This winter’s cold snap may have finally ensnared London, but there are still pockets of colour to be found amid the diminishing December daylight, impenetrable grey skies and bitter, icy winds that sweep across the capital. NME has located one such pocket in Hackney where we’re warmly greeted by SG Lewis, wearing a bright turquoise Adidas x Gucci suit, at his first NME Big Read cover shoot. Our snapper has brought a set of spiral balloons and a pair of luminescent oranges as props to add further technicolour to the scene, though Lewis politely turns down a request to do a spot of fruit juggling for the camera: this type of party trick isn’t quite his forte.
Where the Reading-born, London-based singer/songwriter, producer and DJ really shines, though, is in the studio. A prolific, bangers-minded collaborator who has worked with the likes of Elton John, Dua Lipa and Dave in recent years, Lewis’ esteemed reputation as one of the UK’s most in-demand dance-pop creatives has been assured for quite some time.
He can go it alone, too: following his consistently vibey 2015-2019 run of EPs and his February 2021 debut LP ‘Times’ – a glossy, lockdown-busting tribute to disco and the dancefloor – the 28-year-old is now set to drop his second studio album ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ on January 27. Its arrival is set to further enhance Lewis’ standing as a producer-turned-solo artist in the vein of Calvin Harris and Mark Ronson, both of whom honed their respective signature sounds while drawing on diverse influences and collaborating with a star-studded array of musicians. But Lewis, it seems, is keeping his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to the wider ambitions of this project.
“People really want to categorise whatever you’re doing [musically] because it makes it easier to compartmentalise,” he says when asked whether he’s ready to embrace solo star status. “But there’s never really a thought of, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be the star’. It was just that I wanted to test myself further and see what I was capable of. I always feel like I’m trying to further my abilities as a musician, whether that means singing or producing more. I think I will always try and do as much as I possibly can.”
During its creation, ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ positioned Lewis as an in-the-studio bandleader. Having assembled a core team of musicians, including Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (“one of the most important collaborators in my musical life; his first album had a big influence on me”), Berkshire solo artist Frances and chart pop songwriter Ed Drewett, Lewis’ songwriting sessions – which took place at such UK studios as Decoy Residential in rural Suffolk – took on “much more of a band approach”.
“The whole process felt more song-focused than sound-focused,” he continues. “The last record was very much about studying a period in time and elements of that music, whereas this was very much focused on the songs.”
As its title suggests, ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ explores two distinct thematic worlds. “At the start of the process, you throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” Lewis explains about the genesis of the concept. “At first I was just making music, but then these two worlds became apparent and the songs that I was making fit into either one of those two sides.” Elaborating further on this duality aspect, he later adds: “It’s lust versus love: one being this rushy, toxic version of love and relationships, and the other being this more fulfilled, actualised, longer-lasting version.”
The record embraces these lovestruck themes from the off with the striding ‘Infatuation’, which is populated by the kind of giddy falsetto hooks The Weeknd would be envious of. ‘Holding On’, a sun-kissed 80s synth-pop gem which culminates in a soaring guitar solo, would work nicely over the loading screens of GTA: Vice City. Elsewhere, ‘Lifetime’, the record’s standout moment, has been likened by Lewis himself to the “yacht-rock” of Hall & Oates and Steely Dan that he and his friends discovered during lockdown.
“It started off almost ironically, and then it became completely not ironic. We were like, ‘This music is incredible!’” he laughs. “I mean, even the name ‘yacht rock’ sounds like a joke name. But within that genre there’s a lot of music, writing and chords that are just incredible, so I started to draw on a lot of that and wanted to try it out.”
Another major influence on ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ was Daft Punk and their 2001 opus ‘Discovery’, with its still-transcendent single ‘Digital Love’ having a significant bearing on Lewis’ own track ‘Something About Your Love’. “It’s hard to summarise the influence that they’ve had, not only musically but their artistic output. Even the way that they retired was perfect,” Lewis says about the French duo, who bowed out quite literally with a bang in February 2021 with a farewell video that featured one of the Daft Punk robots exploding.
“Within yacht rock, there’s writing and chords that are just incredible”
“Their music is both hugely inspiring and depressing to look at because it’s just so perfect. ‘Something About Your Love’ is very much an ode to ‘Digital Love’. It’s funny because I was like, ‘Are people gonna think I’m trying to rip them off? Or will they understand that I’m paying tribute?’ Luckily, people seem to understand that it was the latter.”
How would Lewis feel if Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo ever got their hands on the track? “I think I would want to crawl into a hole and die,” he quickly replies, stifling a chuckle. “As much as that would be amazing, I’d also just don’t think I’d ever be able to make music again if Daft Punk hated it.”
Such a possibility would’ve seemed even more far-fetched to the fresh-faced SG Lewis of 2014, who got his first big break in the dance music world at this time while studying sound technology at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After taking the DIY route of learning how to DJ (“I would practise using CDJs on the decks at a local music shop, and the owner eventually banned me and said: ‘You’re clearly not buying these, go away’”), he bagged a residency at the city’s Chibuku nightclub.
“It was a great way to cut my teeth as a DJ, because it meant playing completely different styles every week based on who was headlining,” he recalls of that formative experience, which also taught him the importance of “referencing” in his own music. “If you’ve never heard of J Dilla and you try to make instrumental hip-hop, you’ll be worse off for not having that reference and knowledge.”
With a foot in the door and a deepening appreciation for dance music, Lewis began exploring his own creative urges by writing and releasing his own solo material. Signing to PMR Records, home to Disclosure and Jessie Ware, Lewis’ first major exposure as a soloist came when his debut single ‘Warm’ was picked up by HBO for use in the Dwayne Johnson-starring series Ballers in 2015.
“The episode aired at 3am UK time, so I was in bed and my phone just blew up. ‘Warm’ did the most Shazams of any TV show that year, and all of a sudden there were a bunch of people listening to the song and I ended up on the Coachella line-up: I didn’t have a clue what I was doing! I was thrown in the deep end.”
A series of EPs followed, including 2018-19’s ‘Dusk’, ‘Dark’ and ‘Dawn’ concept trilogy which charted the course of a night out and boasted such fan favourites as ‘Aura’, the two-part ‘Sunsets’ and the Clairo-featuring ‘Throwaway’. As Lewis set about making his debut album, though, the pandemic struck, with numerous lockdowns keeping nightclubs closed and confining people to their homes.
Reflecting on that difficult period, Lewis says: “Without a context for club music, it can make club music kind of… not pointless, because I understand that club music can be enjoyed at home. But when that memory [of clubs] became further and further away, it became harder for me to resonate with club music.”
His debut LP ‘Times’ arrived in February 2021 while COVID restrictions were still in place, prompting Lewis to celebrate its release with a ‘70s New York-inspired livestream that beamed the collective and celebratory vibe of the nightclub into his fans’ living rooms and bedrooms. “The purpose of ‘Times’ changed: before it was an ode to dancefloors, but as lockdown happened it became an escapist vehicle for people, which became almost more important [as a purpose],” he says now. NME agreed, lauding ‘Times’ for its “kitchen disco bangers that ache with nostalgia” in a four-star review.
“I’ve always wanted to test myself and see what I was capable of”
The record also presented Lewis with the opportunity to work with CHIC’s Nile Rodgers on the imploring single ‘One More’ (“he’s like a session quarterback who commands the vibe of the studio”) and Robyn on his Channel Tres collaboration ‘Impact’. The chance to write remotely with the somewhat elusive Robyn was an opportunity that Lewis – who has still yet to meet the Swedish artist in person – snapped up.
“She’s selective about her output, but we sent the track over and, somehow, she was excited about it. That was the start of a process of going back and forth with her and spending hours and hours on Zoom together for the best part of a year, because she’s very purposeful with her art. I’m so proud of the outcome, and I still love playing the track when I’m DJing.”
One famous name Lewis has met in person is Sir Elton John, with Lewis having earned his place on the esteemed guestlist for John’s 2021 record ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks and Rina Sawayama. Receiving his invite after appearing on John’s Apple Music show Rocket Hour was “really wild,” Lewis says. “At the end of the interview, Elton said, ‘I’d love to get in the studio with you’. I was like, ‘… Are you kidding?’ I thought he was just saying it. The next day I’m driving along, and I get a phone call from this number I don’t recognise. I pick it up and I hear, ‘Sam, darling, it’s Elton! When are we getting in the studio?’”
The invitation produced the tropical ‘Orbit’, which was the end product of “one of the most surreal days ever,” a still star-struck Lewis tells NME: “Elton’s extremely personable, very funny and very caring: he’ll FaceTime every now and then just to check up on me and make sure I’m doing alright. It’s really cool.” Is Lewis now likely to get a call-up to help John bring the curtain down on his glittering career during his Glastonbury 2023 headline slot? “I mean, hey: I wouldn’t say no! But I’m sure he’s got a few hundred hits to get through before we do ‘Orbit’. So we’ll see.”
John, who told Paper in 2021 that Lewis “has only just touched the surface” of his talent, also enlisted Dua Lipa for ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ following the success of her 2020 album ‘Future Nostalgia’. That record featured the Lewis co-written and co-produced track ‘Hallucinate’, and Lewis remains full of praise for Lipa’s work ethic.
“Dua’s incredible in the studio. She has so many ideas and is such a pro on the mic: you don’t do a take more than three times,” Lewis says. “‘Future Nostalgia’ became bigger than anyone could have even contemplated, and it ended up getting a bunch of Grammys. It was just a really cool record to be able to have played a small part in, because I think it will be a record that will represent a moment in time to a lot of people, especially in terms of lockdown.”
As well as ‘Future Nostalgia’, Lewis has had a hand in a number of successful dance music-driven pop records in recent years, with credits on Jessie Ware’s ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’, Mabel’s ‘About Last Night…’ and Tove Lo’s ‘Dirt Femme’. Lo is also among a number of special guests on ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ which include the likes of Channel Tres, Ty Dolla $ign and Grammy winner Lucky Daye – though the latter two’s ‘Vibe Like This’ was nearly the victim of a studio mishap.
“They were all smoking in the room, and I was getting pretty second-hand high!” Lewis laughs while reminiscing. “Towards the end of the session I span around in my chair as Ty went to high-five me, and I pulled the laptop off the table: the laptop nearly died and I nearly lost the track. But luckily, I didn’t! It was very smooth.”
“I’ve learned that you have no control over how people react to your music”
Weed-induced accidents notwithstanding, Lewis’ stock as a musician, producer and collaborator is as high as it’s ever been. Reeling off his dream list of future collaborators (Charli XCX, Bon Iver and Kim Petras), what, NME wonders, keeps these big names coming and knocking on SG Lewis’ door?
“That’s a funny question, because honestly I don’t really know!” he modestly, if somewhat frustratingly, replies. “Sometimes, especially when the imposter syndrome sets in, I do ask myself that. But I think I trust my own tastes: I think that, if anything, I like to think that I’m able to at least share some musical tastes with my collaborators, and try and at least aim to make something that we both genuinely like and listen to. That’s always the aim.”
Two months after its arrival, Lewis will take ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ on a UK and European tour that’ll continue the album’s live band approach while also featuring “some stuff you won’t be able to hear anywhere else”. The tour will culminate with a momentous headline date at the O2 Academy Brixton on March 31, an occasion that was originally cancelled due to the pandemic and also marks a full-circle, albeit “surreal”, moment for Lewis.
Festivals will follow in the summer, though he’s keeping his counsel on the specifics of those plans at present (“there’s some stuff that I’m really excited about”). Lewis is a noted Glastonbury fan, while he underwent the “rite of passage” of attending Reading Festival in his teens (“the NME Tent was a big deal at the time,” he remembers). Could he follow the example of his labelmates Disclosure, who have co-headlined Reading & Leeds twice and topped Glastonbury’s Other Stage, in becoming a festival headliner one day?
“Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been releasing music for nearly eight years now, and I think I’ve learned that you really have no control over the outcome: you just make the best music you can. Sometimes the music that you think is great might not get the audience that you think it deserves, but then equally sometimes the stuff that you’re less emotionally attached to ends up reaching a lot of people. I’d love to become a festival headliner, but I think the decision is in the listeners’ hands.”
Given that ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ looks set to elevate Lewis to unprecedented heights, it seems likely that that decision will be an easy one for both his fans and festival bosses. A big 2023 awaits for SG Lewis, then: those juggling lessons will have to wait a little while longer.
SG Lewis’ ‘AudioLust & HigherLove’ is released January 27