They say there is no such thing as overnight success in the music business, but just-turned 18-year-old Kamal might be an exception.
Last year, Kamal was living at home with his parents in Harlesden, north west London, planning to apply to Sussex university to study English, when he released smilingdownthephone on Soundcloud, a sensual and cheeky rumination on a late-night conversation between two lovers.
Within hours, an artist manager who had come across the song via Spotify Discover had got in touch with Kamal via Instagram to offer the young singer her services, and record labels duly came knocking. The musician signed to Neighbourhood Records, home to Brit-award winning rapper Dave.
Since then, Kamal has released a handful of soulful RnB ballads that nod to his childhood listening to D'Angelo and growing up as part of Generation Z, with conversational lyrics inspired by the mundane – from not wanting to leave the house to go to a party, to getting the bus back with a friend after a night out – to serious reflections on mental health.
Relatable and honest with hooks to make your foot tap, the songs have blown up on Spotify (turning over just shy of half a million streams a month) while earning Kamal a loyal legion of young fans across the world, as well as several gamechanging celebrity shout-outs. Blue, a love song, was playlisted by the world's most venerated young pop star, Billie Eilish, while Dave shared about the party to his Instagram. With two of his five songs about staying at home (with the videos filmed in his own house) despite being written pre-lockdown, his music has also taken om a curious timeliness.
"I think that's why my songs have picked up traction, everyone is stuck at home, so they clicked with it," Kamal tells me over Zoom from his neat and tidy bedroom, toiletries lined up on a shelf behind him and a microphone in the corner. It feels strange to be peering inside the personal space of a teenage boy, but thankfully there is not a dirty sock – or embarassing Star Wars duvet cover – in sight.
Kamal's music is also heavily on trend: moody, downtempo, slow and addictive – the kind to listen to while looking out of the window as the rain falls, or sitting in bed with a broken heart. At times it's like Billie Eilish, Post Malone and The Weeknd all rolled into one. Even Kamal's song titles are Billie Eilish styled: capped down, with the words joined together in a jumble. It won't be long now until one of his songs is synced on Love Island or on a binge-worthy Netflix show about teen angst, and duly goes viral.
Is it safe to assume, then, that he will no longer be going to university? Kamal chuckles in agreement, although, he says, his parents might have liked the safety net. A brainy family, Kamal's mother works in publishing while his father writes for a policy tracker. They both encouraged his love of music growing up, paying for piano lessons up to grade eight.
But does Kamal feel daunted, forging out a career in music as we approach our ninth month in lockdown? "No, I'm just glad that I'm not getting distracted," he says, telling me that to celebrate his 18th birthday he simply went and saw two friends in the park. "Socially distanced," he adds, carefully.
A post shared by kamal. (@kamalnw) on Oct 24, 2020 at 10:33am PDT
What has been tough, however, is how much time Kamal has had to monitor his come-up on an hourly basis. He has been checking his streams religiously, while Spotify has a feature that allows an artist to check exactly how many people are listening to his music at any one time. "I'm trying really hard not to get too obsessed, as it can get very overwhelming, checking all the stats, checking my number of followers," he says. But music is a welcome outlet for anxiety. "Songwriting is a form of therapy for me. I can say stuff I would never usually talk about with my friends."
Homebody was written because Kamal felt he couldn't "fully be myself in social situations, and to be relaxed when I'm around other people." But, he adds, we shouldn't always take his songs at face value. "Sometimes I will exaggerate a passing feeling for a song's sake, or I might writing a song from the perspective of a friend and their emotions." After all, there are only so many life experiences an 18-year-old can draw from when life is confined to your four bedroom walls.
But Kamal is busy – a debut EP is on the way, and he smiles coyly when I ask if there will be big collaborations with stars from UK music. He gives nothing away, but says he would love to one day work with Coltrane and Mahalia.
Until then, fans are excited and impatient, clamouring in the comments beneath his YouTube videos with flurries of love heart emojis and praise for Kamal's buttered vocals. One comment reoccurs again and again: "This guy is going to make it big."