Labrinth: Maze man
Labrinth, the ultra-cool producer behind monster hit Pass Out, talks careers, country and western and Simon Cowell with Ed Power
The mystery of why the hottest new hitmaker in British RnB would choose to call himself Labrinth is solved by a visit to his Wikipedia page. There you learn he was born Timothy McKenzie, far too square a name, you'll agree, for a chap whose day job is writing uber-smashes for Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Wretch 32 and who refuses to take his sunglasses off, even when he's indoors and its pouring rain down outside.
As plain old Timothy, he'd probably still be flogging mix tapes on the kerbsides of his native Hackney in South London. Instead, the RnB world swoons at his feet. He supported Drake in Dublin last spring and fairly blew the headliner off stage, and his best known song, Tinie Tempah's Pass Out, hit the top ten in 15 different countries.
Ed Sheeran has called him the most important operator in pop, Gary Barlow is keen for them to write together. He's so unimpeachably credible he was able to get into bed (figuratively you'll be glad to hear) with Simon Cowell without suffering the slightest dent to his credibility.
"Simon saw that I was doing everything for myself and he respected that," says Labrinth of his decision to sign to Cowell's SyCo imprint.
"A lot of labels wanted to work with me as an artist. His pitch was that he could push my career. I looked at him and I believed what he was telling me. I said 'let's make it happen'."
You don't create X Factor without knowing what you're at and Cowell was smart enough to give Labrinth his head. Unlike almost every other artist he's worked with, Cowell here takes a strictly hands off approach, letting McKenzie just get on with it.
As Labrinth is quick to point out, he doesn't need anyone to 'mould' him and Cowell, always the smartest guy in the room, understands this.
"Simon is so calm," says McKenzie.
"He is a businessman and appreciates what needs to be done and what doesn't. He doesn't need to show everyone he's a millionaire.
"He is just himself. I respect that. People often ask if I'm surprised that he would want to sign me -- not at all. Remember at the time I was coming off Pass Out and [another Tinie hook-up] Friskie, two of the biggest singles of the time."
Labrinth can sometimes speak about his career the way a junior sales manager might discuss next month's projected turnover. He is, when you cut to it, all about shifting product. However, that commercial savvy is offset by an idiosyncratic streak.
After his first solo hit, 2010's Let The Sun Shine, rather than cash in on the buzz, he moved to Nashville to hang with some old timey songwriters. It was just as well that he had yet to sign to SyCo. Cowell would probably have popped a circuit on the spot.
"I wanted to work with different people," says Labrinth, of a move that, for all his nonchalance, had career suicide scrawled all over it. "If you love your craft you are going to want to learn from as many people as possible.
"I went to Nashville and also to Stockholm, to sit with writers who'd had success after success. I needed to see what I could pick up from them."
That's the funny thing about Labrinth. On stage, he's cocky, a natural born swaggerer. But, reflecting on his career, he isn't above being humble.
He understands what he's good at -- but realises there are limits to what he knows. And, like an athlete chasing gold, he is constantly striving to get better.
"I'm confident in what I do," he says.
"The point is, you don't get anywhere if you think that you've already discovered all that you are going to discover. I want to keep widening my horizons."
As the title alludes, Pass Out was inspired by a night of heroic boozing, culminating in Labrinth, full of beer and kebabs, literally wanting to 'pass out'.
After the song topped the UK charts, and with Tinie Tempah telling everyone he owed his career to Labrinth, McKenzie's phone started hopping. Some of the biggest names in UK music wanted to hook -up (he is too much a gentleman to reveal any identities but you sense we are talking proper, proper A-list).
"I'm STILL getting phone calls man," he says. "You have to pick and choose. That's definitely important. I want to write with as many people as possible. I feel I'm definitely at that stage now. Of course, you have to think carefully about your collaborators."
McKenzie, as you've probably guessed, is a contradiction. He relishes attention, positively seeks out affirmation. At the Drake gig you could tell he was basking in the love. But, in person, he's soft spoken, even retiring.
He certainly doesn't like to make a song and a dance, which might be why he talks so little about what was by any standards a gruelling upbringing. If he was someone else, an American rapper say, he would surely be milking it for everything it's worth.
He was born in a tiny council flat, the seventh of nine children. Raised by a single mother, McKenzie's family home was so cramped a local paper once ran a headline about 'The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe'.
Mum encouraged the kids' natural interest in music, buying her entire brood instruments one Christmas. Her support proved prescient, as they all now make a living in the industry.
Labrinth's life-changing moment came when he was 15 and he landed an internship at Wood Green studios, London. He started making the tea and answering phones. Within three years, he was overseeing records by JLS and Pixie Lott.
However, the production line, widget-making nature of the job didn't agree with him -- the day he was told his songs needed to sound "more like Rihanna", he knew he had to quit.
He wasn't worried about this future. McKenzie had already started on a new song, which he kept to himself until he met an up -and-coming RnB singer who introduced himself as Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu.
Together he and the artist soon to be known as Tinie Tempah recorded Pass Out and, within a few weeks, Labrinth had his first number one record as producer.
He repeated the feat as a recording artist when his album Electronic Earth vaulted to the top of the UK charts.
From a distance it looks like a text-book effortless ascent. And yet, grounded almost to a fault, Labrinth cannot bring himself to see it that way. It was, he believes, honest, sometimes thankless toil that got him where he was today, not luck or blinding bright talent.
"It wasn't easy," he says.
"I had to do a lot of hard work to get to this stage. I don't feel I'm nearly perfect -- nothing like it. My standards are high and I'm always pushing."
And if he was to write a properly cracking tune next week -- would he give it to Tinie? Or perhaps keep it for himself this time?
"If I write a good track for someone else, then it's for them. If it's for me, I'll keep it. I'm not scared about running out of songs. I can make a good song for myself. A song I write for another artist -- well it's not supposed to be for me in the first place, is it?"
Labrinth plays Academy Dublin on Tuesday, October 30. Electronic Earth is out now
Day & Night