British-American musician George Pelham talks suits, working on his debut album, and the coronavirus.
“I’m very away from the outside world, all of my stuff is on Skype now,” the ever-smiling George Pelham tells me over a video call. He’s sat in his younger sister’s bedroom in their London home, the coronavirus making it unable for us to meet in person.
He was due to headline Soho’s Salon Noir next month, but the gig has been postponed now. While he’s slated to play at the Bath Festival in the summer, there’s uncertainty about that too. “It was quite a big one,” he says of the festival. “It’s just an annoying time for it all to happen.”
But Pelham is optimistic. “Now is a good time to just be making content and putting it online, because people need that right now. There’s so much you can do at home, anyway,” he says. “We can’t play gigs, obviously. That’s a big, big blow. But there are things we can do.”
True to that spirit, he’s gearing up to release his newest single, Not Tonight, on March 20. It’s a catchy disco track with an R&B vibe. The music video, launching simultaneously, is colourful and psychedelic. Four years in the making, he wrote this after his then-girlfriend broke up with him, which he calls the worst moment of his life. At a gig he was playing at, he met someone in the audience. “Things were heading a certain way, and I said to her, ‘Not tonight,’ because I was still thinking about my ex-girlfriend,” says Pelham.
Although he wrote the song in one day, production was the hard bit. “Musically, I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time I wrote it,” he explains. “But I knew I loved this song and I was trying to fit it into whatever identity I was trying at the time, and it was never quite right.” Eventually, he settled upon a ’60s-inspired contemporary soul sound, and that “seemed to work really well”.
He’s wearing a navy blue blazer now, but Pelham has been spending his days on TikTok posting covers in a different suit each time. It’s a 30-day challenge to promote his new single. But completing it may be an issue. “I’ve only got 14 suits, so I don’t know what I’m going to do after the 14th post,” he says. “I was going to buy some and return them, but I’m not allowed to leave the house now.”
The house is his family home, where he was raised by a British father and an American mother. He recalls his parents’ record collection as a major influence, something he feels “a lot of people come back to”. Motown, Beach Boys, rock and roll, and feelgood music from the ’60s were the highlights. But he likes contemporary radio tracks and production styles: “I’m just trying to merge the two. I don’t want to be a ’60s guy, but I also love that music, so I want to make it modern.”
While he has dual British-American citizenship and has spent time in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, he says nothing ever compares to London: “It’s got an energy about it that I love. I always get homesick and just want to come back.” Back in the summer of 2016, this house had burnt down, courtesy of a faulty air conditioner: “It was in this room, right in that spot” – he points to his right – “and while the fire started really small, it multiplied within 60 seconds.” While half the house was completely burnt out, he and his family got through unscathed.
Now 25, Pelham got into music a little late than most people. He fell in love with it during an open mic at his college, Rose Bruford. “I did covers, and that was the biggest buzz I’d ever had,” he recalls.
Having performed extensively around London, he was regularly approached by talent scouts from The X Factor and The Voice. But he was never drawn to these competitions.
“For me, it felt like a shortcut. You should be able to put in the hard work yourself, find your sound and voice, and not be accelerated into it before you might be ready,” he explains. “Hard work pays off, and if you do all of it yourself, there’s no reason you’d need a show like that to go where you want to go.”
And it’s worked for him. After years of experimenting with melodies and songwriting (which began with an altered rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), he released his debut single, What A Time To Be Alive, in 2019. “It felt like a huge weight off my back; I was walking around feeling like a ghost,” says Pelham. “I was playing gigs but didn’t have any music out. I felt like a fake. When it finally came out, I was like, ‘I feel like a real artist now.'”
Getting a piece of music out is, for him, his greatest achievement: “I was sitting on music for years and years, not knowing what to do, how it should sound, or how to get it out. And finding a sound, sticking to it, releasing it, regardless of the numbers (What A Time To Be Alive has over half a million streams on Spotify), just literally having it out, is the best feeling.”
Pelham is now working on his debut album, due for release next year. Working with producer Rob Jones (“the best producer I’ve ever had”), it has been a quick process. He already recorded the ninth track of the album this week: “I absolutely love it, you learn so much working on an album.”
He believes the music industry has, in a lot of ways, never been better. “You’re not relying on anyone else, and you can make records yourself, whereas 50 years ago, that was way more expensive,” he says. “There are a lot of positives to the industry in 2020. It’s a great time to be alive.”
That’s a refreshing thought in an era where major labels face constant criticism from artists. Pelham feels working independently has never been easier, as long as the artist has the right team behind them: “Finding the right people who believe in you and like what you’re doing is hard. Getting people to invest their time in me has helped me loads.”
Like his older brother, a teacher, Pelham teaches music – sometimes English and Maths – to kids on weekends for extra income. In the near future, he aims to reach more people with his music, and “maybe not teach as much”.
“I want to get into doing more myself, in terms of the actual records,” he says. His producer Jones “plays it all himself”: the drums, the trumpets, the saxophone. “I really want to do that. I want to be able to make something alone in my bedroom,” adds Pelham. “And I want to play to the biggest in the world. The sky’s the limit for me.”