Just Jack the lad

Camden town's hip-hop observer has a major label deal and two huge hits under his belt. Chris Mugan goes to a North London basement to find out how Just Jack does it
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The Independent Culture

Here is a rare invitation: to meet the creator of a No2 hit at his mum's Camden town-house – for that is where Just Jack continues to write much of his songs.

To compound matters, "Just" Jack Allsopp himself has moved to a mews flat around the corner. Understandable, as this is a leafier, quieter part of the borough, at least compared to the grungey side around the market that gives this part of London an unenviable reputation.

The move comes after his 2007 success with his anti-talent show song "Starz In Their Eyes" – also reaching the same chart position with his second album Overtones.

But Allsopp's recording process remains much the same as when he first emerged in the early Noughties. Sat in his basement mission control, surrounded by keyboards and camping gear, he is a laid back, soft-spoken sort, though he admits he thrives on the area's dual character. "You get inspired by the grubbiness, dirtiness and all the different characters. There are a lot of nutters walking around, who I do find quite interesting. It's very transient – apparently it's the second biggest tourist attraction in London – but there's still the guy selling rave tapes, well, CDs now, and the guy selling half-price underwear outside the tube station."

He also recommends the canal for a peaceful walk, during the day at least. "There are some nice streets, then some not quite as nice. It's just a mixed place. If you go to some places in west London, it's incredibly gentrified and everything's nine pounds for a tabbouleh wrap."

Camden is also where Allsopp found his first break. The son of an architect and a lecturer, he immersed himself in urban sounds that inspired his own music. Working at a TV company after university, he discovered that Chas Smash, the guy with the nutty dance moves in Madness, had set up his own label (in Camden, naturally). Allsopp secured an interview and brought along a two-track demo, on the strength of which Smash signed him up. Looking back, he refuses to believe his first mentor was impressed simply by their North London heritage. Instead, he likes to think they shared a similar outlook on life, as typified by demo track "Geezer", that became "Lesson One" on his debut album The Outer Marker.

"The song was about the vulnerability you feel trying to be a man, which I was fed up with at the time and he got that. There are Madness songs about that too." "House Of Fun", with a young man trying to buy condoms, sounds close.

"He listened to "Geezer" seven or eight times, then we went to the pub and had a couple of pints and that was that. We were kindred spirits and I still speak to him some times."

Overshadowed by The Streets' first appearance, The Outer Marker had all the impact of a litter bin beside a Camden Town kebab van. Smash eventually wound up his label and Allsopp's career seemed dead in the water. Until, that is, he found a new champion in the guise of Elton John. Allsopp wonders if a reference to the hit-maker's beloved Watford FC on his debut swung the deal, but the star was impressed enough to secure him the support of his own management.

Having Sir Elton's expectations on his shoulders failed to faze the younger artist, partly because the connection came through sheer good fortune – an engineer passed on the first Just Jack album when they recorded in the same studio. Also, Allsopp did not know that much about him.

"I didn't really see him as anything beyond a guy I met and had a little chat to. At the time, to be honest, I wasn't that aware of the breadth of his songwriting and hadn't heard that much of it when I was young." The pop giant has continued to have a hand in the younger artist's affairs, securing the services of actor James Nesbitt for the promo video for current single "The Day I Died".

Allsopp admits to thinking that signing a new record deal would be easy after that, but it took a year to find the right label. In the end, he signed with Mercury and nailed himself his own hit. Already past 30, success came late, but the erstwhile social commentator has taken it all in his stride.

"I never saw any of it as being real, apart from the albums and the shows. Everything else is this weird world where things change overnight and nothing is what it seems. I kept out of it a lot, because none of my friends were involved in the music industry and luckily they didn't want to talk about it much.

"None of my aspirations went beyond becoming an underground, bedroom beat-maker, so some of it I found amusing, some of it painful, because I found myself in this pop world where some people behaved like pigs in shit. I remember one of the lead singers in an indie band at a European festival thrashing around while his tour manager dragged him off site."

He is comfortable with the pressure to repeat his success. "You can feel that, when you take demos in, they're waiting for the singles, but I don't take much notice of that." Not that Mercury is squeezing him for a hit. In fact, they were happy the first single from new album All Night Cinema should be very different, the curious "Embers", where Allsopp loops his vocals so he is performing a round with himself. "I was over the moon that people wanted something different, not just another "Starz". I'd seen some Steve Reich thing on TV which had a similar effect. I recorded the vocals after a few beers with mates. They were giggling as I sang on my own like a choir boy, but when I played it back, they were like, that really works."

"We are all embers from the same fire," he chants on that opening track, setting a sombre tone. Its predecessor had a positive feel, mainly because Allsopp was glad to be recording again, having smoked too much after losing his first deal. Now we get the full glare of his cynicism, mainly through a cast of characters who take the wrong choices or suffer bad luck.

"I am drawn to that. I'm reading a collection of short stories by Richard Yates [author of Revolutionary Road] and every one is heartbreaking, but feels true."

On Cinema, this comes drenched in a richer, more detailed sound. There are sweeping strings and lush orchestration, though also with the intimate feel of handclaps and random percussion. Half of what we hear was recorded in the basement we are sitting in. He is particularly chuffed that on "Blood", he has received his first solo production credit.

"I was listening to my own demos and other people's, and I realised a lot of the excitement gets polished out. It's very hard to retain that. If you get the right balance of things pushing and pulling, it's more interesting than things being so machine-like. I've moved away from that and back towards human errors."

As he has progressed musically, Allsopp has come to rely ever less on his trusty home studio. While almost all his sample-based debut was recorded here – and most of Overtones – his third release reflects a gradual move from the role of producer/rapper to that of fully fledged lyricist and singer. "The Day I Died" is spoken-word rather than rap – an important distinction for Allsopp.

"It's still a song, with verses. Part of it is that I didn't want to been seen as an MC. I wanted to be like a rapper in the hip-hop tradition, but realised I never had enough focus to be competitive. In that culture, people who get good are focused on one thing, whether they are amazing graffiti artists or DJs that practice the same amount as a kid playing the violin. I tried to do my own thing, incorporating what I love about hip-hop, so I didn't have to directly compete."

That he has moved on is thanks in part to landmark shows, the likes of his main-stage set at Glastonbury 2007, which have seen him raise his game. "Playing live I realised I could sing and became a lot more confident. The early gigs, I was so paranoid I would panic about having twinges." Also, he has found himself enjoying more melodic fare, by Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell.

"What was getting me emotionally wasn't the rhythm or the drums, but the chord changes and the harmonies." It sounds like he has been raiding his parents' collections. "They would play The White Album and [Fleetwood Mac's] Tusk, so subconsciously they all went in there," he admits, pointing at his head, reckoning the influence took time to percolate down. "You listen to them again with ears that have listened to other stuff and hear how people you like have been influenced by them. It's a big circle."

Forthcoming single "Doctor Doctor" marries a propulsive house rhythm to a lyric of unrequited love. Sweet, until you realise the protagonist is such a loser he does not even get noticed, while other suitors at least face rejection.

Allsopp is happy avoiding collaborations. Recently, though, he has been adopted by Lily Allen – DJ-ing at her after-show party, and set to support her at Somerset House this summer, thanks in part to sharing the same management. "There have been comparisons made between us, so I guess these things are inevitable. When I first heard her, it was like listening to myself."

Except that, like Mike (The Streets) Skinner, Allen is happy to draw attention to herself and bask in the limelight. Just Jack, meanwhile, remains happy in his mum's basement.

Just Jack's single "The Day I Died" is out now. The album 'All Night Cinema' follows on Monday. See Andy Gill's review on page 18