Saint Jude is currently locked in a search engine battle with a lesser-known disciple of Jesus. It’s not a fight he’s winning.
When did the south London artist – born Jude Woodhead – decide to become a saint? “It’s just a name, there’s no real meaning,” he replies, demonstrating a tendency to downplay things that the 22-year-old producer and singer regularly returns to, on an hour-long Zoom a few days after his headline show at Peckham Audio. “Also, Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, which is kind of jokes,” he adds in the next breath.
Woodhead’s debut album ‘Signal’, released in November, is the opposite of a lost cause – understated, maybe, but hardly an understatement. The essence of ‘Signal’ is in its approach to musical variety: from the noisy heft of ‘Rosa’ to the twanging guitars of disaffected closer ‘To Repel Ghosts’, ‘Signal’ follows a politically engaged but emotionally detached drift through a diverse sonic neighbourhood, taking in avant-pop, ambient music and R&B.
Wandering nonchalantly into the political fray sums up the journey through lead single ‘No Angels’, where Woodhead camouflages the messaging against a background of airy production and summery breaks.“You say the money doesn’t matter too much / You say love for your people is enough” is one of several references to gentrification, rent and south London community that Woodhead, born in Forest Hill and now living in Sydenham, makes on the album.
Despite many contemporary artists engaging with those themes specifically from a south London perspective – the UK drill movement, for a start – Woodhead was determined to find his own way of expressing his perspective; he’s typically humble about the results. “I liked the song, but I’m not sure if it necessarily gets to the heart of what I was actually trying to do,” says Woodhead. “I’m quite a political person, and I wanted to have that in there.” Yet when he tried to assemble a playlist for inspiration, he hit a snag: “There’s less than 20 songs that I could find that are good political songwriting.”
In the entire catalogue of recorded music? Maybe Woodhead is looking in the wrong places. “Half the playlist was Gil Scott-Heron,” he counters. Billy Bragg and Nina Simone featured too, as did songs like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Democracy’. Anyway, Woodhead isn’t convinced about the form itself: “I’m not really sure how politically effective songwriting is as an actual political tool,” he says, adding that “it’d be impossible to quantify how much of an effect you’re actually having on the world if you have some stuff like that in there.”
In his opinion, there are better ways to make your voice heard. Woodhead leafletted for Jeremy Corbyn around the last election, and would probably vote Labour again, despite feeling lukewarm about Keir Starmer. “Since [Corbyn] I’ve been less inspired by Westminster politics, and more inspired by other forms of political change.” Woodhead’s brother works with refugees in Calais, and he intends to join him for a month at the start of December. It’s an admirable move, but Woodhead shrugs it off. “You don’t want to think too much about yourself while you’re doing it. Because it’s not the point. It’s more just like what you’ve got to do, I guess.”
Woodhead’s interest in activism coincides with a change in his creative process. “It’s only in the past three or four years that I’ve really got into the spirit of collaboration,” he says, before rattling off a list of his peers: Louis Culture and HALINA both of whom appear on ‘Signal’, and audio-visual duo Glows, who appeared on Woodhead’s 2021 EP ‘Bodies of Water’. The influential south London collective Slow Dance – who started life as zine creators straight out of college, and now run events alongside the record label Woodhead is signed to – ties together a lot of Woodhead’s immediate community.
Unlike the typical image of the bedroom producer, Woodhead was never just a young boy with a cheap synth and a dream. His parents worked in the music business – his mum as a music librarian, his dad as a repairer of brass instruments. He studied trumpet to Grade 8, and grew up alongside Dylan Jones [PYJÆN, Ezra Collective] and Sam Jones [Nubya Garcia, Obongjayar]. “I kind of wish I did jazz,” he says, having left trumpet behind, frustrated at the lack of creativity involved in the disciplined world of classical training. “Your capacity for like, fucking with it is so tiny. It seemed really not that expressive.”
Woodhead has been producing for the past decade, and, to his displeasure, you can find most of his stylistic progression just by Googling him. “I don’t mind that it’s on the internet, it’s just that it’s under my actual name.” With ‘Signal’, it feels like Woodhead is trying to put distance between him and the past. But it makes sense for a sound that’s shifted, out of necessity.
His recent show at Peckham Audio marked the second-ever time he’s gigged with his Saint Jude project. It’s a rare occurrence for a reason. Woodhead has severe tinnitus, caused by over-exposure to loud music, which forced him to give up on a burgeoning DJ career. Hearing loss is a perpetual anxiety for seasoned music lovers; it’s pretty devastating for a young musician with their whole life ahead of them.
On the face of it, Woodhead’s response is moderation: don’t expect him to play many support shows, or do back-breaking tours. “I could probably do maybe four, five, six gigs a year, but probably not loads more than that,“ he says. And don’t expect him to see him around the south London music scene much, either. “I basically don’t really go to gigs. I’ve got these air traffic control headphones that I would use, but it’s just kind of weird rolling up to a gig with them on.”
What’s the hardest part of it all? “It’s the thing you’d least expect,” he replies. “Like, you just go for a pint somewhere, you don’t realise the music is really loud – it’s not like you’ve spent all night out raving – but then you come home, and I’d be like, ‘Oh shit! there’s ringing in my ears now’.” For Woodhead, smoking areas and beer gardens are all quietly loud.
Musically, it’s a different story. Listening to the blistering crashes on ‘Does’, or the shrapnel noise on ‘Halfway’, you’d struggle to know it came from a producer concerned about his hearing. “I enjoy making loud-sounding music,” he says. “It’s weird thinking about what I’d be making if I didn’t have tinnitus – probably noise techno.” For now, though, he seems pretty happy with what he’s got – a future that’s bright, if quiet.
Saint Jude’s debut album ‘Signal’ is out now