In the sense that he turned to TikTok to alleviate lockdown boredom, Seb Lowe is no different from millions of other youngsters. What sets him apart is that he recognised the platform’s potential to get the measure of his own potential as a budding songwriter. He had words; plenty of them, stories, poems, streams of consciousness, all of which were becoming increasingly more political as the pandemic months slipped on. He had melodies, too, as a keen singer who was slowly beginning to learn his way around an acoustic guitar.
In blending the two, he was able to channel his lockdown angst into short, sharp bursts of productivity; mini-songs, one minute long, that set out his stall with their catchiness and their unflinching social commentary. They marked Lowe out as a potentially singular talent among his generation; fearlessly topical in his writing, and cannily astute when it came to using TikTok as a delivery system for his ideas.
Now, he’s truly embracing the role of troubadour, fleshing out his songs with a full band, and refining his state-of-the-nation ideas on tracks like ‘I Fell in Love with a Talking Head’, ‘Kill Him He’s a Socialist’ and, now, searing new single ‘Billionaire Extraordinaire’. We caught up with Lowe, who has just turned 20, to discuss his firebrand outlook, his Oldham upbringing, and his first-ever headline tour later this month.
How did you get into making music?
I feel as if I got into it quite late; I must have been 13 or 14 before I properly decided to to learn guitar. I’d already been writing a lot; just words in general, not songs, more like poems or stories. Guitar was really the last thing to fall into place; I was already a singer, I did a lot of musical theatre, particularly at the Oldham Theatre workshop where I grew up. So the guitar was like the final piece, giving me some music to put all these words I had to.
It sounds like things really started to pick up during the pandemic…
Yeah. It felt like there were two waves to it, and it was during the first one that I got properly into songwriting; not with the intention of putting it anywhere, just because there wasn’t much else to do. I was writing every day at that point. By the time we got to the second wave of the pandemic, my whole family, and my girlfriend at the time, were begging me to get on TikTok and start putting stuff out there. I didn’t like the idea to begin with, and I still had that school kid mindset of trying to be cool, but I eventually did it and it started doing well really quickly. I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with uploading stuff if it had taken a while to take off.
Did the format of TikTok shape your songwriting, in terms of needing to keep it short and snappy?
Absolutely. You’re effectively limited to a minute, so I developed this sort of burst-of-energy style of songwriting because I figured I had a lot to say, and only a minute two say it in.
You definitely don’t shy away from passing political comment in your songs. Is that something that you’ve always been interested in?
I think that was another consequence of the pandemic. I wasn’t very old when it hit, and I hadn’t gone out of my way to educated myself on politics until then, where everyone was keeping up to date with the news every day and there was a lot of frustration. The songs came out of that to begin with, but I think there’s been an undertone of social commentary to everything I’ve written, right from the start. I like it, because there’s a lot of emotional range in writing about that; you can be funny, angry, sad. As the pandemic happened, those things became more on-the-nose in my writing.
There’s been a lot of talk about how, for Generation Z, losing a couple of formative years to the pandemic has really politicised them…
It seems that way to me. I really found myself with this overwhelming intrigue with politics. I think in and of itself, the pandemic set unfair, the way the government rolled the dice on certain things felt unfair, and when you’re thinking about unfairness in a specific situation, you start to think about how things are unfair in other areas – I think that’s what’s held my generation to really thinks about things like social justice.
Did growing up in Oldham influence your political outlook?
I think so, yeah, Going back to an early tune like ‘Terms and Conditions’, which is one of the first ones that TikTok seemed to really like, I was a talking about the north-south divide, and about class divides in this country, and that’s something I’ve thought more carefully about since; I’ve made TikToks where I’ve gone into it and talked about it in more detail. I think growing up in the Manchester area in general, it’s a historic place for activism, with the suffragette movement and the Peterloo massacre, which is something I’ve written a song about. My family always made sure it was important to me, too.
Do you think the social commentary in your work is a key part of your appeal?
Definitely. When I was posting TikToks that were making a direct political point, the comment sections would just be filled with discussions, people agreeing, people disagreeing. So I felt as if I’d gotten people talking, and it was then that I started to think about how I could take these political rants on the acoustic guitar and develop them into serious songs. The newer stuff is much more musically developed; you can hear that in ‘Billionaire Extraordinaire’. That’s the closest one of my songs that you could describe as a traditional indie banger, I guess. It’s got a massive chorus and the lyrics deal with the kind of pains of modern life for young people, so it’s hopefully going to be a bit of an anthem.
Has that been a challenge, to take those one-minute bursts and extrapolate from there?
The early EPs that we released were pretty rough and ready; they were essentially demos, but we just wanted to have something that people could listen to if they liked what they heard on TikTok, rather than have to wait for me to get around to recording a proper single or whatever. I think what’s happened since is that I’ve had to separate the two; the ‘proper’ songs, and the TikTok videos. I’ll write short songs that are purely meant for TikTok, which can kind of exist as their own art form on that platform, as they ought to.
Your influences seem like an interesting mix; I know Sinead O’Connor is a big one.
Yeah. In fact, when she died, I think that was the first time my mum and me have both been really, genuinely impacted by the death of someone we didn’t know. The feeling she gets across in her songs…it’s a difficult thing to pin down, but it’s these agonised vocals paired with these beautiful lyrics. I’ve always said that ‘Troy’ is a top five song of all time for me, maybe even my favourite song ever. The lyrics are so beautifully ambitious, and paired with that incredible vocal delivery; I wish I could say I was inspired by her vocally, but obviously I’d never be able to match it. I don’t think anybody could.
And you’ve cited Eminem as an inspiration too, which is the opposite side of the coin; I can hear a bit of his wit in your writing.
Yeah, his humorousness is a big thing for me. He’s got this really impressive power to be able to take some really quite dark subjects and let people see the funny side of then, and he does that by delivering them in a fast-paced, quirky way. That’s shaped me quite a bit.
What’s it been like to put a band together and actually get out and play, given that your rise came about very much as a solo endeavour, and through the Internet?
It’s been absolutely surreal. Part of that is just how much the band are bringing to these songs, that were really just written for an acoustic guitar; they enhance them so much. It’s changed how I write, because now I can come up with the basic foundation of something and just know that the guys will come up with something incredible over the top. We have a violinist, too, which adds an extra dimension to things, and everybody is great at their instrument, which helps, because I’m not necessarily the best guitarist in the world.
What have you learned from supporting the likes of Blossoms, Richard Ashcroft and Paul Weller over the summer?
It’s funny you should mention Blossoms, because we opened for them at Castlefield Bowl in Manchester and then watched their set, and I remember we all looked around at each other like, “that’s how we need to be”. They’re so tight; it’s this really beautiful mix between being real on it, and also having fun on stage. That taught us the difference between just playing your songs and actually performing, you know?
What’s the plan going forward? Is an album in the offing?
There’s nothing set in stone, but me and the band have been having discussions about how we would want an album to sound. I’ve got loads of songs written that we’ve demoed, but I do want to take the approach of writing it from scratch for the most part. I want there to be a clear idea of the sound, and a clear idea of the message, and I want to figure out how all of that relates to each other. At the minute, it’s mostly talk and a few jam sessions, but we’ll get there.
‘Billionaire Extraordinaire’ is available now on all major streaming platforms. Seb Lowe plays six UK shows from September 21