Every week Jack Drummond-Joy and Val Njenga get together with 20 other like-minded teenagers to sing, write and arrange. They’re part of Urban Flames, a London-based singing collective for young people who love underground music.
The rehearsal sessions are loud and fun, but there’s a serious edge to them. Each member of the group has been selected on the basis of their musical talent and soloists are encouraged to progress towards development deals and Urban Artist School – a one-year programme for those pursuing professional music careers.
Jack, 15, says of Urban Flames: “Even though we all come from different backgrounds we have one thing in common: we love music.”
The collective was started two years ago by Urban Development (UD), a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to nurturing the musical talents of young people. The first six members were young singer-songwriters (aged 13 and 14) who had showed great promise at UD holiday writing camps.
The group, which is run by musical director Andy Gilbert, has since grown in number to 22. Members are aged between 14 and 18 and were chosen from UD’s school and outreach programme. They sing covers (which they arrange themselves) and their own original works and have performed at the Royal Albert Hall and the Hackney Empire.
Twice a year Urban Flames get together for five-day songwriting workshops. Jack says: “The workshops are very intense, we work for seven hours a day putting songs together.
“Everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas. I used to work mainly by myself, but I think my songs are better when I work with other people. It’s good to have other people’s input and to bounce ideas around. And it’s nice to be proud of something you make.”
Jack is a tenor who trained as a classical pianist before “getting bored and switching to urban”. He hopes to pursue a songwriting career in the future. “I like the idea of experimenting with different styles of music and working with different people.”
He says Urban Flames has helped him develop his collaboration skills. “You won’t get on with everyone you work with, but you have to put your social life to the side sometimes.”
Val Njenga, 16, agrees: “Sometimes, because there are so many of us, there are different opinions within the group. But you learn how to talk about things like that. What I really like is that we’re all different and we bring different individual traits to the collective.”
Val, an alto who started singing in church when she was four, describes herself as the “bubbly, goofy one” of the group. “I like to bring good vibes and sprinkle a few jokes.”
One of the highlights of her time with Urban Flames has been spending two days in the studio recording an EP.
“It was amazing,” she says. “But it was a surprise when I heard my voice back. It was so clear – not like when you record yourself on your phone. I sounded very different to how I thought I sounded.
“It’s important to be open to opportunities that come to you and be willing to try new things. Sometimes you need to come out of your comfort zone to see what you can do.”
Urban Flames is now looking to expand its reach beyond London and plans to build a national youth ensemble. A residential summer school, with participants coming from Bristol, Derby and Manchester, will be piloted next month.
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