Rising: tendai is treading his own musical path
“I try to be a student of sounds,” ponders tendai as he stares out of a hotel window on a cloudy London day. “I don’t work based on genre. I’ve realised how much my spirit does not say [genre].”
Just a handful of tracks into his career, the 22-year-old singer, songwriter and one of the first signings to the 0207 Def Jam imprint has always walked his own musical path, unburdened by classification. His 2021 debut single, Not Around, served up an intoxicating slice of alternative R&B. Follow-up Infinite Straight’s aqueous guitars and synths displayed a taste for indie grooves, and this year’s Lately bounced with the funky finesse of UK garage. This open-minded embrace of varying rhythms, styles and tempos, he tells me, is something that he learned in his youth.
Growing up in Custom House, east London, tendai discovered his curiosity for music in his deeply religious home, taking in everything from worship hymns to ABBA to Jay Sean’s R&B-infused bhangra (via his older brother’s iPod, of course). He also grew up regularly performing in a Ugandan a capella gospel choir at his parents’ church, a formative experience that he’s still grateful for. “That helped me understand the duality of being Black and British,” he remembers fondly. “It has allowed me to pick and choose which influences to pull from so that my music could be boundless.”
This sense of creative freedom has defined tendai’s output so far. Not only does he confidently dip into the patchwork of sounds and musical cultures that have influenced him, but his lyrical process encompasses this universality, too. Pensive, tender and self-assured in equal measure, tendai’s songs unpack what it means to experience love in all its forms. “You should hear the way they talk about love/ It’s supposed to be magic,” he breathily croons over minor piano chords on Not Around, before admitting, “I think I might be the only one who don’t understand it.”
“I believe that I’m a director,” tendai says of his impulse to dive headfirst into the emotions that propel his art. “When I’m writing, I’m thinking about how the music looks as a scene, in terms of production, lyrics, melody and delivery. The link is definitely cinematic – my approach to creativity needs to be visual.” It’s an artistic method that is certainly evident in his work, particularly on the lo-fi odyssey that is Infinite Straight. The music video, which follows tendai roaming along a lonely, open road in Manchester – though you’d be forgiven for assuming it was the Wild West – feels mystical but intentional, with a clear focus on storytelling and mood setting. “I’m full-grown on the infinite straight/ I could’ve flown, but I used my feet/ No wings on my back and I got no wheels,” an unknown female voice narrates over the song’s opening guitar riff.
This cinematic sensibility is also present on latest single, Pressure, a stylishly minimal dancehall song that feels like the soundtrack to a romcom set in the outer cosmos. “It’s conceptual,” he winks, “and very much the product of me as a curator rather than just a creator.” When asked about what he hopes to achieve as an artist, tendai lights up, as if he’d been waiting for the question to come up. “I want my music to sound like Earth!” he beams. “If an alien wanted to understand what Earth sounds like, I want to reach a point where I can convey that humanity with my music.”