Future First: cktrl, the instrumentalist taking us on a journey of heartbreak

Man wearing all white stood near stream playing clarinet

Introducing Future First, our new music series that spotlights the most promising artists coming up in the industry. To mark its launch, we invited UK-based composer, producer and DJ cktrl to our Studio at 180 House to discuss what lies behind his soulful, meditative music

By Ollie Horne

South London-based beat maker, DJ, producer and musician cktrl (pronounced ‘control’ – an abbreviation of ‘can’t keep to reality’) is hitting new highs right now. Since performing his first Boiler Room set at the age of 17, he’s spent the past decade producing a diverse collection of EPs and mixtapes that range in style from grime to experimental pop and R&B. His latest EP, Robyn (2020), represents a crystallisation of all these ingredients into a new sound, occupying a space between classical, improvised jazz and melodic soul.

The artist composed the EP during the emotional upheaval of a break-up, where he began translating his feelings into serene, free-flowing music. For the introspective subject matter, he turned to his instruments: the clarinet and saxophone, as well as acoustic and electric piano. The resulting explorative melodies on the clarinet instantly project a reflective state of mind. The instrument’s ethereal quality is brought to life with plenty of reverb, and close microphones allow intimate details of cktrl’s breathing to be heard. Dripping water and ambient birdsong add to the distinctly meditative vibe. 

Graphic composition of two portraits colour and black and white mixed together
Graphic composition of two portraits colour and black and white mixed together

But that’s not to say there isn’t subtle grit in his soundscapes: in the final track, ‘As You Are’, a punchy beat is introduced with rolling hi-hats and a deep kick drum. As he tells us in the 180 Studio, ‘It’s just how I’m feeling. I only really play my instruments when I’m sad. I’m not one of those jazzers at home [playing] every day. If I’m feeling something, I do it.’ It’s this mix of sounds, selected as an honest reflection of his feelings, that makes cktrl’s music unique. 

It’s not only his varied compositions and performances that highlight cktrl as an artist who’s ready to shape the scene; his connections with other young Black creatives have also brought about interesting collaborations. He’s previously remixed tunes by Sampha (an early supporter of his), and his long-lasting friendship with Nigerian-British film-maker Jenn Nkiru resulted in a cameo in Beyonce’s 2020 film Black Is King. And then there are his soundscapes for fashion designers Priya Ahluwalia, Nicholas Daley, and Virgil Abloh. 

With a dedicated work ethic and tracks already in the can for his next EP release, Zero, this summer, we can expect further surprises from this diverse and emotive artist. Stay tuned.

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