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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Songwriter Saffron Collins has a wisdom beyond her years

Songwriter Saffron Collins is already a veteran whose exploration of music mirrors the UAE scene, writes Rob Garratt

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 26 September 2017. UAE teen musician Saffron Collins, who is releasing a new single Innocent next month. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Rob Garret. Section: Arts And Culture.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 26 September 2017. UAE teen musician Saffron Collins, who is releasing a new single Innocent next month. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Rob Garret. Section: Arts And Culture.

Most profile pieces about independent and underground musicians present the fabled “origins story”, telling how an otherwise ordinary human being stepped out of the masses by demonstrating an artistic flair worthy of the reader’s attention. Typically, such tales get going only in the late teens, when the artist in question makes their first ragged live performances or sketchy recordings – alongside which a healthy side order of hindsight is often required to glimpse the embryonic artistic flair.

Hardly the case with Saffron Collins, a UAE-raised singer-songwriter who has already clocked up an acclaimed EP, high-profile festival appearances and many genre-crossing collaborations. And, she is 16 years old.

Now – after getting the trifling matter of her GCSE exams out of the way this summer – we can expect to hear a lot more from Collins. This month, she returns from a brand-backed recording session in New Zealand, and releases Innocent, the first of five singles set to introduce her music to new audiences before the year is out.

The track marks Collins’s first “official” release since debut EP How’s That dropped online in September 2015. Produced by Reiner Erlings, that fluid four-track set demonstrated an assured songwriting talent whose guitar-driven tunes blurred catchy hooks with the introspection of a teenager lost in the world.

“I wanted to share all of the things that can happen to a young girl that made me really sad,” recalls an older, wiser Collins today. “That’s what I love about making music – it’s a cathartic experience”. Written when she was 12, the release’s oldest song, Winter’s Come, asks the question: “What if one day I went out, and never came back?”

In the two years since, Collins’s musical development has kept pace with the rapid transformation of adolescence. Dreamily tracked with airy guitar vamps and sparse programmed beats, Innocent betrays the influence of contemporary, minimalist R&B, while the singer’s frail, floating multi-tracked voice reveals huskier, mellowed vocal chords. It’s an intimate, handcrafted aesthetic – Collins’s newer music has all been produced in the bedroom of her Al Safa home.

This more soulful sound will likely be mined deeper during Collins’s visit to Red Bull Studios Auckland, a week-long recording session bankrolled by the soft drinks giant and pairing the UAE talent with Kiwi beatmaker High Hoops, an encounter to be filmed for a documentary. It is unclear what work will emerge from the sessions – or when it will reach the public – but for Collins the chance to work alongside an established ­electronic producer is just another opportunity to add to her sonic palette.

“I’m hoping the trip will make me more musically ­creative,” says the British expat. “High Hoops is musically really cool, we have two very different styles – but I ­experiment a lot and am constantly changing. I never tell myself you should do this, you should do that – I’m never going to stay in one genre, I’ll never stay the same.”

Also in on the sessions will be Shaun Warner, Red Bull’s regional cultural marketing manager, and the UAE based-producer who brought an electronic edge to the work of the emirates’ reigning teen queen Esther Eden, when the pair collaborated on last year’s single Here We Go. It is likely to be a mutually beneficial partnership, with Red Bull holding the keys to the ­majority of high-profile support slots in the UAE, and Collins hints she is “already talking” about bagging the chance to warm-up for an A-list act coming to town.

It would not be the first time the singer’s name has appeared in lights alongside the stars. In April, her set was among the local highlights selected to perform as part of the inaugural Step Music, a conference-come-festival headlined by regional heavyweights including Mashrou’ Leila and Narcy (formally The Narcicyst). Back in 2015, aged 14, Collins performed at the second Dubai Music Week, on the same day as headliners 30 Seconds to Mars.

More importantly, Collins has repeatedly impressed local tastemakers. She was picked to perform live video sessions for Abu Dhabi’s White Cube and Dubai’s TripleW – while both platforms are now sadly defunct, the evidence remains on YouTube – as well as tracking radio sessions for The Ticket and The Jukebox on Dubai Eye. Onstage, Collins has proved a regular feature at Go Play the World’s weekly artist showcase at Tribeca Dubai.

Along the way, she has also found time to collaborate with contemporaries including rapper Xan the Kid – who lent a verse to her recent urban-­influenced Stream Creepin’ – and electronic producers Jason Bushill and Daniel Prutnik (aka Uplow). Together, this generation of upcoming talent seems poised to play a pivotal role in the ongoing emergence of the UAE’s homegrown scene.

Remarkably, despite living in the emirates since she was six, Collins came close to walking away from this brewing ball of momentum when she applied for a place to study at the Brit School – the legendary south London talent incubator best known for its shopping list of alumni, which includes Adele, Jessie J, The Kooks, Kate Nash, Katie Melua, Ella Eyre and Collins’ earliest hero, Amy Winehouse. Had her live audition in Croydon been successful, the teenager would have relocated for the new school year which began in September. Instead, she recently commenced her studies at the Dubai English Speaking College – which can only be to the benefit of the UAE music scene.

“It was a massive disappointment – when I found out I decided to go to my room and never come out,” says ­Collins, like any other ­teenager might describe a feud with a best friend.

“But I realise I wouldn’t have the opportunity that I have right now, here – the UAE has been really good to me. If I’d stayed in Kent, I would be a completely different person today. The environment has changed me completely.”

Collins’s greatest contribution to the scene is surely yet to come, and it just might be realised through the fresh creative outlet of newly formed indie band Flowershop.

Originally named Oscar’s Flower Shop, since Collins joined on lead guitar the band has evolved from a solo project led by lead singer Oscar Stokes, into a promising collective quartet with musical contributions from all members. So, hand-on-heart, which project does she believe in the most?

“I don’t want to be really self-centred saying it – all of us in the band have the ­potential to ‘go there’,” she adds awkwardly. “If I had to say, my stuff is more important to me.”

It has been just two short years since her debut EP, during which Collins has achieved more than many aspiring musicians do in a lifetime. Where, then, might this precocious, prodigious talent hope to be in two years’ time, at the grand age of 18?

“Making music, living – I don’t want to jinx anything,” she says carefully, “[let’s] see where my talents are taking me.”

Innocent is set to be released on October 14

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