Save for a vote of confidence from his primary-school headteacher, who gave him a lead role in an end-of-term production on the strength of his vocal audition, Luke Sital-Singh wasn’t exactly showered with praise for his singing during his childhood and adolescence. This may strike you as surprising (it strikes me as outrageous), given the crucial part Luke’s voice – sometimes tentative, vulnerable, sometimes visceral and emotionally raw – plays in his music. Yet, time and again, the 26-year-old was knocked back – even, on one occasion, by his eldest brother (no filial loyalty there, then). “He was helping me record some songs once,” Luke recalls, “and I remember him saying: ‘That song’s really nice – until you start singing.’” He met with similar rejection when he auditioned for the school concert at sixth-form college. “I was going to do this duet with a girl called Lauren of a Sarah McLachlan song, and we had to perform it for the music teachers first. And one of them said: ‘Yeah, it’s good, but I think that only Lauren should sing it’. I was playing in bands at that time, and had a good bunch of friends. And this petition went round the school, saying ‘Let Luke Sital Singh’. It didn’t work, needless to say.” None of this is said with a trace of bitterness. Luke’s own take on his brother’s verdict is refreshingly free of pride, and characteristically full of wry humour. “He was right,” he says, laughing. “I had this weak, nasally voice.”
At a time when Luke was listening to bands such as the Offspring and Korn (“It was a social thing,” he protests, “and I would probably have gone along with anything my group friends was into”), he changed course when he discovered Damien Rice’s album O. It was like being struck by lightning, Luke says, “this sound that seemed to find me, at the right time, when I was 14 or 15; it connected more intimately than anything else had, and it’s never really left. It was the first time I’d ever heard that sort of music, or consciously flagged it, at least. I learnt the entire album, every word, every chord; I could play it from start to finish. And it was such a big album at that time, you could go to any open-mic night, and one or two of the acts would always do a Damien Rice cover. And I’d stand there and think: ‘That’s not right. You don’t understand it. You’ve missed the thing that makes him good.’ That was incredibly arrogant, of course, but I really felt I’d got his number. And through that, I started writing songs.”
Damien Rice led Luke to Ryan Adams, to Ray Lamontagne, to Josh Ritter and, eventually, back to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. “The elitist in me thinks that it’s maybe a bit naff to say the Damien Rice was my guiding influence,” he laughs, “when most people will mention The Beatles or The Stones, or Bob Dylan. I definitely have that way of thinking in me. But the truth is, I didn’t grow up with anything good, musically. Everything was handed down to me by my eldest brother, he was the first of us to really get into music that our parents didn’t listen to.” Home was New Malden, an area in southwest area that was, Luke says, “not the strangest place to grow up in, but it is a bit of a non-place. There’s not much going on – there isn’t even a cinema, and there aren’t any music venues either. Me and my friends would have to put on gigs in church halls and coffee shops.” The guitarist John Martyn was born there, a fact, Luke says, that is often raised in interviews. “People say, ‘How did that influence the area?’ and I’m always like: ‘It didn’t.’ Because nobody there knows about it. It’s not like there’s a statue of him on the high street. There should be.”
Luke’s two elder siblings – “both high achievers, with proper jobs now” – got into the “good” school. Luke didn’t. “And that was the moment,” he says, “when I realised: ‘Ok, I’m on a different path here.’” That path took him to college in Brighton as a 19-year-old, to study music. Which is where serendipity enters the picture. “The evening before the first session,” Luke says, “I wrote a song in my grotty bedsit, and I brought it in on the first morning. And the first lesson, by coincidence, was three hours with Iain Archer [the producer and songwriter, who has collaborated with Snow Patrol, Jake Bugg and Fionn Regan, among others], who was teaching there at the time. And he said: ‘Does anyone want to play a song?’ Everyone was very sheepish, but for some reason – and this isn’t like me at all – I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go’, and put my hand up. And I performed the heck out of that song. From that moment on, Iain took an interest in what I was doing. At college, you could book one-on-one time with tutors, so I booked every minute of Iain’s time that I could get. That was total serendipity. Another of the visiting tutors was this brilliant woman who was an A&R and had signed Josh Ritter, and I think I was the only one in the class who had any idea who Josh Ritter was. And I booked all her time, too, and a year later, she got me opening for Josh Ritter on tour.”
Fast-forward to two years ago, and plans are being made for Luke to record his first EP. Luke and his new manager are discussing producers. Got anyone in mind, the manager asks. Yes, as it happens, I do, says Luke: Iain Archer. He’s a friend of mind, says the manager; I’ll get in touch with him. The first fruits of the reunion between student and tutor was 2012’s ‘Fail For You’ EP, whose four tracks won rave reviews, with Luke’s music compared to everyone from Bon Iver to Neil Young. Two further EPs last year – ‘Old Flint’ and ‘Tornados’ – only deepened the sense that Luke was limbering up for a sensational debut album. And now the wait is nearly over. ‘The Fire Inside’, produced, as were the EPs, by Iain Archer, is an album of extraordinary power and brutal candour, its songs riding a rollercoaster of emotions – the hard-won optimism and rousing, never-say-die chorus of ‘Nothing Stays the Same’, the almost unbearable heartache and fragility of ‘Fail For You’, the strummed, confessional intimacy of ‘Cornerstone’ – and switching suddenly between bare-bones finger-picked guitar and propulsive, massed-harmony euphoria. And, at the centre of it all, carrying the songs, giving them devastating emotional heft, is Luke’s voice. No, it’s not weak and nasally. It’s beautiful, tender, bruised, tremulous, defiant. Those school-kids handing out that petition were onto something after all.
Luke’s different path has led him to here. He’s still having to get used to that fact, he admits. “I was listening to the album on the train this morning. I think I do like it,” he says, as if still trying to convince himself. The rest of us will need no convincing. We were never going to miss the thing that makes him good. No, make that great.