Labrinth: Sometimes you have got to go through the storm to find peace
After a period writing for the ultra-famous in Los Angeles, Labrinth is back in his native UK with a renewed passion for music. He talks to Alex Green about the trappings of fame, Simon Cowell and becoming 2019's unlikeliest comeback king
After seven years without a release, Labrinth is having an intensely creative year. After shelving his second album at the tail end of 2014, the Hackney-raised artist is releasing three albums in a year.
One, a collaboration with Sia and Diplo, cements his place in the musical big league.
The second, a soundtrack to HBO's Euphoria, places Labrinth as an experimental composer.
The third, Imagination And The Misfit Kid, is his long-awaited second album.
Timothy Lee McKenzie, now 30, made his name in the early 2010s with a flurry of pop hits such as Earthquake and Let The Sun Shine.
He produced and sang on Tinie Tempah's first two hits, Pass Out and Frisky, and scored a number one with Beneath Your Beautiful, a schmaltzy duet with Emeli Sande.
But under the surface, things were not as perfect as they seemed.
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By the time Labrinth began promoting his second album, relations with his A&R man (the person in charge of his artistic and commercial development) had apparently hit rock bottom.
For someone burnt by the complex machinations of the industry, he is unexpectedly candid.
And Labrinth is more than happy to address the events that led to his second album, tentatively titled Take Me To The Truth, being shelved.
Caught up in a battle for creative control, his output suffered and he decided to put the record on hold.
"It wasn't even that it got shelved," he explains.
"It naturally happened itself. I was going through a transition of moving management. I was changing with my whole team, my agent.
"A lot of things abruptly came to an end. Our relationships broke down in that time because I produce all my music and I am heavily involved in what's going on.
"If my life or anything around my life breaks down, it affects my process to be able to create."
He pauses to remind himself what it felt like.
"I was a fireman trying to put out too many fires," he says.
Stifled by success, Labrinth left for Los Angeles and a clean break.
That break lasted some five years - but it was fruitful.
By his own admission, his time in the City of Angels taught him how to be rigorous with his art, how to "harness and be professional" with his talent.
He worked with and alongside stars including Kanye West, Beyonce, The Weeknd and Miley Cyrus's little sister Noah ("I made a 15-year-old smash").
Working with West on the rapper's recent Jesus Is King album was a "pinch me moment".
And in Sia, the hit-maker behind Chandelier and Elastic Heart, he found a mentor who would guide him through the impenetrable US industry.
"Sia is an incredible artist - as a person, as a businesswoman and as a creative," he gushes.
Despite all this, much of the public will still be surprised by his return.
Labrinth takes full responsibility. He says he is "terrible" at keeping fans in the loop.
"I blame it on myself that loads of people don't know that I was, of course, working on so many projects," he explains.
But the result?
A surprisingly experimental album that looks deep into the music industry's heart of darkness.
Imagination And The Misfit Kid tells the tale of a boy who sells his imagination to a businessman (the "juju man") in exchange for success.
It's hard not to read it as a cautionary tale based on Labrinth's own journey.
"I see myself in all of the characters," he clarifies.
"There's a part of me that believes in the magic I believed in as a kid. I still believe in the creative magic and fulfilling creative ideas."
Labrinth says he feels like he is at a supremely creative junction in his life.
He is optimistic about the future of the music industry in this streaming-centric, data-driven world.
"I wouldn't say I lost faith in the industry. The industry is the way it is," he says.
"It's not even that it will never change. It will. It's changing right now.
"But the whole idea of business is that you are selling a product.
"Sometimes that has a conflict with creativity."
In an ironic twist, Imagination And The Misfit Kid is being released on Syco, the record label of industry mogul Simon Cowell.
Cowell, the architect of The X Factor, could be seen as bearing a resemblance to the "juju man" of the album.
He has a reputation for unearthing lucrative pop groups (One Direction, Little Mix) and prepping them for global success.
Labrinth says Cowell gives him all the artistic freedom he wants or needs.
"One thing I would always give Simon... with Simon, every time I am working on something, every time I have an idea, he has been insanely supportive," he responds.
"That's not something people expect from the company that is involved in X Factor, that puts X Factor together.
"Syco has been insanely supporting."
Labrinth is more philosophical about his own future, promising that the next few years will be full of new music.
And who's not to believe him, if 2019 is anything to go by?
"I went through the storm and it's not so bad," he says after a lengthy pause.
"Sometimes you have got to go through the madness to find that peace."