Ben Drew taps into the joy of fatherhood for soulful return.
In the five years since Ill Manors established him as the keenest-eyed observer of Britain’s urban underclass, Plan B kept such a low profile it was as if he’d done a disappearing act worthy of one of his shady protagonists. Yet as it turns out, he was hiding in plain sight, the 34- year-old rapper, singer and film-maker Ben Drew having immersed himself in a new role: dad. “Becoming a parent changed everything for me,” he says, reflecting on the birth of his daughter in 2013. “I’m a proud dad and I love her to bits. I think when people hear my new songs they’re going to realise how much of an effect she’s had on me.” Today Drew is taking time out from his studio in King’s Cross, where he’s putting the finishing touches to new studio album Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose. A lungbusting, heart-on-sleeve update of the classic soul sound he showcased on 2010’ s The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, it’s also a response to Drew’s recent life changes – the “heaven” of his domestic existence contrasted with the “hell” set to erupt when he returns to the media spotlight. “I do feel like I’ve been living in a state of heaven on earth,” he says of his time away. “For me the chaos begins [ now] when I get back into my career. The whole red carpet, celebrity side of what I do. But it’s ironic the world has started to feel like that as well, what with all the political uncertainty around Brexit, Donald Trump, North Korea. Really strange times to be living in!” Heaven… might appear laden with omens, especially given the cover’s eerie, blood-red moon created by science fiction illustrator John Harris. The music it contains, however, came together on a much smaller, more personal scale after Drew picked up his acoustic guitar and started strumming what, in his words, sounded like “folk songs”. Back in 2015 he took one of these early efforts, Grateful, to Florence Welch collaborator Kid Harpoon to see if they could flesh it out into something worthy
of a Plan B release. Result? “It sounded cheesy and awful,” he groans.
“I’d just been experiencing love and happiness, so I had to write about that.”
Never one to give up at the first attempt, Drew scrapped his guitar part, retooling the lyrics to fit a fresh melody Kid Harpoon rolled out on his vintage Mellotron keyboard. “Right away I was like, ‘This is the first song off the next album,’” says Drew. “That was the catalyst.” Over the next 12 months, work proceeded “in bits and pieces”, the songs growing in strength and stature each time. Having previously recorded with Adele producer Paul Epworth, Drew was also keen to expand his horizons, bringing in Ill Manors collaborator Al Shux for rousing single Heartbeat and Ed Sheeran’s songwriting foil Foy Vance, who encouraged him to stretch his voice on piano anthem Stranger. “My voice had come on a lot from doing all the Strickland Banks gigs,” says Drew. “So when I got in [ the studio] with Foy it opened up this channel in me. That voice you hear on Stranger, I’m not sure it exists on any of the earlier stuff.” The sturdy soul harmonies that drove The Defamation Of Strickland Banks are again front and centre on Heaven…, even if Drew is singing as himself rather than a character. It’s one reason fans won’t hear any rapping on the album. “When I rap it has to be about a street environment or have a political edge to it,” he says. “I’d just been experiencing love and happiness. So I had to write about that.” Looking to reconnect with the audience that propelled his last two albums to Number 1, Drew also understands that he’s coming back to a pop landscape dominated by a new generation of big soul voices – not least Sussex belter Rag’n’Bone Man. Can he handle the competition? “I don’t look at it like that,” he says, firmly. “It’s expression – and I love to hear people express themselves in an honest and beautiful way.” No question, Plan B still speaks straight from the heart.
Plan B (aka Ben Drew): always been a bit handy.