Alumni Catch Up; Sam Skirrow - Nexus ICA

We recently caught up with our friend, Sam.

You started as a student at Nexus in 2005, and after three years of study became the Head of Bass, teaching the Bass Course.  Tell us about your time at Nexus?

My time at Nexus was an incredibly memorable time: the life-long friendships I made, the grounding of my faith, learning the skill of being a disciplined musician and most importantly to me, understanding that there is more to my musicality than just the notes I play, but, by faith, knowing that God can use the music I play to minister to people – regardless of whether it’s in a church setting or not….is that a bit deep for this time of the morning?

God can use the music I play to minister to people

What you have been up to since moving on from Nexus?

I’ve played quite a bit of Bass! I have always had a very specific direction I wanted to go in with my playing, that is, the urban/gospel/pop scene – yes it is a thing! So I’ve been up and down from London an awful lot making friends and surrounding myself with excellent musicians in that area of music, some of whom I’m really really privileged to call my best friends. I’ve also learnt to play bass synth (an absolute key thing to do for ALL bass players!), had a daughter, owned 2 cats, and moved house 5 times.

What are you currently doing musically?

Currently I work with 2 artists, Raleigh Ritchie and Lion Babe. I’m very fortunate as their music is exactly what I like to play, so I don’t feel like I’ve compromised on what I enjoy just to get work. Both of these artists are in a similar place in their career where they are starting to pick up a good amount of attention and radio play. As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of promo with them, including the Live Lounge video we recorded earlier this week. We’ve got a pretty full diary ahead and then we get to festival season which, although nothing is booked yet as it’s a bit early in the year, if it’s anything like last year it will be a bit of a mad one!

I’ve also been getting into studio work a lot more recently – I used to hate studio work, but lately I’ve started to really enjoy the process of creating a song and adding my stamp to it. Just before Christmas I was working on Emeli Sande’s new album and an artist called Etta Bond (who if you don’t know – you HAVE to check her out, I think she’s an actual genius! Start with an album called “#CoolUrbanNewTalent”, it’s vibey) – her new stuff, although not released yet, has a very D’Angelo inspired sound to it – we were actually in the studio until 7am jamming over her tracks…and then I was in a rehearsal at 9am – all this was just 3 days after my daughter was born – that whole week was just a blur to be honest!

You and your wife moved to London initially to be placed well for being employed as a live or session musician. You then moved back! Can you tell us a bit about your reasons for moving?

Yeah, this was a very interesting time for my wife Emma and I. To be honest, I wasn’t getting much work at the time, and we had just been evicted from the house we were renting (evicted sounds really bad….it’s because the owner was selling it!). A lot of people will say that to be a session musician you have to be in London – I really don’t like it when people say that but I thought that I should try out the theory, otherwise I’d always be kicking myself that I never tried it! Me and Emma are ridiculously impulsive people, so from the time I told her I think we should move to London, we had packed up our house, found Emma a new job and found a new place to live and moved out in about 2 weeks!

I don’t mind being brutally honest about our time in London – it sucked! Emma wasn’t enjoying her job (and that’s putting it politely), we couldn’t find a church where we felt we had a connection, we were just renting a single room…so that’s me and Emma, all of our stuff and our cat…in one room (which by the way cost as much as our whole house up in the Midlands), and we had no money; AND, I wasn’t getting any more work. Most importantly though, I think we both felt, almost as soon as we walked through the door of our new house, that we had compromised on the things that we knew God was telling us to keep as a priority, just to chase after work – and that felt very out of character for us!

We moved out of London after about 3 months, and amazingly got our old place back (because our Landlady is equally as impulsive as us and decided she didn’t want to sell up anymore!). Emma got her old job back, and someone in my church commented “I didn’t even realise you had gone”! So it was as if it never really happened!

trusting that God has my career in his control.

What’s funny is that a few days after we moved back, I got a call for the biggest tour I have done and have not been without work since! I have to keep reminding myself that my focus needs to be on having my home life in order and trusting that God has my career in his control.

What does touring look like for you and how do you find managing marriage/church/family life within the life of a working musician?

Touring is kind of like watching an advert for a camping holiday – you see all the fun bits like families having barbeques and laughing with each other, or jokingly throwing each other in the swimming pool. What you don’t see are the trips to the toilet in the middle of the night in the rain, or the food poisoning you get from an undercooked sausage on that barbeque you saw…ok let’s end this metaphor! My point is, touring has its fun moments, but at the end of the day, it’s just work, and it’s as much of a hard slog as it is fun. I’m quite a level headed person, and I think this helps me not get sucked into the hype of touring…after all, is it really fun to be on a bus for six weeks? Don’t get me wrong, I feel very fortunate to do what I do, but because I view it just as a job, I’m able to place it under my family and home life in terms of priorities.

I am away from home a lot, and that does of course have an effect on my home life, but Emma is very gracious and actually seems to enjoy it when I’m away (I’m not sure every marriage has that dynamic, but we certainly do!)! I also try and get her to come to as many shows as I can…and also, faceTime is an absolute gem! My church understand and support what I do, not just in terms of the job I do, but also the purpose I have for my job – they really encourage me in it in fact. I love it when I’m back and can input what I’ve learnt into the musicians at church!

I feel like I have even more purpose to do the job I do, and to do it with excellence.

Lastly, with me now being a family man, this makes it even harder to be away, BUT, on the other hand, I feel like I have even more purpose to do the job I do, and to do it with excellence. I think what I’m saying is that, the sense of purpose I feel to provide for my family, make my wife proud, do my job excellently and bring new, practical teaching to my worship team at church, greatly outweighs the fact that I’m away a lot of the time, and having a wife that understands that is an amazing blessing too.

What advice would you give someone who’d like to pursue being a working musician?

There are a lot of things I would say for this. I think the best advice I could give for someone wanting to pursue music as a career is to figure out what you enjoy and are naturally good at, and become amazing at it. For me, it was the whole RnB/gospel scene, so that’s what I worked and continue to work towards. As a result, I now get referred to as “the only white guy in the village” (haha) – because I’ve only pursued that scene for the last 4 years and I’ve become known for being skilled in that area – put me on a rock gig and I don’t think I’d last very long! This has meant turning down (good) work opportunities just because I didn’t feel like they are the right direction for my career. Probably bad advice, but I’m a fan of putting all my eggs in one basket – that way you have no choice but for things to work out for you, even if it’s much harder work!

I would also say to keep working hard – I genuinely believe hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. And also, be friendly – don’t try and just make musical contacts, but make friendships – it’s so much more valuable to have people who can speak into your life and challenge, than just have people who can get you gigs!

How do you see your role as a representative of God in what you’re doing?

I was actually having this chat with Lion Babe’s MD the other day! It’s no secret that the music industry can be a slightly dark place – not in all cases, but I’ve definitely been offered drugs…and other stuff. The mentality can very much be “live for the moment”, whereas, we know as Christians, our focus is eternal and storing up heavenly treasures. So right from the start, we’re going against the grain.

For ages I really struggled to figure out the best way to be in these situations. I’ll be honest, it’s not really OK to sit in a corner of a dressing room reading your Bible – that might mean you don’t get called back to that gig. Similarly, it’s not really OK to go around partying hard and taking drugs (obviously) – so what’s the middle ground?

I think the answer is this, have your life behind closed doors in order, and by faith, trust that God will use my words, my actions, the notes I play to speak to the people I’m around. I genuinely believe that when we focus on God, and the things he is asking us to do, he will anoint our actions and our words, and our gifts – and this is what points people to him.

trust that God will use my words, my actions, the notes I play to speak to the people I’m around.

What are your hopes and plans for your future?

Oh gosh, they change everyday! The main thing for me is to know that I am always progressing, not just as a musician, but in every area of life, otherwise I start to feel very frustrated. Practically, I’d love to move to America for a while and work with musicians out there as the general standard is so much higher than in the UK – but, as long as I’m moving forwards and pursuing excellence, I’m pretty happy to go with the flow and see what happens!

Watch Sam in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge with “Lion Babe” below.