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Interview: Kenny Thomas teases new single ‘Contagious’ and looks back on his debut album ‘Voices’

British soul singer Kenny Thomas rose to fame in the early 90s with the release of his debut album ‘Voices’.

That record spawned hits such as ‘Thinking About Your Love’, ‘Best Of You’ and ‘Outstanding’. It’s been over 10 years since Thomas last released a single, and next week he’s releasing the catchy late summer jam ‘Contagious’.

I spoke to Kenny to find out more about ‘Contagious’, discuss his upcoming London headline show, and to look back on the impact of ‘Voices’…

I’m excited to be speaking to you. Your music was such a big part of my family when I was growing up. ‘Voices’ was played endlessly in our house by my Mum and we still play songs from it now…

Oh, I’m honoured. It was a it was a big album, wasn’t it? It played a massive part in my life because it changed my life. I meet so many people up and down the country all these years on (that love that album), I’ve even met soldiers that were over in Iraq during that time and they were listening to ‘Voices’ in their time off. It’s (had) a huge impact on people. There’s albums that have done that to me when I was a bit younger and they’re the go to album that you grew up with, and they take you immediately back to those places and that moment in time. Powerful stuff music. Very powerful.

For me, it’s your voice. It’s one of the most distinctive in music. What a gift to have a voice like that…

Yeah, I think that’s what differentiates some singers from others. If you’ve got that tone… you know Elton John when you hear him, George Michael can never be replaced, and Freddie Mercury… or different voices. (If you go) into the world of soul you’ve got Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, and people like that. They have unique tones and it’s all about that. Once you’ve got the tone, then you’ve got to spend the years working on what you do with it. I did years of vocal training and refining (my voice). Over the years, I’ve experimented with that tone. I’ve experimented with going into a deeper part of the voice and the lighter part of the voice.

Ironically, the ‘Contagious’ record that we’ve got coming out shortly, I’ve deliberately gone back to a younger part of the voice and a younger tone. (Voices) are fascinating things because it’s an instrument, and like any other instrument you’re still playing with it and you’re still learning about it. The track ‘Voices’ sticks out very differently from everything else. I approached it almost in a bit of a choir boy fashion and I started out doing music in church. We deliberately kept it soulful but went a little bit more churchy and younger and different. The ‘Voices’ was album was called that, because when we were making the demos, we realised that I could do different things with my voice. I could go into different tones and play around. I’ve experimented with that a lot over the years, especially when I’ve done different covers and a bit of jazz and stuff like that.

Kenny Thomas - Contagious
Credit: Nightfly Management

It’s interesting what you said about your vocal on ‘Contagious’ but you sound the same as you did back on ‘Voices’. How do you keep your voice is such condition?

Lifestyle has got a lot to do with it. My voice is tired this week because I’ve come off the back of the week (Kenny’s daughter was recently hospitalised) but also before that I was gigging, and it gets tired. That in itself produces a different tone and some people like to record when they’ve got that tiredness to the voice so they get a bit of an edge to it. I’m not doing the rock and roll stuff that we did in the early 90s, which you expect from any pop star that’s easily led. I keep myself reasonably fit. I very rarely touch alcohol, I think that’s a big player. People who tend to drink spirits, that can have an effect, and I don’t smoke. You do hear of soul singers in the past who were big smokers and drinkers, yet they kept their voice in trim (laughs). Hydration is a big thing with voices, (especially) when you’re on tour. Sleep, which is a rare commodity in my house, is important. All of those things and obviously using it correctly.

I think the training that I did in the 90s with Glenn Jones, who’s now passed away bless him, – he trained a lot of great singers in his day – going there week after week and doing the scales and learning how to position the voice and stuff like that helped. Touch wood it may preserve it for a bit longer (laughs). Going back to ‘Contagious’ we’ve deliberately gone back that tone so it sounds like, ‘wow, is this something that I recorded 20 odd years ago, and I’ve had tucked away in the cupboard?’ but certainly not. If you notice the chorus goes a little bit deeper than the verses, so I’ve gone to a more current tone that I use, but the verses I’ve gone light and breathy. A good friend of mine said to me recently, ‘your voice sounds great. One of the best soul singers of all-time’ or whatever he said, and I just said, ‘I’m still learning (to sing) with a microphone next to (my voice)’. That’s how singing is, you are you are still learning all the time.

The thing with ‘Contagious’ is it has that classic Kenny Thomas feel but it’s also contemporary and works for a modern audience. It brings to mind what Steps have managed to achieve by playing into that sweet spot, and I feel you’ve done that with this track…

I listen to pop music but obviously my genre is soul music so I’m locked into that, but I keep a keen ear out for everything that’s going. Steps are interesting because you could say some of those songs have got an ABBA feel to them. They could have been written for ABBA some those melodies. It’s very clever, very, very clever. Sometimes the most simple stuff is the most clever. With the ‘Contagious’ record, I have to bow down and pay homage to Ian Green. 32 years on here we are, a little bit older and a little bit thinner on top and we are making great records. The man’s a genius. He was playing live bass on tour when he was 16 for Maxi Priest and he worked with London Beat and people like that. He came into my life around about 1990 and the guy is a genius. I don’t think there’s much he doesn’t play – guitar, bass, keys – and he’s a great producer. We’ve got that kind of old sound going on and he’s very clued up with some of the contemporary sounds.

Things have gone full circle. I’m now at that tender age where you see cycles. You see the 80s thing going around, the 90s thing, the 70s thing, and it’s because really, you could say, everything’s been done. There’s nothing new under the sun. With that in mind, the only thing that’s changed sometimes is the way people are approaching lyrics and melodies. This is where there’s another little twist in the story. Back in the days when Ian and I were making music in, we started out in 1990 doing our demos at a flat near Brixton. We never knew that some months after that we’d end up on ‘Top of the Pops’ and selling the amount of records we did, but it happened, thank goodness. But back then (I was) single and (Ian) was in a relationship with the girl he would eventually marry. We had no kids. His son Darius, who didn’t exist in 1990, is a very, very clever little songwriter. He’s got a great voice himself and he’s got his own career that he’s carving out as an artist, but he’s also a very, very clever writer. Ian pulled him in to the equation and that’s where you get some of those clever melodies where you think, ‘OK, we’ve got that soulfulness and it’s got that 80s/90s thing, but there’s something extremely modern about it’. Ian came up with some melodies and then Darius, his son, came in and, and took it to the next point, which only sometimes a youngster can do. Their fingers are far more on the pulse than some of us are older fellas, you know?

What’s the plan post ‘Contagious’? Is there more new music on the way?

We’ve got another (song) lined up, that’s a bit more up tempo. Again, Darius has stepped in and worked some of his his magic. It’s got that soulful thing but the contemporary way that people are positioning melodies and the lyrics. Things have sped up. Have you noticed they’re putting more lyrics in songs? We’ve had 30 years of some really, really intricate and complex hip-hop. There’s only so much space you get on a tune and there’s only so much time you’ve got for a pop record – 3 minutes 20 seconds – and some of those have become shorter in duration. What they’re doing now is they’re packing them. Some of these youngsters are going in there thinking, ‘how much can I get into this story?’ and some of it’s almost conversational. Where you had those very archaic and romantic lyrics back in the day, and the big elongated legato melodies, now it’s like, ‘let’s pack it in quick and say as much as we can’. It has that kind of street edge to it, which I think is the way things have evolved.

Kenny Thomas
Credit: Nightfly Management

I was speaking to someone recently and lamenting that artists don’t really sing in their songs these days. So much of modern music is talk-speak and I really miss the days when you could hear a strong vocal on a record…

Yeah, I know and it’s just musical fashions, I suppose. There are great singers out there and there’s some great soul music being made; it’s just not making its way to mainstream radio. You’re relying on the viral side of things and the great old word of mouth phenomenon, which is better than any marketing tool you can employ in the world. There is some great music being made and certainly some great songs being written. You’ve got Ed Sheeran, and people like that, who are still writing proper songs and are great singers. That’s certainly not going to go anywhere, and fashions will change and some people adapt to it.

But you’re right, some of the modern pop is just the way it’s gone. I watched a video the other day and it was about how singing has changed, and the amount of hours that people are putting in. There’s that theory that whether it’s in tennis or basketball or singing, you’ve got to put that 10,000 hours. I come across in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ and he mentions The Beatles. You think The Beatles came out of nowhere and had these hits, but they had done their 10,000 hours in Hamburg. Big eight hour sets, song after song after song. I think with myself, 32 years on or maybe a bit longer than that when you consider where I actually started back in ’88 at Eddie Grant’s studio in North London, you realise I’ve notched up a lot of hours of gigging and singing. You can hone in and you’re starting to really know your trade. Some of these singers are very young now and they haven’t put those hours in, they’ll get there I’m sure, but also they’re emulating and copying things. We grew up in the 70s and 80s, and singing was singing, and there were some real good vocals and powerful stuff. You got used to being indoctrinated with that sound, you know?

Absolutely. When you’ve got a voice like yours, it would be such a shame not to sing properly though. Part of the joy of listening to you is hearing you sustain those notes, hearing that range as you explore different parts of your voice. That’s why it’s so enjoyable to listen to you…

I’m gonna keep trying and keep learning as always (laughs) but thank you for saying that. It’s great. I like what music does to people and the joy it brings, and where it takes them to. With all that’s going on in the world, it’s three and a half minutes of escape, isn’t it?

It absolutely is. In December you’re doing a headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. That’s going to be a great night isn’t it?

We’ve yet to announce a special guest so we’re working on that. It will be a longer set. On the UK tour we did 90 minutes so for this one we’ll maybe push it and see if we can do a bit longer. We’ve got a new band together over the last year and a half, and there’s some great musicians in there who really gel and have a really great sound. It’ll just be fun to be back on that stage. I haven’t done a venue in London of that size, really since the mid 90s. I’ve done big festivals and other gigs and stuff but not a headline (show) of that nature. It’s a great opportunity for us to introduce ‘Contagious’ and maybe sneak in one or two other new records along with all the oldies that people want to hear.

If you’ve ever been to one of my gigs, it’s a real party goers kind of thing. They like to get down and they’ll get out of their seats. If it’s a standing gig then some of it almost resembles a football terrace really. Of the tour we did, Liverpool sticks out above all the rest of them. The crowd were going crazy before we even got on stage and started, they were up for it. Liverpool like to have a good night and there was such a great vibe in that in that crowd. London and Birmingham were great but Liverpool just stuck out as the most noisy. If you could take my Scouser fans and take them with you to every gig, you’d be in for a good night every time because they were really up for it.

Kenny Thomas will release new single ‘Contagious’ on Thursday 22nd September 2022. He will be performing at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London on Saturday 10th December. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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