When we first heard of SUB BLUE, he was a teenage voice among an orchestra of pop/RnB acts emerging at the time. Tyler Mensah came through around the same time as Chelcee Grimes, Taylor Fowlis and MiC Lowry, and remains to this day a mind beyond his years; since then he has also gone on to cement himself as one of the region’s most exciting voices. Alongside Eyesore & The Jinx, he’s just been awarded a grant under PRS’ Momentum Accelerator programme, which identifies artists who are on the cusp of a breakthrough in their careers after exhibiting impressive talent and progress. Acknowledgement from an industry mammoth like PRS is no small thing; it’s a nod from the institution, telling you you’re in favour. And, after we saw him perform at LIPA as part of the live-broadcast 2ube Xtra, the recognition feels well deserved.
RnB acts are still rare in Merseyside, and whether he’s playing the guitar or just singing, the delivery feels incredibly polished. As on the night, he maintains his characteristically sleek appearance when we meet him for the interview. But the stories and emotions woven into his melodies tell a different story; the emotions appear unadorned and unfiltered. This is an artist who took the permission artists like Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd implicitly gave RnB artists to show sensitivity, and ran with it.
“With my writing, I take a lot of inspiration from those guys.” Watching him perform, there’s an obvious flavour of Channel Orange, especially the song Super Rich Kids. “It’s a really good album, my [favourite] is between that and Blonde to be honest. Blonde is one of those that I always go back to, and I can listen to it endlessly on repeat.” The links between Sub Blue’s music and the world of American RnB are not only melodic and thematic; he’s worked with producers who are credited on some of his favourite albums. “When we were writing I was actually in LA at the time. I was working with AV, who worked on Channel Orange, and Sir Dylan who worked on [Solange’s] A Seat At The Table, Logic’s 1-800, The Weeknd’s Starboy album, so he’s pretty credited. And then I was working with a writer called Jake Torrey who featured on a Lupe Fiasco track. The whole idea was we wanted to tell this story of our generation and how addicted to their phones they are, in the sense of like – if you don’t take a picture, wherever it is that you go, it’s kind of like it never really happened. It’s like, what are you even there for? I feel like it resonated quite well with a lot of my peers and a lot of people who are similar to me.”
These influences meld to form the core of Sub Blue’s songwriting process, which explores the pitfalls of modern living. This has been at the heart of his two works to date, 2018’s Suburban View mini-album, and the recently released EP, Wilfully Blind. Despite his buttery, pitch-perfect vocals and spotless fade, his work is about imperfection. His name is short for the genre he has created for himself, ‘suburban blues’. “Suburban, because I come from a suburban neighbourhood, and blues in relation to blues music. Like, singing songs about teenage angst and heartbreak; telling stories about the people around me that people might connect to.”
Mensah was raised in material comfort with his parents in Runcorn, but he often makes the point that life isn’t easy for anyone. “There’s always the kind of assumption, [with me] coming from the suburbs, that life is a lot easier than people think,” he says. “We definitely go through our troubles and hardships the same way as everyone else, but we just deal with them in a different way.” He is candid about his struggles, too: “Growing up, I was one of the only black kids on my street. And I was one of the few black kids in my school. It was very tough for me having to, kind of, fit in, because a lot of the music that the kids that I was friends with listened to, it wasn’t RnB or hip hop, it was indie rock. I felt the need to listen to a lot of those bands, like Red Hot Chili Peppers, The 1975.”
Cultural alienation happens at every social level and individuality is difficult to experience anywhere, but Mensah made a breakthrough discovery on a trip to America. “It was when I took a trip to Houston to go see my uncle, I think it was in like 2008, 2009. I remember, it was the first time I’d discovered Drake; they were playing a lot of Drake on the radio at that time, it was his So Far Gone mixtape. I remember I came back to the UK hyped about Drake, telling all my friends to listen to this guy; and no one really listened. Give it a year or two years and he was, like, the biggest artist in the UK. It was always an interesting one growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, or a predominantly white high school – it definitely shaped me into the person and artist that I am today.” Growing up in the suburbs is supposed to be a sheltered experience, but this stereotype doesn’t reflect Mensah’s experience: “I’ve seen a lot of things that not a lot of young teens should have seen; I guess that’s down to being surrounded by suburban kids and being a suburban kid myself. It’s been an amazing journey, and I don’t think I would change anything about where I come from.”
Since breaking through aged 16, Mensah has been on a path of constant development, having been identified as a prodigious talent from an early age. He’s been part of the LIMF Academy artist development programme, worked with industry exces and ‘big name’ producers and tipped to achieve great things. This scrutiny brings its own kind of pressure – but it’s not something that seems to ruffle Mensah’s feathers. He’s taken his time and allowed his craft to develop, pouring his own brand of electronic soul into Sub Blue. It’s the kind of route that other artists at the start of their careers could learn a lot from.
“I think the message I want to get across is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or the ‘things’ you have,” he says. “We all have our struggles and demons that we are battling as we try to make sense of ourselves, the world and our place in it. On this project, I try to touch on the dark side of what happens if we don’t ‘wake up’ in time.”
Another experience that hits people from all walks of life is leaving childhood, and Sub Blue is one of those rare artists who will get to look back on his own documentation of that delicate process. His performances are interspersed with vocal samples from moments in his life. “One of the interludes is from my debut EP Suburban View, after Teen No More,” he explains. “It was a voicemail from my dad wishing me a happy birthday when I was just turning 21. That was the year that I’d finished writing Teen No More, got back from LA, and I was kind of feeling the pressures of life, I guess. I’d have to maybe get a full-time job, and not be able to do music full-time. That was one of the reasons why I wrote that record.”
He’s inspired by other work documenting the experience of wealthy children: “A lot of the other samples that are running throughout the set are from a movie I watched on Amazon Prime called Generation Wealth. It really touched on the life of suburban kids; and I really connected with that story. It gave me the inspiration for what I wanna write my album about. The whole thing about wealth being the centre of attention for kids in the suburbs, and that being their coping mechanism, I guess, for dealing with pain or whatever it is that they’re going through. Like I say on Think We’re Fine, ‘We spend money like we don’t like money,’ as quoted by J Hus.”
In my view, we give privileged white men the licence to wax lyrical about their ennui and sadness on a daily basis, tending to accommodate any difference between us in order to feel a shared sense of essential human anxiety. Thom Yorke’s allowed to be miserable. Ricky Gervais just released a six-episode Netflix series on one suburban man’s journey from nihilism to hope. Why shouldn’t Sub Blue lay claim to sensitivity and suffering because he grew up in Cheshire? Surely a hard-liner who demands that musicians writing about their emotions should be working class would also possess the ability to see that capitalist luxury is an expression of emptiness? In any case, the vast majority of people in this country grow up in a comparatively luxurious environment when using a global standard. Everyone is entitled to unhappiness and the catharsis of expression – there’s something universal in that. Especially when it’s in the form of Sub Blue’s smooth, spotless melodies, voiced with a sincere depth of emotion.
Wilfully Blind is out now. Sub Blue plays Sound City on Sunday 5th May at Love Lane Brewery – tickets available now from ticketquarter.co.uk.
Interview: Joel Durksen