I had to conquer my fears, I had to wrestle with faith, Samm Henshaw sings on the soulful, redemptive closing track of his debut album Untidy Soul, out today (Jan. 28). I made some plans for the future, he continues, but them plans kept showing up late. Fortunately, for Henshaw, that process eventually led to joy, sweet joy. Later he adds, I had to lose the bigger picture, just to figure me out / to find some joy, sweet joy.
One of Henshaw’s plans for the future that showed up late—well, later than expected—is his album. The London-based singer-songwriter started working on a record nearly six years ago, but he changed directions creatively after switching labels. He finished Untidy Soul in the early months of 2020, and the final product documents a years-long journey of musical and personal self-discovery. Sonically, Henshaw’s palette is a colorful fusion of gospel, soul, and hip hop. “I think I’ve found my sound a bit more,” he recently told American Songwriter over Zoom, reflecting on how his debut full-length compares to his previous EPs. “I know what works for me.”
Over the sixteen tracks on Untidy Soul, Henshaw is clever and contemplative, sanguine and self-questioning. Through it all, there’s palpable joy in his crooned deliveries. Watching Henshaw perform, one gets the sense that he’s figuring something out—and finding his sound—one flow at a time. And his voice? It’s practically liquid.
Henshaw spoke to American Songwriter about his messy songwriting style, his creative relationship with producer Josh Grant, and his biggest influences from Kirk Franklin to Common. Check out the interview and listen to Untidy Soul below.
American Songwriter: When did you write and record the songs on Untidy Soul?
Samm Henshaw: It [was] over the space of four to five years, maybe longer. I think the oldest song on the record was written in 2016 or 2017.
AS: What song is that?
SH: I think it was “It Won’t Change.” Yeah, it’s genuinely been a long time coming.
AS: Were you in London for the whole process?
SH: No, I actually was between [Los Angeles] and London.
AS: Did you know you were making an album at the time?
SH: So, it was [initially] a different record that I was actually working on. I was with [a different] label at the time, and we were working on what we were setting up to be an album. It was just a different type of album. It ended up changing once I parted ways with the label. I was able to take a bunch of those songs with me and then create a bunch of new ones for the record.
AS: Did your vision for the album change when you left the other label?
SH: Definitely… “Church (feat. EARTHGANG)”, “Broke”, “How Does It Feel?”, “Doubt (feat. Wrech 32)”—all those songs were supposed to be a part of that [initial] album. The vision changed hugely, which I’m grateful for. I ended up making the album I wanted to make, I didn’t make the album that someone else wanted me to make. So I’m grateful for that situation. Obviously, those songs that I didn’t lead with serve their purpose, and I’m proud of those songs and creating those songs, but you know, life moves on.
AS: Are there certain themes you think are really important to the final product?
SH: Yeah, I think growth, getting to know yourself. There’s nothing wrong with asking yourself questions and talking to yourself. I think with this album there’s a lot of songs that are based off of questions that I ask myself and conversations that I’ve had with people. [The songs are about] growth and development and trying to move forward as a person – not always wanting to stay in the same spot.
AS: What’s a usual starting point for you?
SH: Lyrics always seem to be the last thing I’m concerned with, actually. With this process, specifically for this record, it was very much coming up with the sound [first]. I really wanted to be deliberate on the sound. I’m very impatient so I want to hear the song whilst I’m making the song. I kind of want it to be done whilst I’m creating it, which sounds crazy. We’ll simultaneously start coming up with the sound and I’ll be trying to figure out the melodies or the chord progressions whilst my producer will be coming up with a beat.
We’ll all be working at once and trying to hear what this is and what it’s gonna be and fleshing it out and structuring it. And then we put everything down and by the end, I’m just sort of like, “Alright, maybe I should write something to this.” Then I think of concepts and that’s a little bit of a longer process because you gotta sit down and think about all these things now and piece it together.
I think everything for me is [equally] important. I just think I give them separate time. When it comes to the writing, I’ll sit down and really give that a moment of my attention and make sure that we get it where we want it to be.
AS: How would you describe the sound that you were envisioning?
SH: Honestly, it’s pretty much the name of the album. It’s untidy soul. There’ve been so many interviews where people have asked me that question and I couldn’t explain what it was, and one day I must have said, “It’s messy, untidy soul.” That stuck with me and that was how the title came about. So now if anyone asks me [about the album’s sound] I just say it’s untidy soul. Because when I hear it, it’s not the cleanest thing, it’s not necessarily the prettiest thing that you’ll hear, it’s kind of a mess – even the way it comes together is sort of messy.
AS: How do you think the sound or your approach has evolved since your previous releases?
SH: I think I’ve found my sound a bit more. I know what works for me. I think a lot of it for me as well has been a bit of fearlessness and also not trying to create based off of what other people expect or want of me.
AS: Are there any songs where you really hear that fearlessness?
SH: We have a song called “Mr. Introvert,” and I just love that song. It’s just fun, different, and allows me – from a musical perspective – to go to, like, a really weird place.
Like I said, because some of the songs have existed for a bit of time, we ended up going back to a lot of those songs. And so, by going back to those songs, you watch the songs grow and evolve. Genuinely the whole record has these moments that go from one place to another. “Still Broke” was one of them as well. “Still Broke” was a lot of fun to make, but in regards to writing that song, I opened up with vulnerability. It was nice to be in a really raw and vulnerable state writing that song and creating that song.
AS: Were you thinking of any inspirations or influences when you were in the studio?
SH: I do try to avoid listening to music when I’m working on a record, but then I’m also like, I need to take in some stuff because otherwise, I’m not going to feel 100% inspired all the time. I think one of my biggest references for a very long time has always been Kanye’s early stuff. Not just his music, also stuff that he’s produced. So like Common’s Be album—I love that album. How that felt was always very warm and cozy.
And then there’s a bunch of gospel records as well, like [The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin]. Just a bunch of stuff that I grew up on. I wanted to get that feeling again that I had when I first heard those records myself. And then there’s a bunch of more modern stuff – Marvin Gaye and all that sort of stuff. I kind of just went through every era of soul and hip hop and gospel music that I could and took tiny bits from each one. I just wanted to take as much as I could and infuse it with what I was creating.
AS: Who are some of the people you worked most closely with, either as musicians or producers?
SH: Josh Grant is basically the guy that I created the majority of this project with. He did an exceptional job. It was easy, the two of us—we’ve always worked with each other on everything. Josh and I have known each other now for like seven or eight years. It’s been a long time. I did Sound Experiment 2 with him and almost every other song since. That’s my bro—that’s family right there.
When we worked on this album, he was in London for the majority of that time and then moved back to LA. He’s originally American—he’s from Kansas. He moved back to America at the end of 2019. So we actually finished the record in 2020 in LA, before the pandemic hit. Well, I think we technically finished it remotely. It was me in London and him in LA, doing it via Zoom, which was interesting.
AS: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to right now?
SH: Honestly, I’m looking forward to touring and then I’m going to take a big break. We’re gonna put some more music out this year as well, which I’m looking forward to, but once I’m done with this campaign I’m going to go and sleep for a bit.
Untidy Soul is out on Jan. 28 via AWAL.