“Less is more… but more is good. You do things I never thought a woman would.”
As opening statements go, the first track on Collard’s debut album is practically guaranteed to grab your attention.
Hell Song (for that is its name) whisks you straight to the bedroom, where the 24-year-old’s falsetto drips with desire over a sticky-delicious guitar riff.
It’s a boudoir scene worthy of Prince in his prime. And just like Prince, Collard struggles to reconcile his sexual and spiritual impulses. “Hell is for the both of us,” he repeats, over and over, as the song reaches its conclusion.
“All my vices, I regard as unholy,” says the singer, somewhat less aroused as he speaks to the BBC over the phone from his flat in London.
“I was raised as a Mormon; so things are either holy or unholy, black or white. So that’s how I look at my life: Sometimes I make the unholiest of choices.”
‘Too naughty’ for baptism
His describes the Mormon lifestyle as “very intense”, explaining “you’d have to get up at 5am every day for bible studies before school, except on Fridays” and how he was expected to socialise with other Latter-day saints, attending sports days and picnics instead of playing with school friends.
There were benefits, too. He remembers being cast in a church production of The Sound of Music when he was just four years old: “I just had balls of energy and oddly misguided confidence at that age, so they put me in.”
Disillusionment set in when, aged eight, he was told he couldn’t be baptised with the other kids because he was “too naughty”. He spent the next year living under the belief he was a bad person, a sinner.
After his parents divorced, he gave up church “pretty quickly” – but that feeling of inadequacy still torments him. There’s a reason his album is called Unholy.
Redemption, of sorts, came through music. “Motown was super-present in my childhood,” he remembers, while his nan introduced him to James Brown and the Rolling Stones. But the first song he truly claimed as his own was Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing.
“I loved that song. I used to repeat that song so much. I’d play it 24/7,” he says.
By his teens, he’d become entranced by the trippy, late-night hip-hop of Tyler The Creator, The Weeknd and Drake. After a few freestyles, he was drawn into the fashion-forward London collective Last Night In Paris.
“We were using each other’s bedrooms as makeshift little studios, recording whatever we could and it picked up some attention,” he says.
“We did Glastonbury, played a few shows, travelled a bit. When you’re 16, it’s better than a part-time job.”
But while the band was picking up buzz from trendy, forward-facing publications like Vice and Dazed, Collard was secretly harbouring a passion for something a little more old-school.
‘I would have my moment’
“Privately, away from all the R&B rap scene, I would always go home and listen to Janis Joplin or The Kooks or Jamie T. It wasn’t considered cool at the time. My friends would call it ‘white people music’.
He says Last Night In Paris became “constricting,” only allowing him to show “one side of myself, musically”, but he’s philosophical about the experience.
“When you’re in a collective, you have to move as a collective. You have to fit in with the image, or the brand,” he says. “But I knew I would have my moment where I could express this stuff.”
The breakthrough came on a trip to LA where, with his producer and comrade-in-arms Zach Nahome, he started writing music that felt true to those soulful, singer-songwriter inspirations.
“They were all so influenced by other music that we actually didn’t put any of them out,” he laughs, “but we knew we had the roots of something.”
Back in England, he began work on his first solo EP, Clean Break (a double reference to a relationship and his decision to leave Last Night In Paris) and a debut album, the aforementioned Unholy.
It’s a difficult record to pin down: Modern but timeless; vulnerable yet cocksure. There are hints of D’Angelo in its mix of buttery soul and crisp, jagged rock. But then there’s a song like Sacrament, whose impressionistic soundscape is built around a mournful peal of saxophones and the single, repeated lyric: “I’ve had my share of cruel love.”
The stand-out, however, is Ground Control – a quiet cry for help, written after a night where the singer realised his hedonism was spiralling out of control.
“Swerving through country lanes / Drugs serenade my bones / White girl from the countryside / Pray we both don’t die tonight,” he sings over an increasingly menacing guitar riff.
“That was me at my most destructive,” he says.
“That night made me start taking notice of my safety and my life a bit more. The next day was super-reflective. I was like, ‘I can’t go on like that any more.’ Going too crazy, going too wild and just not caring – when I have things to care about.”
Unholy’s maximalist approach sets it apart from the icy synths and bare-bones beats of Collard’s contemporaries, people like AJ Tracey, J Hus and Skepta. He admits that makes it a hard sell, especially on the mood-based playlists of streaming services.
“That’s always the danger, when you’re trying to push something original – working out it’s where it fits. Everything’s quite divided right now: The grime guys are the grime guys, the R&B guys are the R&B guys. So it was difficult to find out where I lie.
“But then I look up to people that are the oddballs. The originals. Like Amy Winehouse: Frank was a jazz album that came in at a really weird time, but it was perfect.”
As if to prove a point, Collard’s new single, Stone, is a duet with fellow rising star Bakar, that combines an acoustic indie vibe with soaring soul vocals to tell a tale of tormented love.
“It’s good to have something a bit more leftfield from two black guys from London. Not really attached to a scene, just different.
Warming to the theme, he adds: “It’s representative of a wider black London, or a wider black England. We’re not all into the same thing. Colour doesn’t combine us taste-wise.
“So I think it’s cool to stand apart when there’s a prominent scene going on.”
Stone is out now.