- 31 Jan 22
As Maverick Sabre returns with one of the first major Irish albums of the year, Don’t Forget To Look Up, he discusses working with Nile Rodgers, hip-hop in Ireland, and the importance of rebel music.
It’s been over a decade since Maverick Sabre first rose to prominence, with a foot planted on both sides of the Irish Sea – introducing himself with a sound just as blended as his Hackney-born, New Ross-reared accent. Drawing from elements of hip-hop, soul and acoustic folk, there was no easy box in which to pigeonhole the young artist, also known as Michael Stafford.
But following collaborations with some of the biggest names in UK hip-hop, and the release of his debut album, Lonely Are The Brave, in 2012, it wasn’t long before his music marked him as one of the most remarkable Irish exports in recent memory.
In the subsequent years, he’s steadily clocked up streams in their millions, with the release of 2015’s Innerstanding and 2019’s When I Wake Up, as well as tracks with Joey Bada$$, Rudimental and Chronixx. But Maverick has largely resisted the draw of showbiz flash and pop stardom. Instead, he’s earned a reputation as both an irrepressible artist who refuses to settle, and an important mentor to young stars, including his past collaborator Jorja Smith.
Now, he’s back with his fourth album, Don’t Forget To Look Up. Initially planned as a four-track EP, the project continued to expand and develop over lockdown, and is Maverick’s second LP to be released on the UK-based independent label FAMM.
“I was walking down the road one day, and I physically bumped into someone,” he tells me over Zoom from his base in the UK – recalling the encounter that partially inspired the new album’s title. “This fella was looking down at his phone, and I realised that, two minutes before that, I’d been looking down at my phone as well. When I looked up, pretty much everyone on the same side of the road as me were all looking at their phones, walking crouched over, as the majority of the public do – myself included! I’ve almost been knocked over before, because I’m on my phone.
“I just thought, ‘There’s so many beautiful things to see, and people to interact with. When we’re just staring down at our phones all the time, how much are we missing?’”
A conversation with a friend revealed another slightly terrifying impact of spending our lives glued to our screens.
“He came into the room I was working in, and I was like, ‘Why do you have glasses on? I’ve never seen you with glasses on before,’” Maverick resumes. “He had gone to see his optician, who told him that we’re looking at our phones and computer screens so much, especially during the last two years of lockdown, that our eyes are not adjusting properly. We’re not looking out in the distance as much anymore.
“The optician said the majority of people he’d seen in the last six months had come in with the same vision problems that my friend had. That freaked me out.”
As an artist who’s never shied away from taking aim at social ills – both in everyday life and in his lyrics – you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that there’s a political meaning buried in the title too.
“I can’t 100% speak for the Irish Government, but over here, there’s been a lot of trust lost in the Government, and in the seemingly ‘responsible’,” he notes. “In times like that, we tend to look at our neighbour for blame: the immigrant, or the person who’s on benefits, or the single mum. It’s always someone that’s beside us. We tend to never really direct that anger – as much as we should – above.”
Through his solo work he’s previously addressed the realities of broken systems on tracks like ‘Shooting The Stars’ and the Grenfell Tower-inspired ‘Big Smoke’, as well as expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people on ‘Long Live Palestine (Part 3)’ with Lowkey.
“Growing up, the music I connected with most was always the rebel music – in whatever form that came in,” he explains. “As much as music is a tool to escape, and to pull yourself away from the reality of the world, it’s also a direct educational tool. I was listening to artists around the world, and I was being informed about whatever story or struggle or experience they were coming from. I took that in as lessons. That joined the dots in the history I was learning in school, and the history I was researching myself.
“I always found music to be an important universal tool to either educate people or stir something up in people,” he continues. “It’s like that 2Pac quote: ‘I’m not saying I’m going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.’ Having that in your mind as a musician is a really powerful motivator.”
That being said, Don’t Forget To Look Up also happens to be one of Maverick’s most introspective projects yet – inspired by the increasingly insular world that the pandemic has created.
“There’s probably less commentary on the world outside, and more commentary on the experiences I was having,” he acknowledges. “I was around a lot of love, and I was in a lot of situations that made me reflect on the love I was given, and the love I was receiving – and how I felt about it. Because everything had to slow down. It did pull you into the four walls a lot more.
“When I finished the album, and I sat listening to it, I was like, ‘There’s a lot of love songs on here.’ And that made me feel slightly uncomfortable! But that’s just what came out of me. The next one could be a Rage Against The Machine-type record,” he laughs.
In addition to producing half the tracks on the album himself – a skill he’s increasingly incorporating into his work, since striking out as an independent artist – the album also finds Maverick joining forces with Nile Rodgers, who plays guitar on closing track ‘Get Down’.
“We met doing some music with Jorja [Smith],” Maverick explains. “Then we did some stuff for Chic. And then we did some sessions where we were just jamming together, and writing some bits. I had this song, which is quite different from the rest of the album – I don’t want to call it disco, but it does have that kind of funky disco feel to it. I played it to him, and he loved it. So I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s get some of those classic guitar licks on it.’ He was more than happy to do it, which was nice.”
Elsewhere, Don’t Forget To Look Up finds Maverick immersed in classic soul influences.
“I really got into soul music when I was about 14, and that was through hip-hop,” he reflects. “I used to produce boom bap beats, so I got into soul just through sampling. I loved 9th Wonder, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. That era of hip-hop massively inspired me. My dad was a big blues fan, and had a lot of rock and roll in the house – and in hip-hop I heard all of that.”
He’s never strayed far from those hip-hop roots, as one of the new album’s standout tracks, ‘Like This’, attests.
“Rapping has always been as important as singing for me,” he says. “Even now. It has slightly changed over the years, but the majority of my writing, even when I’m singing, is still done as a rapper. I still spit the majority of my verses when I’m writing – you’d hear me speaking it in a room. And then I’ll sing it out. That’s the easiest way for me to get my lyrics out.
“It’s always been something that I’ve been sharpening in the background,” he continues. “But I’ve probably not paid as much attention to it, as records have gone on. It just felt right to come back to it now – and it did give me that 17-year-old feel again! I’m always trying to connect with different versions of myself. The four-year-old version – make sure he’s sorted. The 17-year-old version – when I used to be happy just making my own beats, and spitting to myself in my room.”
Of course, homegrown hip-hop has changed dramatically since Maverick was a 17-year-old in Wexford. In a 2009 interview with Hot Press, he boldly asserted: “I’d be as optimistic about Irish hip-hop as I would be about English hip-hop.” What appeared to be extreme overconfidence then has since become a reality, with the success of a brand new generation of Irish rappers – including Kojaque, who Maverick collaborated with on ‘Casio’, from the Choice-nominated album Town’s Dead.
“It’s mad, to see where it’s come over the years,” Maverick grins. “It’s really setting in now that young Irish people are listening to Irish rappers more. The Irish support for Irish rappers when I was younger was just other rappers and producers – that was the community. Which was beautiful. For any scene, that’s the purest time. People are making it purely for the love, because there’s no money, and not many people are listening to it.
“In my school, people were barely even listening to UK stuff,” he adds. “They just wanted the American stuff. So, 15 or 20 years later, it’s a really proud thing to see everyone from Kojaque, Offica and Rejjie Snow, to Gemma Dunleavy putting her Irish spin on some garage with ‘Up De Flats’. There’s such a broad spectrum. And now people are starting to make a living out of it, which is the perfect direction for it to go in. I’ve always tried to keep as close as I can with as many of the young heads. I listen to it all, because as much as I came from that, I’m also a massive fan of it as well.”
More recently, he addressed his heritage with an appearance on London producer Swindle’s ‘No Black, No Irish’ – a track that was born out of an important conversation in the studio, Maverick explains.
“It was after the first lockdown, and there’d been the George Floyd situation in the States – which was terrible, and obviously had a ripple effect for people around the world,” he notes. “There were a lot of conversations happening, and a lot of emotions. On top of that, we’d all been so fucking pent up. So it kind of ended up being a therapy session for everyone. For me, it was a lot of listening, and taking in how people were affected by everything.
“That track came about because me and Joel [Culpepper], the other singer on it, were having a conversation about our parents’ experiences in England, and the history of both.”
Clearly, collaboration continues to play an important role in Maverick’s artistry. What guides his decision to work with another artist is simple: he’s just “got to feel it.”
“I don’t care if you’ve got five Spotify listeners or 15 million Spotify listeners – if I don’t feel it, I find it very difficult to make any music with people,” he resumes. “When you connect with someone, stuff just flows out. I’m not saying every collaboration I’ve ever done has been a deep connection – but the majority of times, especially if I go out of my way to connect with people, it’s because I really, really feel it. That’s my only guide. If you lose that as a musician, you don’t know where the fuck you’re going.”
And his dream collaborators right now?
“I think Cleo Sol is brilliant,” he smiles. “I’m into Erykah Badu, Jill Scott… And I was listening to Alicia Keys the other day – so something with her on keys, maybe produced by Kanye West, would be a beauty.”
You never know…
“Yeah, there are no boundaries to any of that stuff!” he laughs. “We make the boundaries ourselves. It’s all bollocks.”
Although he has a star-studded selection of artists at his disposal whenever inspiration strikes, Maverick remains a steadfast supporter of emerging talent, with Demae and Sasha Keable both featuring on Don’t Forget To Look Up.
“One thing that has developed over time – that I think you only get with age – is wanting to spend as much time as I can with young artists,” he muses. “I’ve enjoyed that over the last couple of years – writing with and just being around younger artists, and other artists on their own journey. I try to navigate a space where I can give some advice, and be a calming word in a young artist’s ear. It’s something I’ve tried to maintain with anyone that I’ve got a relationship with.
“I’ve had my experience of it,” he continues. “I would not be here, speaking to you now, if there hadn’t been those people in my own life – both in music and outside of music. There were some really invaluable people that took the time, and sometimes that’s all we need. Sometimes you don’t realise how much of an impact someone believing in you at a young age has, until you get a bit older, and you have hindsight.
“And I was a bit of a mad fucking eejit when I first signed my deal!” he admits, laughing. “I was touring and drinking too much. There were certain people that got me out of certain situations. They were good people to have around – little angels. Everyone needs an angel.”
As for his own music, he admits he “never really had a specific set-out plan” – other than making songs that “keeps connecting with people.”
“The only way to do that, is to expand it as much as possible,” he resumes. “I don’t ever see any boundaries with anything. I never really look at stuff and go, ‘Four albums in!’ That’s all bollocks. For me, it’s always about creating the best music I can. Because any tune can catapult your journey into another sphere. If that comes in a year, six months, tomorrow, or ten years, I’m not going to ever stop making music. I’m never going to stop having this passion for it. So fuck it – let’s see what happens.”
• Don’t Forget To Look Up is out January 28, via FAMM.
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