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Photography Felix Joseph

tendai is bringing British music’s multiplicity to the world stage

Newly signed to 0207 Def Jam, the singer and producer explains his cinematic approach to music-making, and how his church upbringing, London architecture, and the colour dark purple inspire him

tendai is taking no prisoners. Straight out the gates, the 21-year-old has announced himself as an artist free from the confines of genre, expectations and whatever you thought you knew about British music. If he had to describe his sound, his first response is “dark purple”. A version of the colour so dark and elusive that you almost mistake it for black, until you look a little harder. 

When we meet, tendai is actually dressed in black, though: a slick, tailored ensemble that will no doubt become his signature look with time. This is his first-ever interview but you wouldn’t be able to tell – he’s thoughtful yet generous with his answers, taking me on philosophical tangents or quietly agonising over quickfire questions like who his dream collaborators would be, because there’s just too much to say. (The answer is Imogen Heap, Damon Albarn, and Quincy Jones, although the latter is “a bit older now so I don’t know how active he is but even just to play him riddims”). His sentences are punctuated with the word ‘man’ – sometimes referring to you, but often in reference to himself – and when he likes what he’s hearing, he’ll let you know with a slow nod, smile and declare whatever it is you’ve just said as categorically “hard”.

The young producer, writer, and artist has established himself as an unflinchingly ambitious new voice in the industry and he’s only released two singles. The first emerging artist to come out under the new UK label, 0207 Def Jam, from the opening lines of his debut “Not Around”, the young Londoner set the tone for his vulnerable, pensive lyricism twinned with sonically rich and cinematic world-building. In a soft yet firm declaration, he confesses: “You should hear the way they talk about love, it’s supposed to be magic / I think I might be the only one who don’t understand it.” Delivered over delicate, mournful piano chords weaved through the syncopated heartbeat of the drums, the self-produced arrangement seems to mimic the at-once vibrating energy and the weighted loneliness of inner-city nights.

It’s a track that’s stopped people in their tracks and piqued interest around tendai, written and produced a few years ago over the space of a couple weeks. To this day, he remembers playing it to label A&Rs and studying their reactions. During one meeting at his manager’s house, it was the first song that someone asked him to loop back immediately when it finished. He began with the beat, playing around with electronic drum sounds after chilling at a friend’s house, but wanting to subvert them into something calmer somehow. “If you play the keys on their own it’s a whole different song and if you just play the drums alone it’s a whole different song, but at that point I was just thinking, ‘Could this dichotomy work together?’” he says.

Once he figured that out, he actually left the beat on his laptop for a few weeks, a little intimidated by the prospect of what he’d done or the possibilities of it, “you know when you’re like, I don’t know how I’ve done that but that’s there,” he gestures putting something to the side. “And then randomly I was walking back from a friend's house and it was a long walk back, at like 10pm. And not even to quote the song but there were just bare city lights and it was just gorgeous and I thought to myself, this is it, this is just ends. And from there I had that one (chorus) line and it just became this thing.” The line that stays with you like an imprint after hearing that debut is the one he’s referring to there: “I guess it’s not your fault that the city lights don’t shine when you’re not around.” It’s a precious yet relatable sentiment about wanting, uniquely situated within a panasonic cityscape.

Throughout our chat, tendai’s love for London and his grounding in Britishness beams through in how he views himself, his music, and his future as an artist. If you were to look at his Instagram right now, the bio simply reads ‘brit.’ Born and raised in Canning Town, he is indisputably ‘of here’ and he wants you to not just know that but celebrate it. “I know a lot of people say that England doesn’t have culture but I don’t think that’s true. I’m from East London with proper Cockneys but also it’s not even always that. Especially now, what it means to be from London, the diversity of it…” He starts and stops a few times before finding his words: “Okay, so there was a producer who heard “Not Around” and said to the person who sent it to him that he couldn’t believe it came from the UK. And it’s like just (about) changing that narrative, man. All we have to do is champion our ting and all of a sudden, that’s not a surprise. Instead it’s… ‘of course’.”

On top of that, tendai is very vocal about seeing London as a creative resource in its own right. He’s powered by everything from the architecture to the nuances of people, to conversations and debates. He smiles when he talks about his viewpoint on the world right now: “I think a lot about stuff, especially the way I see the world. Right now I’m seeing a lot of London in snapshots.” He gives the example of two friends arguing about whether an area is West or South West just because it has an SW postcode, or seeing a group of friends chilling in the street, all of different races. “To me, that’s London, and even on a cinematic tip, I’m seeing life more and more as if it was framed, like these are moments and that’s a scene.” 

To me it sounds like modern-day mindfulness, being so present in the world that you take it all in in bite-sized poetic vignettes. “Yeah, it is that,” he agrees. “And there’s something really rewarding in it, because I think it takes a lot of confidence to be present.” Even the buildings in his area serve as creative fuel for him, “I’m from Custom House and I just think the architecture there is incredible, I don’t even know what I do with that inspiration but it just inspires me. Like I’ll be walking and literally see a building and stop cold in the street.”

Brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist, tendai grew up with his family in the church. His parents, who originate from Uganda, recorded a gospel album back on the continent that still gets airplay today, and when his mum was 21 years old she moved to the UK and studied music at the University of East London. “I think reality hit her and then she went into accounting and whatnot but (music) was still a real presence.” And though gospel music formed part of the early foundation of music that he was raised on, it didn’t always allow for the kind of creative expression he’s come to know now. “There’s a level of reservation that comes with that and it’s like, you can express but in a way that’s appropriate,” he reflects. 

Is the freedom he seeks now in opposition to those more defined structures? “I did distance, not from religion, but from going to church and I think that coincided with me understanding who man is musically at the same time. I think (the church) had been my main reference point in terms of I’ve grown up with it, everything I know about music has stemmed from this place… and I distanced physically, and mentally, and then you can go to other place and think okay, now I can find my own reference points.” For tendai, that included a lot of pop music. The youngest of his family, tendai remembers an iPod that his older brother had filled with music and the range of unsuspecting heroes on there – everything from Coldplay to Michael Jackson to Train to Jay Sean, “which is just mad me,he laughs, maybe in reaction to my face processing the Train shoutout. At other points in our chat, he cites J Dilla, Elton John, and Björk, and we even have a whole aside about Little Simz.There’s this wideness that my music (tastes) have always had. It’s the same with my film collection too, you’ll find Dallas Buyers Club next to Transformers next to Bronson, next to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“I see myself as much as a scriptwriter as a songwriter. When I write, I write as scenes” – tendai

It’s no surprise, then, that the world surrounding tendai is incredibly cinematic too. He admits sometimes even thinking of individual tracks as theatrical scenes, capturing real life moments. “I see myself as much as a scriptwriter as a songwriter. When I write, I write as scenes. Even “Not Around”, it’s a soliloquy in a sense. I love lyrics where I could just be reading them.” Reciting a few lines of it on the spot, you can hear exactly what it means. But when put to music, even though his sound often sparks from a place of intimacy and introspection, it seems to inevitably expand and swell into something full-bodied and equally widescreen. The accompanying visuals for him are no different. The video for “Not Around” is directed by the acclaimed Hector Dockrill, introducing us to tendai in a dark, hazy corner as he muses on romantic facades, in inky, filmic greyscale, before broadening into a wider landscape of high rises and misty rooftops. The second is set in the remote and daunting plains of the countryside, on an endless, unbending road.

Much of tendai’s inspiration comes from his own marvellings at life and all the beauty and pain within it, often at the same time. Second single “Infinite Straight” is a goosebump-inducing shapeshifter of a song. The intro is a poem delivered by fellow artist Dora Jar about a journey into the darkness and mystery of the ‘infinite straight’, punctuated with a jagged and ominous guitar riff. When tendai’s own vocal lands, it’s hasty and performed through gritted teeth, almost unrecognisable from the romanticist croons of “Not Around”. Written during the pandemic, tendai heard the initial instrumental and spoken word at the end of a studio session with Felix Joseph and knew instantly what he wanted to do and say with it. “Where life was during that year, we were surrounded by so much death. And that’s kind of what that song is, it’s this conversation with death almost, this hooded figure with the scythe.” By the time the track reaches its apex, tendai is crying out with chilling clarity in a way that feels reminiscent of indie rock frontmen of the Y2K era but also like something you haven’t heard before. It’s the last thing you’d expect to hear.

What’s incoming from the modern poet only seeks to stretch those boundaries further. “I see myself as a student of sound,” he says, revelling in the opportunity to try new things and slip through the fingertips of categorisation. Between the two tracks out in the world already and the private streaming link in my inbox, his voice and energy morphs with every scene or snapshot. There’s a sensual, sun-tinged tune that would effortlessly warm up the dancefloor at the start of the night at a house party and a metallic-sounding, synthesised love confessional with drum & bass inflections. 

And yet, at the core of it all is something shared, a thread that leads right back to tendai – unpredictable but undeniable. When asked what people should expect next from him, he pauses for a while before landing on, “it’s just being the most me and being bold in those choices I think. Having that pursuit of yourself and being bold in that. Even with “Infinite Straight” I had to (push for that to come next) because of how freeing that is as a song, like I can do that.”