Introducing Tayo Sound: UK street busker, vision of the future
It’s been a big two years for Reading teen Tayo Oyekan, who’s gone from hustling neighbourhood busker to international recording artist.
In the grand scheme, there are worse places to be stuck than Reading.
The Berkshire town runs back more than a millennia, and that history shows on the street, with 12th-century ruins just a short walk from the local multiplex. Our collective appetite for sitting in a crowded room all but exhausted, the local gaze has turned to the nearby North Wessex Downs and Chiltern Hills, home to greens, heaths, hills, parks and hamlets that roll out beyond the horizon. He might’ve lived there for the better part of his entire life, but all this natural beauty is new to Tayo Oyekan.
“It's not been too bad,” he says of the more relaxed restrictions. “It's actually been quite refreshing, being able to explore my local area, because usually you only go to the town centre and eat food or whatever. Now I'm discovering all this natural countryside, so that's been quite nice.” In Tayo’s defence, he’s long been keeping busy: at school, where he subbed rote lessons with music industry research; at home, where he learned his standards and honed his performance; and on Broad Street, where he took those teachings to an audience of swooning shoppers. If the grind took up much of Tayo’s time, it was his rapid rise to prominence – a whirlwind tour from sidewalk regular to Sony Music – that bred an interest in his home, somewhere he’s been spending less and less time of late.
“It was insane... abrupt is definitely the right word,” he tells me of that twist of fate, equal parts scheduled and surprising. In the beginning, Tayo came into music through his involvement in the church, those pious beginnings casting pop as an intriguing force. “I never played radio, and so pop music was like this crazy thing to me,” he recalls, those early-2000s hits often coming in the form of ringtones. “My older brother would sometimes play me stuff, but really, it was when I got a smartphone [that I] started trying to find new stuff.” That musical education came courtesy of Disney, from which he spotlights “Woody’s Roundup,” breaking to argue that Jessie’s abandonment is “sadder than the first ten minutes of Up”; his family, with his Nigerian grandmother a onetime friend of Fela Kuti; and his classmates, whose diverse cultural background proved an important influence. “Reading's very multicultural… I had a lot of friends from India and Pakistan, and they were always playing me Bangla music,” Tayo tells me. “One of the first songs that got me signed, I put a Bangla riff in there!”
His interest piqued but prospects uncertain, Tayo left school and took the plunge into the busking circuit. “I didn't know what I was going to do, because I wasn’t doing very well in school. I decided I was going to start busking, and it was really scary, just going around to tons of different towns and doing it. Some days you'd make nothing and some days, you’d make quite a bit,” he says, casting back to the days of radio-ready setlists and Sheeran covers. His onetime running sheet speaks to his music tastes and early influences, spotlighting Vance Joy’s Riptide and Mess Is Mine, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man and Drake’s One Dance, each a potent crowd pleaser. In spite of his busking successes – and his rendition of American Boy, which still kills – Tayo was still at a loss. “I didn't know what the future was going to look like,” he remembers.
If the busking circuit trades in uncertainty, it also breeds a special kind of proficiency, pitting a guitar-toting teen against an oft-interactive audience with little more than six strings and his voice. “I was always into indie folk-rock… I was a huge fan of the Paper Kites and that kind of vibe, and there was a point where that's all I could write, because all I had was a guitar and myself.” In the spirit of busker-turned-hitmaker Ed Sheeran, whose songs dot the setlist of any self-respecting trouper, Tayo put his pen through its paces, writing his way from simple acoustic jams to more fully-formed tracks boasting denser arrangements and real production. He chose his moniker, Tayo Sound, whilst searching for available Instagram handles, flipping his real name – Tayo, actually pronounced ‘tie-oh’ – and running with the pronunciation that everybody already assumed.
“I just started submitting my stuff to blogs,” he casually explains, but there’s no modesty at play here: that really was the plan. “One picked it up and then literally overnight, I had like 10 record labels DMing me, and every day it'd be a new manager DMing me, or a new A&R from a label,” he says, now stunned: after all, the HillyDilly post that earned him attention as “the next Ed Sheeran” garnered little more than five likes. All at once, Tayo was on a flight to NYC, jet-setting courtesy of his label-to-be and bringing his Dad along for the ride. “Suddenly, I was in the studio every day with actual producers instead of just doing it in my room.”
There’s no place like home, but studios – like bedrooms – certainly aren’t created equal. “I don't know what the studios are like over in your ends, but in London, it's like every studio has no natural light,” he says, laughing a little. “In LA, everywhere has a view and natural light.” It’s so much more than just amenities, and Tayo’s doubt gave way to more than a few teachings. “I was always somebody that didn't really understand when people go away to write, because I was like ‘oh, it's just all the same, you're just in a dark studio,’ but I get it now,” he waxes, yearning for those wild international exploits “I mean, it was crazy inspiring.”
Inspiration hit in Los Angeles, where the fresh-faced teen found himself alongside idols and influences. “I was working with some people I've always looked up to,” he begins, spotlighting production duo Ojivolta as influences by way of Jon Bellion. “Being able to work with them, and just feeling as if I was contributing… obviously I was, but you know, I had this crazy feeling of ‘I'm working with these guys and like, they think I'm good!’”
That two-week American excursion was prolific, but Tayo soon flew to Sweden, where he linked up with fellow writer Calle Lehmann and producer George Reid from AlunaGeorge. “There's only a couple people that are sole writers, that aren't producers, that I kind of feel comfortable working with, and he's one of those guys,” he says of Calle. The studio views still had a leg up on London: “it snowed, which was amazing… it snows like once in the UK every year or so. It was a really cool time in Sweden, everybody's so nice. It's just a really nice place to be.” Taken by the studio setups and foreign lifestyles, Tayo nonetheless emerged from this productive haze of creativity and customs with a vision, a vigour and a handful of tracks to his name.
Cold Feet, his debut single, speaks to the strengths of his streetcorner approach. Even with the shiny production and bright embellishments, the track is anchored to an irresistibly light melody and an ambling guitar, two of his strongest artistic assets. “I remember when we made Cold Feet, we finished it, made a completely different song and then started another idea, all in one session,” he says of that heady inspiration, “it was like oh, this is just insane.” It’s not hard to see why a track like Cold Feet would stand out even amongst the most furious sessions, imbued with the kind of infectious energy no mask could ever contain.
It was also imbued with a narrative, but that’s something Tayo’s not quite ready to elaborate on – he does, however, take credit for the striking ‘space monkey’ companion that joins him in videos and artwork. “Originally, I had this whole plot of the space monkey idea, which I won't get fully into, but it was quite an extensive origin story,” he explains, the idea clearly lingering. “I told it to my label and they were like, ‘yeah, maybe like a few years down the line when we have a bit more of a budget!’” It’s not quite a cinematic universe, but you’d be hard-pressed to call the visuals – courtesy of Bedroom, a directing duo behind recent clips from Beabadoobee and The 1975 – a compromise. “They're like, next level… everybody loves the video,” says Tayo of the warping animation that runs alongside his home video footage, filtered through the lens of some antiquated camcorder. “Sometimes the video is what draws people in on YouTube and stuff,” he admits, “super grateful to Soren and Amir.”
The threads of young love, hazy reciprocation and technicoloured animation carry through to Heartbreaker, his second single, a funkier take on the many grays that tint romance. The songs are short and punchy, much like the sessions that bring them about – not short on studio hours, but filled with fleeting fragments and unfinished thoughts, time spent chasing moments of inspiration and invigoration. “We're too excited to get to the end of the next thing,” as Tayo explains it, telling me about the piecemeal assembly of Heartbreaker: “I had this whole verse I loved, and I didn't really like the chorus… I just took [the verse] and it became like the pre-chorus of this tune.”
As Tayo works towards the release of his debut EP, burnished with upcoming singles Someone New and Runaway, he’s growing into his musical voice as he develops a take on the attention that comes with it. “When it comes to songs I'm going to be releasing, I feel everybody should be their own worst critic,” he tells me, that harsh expectation cloaked in his perfectionism. “Even now I'm like, ‘oh, maybe I should have turned that up a little bit,’ just stuff that probably won't make a difference.” The relationship between trust and vigilance is one Tayo’s given thought, and he touches back on his LA stint as a crash course in creative confidence. “That was definitely a very confidence-building experience, just being able to be like ‘okay, I am good enough to work with these people, and I am good enough to kind of reach the level that I've always aspired to be at.’”
I ask Tayo what that level entails, but in typical form, he comes well prepared. “I’ve got to the point where I'm very comfortable with my aspirations,” he contemplates, framing that dream as “just what I consider to be good music.” It’s almost impossible to totally disavow metrics – “if that doesn't work then I'm out of a job,” he jokes – but there’s something to be said for personally defining success. “I think it’s a really important thing to get back to, because a lot of people can get caught up in numbers,” he argues. “At the end of the day, as long as I know that I've done something that I'm proud of, that's what was important to me.”
In the meantime, though, Tayo’s content to explore the outskirts of Reading, relaxing back home after a transformative year. It’s a ride that never really ends, and whilst those LA studio sessions seem a world away, there’s nothing that could pull the impassioned singer-songwriter from his pen. “It's been more liberating, because I've definitely been writing a lot more on my own, which I would never usually do,” he says, running me through the minutiae of writer credits and in-studio spitballing. “It's been good to kind of get back to how I started, writing on my own.”
It’s a bonus that downtime counts for inspiration. “I just rewatched Meet the Robinsons,” he tells me, enthused. It’s the first time I’ve thought of that film in years, but it all comes flooding back – the kitschy animation, the white bread protagonist, the Rob Thomas tie-in single. He mentions The Life of Pi and About Time, sending us further down some pop-culture rabbit hole trading hot takes and fond memories.
It’s a journey lined with nostalgic affections, old-school romances and lo-fi grain; a vision of simplicity from an age of complexity since forgotten. Those are the same sentiments that Tayo channels – the will-they-won’t-they of love, the want for a rose-tinted adventure, the pull of some unlikely daydream – into his three-minute melodies, sweet flashes of tunnel vision that prove a pleasant escape.
That’s something we could all use right about now.
Tayo Sound's latest single Heartbreaker is out now via Arista Records / Sony Music Australia.