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Wooney tunes

Industry buzz. That godawful phrase which has the power to transform a career almost overnight remains alive and well in the British music scene and, at a time of year when every music journalist is clamouring to herald the arrival of “the next big thing™”, one unassuming 27-year-old has been among the foremost recipients of such dubious attention.

Jamie Woon, born and raised in the leafy London suburb of New Malden, seems far too grounded to be affected by the nostradami of a music press which, for every correct prediction à la Amy Winehouse, has tipped the likes of Kula Shaker to invade stereo systems the world over.

That Phnom Penh was treated to Woon’s talents, when he played at Paddy Rice on New Year’s Eve, was something of a glimpse into the future.

Born into a scandalously musical family, it should come as little surprise that Woon has ended up treading this path.

His mother, Gail McKenna, is a celtic folk singer who, he says, “had something of a double life because on the side she was paying the bills by doing commercials and singing on pop records by the likes of Stock Aitken Waterman” – the relentless 1980s hitmakers who spawned more than 100 UK top-40 hits for acts such as Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley.

Inspired by his musical upbringing, as well as the ’90s Britpop explosion, Woon “first picked up a guitar at the age of about 15” and such was his natural talent that just a year later he was enrolling at one of the UK’s most prestigious performing arts schools.

The Brit School has, in recent years, produced some of the most famous names in British music, from middle-of-the-road pap such as Katie Melua and indie-lite popsters The Kooks to slightly more credible artists Adele and Amy Winehouse.

“It was an interesting place,” says Woon, sitting outside a restaurant on Street 172.

“They have quite a few different strands, so there is the music course, the dance course, the drama course, the musical theatre course and so on.

It is quite funny when you’re there because everyone is such a stereotype of their course – we were the music kids, so we all sat around strumming guitars.

Then the musical theatre kids were the ‘jazz hands’ types that you expect, while the drama kids were all very thespian and spoke very loudly.”

Attending the Brit School can be seen as both a blessing and a curse in many ways. There is not a serious music fan alive who doesn’t shudder at the words “performing arts school”, yet the path forged by any artists who emerge from these emporiums of entertainment remains varied.

While Woon insists that he “hated the music most other people were making” at the school, he also doesn’t “see the point in denying that I went there” and provides a common-sense defence against any detractors.

“Some people think: ‘There are all these kids and they just go to the Brit School and then get a record deal.’ I can see why they might think that but most people apply there because they’ve been interested in music from a young age, so it makes perfect sense that they would apply to go somewhere where that interest will be encouraged.”

To lump all of the Brit School’s graduates into a conveniently labelled box would be lazy in the extreme.

Similarly, attempting to classify Woon’s output has proved to be beyond many music journalists in the UK.

What is clear is that he is deeply influenced by soul and the blues, as well as a great deal of other roots music, from traditional folk to jazz, which he describes as “the soundtrack to our household” when he was growing up.

Woon has spoken enthusiastically about the blues in the past and, as we discuss music, the disarmingly polite singer-songwriter explains why he believes the genre still holds such sway.

“I think it is a mixture of things but mainly the pentatonic scale. That has been one of the most interesting things about coming to Southeast Asia: I’ve heard a lot of local music, often being played on the buses, and it was basically twelve-bar blues, or at least it was very, very close. It pretty much used the five-note scale – I found it fascinating.”

Woon has managed to take these more conventional influences and turn them into something altogether more modern in his own output.

The release which first brought him to the attention of the music press, a cover of the American folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”, provides a good starting point. It is music of the night, certainly, like walking alone down the street at 2am to the house you grew up in.

Everything is familiar yet uneasiness still pervades.

“The songs I’ve written over the past five years, some of them are about love but I also like to write songs about nature and trying to find a space in the city. I grew up in London and have lived there all my life and I think every musician is influenced by their surroundings. London is a very tightly packed place, it can be quite moody and dark, and I think there is always a sense of melancholy in English music. There’s a tension point and that is something that I’ve always wanted to achieve.”

Musical tension is perhaps a better way to put it than Woon realises.

And the feeling of after-hours London is equally hard to escape.

“Spirits”, with its deep, bubonic chant as a base, is another song which feels like somebody has not so much knocked the stuffing from you, as slowly extracted it via osmosis.

A multitrack of Woon’s vocal talents is created using a looping device and then drops into a deep groove.

It’s the chant which drives the song, though, and what begins like a medieval funeral march soon picks up that manmade beat before eventually becoming a soulful hymn.

Woon’s is a voice which can float in the ether but also recalls soul and the blues with frightening accuracy. Make no mistake; it is nothing short of spectacular.

He has even been compared to Jeff Buckley by Mary Anne Hobbs, the host of BBC Radio One’s Experimental radio show.

If such a comparison feels a little lazy – how many “new Jeff Buckleys” have there been in the 13 years since his death? – there is a similarity in terms of immediacy, if not in style.

Here lies the rub, though. Woon’s lo-fi template has led to kind words from the likes of Hobbs and The Observer’s pop critic, Kitty Empire, who named Woon as one to watch in her musical preview of 2011.

Yet this is often done with the implication that Woon is somehow allied to the dubstep scene – the serious music press’s cause du jour over the past six months to a year.

Once again, we return to the difficulty of classifying Woon’s output.

Empire even refers to “microstep” as a new genre which encompasses the eerie beauty of the music proffered by Woon and one of his contemporaries, James Blake.

“There has been some talk of me being a dubstep-singer-songwriter and I guess I can see why someone might say that,” says Woon.

“I’m known as a vocalist who likes dubstep and … a few of my songs have had dubstep remixes but I’ve never really been involved in that community.

I’d never go so far as to say I’m part of that scene … but I’m happy for people to say what they like, really, because you can’t control that.”

This seems typical of the laid-back Londoner and Woon is also keen to emphasise his love of dubstep and admits that the sparseness of that genre is something he found incredibly seductive.

“That was certainly what attracted me. The music manages to have such weight but there is still a massive hole there for vocals. It’s moody and melancholy in a British way and it is always exciting when there is music coming from where you grew up. Dubstep is certainly a type of music which excited me because there was this amazing flurry of creativity and cross-inspiration which surrounded it and that was something I felt.”

If this only adds extra variables to an already complicated equation, at least the musical mathematician who holds the answer is present.

So, in his own words, just what type of music does Jamie Woon make?

“I like to blend things but I guess that essentially it is RnB. There’s quite a bit of electronic soundscaping but it’s very pared down and mellow. I’ve tried to take elements of what I love about Radiohead and elements of what I love about Stevie Wonder and get them into the same song. That’s probably almost impossible but I thought I’d give it a try,” he says with a laugh.

Whatever scene he is being aligned with, Jamie Woon is clearly a man in the ascendancy.

He recently came fourth on the BBC’s Sound of 2011 list, which, the corporation says, “showcases some of the most promising new artists for the next 12 months”.

Listen out for him in 2011: he might just be the next big thing.

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