Zak Abel

Zak Abel is important. As important as pop music can be. Zak makes music that matters. It’s instinctual and it’s unforced but it’s immediately, tacitly impactful. It’s music that somehow stretches beyond the confines of mere melody and words and becomes something that people can feel, that they can touch. It’s a very rare ability to have, but Zak Abel has it. Whether writing over Afro-house or high-life, soulful electronica or stripped back piano, the 22-year-old’s considered compositions are bound by a sense of introspection, empathy and optimism. Having experienced tough times – and triumphs – in his own life, for Zak, making music is about a genuine desire to create moments that people can really, deeply, relate to. And they have. Through his initial work with credible composers such as Eg White, Joker, Bondax, Kaytranada, Wookie and Gorgon City, Zak has built up a loyal and engaged fanbase that includes over three million plays on Soundcloud, two #1s on Hypemachine and extensive support from Julie Adenuga and Zane Lowe (Beats1), Radio 1’s Mistajam and Annie Mac as well as i-D and Noisey. Zak recently announced two headline dates at the Scala for February 2017.


With two EP’s and a summer full of festival dates behind him, Zak is now ready to release his debut album, Only When We’re Naked. A stunning, striking record that examines the frailties of the human condition with exceptional results, Zak’s debut infuses textures of Africa and the Caribbean with contemporary electronic and soul patterns. It’s an intensely personal album that manages to be both widely relatable and dynamically uplifting. “I love to tell stories,” says Zak of tracks that examine self-doubt and despair but also faith and love. By exposing his own vulnerabilities and frailties, Zak creates an immersive, uplifting, enlightening listening experience set to a scorching hot soundtrack. “It’s my way of making sense of the world, whether making, or listening to, music,” says Zak of why he engages with music in the way that he does. “And I don’t think I’m alone; human beings like stories, it helps them put into words how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. That’s what music is to me; my way of understanding the world and the self.”


The first single is the brilliantUnstable that sounds like it’s been sent straight from 1970’s Ghana, borrowing from both High-Life rhythms but also more contemporary Afrobeat melodies. Produced by Sky Adams, Unstable takes a long hard look at an incapable love; someone who tries to please, but ultimately fails their partner. “In my case, I’m taken over by music a lot of the time, nothing is good enough, I need to work harder, I need to do more, and that affects people around me. You disappoint people a lot because you become so focused on yourself. I think that’s something that a lot of people – male and female – can relate to.” The track points sonically to where Zak’s heart lies. “I love everything from Fela Kuti to Drake, and I love how music is fusing worlds at the moment; Nigerian high-life with Jamaican instrumentation,” says Zak. “I think the overarching theme of the album is soul with African and Caribbean influences. These are sounds, African particularly, that people are understanding more and more; Ghanaian, Nigerian, South African music is finally being heard. It’s certainly what I’m into and a lot of the world is into and I want to resonate with the world.” Though he’s experienced much success in the blog world, Zak’s ambitions stretch beyond tastemaker playlists; he wants his music to resonate globally. “I’m looking for the details of what it’s like to be a human being; once you hit on a truth you’ve got something. Otherwise it’s just a vanity. I want to have people feel they understand or feel they belong in the world a bit better. Otherwise music is useless; it alienates you. I want to connect with people. That makes me happy, and then hopefully makes other people happy.”



Unstable, which has just hit 1m streams and received a remix from British born Nigerian singer and producer Maleek Berry, precedes other tracks from Only When We’re Naked. Rock Bottom, featuring Wretch 32, is a long, hard look at Zak’s recent health battle. Suffering from a sudden degenerative deafness, Zak’s world was plundered into bleakness when he was told he would lose his hearing. “You learn a lot when you feel like you’ve lost everything. Your perspective has to change in someway; you either change or fail.” After dealing with it badly and suffering with depression for seven months, music helped to lift Zak’s spirits. “It made me think about music in a different way. It made me less sacred to be vulnerable ‘cause I had less to lose. One particular night, it was terrible, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make music and I decided to really put myself on the line, to write something really raw. That one step towards putting myself into a vulnerable state led me to make sense so much of what the album is now. From hitting rock bottom I was able to make the leap from where I was, to where I wanted to be.”


An operation thankfully cured the issue and for now Zak’s hearing is alsmost back to normal. But being placed in such a vulnerable position, physically and spiritually, has led him to write some of the best songs of his life. There are many wonderful moments on the record; Awakening is co-written with pop powerhouse Steve Mac (Lily Allen, Charli XCX) and is a joyful, triumphant ode of self-awareness. The River takes a wider view of the ways in which religion can stifle the self and the soul; particularly that of women. Zak worked with Eg White (Adele, Sam Smith) on the stunning single Deserve To Be Loved that examines the human need to be wanted, and touches on his own fatherless upbringing. “A lot of people feel like they don’t deserve to be loved, and it’s bollocks, because we all do,” says Zak. Working with White further solidified Zak’s intentions as a songwriter. “I felt like I’d finally done something that people seem to really relate to. That’s why you make music; because you have something to say.”


The son of a Moroccan Jewish father and a British/ Eastern European Jewish mum, Zak’s parents met on the beach of Eilet Israel in the mid-90s when his mum was on holiday. Around nine months later, Zak was born. Though his parents were ultimately unable to make their relationship work, Zak maintained a close relationship with his dad, visiting Israel a couple of times a year, until the age of 12 when his father died of liver cirrhosis and lung cancer. Bought up in north London by his mum, Zak arrived into the world to the sounds of James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Barry White. “It sounds a bit cliché, but that was my musical upbringing. And I think that’s the filter in which I think about music.” Bitten by the bug, Zak joined a band and taught himself piano in his early teens, but initially, table tennis was his main focus; he became the number one player, of his age group, in the country. He stopped competing at 15 when he realised how much it would take to become a world champion. “I moved to France to play and I was training five hours a day, six times a week. The competition was fierce and I saw what was required of me to get to that next level. I realised I liked music - maybe I could do that. Also,” he adds with a grin, “I really, really liked girls”. Returning to London, he spontaneously uploaded some videos to YouTube; his covers of Amy Winehouse and Ray Charles attracted the attention of several managers and, later, record labels.


Since singing to Atlantic, the label has encouraged Zak’s growth as a singer and writer, allowing him to figure out the musician he wants – and doesn’t want – to be. Zak chose to work with an intriguing and often unexpected line-up of producers. His first release was with Garage legend Wookie. After talking to Joker on Skype at 2am one morning, Zak took a cab to Reading, where the dubstep and grime producer picked him up and drove him to his Bristol studio. When Kaytranada began following him on Twitter, Zak DM’d the Canadian electronic producer and remixer du jour and the pair created the highly danceable, disco-led Say Sumthin. In 2015, Zak scored a top 20 as vocalist and writer on Gorgon City’s latest hit Unmissable.


Hugely likeable with the devastatingly handsome looks of a fifties film star, Zak is incredibly dedicated to what he does, while retaining an effortless sense of humour and an easy self deprecation. In fact, much of what Zak does may seem unforced, but he’s one of the most determined individuals making music right now. An accomplished, outstanding debut, Only When We’re Naked places Abel in the upper echelon of songwriters, a gifted and capable composer who manages to make records that are both interesting yet likeable.


“I just want to make something that’s useful to people, that I’m proud of and to know I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being,” Zak decides. “I want people to believe me when I’m singing. I want to make something brilliant and honest and useful. I could try and make a song that’s hot for now, but I’d much rather make music that lasts a lifetime.”

Nick Matthews
Booking Assistant: Jess Kinn Assisted by: Jack Mathias