Artist Spotlight: Gareth Donkin

    Gareth Donkin is surprisingly studious. The twenty-three-year-old’s debut album Welcome Home is an immaculate, vibrant ode to classic R&B and soul music, pulling from the likes of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and Jamiroquai. To craft it, he looked back at what worked from the music that defined that era, whether songwriting or a production pattern, which he’s done since starting university four years ago. It’s a shock when he tells me the record was produced mostly in his bedroom, its lush and atmospheric sound so natural-sounding but likely painstaking to create. On Instagram and in music videos, there’s a permanent huge, goofy grin on his face, owing to the fact that music, for him, isn’t a key to break through to the industry but a therapeutic source of joy — the record giddy and fun, but never at the sake of sincerity. Welcome home indeed.

    We caught up with Gareth Donkin in the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about being inspired by the past, performing while recording, and the allure of cheesy love songs.

    Congratulations on your debut album! How are you feeling with it so close to being out?

    Thank you so much. It feels quite surreal, to be honest. I’ve been working on this project for a very long time. In fact, I came up with the name and idea for the album before I’d even put pen to paper. I just wanted it to reflect where my head has been or where it will be whilst learning more and getting inspired and influenced by different musicians. And it is just that, I took my time but really wanted to give it absolutely everything I could, but in an organic way. Not just sitting down and writing this album just for the sake of it. It’s happened over the past three to four years and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented musicians and people I met whilst I was at university at Leeds, and people who I’ve met remotely through social media. There’s people from all over who are featured on this album in some way, and I’m very grateful to those people who have inspired me.

    The most striking thing about Welcome Home is how wonderfully entrenched in the past it is, while still feeling so new. Did you grow up around this kind of music, and how did it influence the record?

    Yeah, I grew up part of a very musical family. I was listening to the likes of Jamiroquai, Michael Jackson, all of the classics that really inspired me at that age. I wasn’t interested in the radio, what was happening now, which maybe is a little close-minded. There are definitely artists I love that are just killing it from now. But I personally have always been so engrossed in the aspects of classic songwriting, which I don’t really hear as much of, now. Really lush harmonies and cheesy songwriting as well. I just love that. And I was lucky enough to have parents that put me onto the best stuff.

    I took a look at your “Lifted” Spotify playlist as well, and it’s basically nothing from this decade at all.

    I feel like a bit of an old soul. I’m not so ignorant to new music coming out that suddenly draws from the same places, but I went down an absolute rabbit hole while I was at university, especially in lockdown, I took so much in and spent that time studying and researching and going down all of these music paths inspired me in this project. Everything I was listening to when making the project is on that playlist, which feels quite special.

    It really feels like a distinguishable thing because we’re still in the midst of this older-school music resurgence of funk, soul, disco. But some of them feel as if they’re putting on a costume — your music honestly feels plucked right from this era. Was it difficult to achieve this?

    It took a lot of time. I spent a lot of time studying the sounds and quality of production from the 70s, 80s, 90s, really honing in on the different sounds and character of those songs, like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones. It took a lot of listening, patience, and research — I was very curious as to what gear they were using and what instruments gave it that feeling, that timeless quality. That’s what I’ve been trying to nail. It took a lot of time, love, and interest in how things were being done in that time.

    Your voice is also one of the strongest assets on the whole album. At so many points, I’m hearing Michael Jackson, Bruno Mars, Prince — it’s a little eerie!

    It’s really just what I’ve been influenced by. We have a similar range. I can’t hit all of those MJ notes, I’ll be real. When I first got into singing my tracks when I was about 17, it’s kinda just what came out, felt natural to me.

    I also wanted to talk to you because these songs almost sound like performances. Not to sound corny, but it really does feel like you have a smile across your face while recording. Is this a correct read?

    Yeah, it was so fun for me writing all of these tunes. The joy I felt after coming up with an idea that felt so right and good, it was very real. Even a song where I’m diving into heartache, the catharsis I felt after finishing a song, it was such a relief. I could sit back and feel proud of what I made. It was difficult writing and realizing the idea, but I’m so proud of it and this whole album. For instance, the final track, ‘De La Soul’, was me and my friends in our first-year university dorm having the greatest time, trying things out, literally finding random objects in the room like a hairbrush and scraping it to make music, getting really imaginative. That’s what this album is to me. It doesn’t follow a linear order, it’s just me and what I’ve explored, the parts of music I love the most, and getting creative.

    It totally comes through. Listening to ‘Something Different’ and ‘Whenever’, particularly, I was just like, “Oh my God, this guy is having a great time.”

    I was! I really was, just belting some stupid notes in my bedroom and hoping my neighbors don’t complain. Ironically, the lyrics to ‘Something Different’ are actually a bit sad. The idea was to make a sad song disguised as this dancy, feel-good thing. It’s just what felt right. Personally, I’m drawn to upbeat music anyway.

    So you mention that you lived in six different places in two years. How did that shape not only the inspiration of the album, but the recording and writing process?

    It was six different bedrooms I was studying in in Leeds, in the north of England. Then when COVID hit, I was working from home with my parents in France. If anything, being able to travel and being in different places while recording these different ideas was very inspiring and marked the different points I was at in my musical journey. Producing on my laptop was a constant, though, and that’s why Welcome Home felt nice to me as a title. This has been my real home, my source of comfort and therapy. I love making music and it was always there, despite moving around as much as I did in that time.

    This year you released your first two music videos, for ‘GEEK OUT!’ and ‘Whenever’. What were the filming processes like for these?

    They were both shot on the same day. We were in a converted loft studio that John Liwag works out of, who directed and shot the music videos. We really just went with the flow. I worked with these two amazing stylists, Christiana and Bernadette, who helped me with the look and the fashion. We went ahead and shot all sorts of different things behind these backgrounds, we had some disco balls to play with, shooting whatever we could in the time we had. Fortunately, the footage turned out great and I’m really happy with the final product. And the ‘GEEK OUT!’ video was shot on the rooftop of the studio. It was extremely hot. Very very hot afternoon, but a very good one.

    So talking about the actual record, romance is the number one topic. ‘Nothing We Can’t Get Through’ is about a tough time with a partner, Whenever’ is a flirty declaration of solidarity, and ‘By Your Side’ and ‘Falling for You’ are pure romantic admissions. Why do you think you come back to this topic, and does the person you’re singing about play into it?

    It was really just a lot of what I was inspired to write about, at the time of making these tunes. The whole love and cheesy thing is something I’ve always loved. I’d say a couple of those were specifically about someone, where I was writing love songs because I love to do it. It’s a big part of that era I love to draw from.

    There’s also a super fun collaboration with Jus Lovehall on ‘Don’t Turn The Music Down’. How did that song and partnership come to be?

    Jus and I met on Instagram in about 2019, and we worked on a song together, ‘Tropics’ with another producer, Foolie $URFIN, on their joint album. We respected one another and clicked, and we really bonded over the love of old-school music, merging it with hip-hop and R&B. There was a really [strong] connection between the three of us, and Jus and I have been wanting to do something together for a while. This song was just a great fit. Jus killed the verse, and really poured his heart out. It’s one of my favorites on the album. It was great to work with him on something again, and I love and respect him so much. He’s got an amazing musical mind, great at writing lyrics.

    You also say that you can chart a whole relationship in these songs, from the spark in the beginning to “surrendering yourself to them completely.” Do you think seeing this story down in a written form changes your perspective of it?

    I suppose now that it’s all there, about to go out, and because I made these songs so long ago, I can now sit back and look at it in hindsight and think, “What are the weak points I anchor myself and improve on the next album?” Now that it’s done and it is what it is, I do feel like I have more of a perspective of where I see the next record going.

    Have you started thinking about a second album or a direction you might want to head there?

    I want to take it so much further. I don’t just want to be bound to my bedroom or home studios anymore. What I was going for with this album was to get it as close to [a live] sound as I could in my bedroom. But now, I just want to be in the studio. I want to get stuck in and record. I just hope to build on this first record — this is just the introduction.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Welcome Home is out August 25.

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