Singer-songwriter SG Lewis: ‘We’re in a hyper-poppy moment. The industry is obsessed with speed’
SG Lewis remembers the first time he ever set foot in a nightclub. He was a fresher at university and his friends had taken him to East Village in Liverpool where industrial techno DJ Ben Klock was playing: “I remember feeling a kick in the chest each time the beat dropped, and I realised this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Lewis’ own music departs starkly from the German techno that first gave him the buzz. He’s part of a new wave of nostalgic nu-disco artists who’ve made synthpop the coolest style around (Dua Lipa, with whom he has worked, and Harry Styles also come to mind).
Samuel George Lewis is the middle of three brothers. Growing up in Reading, he first became interested in music in his teens, playing the guitar in bands before he started experimenting with dubstep online. A far cry from the debonair DJ he is today, he was a somewhat shy and reclusive teen, who spent his summers remixing tracks in his bedroom. “All I was interested in was music,” he says.
It quickly became his mode of self-expression; he tells me he would console his mother Sarah when she was sad by playing the aptly titled Sara Smile by Daryl Hall and John Oates. But it’s the catchy stuff that really makes him sing.
Among the 28-year-old’s many tattoos is an image of Turpsichord, the Greek goddess of dance, who kickstarts our conversation about the genre that has brought him fame and success. While his chief musical influences ranged from Bon Iver to James Blake and Timbaland, he found that dance music was the right funnel for this eclectic mix. He idolises Max Martin, the Swedish multi-hyphenate behind Britney’s … Baby One More Time (1999), Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off (2014) and the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights (2019). “His ability to craft pop records in a way that’s so precise yet so lively is inspiring to me,” Lewis says.
After posting his first tracks online, he quickly built a loyal following and scored a residency at Liverpool’s Chibuku Club. There, he learned to DJ the old school way: live, all hands on decks.
Dance music became his raison d’être because of its unique ability to bring people together. “It’s the reason I do what I do, and the reason I’d be doing it even if nobody was listening,” he says. “Knowing you’ve made a good song that people enjoy dancing to: there’s no feeling quite as great.”
He’s clearly got the knack. As well as Dua Lipa, Lewis has recently worked with Elton John, who called Lewis the day after he appeared on his Apple Music Show Rocket Hour; next thing he knew, they’d made a song together. Orbit was included in John’s album Lockdown Sessions (2021) and the two FaceTime every now and then to catch up.
On Lipa, he says: “She’s such a pro on the mic, you don’t do a take more than three times.” He helped produce the track Hallucinate from Lipa’s award-winning Future Nostalgia (2020), the album that made her into a household name. “It was a really cool record to be able to have played a small part in,” Lewis says.
His own new album, AudioLust & HigherLove, is a tour de force, showcasing the same colourful and upbeat style that made his remixes of New Rules and More Than A Woman so irresistible.
Whereas his debut, Times (2021), was produced before the pandemic hit and drew inspiration from the dancefloor, this one was made during lockdown and forced Lewis to look inwards.
Self-isolation meant that “everyone was pausing and reflecting on relationships,” Lewis says. As someone whose songwriting follows his stream of consciousness (“I’m constantly writing things down on my phone”), the theme of the new album became obvious before he’d even considered producing it.
The result is very much in two parts: AudioLust evokes the rush of infatuation while HigherLove explores love in its fully realised form. It’s a classic case of art imitating life: the lusty act features standouts (Infatuation, Oh Laura) but its novelty and convoluted lyrics wear off; the second act is better paced and more rewarding, with Fever Dreamer sitting at the centre of the album and evoking the transition from lust to love, the superior depth and floatier feeling captured by deep synths and warmer sounds, enhanced by Charlotte Day Wilson’s beautiful vocals.
Lewis is excited to release an album into “the real world”, where he can witness people’s reactions in the flesh, on the floor. “It was boring, tracking how well or badly my songs from the first album were doing by going on Spotify or SoundCloud and seeing a number,” he sighs.
The teenager who used to lock himself in his room to make music is long gone. Lewis, now an ebullient stage presence, gets a kick out of performing for ever-growing crowds. Early on, his career seemed fixed as a producer and occasional featured artist. He released his debut album banking heavily on the strength of his collaborators and guest vocalists. But when Chemicals, the only song on which he sang solo, turned out to be the most popular, he realised listeners wanted to hear more of him.
“It gave me the green light to explore that part of myself,” Lewis says. He used to suffer from imposter syndrome, confessing once that “Sometimes … I do ask myself why artists want to work with me.” His newfound confidence has helped him overcome this fear. “I’m really interested in collaboration at the moment,” he says. “I can’t wait to get back in the studio already.” He’s set aside some time for this in February before going on tour in March.
A self-confessed “music nerd”, he boasts an exceptional knowledge of music history and constantly challenges himself with new techniques, resulting in a sound that is futuristic and otherworldly. “I think a lot of my music so far has nostalgically referenced past eras, so I’d like to try the opposite,” Lewis says. His curiosity is refreshing in today’s increasingly homogenous pop landscape.
“We’re definitely living through a hyper-poppy moment,” he admits. “The industry’s obsessed with speed. Everything is mashed up and packaging a lot of information into very little time.”
Though he recognises the TikTok style as overstimulating, he’s wary not to sound ungrateful. He owes much of his mainstream success to the social media platform, where his edit of More Than A Woman has been used on videos more than 318,000 times.
Lewis cautions against pessimism: “Trends will follow the tide and evolve with technology; if you take the standpoint that TikTok is damaging music, you’re just going to end up being left behind.” He adds: “I think understanding why a certain sound or style resonates with people is more important than digging your heels in and calling people wrong.”
After he ends his European tour, Lewis will travel back to California to spend time with his girlfriend, who lives in LA. He’s also excited to return to Coachella, the site of his first American show, for a third time. “It has a special place in my heart,” he smiles. “And it’s also really satisfying to watch the billing and crowds grow!”
In June, it’s just been announced, Lewis will host a series of parties at Elsewhere Space, one of Brooklyn’s coolest live music venues. Those crowds are only going to keep growing.
AudioLust and HigherLove (Astralwerks) is out now