In February 2013 Cole Williams won the NME Radar Award for his The Child Of Lov musical project. NME writer Barry Nicolson was one of the few journalists to sit down with Williams and talk about his career. He passed away on December 10 2013. Here, we reprint the feature that ran in NME magazine in March 2013.
You can’t miss Cole Williams. He stands about six feet tall, give or take the extra inches his top-knot of hair adds on, and sports an ocular assault of a silk shirt – a neon vomit of garish blues and greens, adorned with crocodiles and palm trees, and offset by the drab grey jogging bottoms it’s tucked neatly into. On his fingers he wears an array of oversized rings, while around his neck hangs a gold chain, selected from a jewellery box filled with similarly ostentatious items of bling. His look is rounded off by a pair of tube socks and a box of Chicken McNuggets. Just to add a further soupçon of surreality, he also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
All this would be neither here nor there, except for the fact that for the last few months, Williams’ name, face and biography have been closely guarded secrets. The two sleek, futuristic R&B singles he’s released under the moniker of The Child Of Lov have caused quite a stir, but all anyone really knew about him until last night was that he was 25 years old, came from Amsterdam, and had roped DOOM and Damon Albarn into working with him. What changed last night? Well, he picked up the prestigious Philip Hall Radar Award at the NME Awards, in full view of the British press, dressed like a pimp and armed with the most insouciant acceptance speech in years (“Thank you very much” was the full extent of it).
“I can’t take all the credit for that speech,” he grins when we meet up the next day at an east London photo studio. “Prince did the same thing in 1985 when he accepted the American Music Award for Best Black Single, or whatever it was called back then [it was Favourite Black Album for ‘Purple Rain’]. He got up, collected his award, and walked back into the crowd! But it felt liberating. It’s like, there’s no mystery any more: it’s just me!”
According to Williams, the reason for all the cloak-and-dagger stuff was because he “just wanted to focus on the music. When I look at my idols, people like Hendrix, the image and the public persona were very important, but there’s always the feeling that the music is the most important thing. It was never supposed to be forever, it was just a way of starting out. And I thought it was something refreshing as well, in times like this. Everybody is so open these days, and it doesn’t mean anything any more.”
Still, the sort of mystique he so carefully cultivated has become a marketing strategy in recent years, a gimmick to generate disproportionate amounts of publicity: give people an information vacuum, so the thinking goes, and they’ll fill it with hot air and hearsay. Williams shrugs off the suggestion that it’s all been an exercise in hype (“People might think that, but I couldn’t care less. They can think what they want”), but he does admit to being relieved at no longer fielding questions about being – as one rumour had it – terminally ill, with a plan to play three shows on three different continents before his imminent death.
In fact, his story is somewhat less dramatic than that. Born in Belgium and raised in Amsterdam, Williams fell in love with hip-hop and R&B at an early age, and was making beats on his laptop when he was just 14 years old. The music he makes today – an amalgam of Dirty South beats, bleeding-edge neo-soul and old-school songcraft – may sound like nothing else out there at the moment, but he’s perfectly happy to acknowledge the influence of the artists he discovered as a teenager, even the conventionally uncool ones.
“I listened to a lot of Ginuwine when I was growing up, a lot of 112, Blackstreet, stuff like that. Over the years I’ve become a Prince geek – the angry, funky Prince, the Prince of ‘The Black Album’, that’s what I relate to. And Mariah Carey! I liked her more than Whitney, always. I also like Christina Aguilera very much. I don’t put any obstacles between myself and the music, so it’s a non-ironic admiration. I’m past irony. I’m the first next-level hipster!”
For Williams, however, music has always been a solitary pursuit. He’s never played live (though that will soon change) and despite those aforementioned guest spots from Damon and DOOM, he claims that, “I absolutely prefer being on my own.” After spells living in Paris and London, he’s since returned to Amsterdam, the place that’s “closest to my heart”, but where the music scene is “so boring, because the people are too rich, too spoiled. They only want to make music that sounds like what they hear on the radio. They don’t feel like they’re at the centre of anything.” That sense of cultural isolation suits him in a way; it allows him to fashion his own little universe without anyone peering over his shoulder. Which is how he’s always worked anyway.
When he was profiled for Radar back in November, he confessed to feeling “ashamed” of making music when he was younger. What did he mean by that exactly?
“I’m not from a musical family, where everybody plays an instrument and you’d all stand around the piano and sing together on a Sunday evening,” he says. “There was a piano, but it was more like a piece of furniture. I was really insecure about my singing voice as well, so I only ever recorded when my mother and brother were out. I didn’t think it was something that was… accepted. I was so self-conscious when I was starting out.”
When did you lose that?
“When people started getting interested in it. I knew one other guy in Amsterdam who made music I liked.
I met my manager through him, and he knew Laurence [Bell, Domino Records head] through an act he’d had signed to Domino a long time ago. He sent Laurence two or three unfinished songs, and they came over to check me out. It was the most minimalistic chain of events that you could imagine. But up until that point, it was just weird music that I made. It wasn’t for other people.”
Why call yourself The Child Of Lov? Is it a separate persona, or just a name for what you do?
“Well, the ‘Child’ part comes from the standard metaphor that the music is your child, but the music you make also influences you back, in a way. It’s a weird, undefinable thing. The ‘L-O-V’ comes from biology, from the light, oxygen and voltage domains that determine whether plants move towards the sun or away from it. I hought that was a beautiful concept: light attracts oxygen, attracts voltage.”
For all his lack of regard for the safeness of the Amsterdam scene, Williams still asserts that his debut album isn’t ‘nu-’ or ‘neo-’ anything, preferring to see The Child Of Lov as a continuation of a musical tradition stretching back more than 100 years.
“It’s just soul music,” he insists. “Or the blues, if you want to call it that. It all boils down to the same thing, I think. A lot of black music is painful in a way, but it’s also music you can dance to. It’s a weird amalgamation of all these different emotions. To me, good soul music is the deepest music there is. It can go bad like any genre, but the best examples of it brings you straight back to the deepest sort of pain.”
At an NME Awards afterparty the night before, he was introduced to a fellow practitioner of the form, Frank Ocean. He sounds pretty nonchalant about the whole experience, explaining that while “I really like the music, the singing’s not very emotive. You could almost say it was bland. There’s a certain sort of emptiness to it which a lot of people seem to like, but I think he can do much better.” He does, however, have a chuckle at the story of Ocean initially mistaking Williams’ manager’s assistant, Ben – a hirsute, red-headed Englishman who resembles his charge in no way whatsoever – for The Child Of Lov. After last night’s grand unmasking, it’s probably the last time anything like that will happen to him. The remainder of 2013 will be spent systematically shattering the anonymity he’s worked so hard to maintain, playing his first-ever live shows (for which he’s currently amassing “as many backing vocalists as I can get”) and hitting the festival circuit, including an appearance at Glastonbury. Until then, we suggest that you get used to Cole Williams’ face. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.
This feature was originally published in the March 16 2013 issue of NME