definitely a legacy of colonialism which is not taught properly, and from that, of course, you get the repercussions of people being misinformed about their history – coming out with bigotry and racism. And I think there’s a conscious choice not to teach the true history in England because if you teach people their true history, it’s harder to divide working classes. It’ll make them see that they’re as downtrodden as everyone else.”
Closer to home, the Irish music and cultural scene is thriving at the moment. But artists are being pushed out of their living spaces due to ever-increasing rents. “I remember reading about David Kitt saying he couldn’t afford to live in Dublin anymore,” says Maverick, “It’s dangerous to have anyone being kicked out of their houses and it should make us all angry, but as an artist, I really did connect with that David Kitt thing. It’s a sad state of affairs that he can’t live in the city that he works in. And when you think of someone like that – who you might imagine as being a bit more comfortable than a lot of other people – if someone like that can’t exist comfortably, what about everyone else? What about whole communities who can’t afford rising living costs and rising rent. And the worst part is, artists are being outspoken about this in New York, London, Dublin – but what about the 17-year-old David Kitt? The one who hasn’t made it yet? We’re not hearing them because they don’t even have a voice. That artist is gonna be lost.”
As a seasoned worker both in the limelight and in behind the scenes as well, Maverick Sabre is also keen to talk about sexism in the industry. “It’s prevalent,” he says. “It’s more than just individual, in-your-face moments. I’ve seen it in conversations, or in the inner workings of labels and management. Sexism is present, straight to this day. From what I’ve seen, though, the situation is getting better. There’s been a ‘flushing out’ period in music. The industry was slapped around the head and started doing something about it. Good! I’m glad we’ve been slapped around the head. We needed it. Shame it didn’t happen of its accord, but we’re here now.
“I see the effect of it on young artists. Mate, I work with a hell of a lot of female artists. And it is as present as you like. And listen, you can pinpoint the Harvey Weinsteins and all these people, rightly, but the problem is also the mentality behind it. The mentality that feeds the cycle; that says, ‘She needs to have a shorter skirt. Sex her up. She shouldn’t be in this because she’s not attractive enough.’ That’s the root of all of this. That’s what we need to tackle. And that’ll be a generational thing.”
Maverick Sabre’s new album, When I Wake Up, is out now via FAMM Records.