The first time I meet Hak Baker, he’s hunched over an acoustic guitar in a completely incongruous environment. It’s a weekday afternoon, and rather than being in a poky venue that smells a bit like last night’s spilled pints and muggy sweat, the singer-songwriter sits on a leather-backed mid-century modern chair in VICE’s east London office. Tucked away in the kind of room that people use for international conference calls on speakerphone, he strums his way through two songs. He’s been brought in by his producer to play some of the Noisey team a few tracks, I learn, as I’m hustled up from my desk. Needless to say, a very intimate serenade – five of us sit in the room in total—isn’t exactly something I saw slotting into the last few hours of the work day.
Hak doesn’t say much to my two colleagues and I, but opens up when he starts the second song, “Tom.” With his dreads obscuring most of his face, he gruffly sings lines like: “Spliff in my right hand, my face in the other / Two times a year I send flowers to your mother” and “Crying all these tears, thinking all these things / Toothpaste on the corner on the photos on the wind,” in a rhythm that has his hands and slightly breathless voice racing to keep up with each other. It’s clear from the first simple, finger-picked guitar verse that the song is about a friend of his who died young. That I know this, and haven’t done more than exchange a few words with Hak, initially feels uncomfortable in proximity this close. It feels too intimate for the amount of time we’ve been in each other’s company (by this point, about eight minutes). Though his sort of music isn’t “my thing” on paper, when he’s in front of you playing live and chewing each word through his stretched-out Isle of Dogs east London accent, it’s hard not to get drawn in.
“It’s all personal,” he says, when we meet months later (coincidentally, in that same room). I’ve just asked him how much he divides his work between autobiography and invented story based loosely on what he’s experienced. “When I’m ready to sit down and write a lyric, it’s like being sick: what I think just comes out. I don’t control it, I keep writing and writing and then I go back and touch it up. It’s just letting out some feelings.” He’s in the same chair as the first time round, but now he’s fidgeting absentmindedly with its arm while one of his white earbuds just about dangles from inside his left ear. He doesn’t take it out until about halfway through our conversation. “I don’t like to talk to people; I’ve got so many defenses and layers, so I just write songs.”
Given the very frank chat he has with me, I’m somewhat surprised that he says he doesn’t like to talk to people. In the space of an hour or so, Hak goes from joking about growing up with a strict Jamaican mother to railing against hyper-consumerism to telling Stormzy off for collaborating with Little Mix to trailing off mid-sentence when talking vaguely about being a “wild one” as a teenager, with barely a breather in between. Maybe the ease with which he shares his feelings and anecdotes comes down to the press run he’s been on for the past few months. Though still in the early stages of his career, the 27-year-old’s name has been cropping up a fair bit since our serenade. He put out debut EP Misfits in November, gained airplay from BBC Radio 1, did the music press rounds—he even recorded one of those #aesthetic COLORS live sessions. All the while, his music has stuck to the format that I saw in our office that day: raw vocals, switching between singing and almost-rapping, over guitar that can make a fretboard squeak in protest between quick chord changes.
So in the months that have passed, I ask, what’s it been like adjusting to going from a total unknown to one to watch? “I fucking hate it.” Hang on, what? “The way it’s all set up, having this job glamorizes social media and all that bollocks. Especially if you’re doing it all yourself, you’ve got to use that bloody machine. And I didn’t want to. I had an Instagram, when I came out of jail, then I deleted it.” He pauses for a second, slows down. “Then I met someone who tried to mold me: ‘you’ve got to do this, get on that Spotify playlist,’ and all that. I’m looking at him like ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’ I looked into it and realized it was bollocks. I don't wanna do it like that. I don’t care about playing in an empty room, it don’t bother me. I just don’t give a shit; I wanna have a laugh and do it the right way.” He seems to catch himself. “Obviously, it’s a lovely way to get paid and I don’t wanna … It’s a good way to get paid. But at the same time people keep blowing smoke up your arse and I don’t want that. I just want to be normal and sing songs.”
As your name shows up online, he says, “people start changing towards you, and it’s weird. But whatever, fuck it. Fuck ‘em.” Granted, this has all picked up quickly. As a teenager, Hak was part of the BOMB Squad grime crew, “just making tunes about having fun and girls and shit.” He then went through a phase of heavy drinking, partying and the sort of late-night behaviour that landed him “a couple of years” in jail—he won't go into detail about his past charges. “I was doing a lot of stuff… doing a lot of stuff. At a certain time, when I was in jail, I realised, this was bollocks: ‘this is shit.’ My mates started going jail, some people died, some people got nicked. And in jail I thought, ‘I don’t even care.’ Jail was like a break that I needed; ‘it’s bollocks out there anyway.’”
While inside, he had time to reassess what the hell he was doing, he says. “It’s a massive fight to keep the fucking gravity boots on, I’ll say that. But my dad’s a Muslim, my mum’s a Christian, so I was fortunate to learn from lots of different experiences. As a kid, I did some things I didn’t want to do, listened to things I thought was interesting, listened to things I thought were bollocks. When I was in jail I managed to spin them all into a place where I thought, ‘OK, this is how I feel. This is how your brain works. Don’t fight it; it’s easier.’ Just chill.”
After his release, he drifted back into making music. In 2016, he became one of 11 young people picked for Skepta’s Levi’s Music Project, which gave aspiring musicians access to recording equipment, mentoring and a big showcase-like gig at the end of the program. By May 2017, Hak was putting out his first single “7AM,” a play-by-play account of a sesh underpinned by lust, which tips over into that ‘maybe they’ve taken too much’ territory. Lyrically it’s not unlike his new track, “Skint,” which we’re premiering here and similarly shrugs at the listener as if to say, ‘yeah this is what I know, this is what I see—have a listen if you like.’
This time round, his double-tracked vocals and a skittering drum kit fill out the contours of the songs bare bones more than what we’ve heard from Hak so far. It includes lines like “lads all struggling to make ends meet” and a chorus that almost revels in pulling out the vowels of its title. The refrain: “IIIII’m skint / Not even a little bit, I’m talking flat on my face, geezer / Man, IIIII’m skint / Until my phone rings I’ll be praying for a saving grace, fella” makes deceptively upbeat instrumentation knock against a tale of mundane struggle, of the minutiae of adult life. “If I feel fucking sad, if I feel like shit, if I feel ecstatic the songs tell the story,” he says. “People are too preoccupied with going around as though they’re jubilant all the time, like everything’s so fucking great, and they have to write that in every song. ‘I feel so good, I’ve got so many girls’—but you don’t. You don’t feel good all the time, and you don’t know who to trust, and you don’t really love that girl, she’s just pretty, and really and truthfully you’re looking at that thing you just bought thinking, ‘why did I spend so much?’”
Soon, he’s off again on another of his winding trains of thought. He whips through sneering at the gentrification of his Isle of Dogs neighborhood to lamenting last year’s revelations of slavery in Libya in the space of minutes. He is self-aware enough to stop himself mid-sentence, though—he often sighs or kisses his teeth then laughs when he realizes he’s been digging into talking about something so depressing that it makes him sound hopeless (“You know what? Fuck it, it’s just bollocks man, it’s long.”) In a brief pause between sentences, I ask if he isn’t worried about being so willing to lay himself bare, whether in conversation or in song. Not so. “I think that’s my job. I’ve always been a bit of the emotional one of the boys anyway. I’ve always been the one who’d go”—he screams—“‘aaahhhhh,’ or the one who’d get too drunk and start crying. So my true friends know that about me anyway. I’m alright with that; I haven’t got a face that says, ‘go on, try me, have a go,’ cos I’m not a mug, you know? I’m alright with that. I’ve always stood my ground.”
Hak Baker's going on tour in the UK and Europe from next month, the details for which you can find on his site.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.