Hak Baker has a sense of humour that disarms you. "When I was a kid I used to hide under my sister's legs when anyone touched me, but would lash out and cry when I was angry. Twenty years later, it still sounds about right, except now I just hide behind my hair and destroy things," the folk singer-songwriter tells Clash as we sit on the floor of the busy Lisbon streets. The 26-year-old’s playful facetiousness and boisterous laughter surprises, a sharp contrast to his music, where he’s deeply sincere and often vulnerable.
Baker's ‘Misfits’ EP earlier this year first laid his songwriting bare to the world. The project collapses decades of folk tradition into an identity that feels not only modern, but believable. It's an endearing collection of prosaic narratives and humble melodies that sounds unearthed from the past, coupled with the foundation of today's modern music.
Hak's handle on his acoustic guitar blows you away as he sounds like he's right in the room with you, which is the least a folk singer can hope to convey on record. He frees himself to more fully embrace his spiritual yearning, all while tempering the edges of his music with the acknowledgment that joy and tranquility, while worth pursuing, can be fleeting and complicated when sharing your reality with other flawed human beings.
The East Londoner brings his unique sense of balance to these songs by pairing sprawling arrangements with bare, plain-spoken language. The lyrics often refine unruly angst into a quieter and more grown-up melancholia. “When you’re a teenager, everything is dramatic,” he says. “It’s the end of the world every day. My music is the result of not being that teenager anymore but still being sad and frustrated with the world."
Hak Baker has a storied musical history despite being only 26 years old. He initially entered the world of music by MC-ing at youth clubs, local studios. and pirate radio stations. It was in the streets that his true musical journey began: his love of rock and indie merged with grime and garage, all explored through the lens of teenage mischief. At the age of 14, his grime collective B.O.M.B. Squad peaked in the Channel U video charts with their eponymous debut, cementing Hak's cult status in the London grime scene. Caught in the whirlwind, things spiralled out of control and his music career was halted after a series of run-ins with the law, he was sent to jail. Behind bars, Hak rediscovered his passion for music, teaching himself to play the guitar and vowing to one day use his freedom to make art through music.
Upon release, the singer-songwriter picked up a guitar and began penning stripped-back soulful ballads laced with folk elements. Words began to waterfall out of him, he remembers. A true Cancer, Hak cherishes the moments when he’s able to escape all the confusion in his head and emerge himself fully into his music. “There’s no thought,” he explained. “Once you taste that, you keep chasing it."
His musical inspirations mostly consist of classic storytellers like Damien Marley, Skinshape and Massive Attack, artists who paired simple and soft melodies with tales of city life, doomed romance, and solitude. Hak Baker makes folk that's reminiscent of Mike Skinner and was capable of successfully transitioning into an entirely new genre, rebuilding from the ground up. Last year, he took part in the Levi’s Music Project curated by Skepta, earning the chance to perform alongside the grime legend.
"Just sitting on the floor in the streets just chatting. Those kinds of things are the simple things that I love to do," says Hak, wearing a headband under his locks, sweatshorts, and a simple grey t-shirt. He is casual and candid as he talks about the strange reality we all now live in, why it’s important for regular lads to have a voice, and how misfits can be found in all corners of the world.
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You're from Isle of Dogs in East London. How did that influence you as a person and as an artist?
In every way. It taught me how to be caring, it taught me how to love my friends, it taught me how to be fucking wild, it taught me to expect the unexpected, it taught me that your friends won't be friends forever, it taught me everything about my personality really...
In this day and age, a lot of music is focused on production and so the voices end up getting lost. One thing that stands out to me about your music is that you can tell it's soulful, filled with emotion. What made you go from a grime background and choose folk music?
I didn't pick it, it just happened. I didn't choose it at all. I just started out playing the guitar and I was at that stage of my life where I knew who I was and that's how it came out naturally, so I didn't wanna change it.
Why the guitar?
Before I went to jail I was fascinated with Kings Of Leon, I was listening to their album on repeat, getting fucked up with my mates. I just felt something when I heard the guitar on that project, so I decided to take a chance with the guitar and run with it.
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It taught me to expect the unexpected...
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How did people around you, your family and friends, react when you started making folk music?
I'd say my mates were always pushing me to do something, they knew I played the guitar and I was showing them bits and pieces of what I was producing so they encouraged me to just do something. So I "did something" and that's just how it came out. They were happy for me really and all I needed was support from them, to be honest.
I'm a bit of a nutter but my mates knew about the things I was talking about and understood where I was coming from, so they were just supportive straight away. My mum was as well! She just came to my show and she understood what I was doing more clearly so she was like, crack on. Before we called it folk or whatever, people were like... "What are you doing?" Some people were like that, saying I was just being mental. But then when they listened properly and realised what I was talking about, they accepted it... I think!
What's the concept behind your ‘Misfits’ EP?
I was just feeling like there are a lot of people that are being misrepresented or not being represented at all. They don't get a chance for any representation at all because they don't fit in the criteria of "cool". You know, with Instagram and all those kinds of things going on right now.
People lose their dignity and do all kinds of messed up shit just for likes and, I don't know, I just feel like normal people don't have a say any more. There are normal lads everywhere, in every country, who just fuck about with their mates and they don't really have a voice. I just wanted to talk about me and my mates and apparently it's synonymous to how a lot of other people feel around the world.
On the second track of your EP you say, "We are the era of misfits". What does the era of misfits look like to you?
We are the era that are smart and have the internet as a tool. We can see and find out shit for ourselves, we don't have to just blindly believe external information or the media when they chat shit. We can find things out ourselves, we can be crazy ourselves, we can be whoever we want to be and fuck everybody else. Fuck people, we can do what we want. And if they don't like it, what are they gonna do? Like all those guys who leaked stuff from WikiLeaks they just thought, "Yeah, I'm gonna leak that shit" and they really did it! It's that time, we can do whatever we want.
If we find out that our government is crap and that everything they're doing is bollocks then too bad, we're gonna let the world know.
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I just feel like normal people don't have a say any more...
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You speak a lot about the black British experience as well as police brutality. Do you feel like as an artist you have a responsibility to use your platform to speak about these issues?
Yeah, absolutely. ‘Misfits’ isn't a record of overt political statements, but it's also impossible to separate it from my own identity and perspective. So I try not to speak only about issues that black people face because growing up, obviously I had a ton of black friends but I had loads of white mates as well.
A lot of white people have showed me a lot of love throughout my life and they taught me a lot of shit so I just speak about where I'm from personally, where the mix between black and white and some Asian people is just all very similar. I feel like I was really part of the connecting of the races, especially between black and white people, that was pretty instrumental at that time in my area. Obviously I'm fully aware that I'm black but I'm also fully aware that I learned a lot from my local people, irrespective of race.
On ‘L.I.O.L.I (Like It or Lump It)’ you say, “Separation in our generation is our degradation”. What inspired you to write this line?You're unsigned. How has the independent journey been for you?
Perfect. I get to make music with my mates, the way I want to make it, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That's why everything I create comes from an authentic, genuine place, because that's who I am. My only producer is my friend Ali, who's here with me today, he's also the bassist for my band and he just gets me, he's been with me from the start and I wouldn't change that for anything.
You're going on tour soon, how do you feel about that?
Ecstatic. I only know misfits in my ends and I just can't wait to connect with misfits from everywhere. Lads, ladettes, crazy people, so yeah, I can't wait!
What's next for you after touring?
Just keep making music man. I don't aspire to be a celebrity or anything, I don't give a shit about that. I just want to be normal and I can sing songs without having to do all those extra things. So that's all I want to do. Sing songs for people, travel with my mates, and do it all over again.
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Words: Mariana Carvalho
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