New Sensations

Saint Harison on his debut album, losing friends, and going viral: ‘I threw my phone across the room when Elton John followed me’

As the R&B breakthrough artist celebrates the launch of his debut EP, Saint Harison speaks to Ellie Muir about going viral, his starstruck encounters, and what it means to ‘dig deep’ for his music

Sunday 17 September 2023 06:30 BST
<p>Saint Harison grew up as a musical theatre kid in Southampton, where he attended a local pop academy</p>

Saint Harison grew up as a musical theatre kid in Southampton, where he attended a local pop academy

You’re so heavy!” moans 26-year-old R&B singer Saint Harison at his five-month-old miniature dachshund, Louis. An almost identical sausage dog, this one called Vinnie, pokes his head into the frame on our Zoom call. “Come here,” says Harison, scooping up the dogs as they wriggle in his arms. “Say hi, Louis!”

Harison – whose real name has been conspicuously scrubbed from the internet – is exhausted as he speaks to me from his living room in Southampton. He was up late last night, doling out relationship advice to a friend while reeling from the shock of seeing his latest celebrity Instagram follower: British supermodel Cara Delevingne. “I threw my phone across the room when I saw the notification!” he laughs.

There have been plenty of phone-throwing moments lately, ever since Harison released his soulful, gospel-inflected debut EP Lost a Friend in May. “I definitely threw my phone across the room when Elton John followed me,” he says, his voice high-pitched with excitement. “That was probably when I cracked my screen.” Ultimate British hun and The Only Way Is Essex star Gemma Collins is also an Instagram-avowed fan. “Gemma Collins is a queen!”

Harison was equally shocked when the angelic falsetto riff of his ballad-style song “Ego Talkin’” recently went viral on TikTok. The videos, which collectively have more than 130 million views under the tag #EgoTalkinChallenge, see amateur and professional singers either attempting Harison’s riff themselves or delivering their own spin on the feisty track. “My managers were like, ‘This is the riff, that’s gonna be a thing’ and I was just like, ‘OK?’” he shrugs. “TikTok took over and the riff is in its own universe now.” The American singer-songwriter Tori Kelly, who Harison cites as an inspiration, has also had a go. In keeping with his love of dramatics, Harison had a fittingly visceral reaction. Luckily, his phone was out of reach. “I screamed when I saw Tori Kelly do the challenge,” he says. “I’ve ticked off so many of the boxes on my goal list already – I didn’t expect much from this first project at all.”

Harison grew up as a musical theatre kid in Southampton, where he attended a local pop academy. Rather boldly, as part of his audition for the school’s renowned showcase, he decided to sing Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”, a technical birdsong brimming with notoriously hard-to-hit soprano moments. He got the solo. In a grainy home video that sits pride of place on his Instagram feed, a young Harison, just shy of 10 years old, nails those high notes. His natural red hair is dunked in gel and styled into spikes. (Today, his locks are dyed a shock of neon pink.) The clip is a vision of Noughties nostalgia as the chorus of synchronised backing singers two-step to the beat, almost exactly recreating the much-loved Christmas concert scene in Love Actually.

It wasn’t until years later, though, that Harison felt confident enough to pursue a career doing what he loved. He dropped out of university in London to do so, only to quickly find himself strapped for cash. “I eventually got really poor, so I moved back home [to Southampton],” says Harison. Soon, he landed a gig teaching music at a public referral unit for teenagers, an alternative school that caters to children who can’t attend a mainstream school for reasons, including behavioural or learning difficulties. Harison fell in love with it. “I still get sad now because I love this career, but I really miss working with them. I could see myself in them because when I was a kid, I was going through difficult times,” he says. In between teaching, Harison would make time to film and share videos of himself singing online. It didn’t take long for his cover of Jazmine Sullivan’s 2021 hit “Pick Up Your Feelings” to go viral, giving Harison enough exposure to acquire a management team, leave his teaching job, and start working on his debut record.

That cover introduced Harison as a standout R&B voice. On it, he transformed Sullivan’s upbeat song into a stripped-back number – performed in an empty concrete car park, all the better to amplify his roaring falsetto screams. Harison’s vocals on Lost a Friend are comparable to the soulful croons of Adele or the earlier work of Sam Smith. On “Why Didn’t You Call???”, he questions a distant lover on their absence, while on the bouncy “TMF”, he channels R&B influences such as Sullivan. Elton John, Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse are names Harison routinely brings up in conversation.

‘In my 26 years of experiencing things, I finally had an opportunity to write about them’

The experience of writing Lost a Friend was a mixed bag. On one hand, Harison’s circumstances had shifted drastically; he was no longer working a nine-to-five and was suddenly afforded the resources he once dreamed of. (“For the first time I had a team, there was money there and I was able to go out and actually meet people and record with them,” he says. “All of these things were so out of reach for me before that.”) On the other hand, when it came to writing, Harison had no idea how much emotional purging would be required of him. “I always knew I wanted to [pour my emotions] into my music because that’s the music I listen to – it’s about real people and real stories – but I didn’t expect how hard on the soul it would be,” he admits. “The writing process was so intense. I was going into a room every day where someone would be like, ‘How do you feel today?’ It got less exciting and more [emotionally] deep. I was quite upset at points because I think in my 26 years of experiencing things, I finally had an opportunity to write about them – and some of them were not very nice experiences. I was loving it and hating it at the same time.”

Lost a Friend was named after, well, Harison’s recent experience with losing friends. His success has brought with it inevitable changes to his lifestyle and to his schedule. “The hardest thing is that people don’t understand, and they take it personally when you’re not free. It’s been a weird experience,” he says. “But then you’re finding yourself in new situations, meeting new people and then other friends are like, ‘Why are you meeting new people?’” Harison lets out a big sigh and takes a sip from the Coke can in his hand. “As much as you want to stay that same person – you just don’t. Everything changes.”

Saint Harison’s debut EP ‘Lost a Friend’ is out now

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