Producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. Experimenting with everything from electronic to R&B, our good friend Sam (a.k.a. Manüka) gives us the lowdown on his unique approach to making music. We talk inspiration, EPs and how he's responded to these quieter times. Turns out drinking coffee isn't the only thing a mug is good for.
"You need to have an idea of what sort of music you want to release. Probably the hardest step of all is putting yourself out there"
Hello mate. First off, can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
The idea of Manüka* started around a dinner table while we were brainstorming a name to use as an alias for my music. Jewish, Israel, land of milk and honey. Someone said that ‘milk and honey’ was already a label so I should call myself ‘Manüka’. It’s sweet. It’s got health benefits. It all ties in. I say I'm a producer. I say my style is more experimental than most people I've worked with. I was recording a song recently and I wanted a cowbell but I couldn't find the right sample. So, I had a coffee mug on my table and I just started banging it with a pencil. I created a cowbell and put it to use in the track.
*Type of honey native to New Zealand
Definitely experimental and sounds like our kind of tune. What inspires this continuously creative process?
I think because I listen to so many different genres, what I make at the moment ranges from dance to alternative UK to R&B. Inspiration wise it's always been artists like Bonobo who are capable of pushing the boundaries within their own genres, yet making the sounds familiar to people when they listen to it. I like the idea of working with other artists who would typically stick to one genre, so I can bring them outside of their comfort zone. I guess my style of songwriting is so different to the way people usually write. I create the song on the computer to start off with and I often put in weird ideas. Some artists have some resistance, but some are really keen to explore where it's going to get as many ideas down as possible. It's an iterative process. I think it's quite a free liberal approach to making music.
So where did this all begin?
I was seven or eight and I was fascinated by music. I was always listening to whatever my mum was playing on CD or on the record player and I was always interested in dancing. Running up and down the corridor, down the hallway and just sort of loving it. I think my first memory of music I was interested in was ‘Encore’ by Eminem and ‘Roses’ by Outkast. In terms of playing, I was about six or seven and I remember finding my mum’s classical guitar she used to play when she was in her twenties. I started to play aimlessly and it wasn't until a few months later that I practically forced my mum to give me lessons. Once I had a bit of technical training on the guitar, I was able to transfer what I knew in terms of scales and constructing chords. I learned the notes on the keys, and then was able to slowly figure out in my head what everything sounded like. A lot of it is just listening and doing it over and over again until it sounds right.
Your album artwork is seriously impressive. Is there a relationship between the art and the music you create?
It's really important for me to try and visually reflect the environment I've tried to create within the soundscape of my songs, so that through a different medium, the music is supported. That also helps people to understand it better. I use a lot of warm synths in my tracks. I think the soft lighting and the trippy visuals attempt to emulate that. It's really difficult to put out just music and get people interested in it, even if it's the best music in the world. We're in an era where people are consuming so much information; if it's not visually pleasing, they're not going to be able to stay engaged with it. What helps with the visuals is that my brother runs a gallery. He has a huge selection of artists that I usually go to for the artwork on some of the singles and EPs I’ve released. The art emulates the music I'm creating. It's just quite abstract. I listen to the song and think ‘what would go well with that?’.
The Balance EP came out over summer. A corker. How did it feel to release this project?
I was proud to release this project and include a collection of songs that I had built up over a period of about a year. Not only featuring talented people on the tracks but it featured some of my friends which was quite nice. I was trying to think of something which was relatable to me, but at the same time, people could hear the word and interpret what they want from it. To me, I think the word ‘balance’ considers how I approach life in general. Your day-to-day, your week-to-week; it can be a challenge with work and personal life pressures. ‘Hold On’ is quite intense with the percussion, but ‘False Hopes’ is more chilled out. I think the EP is just a reminder to take a step back when things get overwhelming.
Do you think about this idea of mental ‘balance’ when you’re making the music?
It certainly impacts my production process. If I'm feeling sad or nostalgic one day, that will definitely be reflected in the sort of music I'm making. Whereas if I've had a really great day – gone for a run to the park and had a nice lunch – I’ll probably make a more open track. You can feel uninspired to create anything at times. But when I'm inspired to create something, I feel like making a song. If I don't make that song, I definitely feel a bit tense.
You've done a few features now. How do you find collaborating with other artists?
I quite enjoy the pressure of being able to create something from scratch with someone else in the room. The more I've developed as a producer, the more I realise how much value there is in having another set of ears in the room to bounce ideas off. ‘Creatures of the Night’ with Virgil Hawkins was a good one. He came into my studio – which is my bedroom – and the song was finished in about two or three hours from starting. Some people have melodies, but no lyrics. Some people have lyrics, but no melodies. Some people have both. I usually have a few melodies in my head and they’re normally pretty different to what everyone else is thinking of. You do find the common ground and you manage to compromise.
2020 was an interesting time for the music industry. Any reflections?
Artists typically in the past have always had to go to a studio, hire an expensive engineer, a recording producer, and then on the back of that spend a lot of money to be able to record and distribute music around the world. But I think lockdown has demonstrated that’s not really the case anymore. Particularly with the genre of music I'm in, you can literally record music at home, send it to an engineer, then a week later, it can be out there for people to listen to. In terms of new artists development, I think it will push people who are curious, but who haven't been had the confidence before, to start putting their music out there. In light of the pandemic, there are definitely pros and cons for the music industry but I'm more excited rather than apprehensive about the future. In the past few months, we've seen such good music coming out and there will be plenty to hear live once the pandemic is over. I'm very excited to be going to Sofar Sounds events, gigs, festivals abroad and just being surrounded by friends and people you love. There's nothing better than listening to live music around people. There's not enough support from the government for the future of these industries.
How have you responded – personally and musically – to the quieter times?
Luckily, I've managed to balance music with my everyday work and, musically, lockdown has been really good for me. I’ve been able to speed up my production rate because I've had less distractions. Whilst it can be challenging mentally, sometimes being isolated for so long can also be really good. For me anyway, I found when you have a repetitive life and the same environment, it's a great way to immerse yourself in something creative. Obviously, it depends on multiple factors: whether you have a stable income, or whether you have friends and family to support you. I think if you have all those essential things in life and you have a repetitive structure, it can actually be really beneficial. Before the pandemic, everyday life challenges made things more difficult. So, it's been a good time, musically, to step back and re-evaluate.
Staying focused can be a mission. Have you ever struggled with motivation?
With anything painful, I feel like most people eventually subconsciously delete those memories from their mind. I think I've definitely experienced that emotion before in the past, whether it was after a breakup or after moving home or moving from university. Through those transitional periods, I think it can be quite difficult because you start to re-evaluate your life in general. For me, the way to get through that is just to keep making music and keep that production rate up. Eventually, you'll come back around to falling in love again with whatever it is you're doing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into music at the moment?
Just start making really bad music. Listen to the artists you like and try to replicate that. Even if you can't replicate it, just listen to the general elements they put in their songs and try and do that for yourself. At the beginning, I was always like questioning ‘how do I get my own sound?’. If you just keep making music, eventually you'll get to a point where you’re not trying to be like anyone else. I still think I'm far away off from actually having ‘a sound’ but you need to have an idea in your head of what sort of music you want to release. Probably the hardest step of all is putting yourself out there. A lot of the time you don't know what people will think at the beginning. If you want to start releasing music, the most important thing is to release it. You're going to have to do it at some point. You'll get feedback from people and you can go down the route where you had good feedback. Eventually, you'll start to meet new people and new opportunities will come. You'll get to the point where I’m at now: starting out, but going in the right direction.
1. Ben. Beard or no beard?
I like the moustache. But maybe the beard is a no.
2. One artist to listen to?
TSHA. She's a good producer and she introduced me to the engineer for ‘Balance’.
3. Strings or Keys?
Very difficult but probably keys.