Tabitha Jade is doing things her own way as she looks to leave her mark on contemporary RnB and Afrobeat. Orla Foster finds out why hard work and self-belief are all part chasing the dream.
“I feel like with music, you can never rush things,” reflects TABITHA JADE. She’s on the brink of releasing debut EP No Label, but getting to this point has been quite a journey. In typical 2020 fashion, the release date was postponed, the studio visits rationed, the launch party cancelled. But still she’s sanguine. “There was a lot of stress and I had to push things back. It’s been challenging! But you do have to be patient and get it right.”
Luckily, patience is a virtue Tabitha cultivated a long time ago. Hailing from West Kirby, the 20-year-old has invested nearly a decade into her career already. After penning her first song at 11, by 14 she was the youngest act ever to play Sound City. The next few years were spent recording demos, entering contests and winning around the wine bars of Wirral before she was old enough to order a glass. She must be weary of people marvelling at her age, but it’s hard not to be impressed by what she’s achieved.
“I was quite confident when I was younger. I wanted to get music out, and carry on with the journey,” she explains, lightly. “Doing competitions and getting constructive feedback just made me want to do better.”
Still, that’s a pretty packed schedule for a teenager. What was it like juggling festival bookings with school?
“Music never got in the way of my studies,” she tells me. “I went to Upton, which was a good school. I had to revise when I could, but it never really clashed. Singing was literally just my escape and something fun to do after classes.”
I went to that school, too, but I can’t imagine being so focused. I recall myself moribund in a green uniform, walking endlessly to the sweetshop in the rain. It was a far cry from Tabitha Jade’s double life: double maths by day, aspiring RnB powerhouse by night. But back to those wine bars, and their acoustic nights. When did she realise her original material was strong enough to shelve the covers?
“I didn’t have quite the same love for covers,” she admits. “Whenever I wrote a new song, I would just play it out in the open mic night and see if the reaction I got was good or bad. At the time, I hadn’t experienced too much, so I would just take inspiration from movies and other people’s experiences. But I always like to push myself, I don’t stay in my comfort zone.”
Did she ever feel self-conscious, edging away from renditions of Amy Winehouse towards more biographical material?
“Yeah, because a lot of my lyrics are very direct and have a clear storyline. I used to feel embarrassed for my family to hear them. Or for a guy to hear a hate song I wrote about him!” she laughs. “I mean, I’ll be shy for, like, a day, but once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
Which song first cemented her sound?
“Secret, because it really locked in who I wanted to be as an artist, and I felt like I was writing honest lyrics. It’s about this relationship… well, it wasn’t even a relationship. I was chatting to this guy for months and it wasn’t progressing anywhere. I was like, ‘Where is this going? I don’t want to be a secret, I don’t want to be hidden. Am I wasting my time?’”
There’s a similar philosophy on latest single FYI, which is equally forthright in its skewering of male indecisiveness: “I wanted to bring the sass back!” she says, assertively. “That song’s about showing you know your worth, that you don’t want to be messed around, and that you respect yourself.”
If the take-no-prisoners approach reminds you of Destiny’s Child’s landmark record The Writing’s On The Wall then it’s no accident; artists such as Destiny’s Child, Lauryn Hill and Ciara are key influences. Tabitha describes her aesthetic as “edgy, futuristic and glam”, words which sum up the songcraft as well as the visuals. While her style is maximal, with lots of metallics and immaculate make-up, recalling the visionary, slightly space-age allure of millennium-era RnB, it’s the message of female empowerment which really hits home. This is a song about negotiating your own space and refusing to compromise.
This brings us nicely to the new EP. It’s a blueprint for Tabitha Jade’s sound, with equal parts nostalgia and innovation. While the shimmering, melismatic vocals and sleek production feel like a timely throwback to Knowles & co, the Afrobeat stylings keep things anchored in 2020. But besides showcasing her love for 00s RnB, Tabitha Jade also wanted to encapsulate the myriad influences which have shaped her identity, starting with the title.
“No Label has two meanings for me,” she explains. “The first is about not fitting into any mould; I grew up in a mixed heritage background, with a white mum and a black dad, and although they didn’t sing or play instruments, they’ve always been really interested in music,” she starts. “My dad collects vinyl and would always be showing me old American soul and jazz records, while my mum’s really into her dance. And playing in Liverpool means that I’ve always been surrounded by rock music, which is why my songs have those powerful, punchy vocals.
“The other side of it is about being an artist without a record label. I wanted to celebrate being self-motivated and not having to rely on anyone. Back in the day, especially, there was such emphasis on getting signed to make it. But being hands-on with your vision makes it come to life, makes your product exactly what you want it to be. If you leave it with other people, they won’t put the same effort in.”
I agree that Tabitha’s autonomy is part of what makes her music exciting. You never see her stall or wait for permission: her career is safely in her own capable hands. At the same time, I’m wary of letting myself harp on about an artist’s resilience and self-sufficiency while the creative landscape around us gets torched to the ground. The UK’s musical infrastructure is not healthy. Why should young, talented artists have to shoulder all of the administration and financial risk of putting out a record?
“I’m not saying that I would never want to be signed, because as you get bigger you may need more people on the team,” Tabitha expands. “But I am saying that, while you’re independent, you should enjoy it. I’ve had to hustle and get things done as cheaply as I can, but I also have freedom to totally oversee every project. I can build up beats myself, experiment with the vibe, direct videos and design cover art. It means that when I show ideas to a producer, they get the vision straight away.”
It’s obvious Tabitha Jade is well equipped to weather the challenges of going DIY. Still, I’m curious if she ever experiences self-doubt, and if so, how she overrides it?
“100 per cent,” she quickly replies. “Over lockdown, I was a lot more anxious, I felt weirdly pressured, there was almost a trend on social media saying ‘use this to your advantage!’ ‘get ahead of the game!’ I was like, ‘Right, I’m getting ahead of the game, let’s do this!’ But I put too much pressure on myself and genuinely cracked.
“I think being nice to yourself is honestly the best thing to do. Most people get voices of doubt, but you can channel that energy,” she continues. “There are definitely times when I think, ‘Oh my god, when is my day gonna come?’ But it’s about looking back at your achievements, celebrating them and knowing that you’re going to achieve a lot more.”
Then again, if you’re Tabitha Jade, stopping to catch your breath barely seems an option. Even in March, when the lockdown was at its most weird and siege-like, she didn’t skip a beat, just picked up her guitar and streamed songs from her bedroom. Did that help her reconnect with her audience?
“Personally, I didn’t like the Instagram lives too much,” she concedes. “It’s not human to me. There was no crowd, no atmosphere, and you’d just be starting a song then get random comments right away. I’m actually more nervous about streaming shows than I am on a festival stage in front of a thousand people.”
I ask how she’s adapted her live show over time to reflect the artist she is today; for example, last summer’s stellar slot at Africa Oyé. She tells me about the band she’s worked with the past five years, and how their close rapport gives them freedom to deconstruct the songs, experimenting with samples and loops mid-set rather than just duplicating the recorded versions. One of the band members is her younger sister Eliza Mai, whose own musical career is rooted in earthy, 90s soul, and who has been a source of inspiration and support from the beginning. “We started this journey together,” she shares, “and it’s amazing to have someone your own age who understands your music so deeply. We’re always learning from each other.”
While both artists are an asset to Liverpool’s music scene, being a female RnB artist isn’t always plain sailing in a city historically used to trumpeting its overwhelmingly male guitar bands. Although Tabitha is a versatile performer whose sound takes in plenty of different genres and influences, it’s still obvious that black voices in Liverpool aren’t always getting the exposure they deserve.
But this, hopefully, is changing. Two days after we speak, Tabitha is due to perform at BlackFest, a festival championing black artists and communities in Liverpool. Although curfew restrictions mean there won’t be a full audience, she’s excited to play a gig IRL. She will also join a panel of young artists discussing their experiences of making music in Liverpool. What are her thoughts on the city’s representation of black music?
“I think it used to be really overlooked,” she says. “Now I can see efforts from people, but there’s still a lot of work to do. We all know Liverpool for the indie, but there’s so much talent from RnB, rap, soul artists. Big names need to come out of Liverpool from that music.”
Now based between Liverpool and London, Tabitha Jade’s influence extends beyond this city’s walls, but those Mersey ties are still strong – with local names like Tremz and Shak Omar guest-starring on her releases. After we brainstorm on what makes for a good day on the Wirral (a sunny beach walk, plus frozen yoghurt from Hoylake with extra Lotus sauce), I quiz her on the move. Now entering her third year at Goldsmiths, Tabitha Jade is equally at home in Shoreditch as on West Kirby’s sleepy shores. Was she ever worried about transplanting her life and career to a new city?
“No, I wasn’t hesitant at all; I’m an adventurous person, I always want to experience new things. But if you want to meet people in London, you have to go out and make the effort,” she cautions. “It doesn’t just come to you.”
There’s a frisson of that new-city excitement in last year’s music video for Right Here. Tabitha arrives in her dorm, unboxes her family photos, figures out where to put her plants, then bounds out into the neighbourhood to leaf through records and try on vintage clothes with friends. It’s a particularly happy, carefree snapshot of her life, which feels all the more poignant as she and her fellow students brace themselves for another semester of online tutorials. Having established a strong creative network with her university peers, lockdown must have come as a blow.
Not that a global standstill could ever really slow Tabitha Jade down. In the year from hell, she’s delivered an excellent record and is already spilling over with ideas for the next. So what advice does she have for future generations of aspiring singer-songwriters, who might this very moment be borrowing their dad’s records and humming melodies into their iPhones?
“Just have fun with your music and don’t be scared to make mistakes,” she replies, poised as always. “You only have one life, so you may as well just go for your dream.”
No Label will be released in November.