British singer-songwriter Zak Abel has the kind of voice that forces you to stop, listen, repeat and flood your music feed with his back catalogue. The 22-year old rising star and born and bred North Londoner first gained attention after lending his vocals to Gorgon City’s Top 20 Hit Unmissable in 2014. Since then he has carved out his status not only as one-to-watch but one-to-collaborate with.
He played a sell-out gig at London’s KOKO this week, supported by winner of ‘Best Solo Male’ at the Unsigned Music Awards in October 2016, Mullally, who performed an edgy, neo soul set that included She Don’t Know Me and provided the perfect warm up for Zak. The Camden venue was heaving with a loyal fanbase and by the time the band came on stage to set up, they were chanting ‘We want Zak!’ in near-on delirium.
Kicking off with the up-tempo All I Ever Do is Say Goodbye, Zak gave an energetic performance; bounding up to the drummer’s platform and dancing along with the crowd with his hands raised like a conductor guiding his dutiful orchestra. He seemed genuinely bowled over by the crowd’s response, saying ‘Man, it’s such an honour to be with you guys!’ with a grin.
Zak’s music has been described as ‘soulful electronica’ and he has the talent to seamlessly blend the two genres, proven on tracks These Are the Days and Alchemy from 2015’s EP Joker Presents (on which he teamed up with Bristol-based producer Joker) that sounded impressive live.
He shared with the audience that the first gig he went to at KOKO was Bonobo when he was seventeen, admitting he didn’t actually get in because he was too young. ‘So it’s good to be finally let in!’ he said with a laugh before dropping the funky Say Sumthin from his 2015 EP One Hand on The Future. It was performed effortlessly, showcasing a voice beyond his years and had the engaged crowd shouting every word.
Zak’s set was a fusion of earlier and well-loved material, including Soul Child which had its first live play in the UK on the night, and tracks from his debut album, Only When We’re Naked released on 12 October 2017. OWWN is an accomplished record but when performed life, something happens to the tracks. They come to life, take on a shape of their own. For Awakening, the crowd were asked to sing along and ‘shout like you’re in a football stadium’ and the result was choral and rousing.
Supported by a tight band and gifted backing singers, every track was delivered with passion and raw natural talent that made it all look effortless. Flow was an off-setlist track, requested from the crowd, and he gamely went along with it, protesting affably that it would be ‘unrehearsed and acoustic and I’ll probably forget 50% of the lyrics’. He didn’t and it was a smasher.
It would have been an injustice not to showcase some dazzling collaborations on the night, having worked with some of the industry’s most exciting artists, writers and producers including Wretch 32, Kaytranada and Eg White. He recently featured on Jarreau Vandal’s Make You Love Me, a jazzy, futurist track with a soulful vibe and it proved a brilliant inclusion to the set.
An enthusiastic roar of ‘Who knows Tom Misch?!’ was met with a huge cheer from the crowd and Beautiful Escape was a luminescent reminder of his partnership with the producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Misch from his Beat Tape 2 album. He was later joined on stage by British singer Sinéad Hartnett whose beautiful vocals complimented Zak’s perfectly for a velvety cover of Childish Gambino’s Redbone.
Zak’s songwriting shows superior composition and his lyrics are reflective and meaningful. He has spoken about experiencing tough times as well as good times, and a sense of introspective is weaved into his music and words. Deserve to be Loved tells the story of a good relationship ruined because he felt he didn’t deserve to be loved – his favourite track on the album – and it was performed with the simple message that everyone deserves to be loved no matter who they are. Zak has the ability to do heartfelt and deeply personal well without too much sentimentalism and it was a moving performance.
Still Want UUU, a standout track from the new album which grabs you and won’t let go and the album’s title track, Only When We’re Naked, were the final tracks of the main set and saw Zak commanding the stage and looking like he was having the time of his life.
After an obligatory selfie with the crowd, he performed his penultimate track; the uptempo Beautiful Life which was amplified with the soaring voices of his backing singers. The artist has spoken of his love of Ghanian Highlife and many of his tracks sound inspired by the melodic and rhythmic structure of the genre. Arguably, the night had been building up to the final song, Unstable, a brilliant track with a gusty vocal, feel-good sound and infectious beat and hearing it live didn’t disappoint; it made for a triumphant ending to a great night.
He ended the night with an earnest ‘Thanks and I love you!’ and going by the reaction of the crowd it’s safe to say the adoration is reciprocated.
Zak Abel is clearly on the road to superstardom with a growing fan base, critical acclaim and already bagging a date at the O2 Shepherd Bush in March 2018. With an expressive, rich voice and tons of soulful charisma with a contemporary edge this is classy music you can really feel (even when you’ve got your clothes on).
Live Review by Nicola Greenbrook and Photography by Paul Lyme. Zak Abel at Koko on Tuesday 10th 2017