“I have a reason to fall in love with guitar again” Samm Henshaw on how working with Fender helped him rekindle his love-hate relationship with six strings
The new Fender Artist and soul guitarist takes us through his love-hate relationship with the guitar, his hopes of an instrumental album, and finding space as a black musician in 2023.
“It’s wild, it’s actually quite wild” exclaims Henshaw, while sitting beside a pool in sunny Los Angeles. Born and raised in South London as Iniabasi Samuel Henshaw, and currently on the cusp of 29, the soul and gospel guitarist probably didn’t expect he’d be welcoming in a new journey around the sun as a new Fender artist.
- READ MORE: “I love pushing the sound of the guitar and getting it to do things that people don’t usually think it can do” Yvette Young on Covet’s new album and her approach to guitar
“I think at times [playing guitar] is a love hate relationship,” he admits. “I kind of stopped playing guitar publicly for a really long time, so when I found out this has happened, I thought, okay, I’ve got to pick up the guitar again. It’s nice to feel so on it and to have a reason to fall in love with the guitar again.”
It’s certainly a bold statement to make as he begins his journey as a Fender artist, but his openness about the ups and downs of being a guitarist, nevertheless a musician, is refreshing.
Samm Henshaw is a name that has been appearing more and more in the ears of R&B and soul fans in the past few years. Especially after supporting the likes of James Bay, Chance the Rapper and Allen Stone among others, Henshaw has solidified himself as a musician to keep your eyes on.
2022 was a big year for the gospel singer and guitarist in the wake of the release of his debut album Untidy Soul in January, which showcased 16 tracks, offering a glimpse into the “reflection of his own scatterbrain” according to the musician himself. The album presents the landscape of the gospel and soul scene, from the social commentary of racism in Thoughts and Prayers to the feel-good singalong of Grow and bluesy brass interlude Kenyon. Henshaw’s first official record shows his breadth and passion for intertwining the old and the new, and similarly the way that his love for the guitar complements this journey.
Henshaw is not shy when it comes to admitting that his love for the guitar is somewhat temperamental or ‘seasonal’ as he explains. This up and down relationship that many musicians might fear, he evidently has taken in his stride.
“When I stopped playing the guitar, I felt as if it was a season for me. It was like, ‘Alright fine that was a lot of fun but you’ve done this’. I think when the sound changed from what I had been doing initially to what it has now become and what it’s going to be on this next record, which actually has a tonne of guitar on it,” the musician continues. “It was a season for me to not play it, and again it’s a season of picking it back up and being able to try stuff differently and have a new approach with it moving forward now so I’m really excited.”
While putting responsibility for this new season of guitar playing on the new honour of being a Fender artist, Henshaw credits the instrument in giving him a flexibility to play around with different sounds, and different versions of a sound. Especially regarding gospel and soul, which many may think is traditionally rooted in the organ and piano.
“Seeing how much guitar is actually quite deeply rooted in soul and gospel at the core of it, which most people tend to not realise, was quite interesting for me. It was quite fun to learn that and be able to apply all of this stuff that I had learnt all that I had learnt with the guitar and blend it essentially with what I knew and had found out about guitar.
“With the new music that is coming, I wanted to play around with different sounds and that’s something I think is so amazing with the guitar,” he exclaims. “The ability to have so many different versions of the sound. The amazing thing about the guitar is how different sounds are almost genre defining, and for me what I loved a lot was the funk sound in that old school soul that I wanted to bring, and even the alternative rock stuff as well.”
Being able to see the guitar as a malleable and transitional instrument rather than a binary tool is an admirable thing for a guitarist so young in their career to recognise.
Armed with his new Stratocaster, which he deems as his “favourite thing ever”, Henshaw credits the malleable nature of the instrument in inspiring him to come back to the guitar again and again, even after periods of time which lack motivation.
“Being able to play around with things is great, whether it’s treble, tremolo and then a bit of flanger. Even just the idea that you can just bring out a clean sound for certain songs was amazing just being able to tap into these specific sounds and then hearing the different kind of worlds that you create with that is great to me.”
Gospel in the 21st Century
Listening to much of Henshaw’s releases, it is impressive that he manages to take the core approaches of Gospel and Soul, but still make the music so approachable and consumable to modern audiences.
Asking the musician how he’s come to achieve that in his ten plus years of a career, he surprisingly states that simply he’s “had to learn to stop thinking about it”.
“I used to get told all of the time that what I’d make sounds too old,” he admits. “To me it was like, great, that’s the perspective of someone that sits in a room and makes decisions about these types of things, but for me it was about the fact that I already live in the modern world, which means that I’m exposed to all kinds of music in the modern world and that gives me the luxury of being able to listen to music that came before. Eventually I had to get to a place where I knew I couldn’t think about it because I knew it was just naturally coming out of me based off the influences I’m drawing from and the fact that I live in the present. No matter what it is going to be current and in the now.”
Inspirations and influences are evidently a huge part of Henshaw’s tapestry, but one moment in musical history has clearly made an impact for the musician, and that was John Mayer’s cover of Human Nature at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. Hearing Mayer’s guitar rendition of a song which Henshaw admits is a “favourite” of Jackson’s extensive repertoire, opened up his eyes to how deep an emotional connection can be to a song, even without any vocals.
“People always look at me in a shocked way when I say this, but I’m currently in a place where I keep hearing singers and vocals on songs. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz or anything that doesn’t have vocalists in it. I don’t hate singers, as that would make me a complicated artist but at the moment, I’m not in the mindset to hear singers, and I guess I was in a similar mindset at the time.
“The fact that there was a person who could communicate the same emotion that I felt from a vocalist with lyrics through an instrument, which is of course down to the melodies that were written, was really inspiring to me, and shocking. It made me realise that I need to be able to do that. I need to draw similar emotions from the instrument. That literally was it for me.”
Can we expect an instrumental album from you soon? “Yeah probably” Henshaw says. “I’ve been thinking about it. There are some songs that I’ve written where I’ve just stopped singing. I don’t want to sing in it. I probably will because I’m over singing sometimes.”
Despite Henshaw’s successes, he remains determined to highlight the struggles that many black musicians face when starting out a career in the music industry.
“When I first got into music I was one of very few black male singers that was doing that plus playing guitar and my taste and interests in music were from artists that were playing guitar.” He admits. “I really didn’t think too much about it at the time, but I can probably count the other people that were playing guitar around the time that looked like me.”
Obviously throughout history you’ve had BB King and Muddy Waters and your list is endless,” Henshaw continues. “However, especially in the UK I can only count Michael Kiwanuka and Jordan Mackampa, and Jordan was only getting started when I was at the time. It wasn’t something I ever thought of it was more like taste and what I was interested in at the time, but as you move along and start to go through the system you start to realise that there aren’t that many people that look like me and there are obstacles to overcome.”
Overcome the obstacles Henshaw has indeed done and is evident through his recognition with Fender and much of acclaim that he has received in the past 12 months. However, he admits that giving advice to other young black musicians is incredibly hard to do, as a lot of it comes from your own determination to break through the industry no matter how many times you hear the word no.
“It wasn’t a thought-out process to do that, it was something that I was just interested in, I wasn’t trying to create some type of space. However when you think that there aren’t many people doing that, especially young black young men who’d have the opportunity to see that. It’s nice to be one of those people.
“Making these spaces do need to come from the most authentic place because if its not from there then it’s almost an agenda and I don’t think you can do that to the best of your ability and can’t do it with love or excitement or any type of passion so it was important that it wasn’t a thought out idea.”
Watch Samm Henshaw’s Fender session here.