If you’ve been tuned in at all to the rise of Sway Clarke II, then chances are you’re staying put. After surfing the wave of comparisons to Frank Ocean (both being singer/songwriters with a penchant for pensive yet punchy songs), Clarke has been piecing together what’s to come for his budding singing career (expect an EP more sooner than later). Sway started as a songwriter — having moved to Germany from Toronto and working with a slew of German acts buzzing in the European scene — but his love of singing his creations has brought him here. The buzz track “I Don’t Need Much” pretty much sealed his fate as the next in line of male crooners who exist outside of the middle, bringing both the abstract and the tangible to the surface. Life+Times caught up with Sway Clarke II while he was home in Berlin, preparing for his across-the-pond takeover.
Life+Times: So you’re originally from Toronto, right?
Sway Clarke II: Yeah, I was born and grew up in Toronto. I moved to Germany about four or five years ago.
L+T: What prompted the move?
SC2: I guess it was a lot of things at the same time. I was actually doing a lot of songwriting. That’s kind of how I got into music — I was songwriting for other artists. I came out here to do some writing in the midst of doing a publishing deal and potentially working with BMG in Germany, but I don’t know. That was kind of more of the business side of the decision to get out here. Personally, I had just come to Berlin once a couple of years prior. I have this thing where I can get off a plane or a train, and I can know if 12 months later, I would be able to spend my life there or not. Berlin was one of those places. Bogota, Colombia was another, and then I was like, “Am I really going to live in Colombia? No. I don’t think so.” So I ended up coming to Berlin, and I decided that I was going to stay here.
L+T: What’s interesting is a lot of artists who have popped in recent years are Canadian, like The Weeknd, Drake, etc. But for you, your career popped while you were in Germany. Now you’re building your buzz here back in the States, which is kind of a crazy reverse move.
SC2: Yeah, it’s pretty confusing. To be honest with you, I have no idea what’s really happening because being in Berlin I’m very isolated. My life is here, but my manager is in New York, and my partner that I usually do a lot of my writing and production with is in Toronto. This thing kind of happened online through the internet. So for me, I don’t really know what’s happening! Back home, there’s some people that have called me like, “Yo, we’re hearing the buzz about your shit!” I just played my first sold-out show here in Berlin, which was about 300 people about a month ago. I’ve done a couple of shows in London, which went pretty well. Then I just played my first show in L.A. last month. So, I guess between four countries, you’re right – it is pretty backwards! I don’t even know how to take it. I guess when you’re just sitting in your shitty ass apartment for so long, you just don’t know what’s going on across the world. But it’s exciting!
L+T: When did you kind of turn around and realize you that were getting this sizable buzz and that your hard work was paying off? I mean, you were called the “Next Internet Stud” or something, right?
SC2: [Laughs] I don’t even know what that means! I’ve never been called a stud in my entire life, not even face-to-face. It kind of popped up when I was in New York. Coincidentally, I was there for songwriting, and I’d just released “I Don’t Need Much” online. I think we’d just uploaded it that day, and within a couple of hours, Twitter started getting really crazy and my phone was just blowing up! I was like, “What’s going on? I don’t know what’s happening!” Then my buddy Fernando calls me and goes, “Yeah, things are going really well.” That’s kind of it. It really happened at the end of last year with that one track, followed up by the demo I put out, The Secret Garden. I think for me, when this happened, or a little bit before that, I realized that the songwriting thing is great, but I started hitting a bit of a wall. I was finding that being in sessions and working with different artists, whether they were German or whether they were American or whomever, it was getting to a point where there were lyrics that they didn’t want to take. They didn’t want to talk about those topics. “I Don’t Need Much,” I wrote that song to pitch to someone else! I wrote the song one day in the shower, and I thought to myself, “Really, this is the dumbest song that I’ve ever written. Let me just try to sell it,” and nobody wanted it. Actually, there’s an artist who I won’t name that I sent it to who cut it, and then sent it back a couple of days later like, “I can’t sing this. I can’t pull it off. It’s just a bit too risqué.” At that point, I realized that the only person that’s going to say it is me. That’s kind of what prompted my career as an artist. Then serendipitously, the first song that I put out was that song, “I Don’t Need Much.” I think at that point, I was just like, “Okay, I’m going to do this artist thing and take a break from the songwriting thing for a while.”
L+T: I know you’ve written for Tinie Tempah, but who are some other artists that you’ve written for?
SC2: Actually, I’ve written for a lot of German artists out here. Joy Denalane, she’s a really big German artist. We bumped into each other in a session and then we actually went to New York and we did her next record coming up. Then there’s a big actor out here, I did a few songs for him. Then, this was really annoying but it’s part of the game — I did a song for John Legend, and it was really two weeks out before the record and then it got cut off he album. Like, he’d cut the record and I’d heard it and it sounded amazing, and then they just kind of changed the entire album. So that was interesting, but you kind of learn that that’s the game. You never really know a song is not on a record until it’s actually been prepped and sent out to the world. I think I’ve done a lot more sessions and a lot more toiling in songwriting and working with producers than I’ve landed songs. It’s pretty tough to land a song. The whole songwriting game, it’s tough. You’ve got to be really self-motivated.
L+T: The transition from a career songwriter to a career singer is often really difficult. The fact that you’re breaking through that says so much.
SC2: For sure! I think it’s because nobody knew I was a songwriter, so there wasn’t really anything to judge or compare, you know? But I know what you’re saying. There’s another side of it, though, that I think is happening now. It’s that songwriters have become so important, and I think the words of songs have become so important. The lyrics and the concepts have become so important, so I’m actually not surprised when I see songwriters who have become artists now, because to me, it’s kind of the meat and potatoes of a song. This is the person that put it together! When I hear Ne-Yo, who’s become an artist, I’m not surprised. He’s written great songs for other people, and now he’s translating those great songs for himself. But you’re right, it is very tough to transition.
L+T: Did you come across moments during songwriting for other artists, where you felt the songs were better suited for you?
SC2: Yeah, yeah. That would definitely happen. Actually there was a song that I wrote for Joy that I was like, “Yo, if you don’t use this shit, I’m fucking using it for myself!” To be honest with you, it was often very clear at times. Let’s say there’s a song like “Secret Garden.” The song is really about cheating and the impression of cheating. I would write a lyric and write the whole thing out, and artists would be like, “I’m not going to say this.” I’m like, “Okay, cool. What do you want to say?” and then I would put that on the backburner. Then you go to another session and you’re like, “I got this idea!” and everybody in the room loves it and they’re laughing about it, but they’re like, “I’m not going to say this.” It just became clear that with my actual personality — because I would consider myself to be a bit of an asshole or a douche at times — that this is mine and I’m just going to keep this, and this other idea I can give to somebody else.
L+T: Would you say that when you write your songs, you write them in more of a unisex way? Because in theory, writing a song for Joy that you could also take, there’s a level of ambiguity that would have to be in the songwriting so that it could go to either gender.
SC2: Yeah, there are songs that I’ve written like that, but they don’t tend to be my favorite because I feel as if you’ve got to choose a side. It’s kind of like this saying about Canadians: “Why do Canadians cross the road? To get to the middle.” The thing about Canadians, we never actually choose a side, you know? We’re always like, “Yeah, we don’t want the war, but we don’t want this decision.” We just hang around with everybody else and we don’t actually come out and say what it is or say our opinion, but I do think it’s important. My favorite song and my favorite artists are usually the ones that say it very clear and from a very particular standpoint, but then there are songs like…look at Amy Winehouse and “Rehab.” That song wasn’t a gender song. You know what the song was about, but it could be talking about a man or it could be talking about a female. “I Don’t Need Much” could have been a song for a female, and you would just have to change some of the words here and there. The tougher thing that I find are the artists that have the believable attitude that want to say something like this. Like, I’m sure if Amy Winehouse tried to sell “Rehab” to somebody at the time, motherfuckers would have been like, “Nah, I don’t want to call myself an alcoholic!” That’s always the hardest part.
L+T: Who are some of your other favorite songwriters?
SC2: My favorite songwriters? Thom Yorke is one of my favorite artists and songwriters. Stevie Wonder is also one of my favorites as well. I think for me, as of more recently, I would probably say I really like The Arctic Monkeys. I feel like the lead singer [Alex Turner], his songwriting has improved from album to album, and the last album, I love it! I think he’s got a great way with words and also just conversing. I love the idea of making a song into a conversation, so when you actually read it, you can read it like I was actually saying it to you. I think that’s such a brilliant thing. Often the best storytellers are hip-hop artists. Kanye and JAY Z were huge influences on me, and I think that’s why the world loves Kendrick. I always feel like hip-hop artists, they get to cheat a bit and I say this because they get to say so many more words in a bar than a singer. The closest we get to that is possibly Frank Ocean. He tends to have a bit more of a hip-hop/rhythmic style. But a hip-hop artist, he can say so much. He can say so many metaphors and so many things in a verse that a singer can’t say.
L+T: You’re called “the next Frank Ocean.”
SC2: Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s a bit much. It’s a bit excessive to say something like that after one song or two songs or something. But on the other hand, I appreciate it. I think if you’re getting compared to people like that, it’s only a good thing. When I was young, I wanted to be a rapper. I tried to be a rapper. I was a rapper. I just sucked. I remember looking at Kanye, and I was like, “Okay, this guy is really good. I’m terrible. I’m going to just stop rapping and just start singing or something.” Then I picked up the guitar and I got into rock music. I got into Brit rock music and I actually wanted to be Liam Gallagher. I wanted to be a white rocker, and I wished I could have just straightened my hair. I used to try to stand like him. I really wanted to be him. I thought he was so cool and I actually thought he had a bit of a hip-hop kind of attitude to him. But what I ended up taking from hip-hop is how you write words, how you put together the sentences and the rhythmic end of it. I think that’s also what a guy like Frank Ocean does or other singers that are kind of in that vain. Even Lorde, for example, because when you look at it, that’s what hip-hop is! It’s the way it’s being presented, it’s the attitude and the way it’s being sung. I think that’s what’s translating now into other singing forms of music. I think the difference for me is being Canadian, there’s much more of a humor in things to me. And I don’t take myself that seriously – I can’t. I’m not that dark and depressed all the time.