Comprising four members, two guitars and a cajon, Skinny Living have shared responsibility of vocals, though Ryan Johnston as the frontman takes the lead in both this role and in answering my questions later. He’s from Belfast, something I quickly pick up on when he begins to speak, while the others hail from Wakefield, West Yorkshire. They begin with ‘Got Control’, ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Breathe’, which incorporate intricate finger picking and backing vocals, but I’m conscious that while these first few tracks may be acoustic-based, the band certainly isn’t limited to this genre; dressed like the typical indie-pop band – Bastille comes to mind – Skinny Living is something of an enigma, having supported both Jake Bugg and Justin Bieber.
The band is different in that they’ve chosen not to take part in shows such as The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. While they don’t look down on anyone who has used such platforms to be recognised – “it’s a really good way for people who have been struggling to get through the barriers of the music industry” – they have made an active decision to stay away because they then “wouldn’t be able to grow as a band” and want to be “free to create”. This comes as no surprise when looking at who the band have worked with previously. ‘Only I’, for example, is a melancholic ballad, its lyrics built around the struggle between love and hatred when placed in situations with very real consequences, and features rapper Barney Artist. Johnston later tells me that they’ve worked with SBTV for several years now, and that such collaborations keep them on their toes. A murmur of agreement sounds when he says he’d like to work with Pharrell, calling him “organic in his own right”, and again when guitarist Danny Hepworth mentions rap as a passion on which none of them could concede.
When asked what to do when writers’ block hits, Johnston makes a profound statement: “Writers’ block is being afraid that what you’re writing is bad”. I realise then that his technique is more reflective than most; Skinny Living’s latest song ‘Why’ touches on his depression, and I mistakenly assume that it has received criticism due to its delicate subject. “I actually haven’t dealt with any,” he says. “Obviously this song comes from a dark place but I feel like the world is changing”. He name-drops Jamal Edwards and Santandave in the process, and agrees with my contention that he sees himself as more a part of this movement than anything else. I am told that every comment has been positive and that the irony of some of these lyrics, take “real men don’t cry” for example, presents a new direction that the current generation has decided to follow in its recognition of mental health issues.
The majority of the set list, meanwhile, indicates the influence of Ed Sheeran with its light-hearted subjects and major melodic arrangements. But it is at the interview that I find out who the band really identify with musically. “If we’re quantifying it all on one thing it would have to be pop-rock,”; Nutini, Blacc and, specifically, Mayer’s Continuum are named. Yet while they agree that ‘Friends for Life’ and ‘Storybook’ is certainly Sheeran-based, I receive a mixed reaction when I ask them if they sense any resemblance to Alt-J. “The commercial aspect, yes,” says Johnston, but stripped-down acoustic is, I discover, “never really the point”.
If we’re quantifying it all on one thing it would have to be pop-rock
Though the band can appreciate an intimate coffee-house gig such as this, their main aim is the big stage – festival headliners, by location, Brixton and Madison Square Garden – and thus a focus on the studio is augmented by ambition. The frontman says he was initially inspired by R&B, and wanted to experiment without reliance on loop pedals, instead extending the musical virtues of the band by creating new sound altogether. To close, I ask the band where they are headed to next, and it’s of course London, where they are due to play at Camden Market. I’m told that there is no real end goal except to “make better music” each and every time, and then thanked politely by each of the members for my time, when it’s really theirs I’ve taken in what seems to be an exciting and indisputably eventful juncture in a promising career.