Words by Mr Dan Cairns
Bowling into his publicist's office in north London, Mr Jamie N Commons is a tangle of skin and bone, pipe-cleaner legs and hippy hair, topped with his trademark black hat. The 23-year-old has begun 2012 at a sprint. He was featured in the BBC's influential Sound Of poll and is just about to release a new single, "Devil in Me", the follow-up to last October's acclaimed debut EP, The Baron. Released through the independent label Luv Luv Luv, the new single will almost certainly be Mr Commons' final moment on the fringes: the major labels have come a-courting this sandpaper-throated, fire-and-brimstone nu-blues singer. The week after we meet, he is due to fly to the US for a powwow with one of the world's most sought-after producers, Mr Rick Rubin - a man with illustrious names such as Mr Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Adele on his lengthy CV.
Mr Commons describes his forthcoming encounter with Mr Rubin as "pretty cool", which may be one of the understatements of the year so far. But the singer has a quiet self-assurance to him that, though it may flirt at times with youthful arrogance, is nonetheless based on a notable clarity of purpose and vision: he knows what he wants and is obviously determined to get it. Talking about his first album, which he has written and is now busting to record, he says, "I really do want to change the landscape of what people are listening to, and I think we are on the brink of a change. The main aim has to be the updating of that blues sound so that people who don't tend to listen to it find it accessible; but also having that authenticity, so that it's not some sort of cod-blues."
I think I'll do the same with my kids: force-feed them good music - you know, give them vitamins. They can go and eat candy when I'm not looking, but they have to have the basics first
Born in Bristol, Mr Commons moved to Chicago with his family at the age of six, and spent eight formative years there. "My dad is really into rock," he reveals. "That's sort of the reason we went to America; he's obsessed with singers such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, and that whole open road, country music thing - which isn't what it's like, of course." He credits his father for his musical education - being taken to blues gigs at an early age and imbibing the classics at home. "I think I'll do the same thing when I have kids: force-feed them the good stuff - you know, give them the vitamins and the organic food. They can go and eat the candy when I'm not looking, but they have to have the basics first."
When The Baron was released last autumn, eyebrows were raised in some quarters about the sheer unlikeliness of the old-as-the-hills sound emerging from Mr Commons' throat - as if a newcomer in his early twenties had no right to sing that way. Not surprisingly, Mr Commons isn't having any of this. "I remember," he says, "when maybe I wasn't as polished as I am now, I used to do these open-mic nights and people would come up to me and say, 'Why do you choose to sing like that?' But it wasn't a conscious decision. Now, I think I've found a more precise definition of what I'm doing. I took a year out after signing with my management company to explore what we were really trying to do with this sound. It's a confidence thing, I suppose. But I haven't been asked that question for more than a year now." In any case, he says, what matters is the intention and integrity, not the sound. "There's so little honesty in a lot of current pop music that when someone comes along who means it there's a bit of that reaction of, you know, 'Damn!' It's like Adele - she's a perfect example. Even if you don't like a particular song, you know she means it. There's no pretense; she's not trying to be cool. She's putting her heart on the line, and there are so few that do that - or if they do, it's like a Hallmark version."
"The Preacher", the first track on Mr Commons' debut EP, told the story of a Southern pastor who strangles his wife and dismembers her body. While it's probably safe to assume that not every track on the singer's first album will be quite this bloodcurdling, it is instructive to note that many of his musical heroes - Mr Johnny Cash, Mr Bob Dylan, Mr Nick Cave and Mr Elvis Costello (an avowed fan of the singer) - have also dealt in vivid narratives that often dabbled in the dark stuff. "The music is integral to me," Mr Commons says, "but I want all the songs to have different characters. I'm always very conscious of the importance of each song having its own personality. You need that roughness, and a humanity in the playing."
If you asked Mr Commons what he felt his prospects for the coming year were looking like, he'd doubtless answer "Pretty good." But fans of his extraordinary voice would beg to differ. They're not just pretty good. This blues cat in the hat is about to whip up a storm.
"Devil in Me" is out on 26 March