Maverick Sabre on masculinity and catharsis

Maverick Sabre is puffing down the telephone line. “I’ve just ran up the stairs there with a load of shopping,” he laughs apologetically, heavy bags thudding. Sabre has just returned to his London home following a five-week run of live dates, determined to spend his short break outside in the unseasonal sunshine while also tinkering […]

Maverick Sabre on masculinity and catharsis

By Natalie Lorimer

Maverick Sabre is puffing down the telephone line. “I’ve just ran up the stairs there with a load of shopping,” he laughs apologetically, heavy bags thudding. Sabre has just returned to his London home following a five-week run of live dates, determined to spend his short break outside in the unseasonal sunshine while also tinkering with a couple of lo-fi hip-hop beat tapes that have been sitting on the back burner.

What does a musician used to a nomadic life of touring throw into their trolley on sporadic trips to the local supermarket? “Don’t let me get too rock ’n’ roll!” he insists. “I’m about to unpack the eggs and courgettes.”

Sabre – born Michael Stafford in Hackney, London before relocating to County Wexford on Ireland’s southwestern edge – lays his feelings bare with the audiences he draws. Celebrated for his deeply personal songwriting and unflinching social commentary, Sabre is elevating his trademark candour on his latest release ‘When I Wake Up.’

The album is a slick ride through soulful R&B and 1990s hip-hop beats, striking with a sting in its tail beneath its layers. Sabre looks beyond his own perspective to shed a harsh light on the systemic failures propping up violence, bigotry, and austerity across society. Thirteen tracks explore the issues weighing heavily on Sabre’s mind for the last two years: domestic violence, toxic masculinity, the changing shape of Irish communities, and the injustice of the Grenfell Tower fire to list a few. 

His smooth lilts and spits act as a rallying cry for the downtrodden and unheard. “Gettin’ rich, tell me who gets paid / Little boy on the mornin’ page,” Sabre raps on standout track ‘Guns in the Distance,’ a stripped back lament for those marginalised in the age of political upheaval. “Do we mourn? Do we learn his name? / Another lost in the pourin’ rain.”

These narratives are often plucked from Sabre’s surroundings, with his emotional response to the everyday driving the songwriting process.

“Within myself I mark down moments where I’m inspired by something or taken aback by something or angered by something, or a story has grabbed my attention, like family or a friend, or my own personal experience just marked something in me,” he explains.

“My inspiration comes from that place – it comes kind of instantly really. The song referencing Grenfell was written the week after. The songs about domestic violence and the treatment of women in society, that came after a friend’s personal experience.”

Unveiling ‘When I Wake Up’ as a newly independent artist has given Sabre room to explore visual projects and collaborations. A series of singles have been released in quick succession, each paired with a cinematically rich music video. He speaks candidly about the culture that shaped this current artistic outlook; from obsessively watching music videos by nineties legends like Goldie and Nas as a child, through to his recent fascination with the aesthetics and storytelling seen in the documentaries of Kahlil Joseph and world cinema staples like Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 French drama ‘La Haine’.

“I’ve always been inspired by broad, open, emotional, powerful, visuals where you can tell there’s a story going on within it, but you can also attach it to whatever you’re feeling at that time or whatever music you’re trying to make at that time,” he says.

It’s this combination of stark imagery and lyrical catharsis that comes together in the video for album closer ‘Glory,’ a rousing acoustic-folk anthem reflecting on the struggle to keep head above water in the face of hardship. The seven minute short film, shot within the North Dublin suburbs of Darndale and Ballymun, features a community of young men openly discussing their battles with mental health and toxic masculinity. The camera follows them to housing estates, chapels, and dirt roads as they seek escape through amateur boxing, tending to horses, and car racing.

The project arose organically, with Sabre’s team abandoning their original concept to instead capture stories unexpectedly surfacing out of deeper conversations with the residents of the Darndale and Ballymun communities.

“I don’t know how to explain it but the video almost made itself,” says Sabre, quick to label the project as his “proudest video.”

“It was just simply interacting with young men and speaking about emotions, speaking about the past, or friends, or the way the feel trapped in and locked in an image of what they really need to be, but what they really need is the escapism.”

These truths intimately articulate the challenges that young men can experience when isolation and disinterest feel all too common within close-knit communities, particularly those touched by hostility and violence. “There’s nothing that genuinely can stop me other than somebody talking to me,” one man shares of his experiences with mood swings, his voice carrying through grey streets and up to the picturesque Wicklow mountains .

“Generally people don’t want to talk, and they don’t want to hear about problems.”

Though Sabre says he feels lucky to have grown up with music and encouraging parents as a support mechanism, themes within the ‘Glory’ video still ring true to his personal experiences as well as circumstances he sees all too frequently in others.

“One of the big battles is that we’re still at a point in society where young men are branded with, “you can’t be unhappy” or “you can’t shed a tear,” he contemplates.

“They’re told, “Don’t burden people with your problems because you’re the man of the family” or the man of the friend group, or the man around your girlfriend, or whatever it may be.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on young men before we even delve into the actual problems that are going on internally. There’s already pressures on them to not express themselves in the free way that we all should.”

Discovering inner strength to overcome demons is at the heart of ‘Glory,’ but this message has become a buzz-worthy talking point in pop music in recent years. Switch over to Top 40 radio and amongst the usual heartbreak anthems and the latest club tunes, messages of hope and self acceptance are being relayed by youthful stars with huge influence.

Does Sabre think that artists are being encouraged to take that step and speak about mental health alongside their creativity, or are we seeing another hot topic that could fizzle out?

“I’d hate for anyone to jump on things because they’re hot topics,” he explains. “I think that’s inevitable sometimes with these topics that are of the time – you’ll get people who jump on it to be like, “Yeah, I support it” but really, within their actions and their music, they don’t really support it but they say they do.”

“Then at the same time, we’re only now starting to put some time and effort into spreading awareness about people’s mental health, how to take care of yourself, and how to work on it. It should be as promoted as getting a six pack. If we spent as much time as with these work out videos, diet campaigns, and put some time into that. Where’s the mental health version of Jamie Oliver going into schools and teaching our young kids about that?”

Throughout our conversation, Sabre apologises frequently for straying off topic. In actual fact, his answers flow freely after many thoughtful pauses, each one a reflection of his keen talent for social observation. He even rattles out a remarkably sincere review of political heavyweight Noam Chomsky’s collection of interviews, ‘Optimism Over Despair,’ in what feels like only a few breaths.

When asked if his image as a politically engaged musician confronting the realities of injustice ever brings any negativity to his outlook, he sounds stumped for the first time since jumping on our call. His reply is less straightforward than expected.

“Do you know what?” he begins. “I have thought about that over time. I used to think when I was younger, “I’m never going to write a happy song.” Not because I’m not happy, but because that wasn’t what inspired me.” 

“For me, I can write happy songs and I will write a happy song – I’m not against it – but up until a couple of years ago, it was always like I’ve only got to be expressing pain. There’s still an element of that within me because that’s the what I connect with the most.”

“I suppose it could have a negative spin but I’d have to pull myself away from my daily run in with the information and the music that I’m making to know if it does, you know?”

There won’t be much time for pulling away any time soon, with Sabre’s upcoming schedule keeping him moving until the end of the year. He will embark on a tour of the UK in November, marking a return to delivering live shows with a full band behind him. The US and Europe are in sight next to bring ‘When I Wake Up’ to new fans and faces. The workload is something Sabre relishes. “I just kind of let loose, give everything that I can, and banish any demons that get out of me,” he remarks on touring. “It does me the wonders of good being out on the road.”

Just before he gets back to unpacking the food shop, there’s one more question. What advice does Sabre have for those going through a tough time, maybe experiencing feelings like those shared by the young men of North Dublin that made such an impression on him?

“There are so many battles that we’ve got going on internally that to batter ourselves with thoughts like, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel this” is just an added struggle to the whole thing,” he answers after a moment. “I would say keep expressing it, keep being free with it, and to take time.”

 

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