The Guild’s courtyard is a bright and bizarre place for an intimate gig at three o’clock on a Monday afternoon. And yet, as you sip a vanilla latte and read through your lecture notes, the melody of a guitar can soothe.
Robbi McFaulds, at just seventeen years old, is a singer-songwriter from Scotland. His soundchecks come in a strong lilt — he must try to speak slowly so that we can understand him, he jokes, before beginning the set with a Stevie Wonder cover. As the acoustic guitar begins to ring, immediately the impression of boyish debut fades: Robbi’s strength of voice fills the air in the same way as any popular recording artist in the X Factor era. In this respect, he is certainly more One Direction than Ben Howard. His voice is polished and yet somehow it isn’t mechanic. In a somewhat bold move, Robbi plays a cover from Justin Bieber’s new album. Even so, his voice has a romantic depth that 17-year-old Bieber, with all his shrill whining, could only have dreamed of.
Robbi’s makeshift band look like carefree sixth formers who have stumbled upon some kit — but they sound like unmistakable professionals. Guitarist Kieran Hepburn and drummer Aiden Kelly share a joke in a glance as Stevie Wonder fades into one of Robbi’s original songs — The Morning After, from his recent EP of the same name. In our interview after the set, Robbi is keen to note that he writes all his own songs — about everything from life experiences to “your surroundings or what you’ve read in a book, or, um, Netflix, that’s always a good one.”
The blend of live drums, dynamic acoustic patterns which are almost folksy at points, and the strong voice of power pop combine to create a sound which is definitely not new, but has something of a unique arrangement. It most closely resembles 5 Seconds of Summer aesthetically: Robbi’s face could easily find its way onto a teenage girl’s wall. And yet, there is unmistakably something of the Ed Sheeran in him: sure enough, he admits that Ed was his first big inspiration after the set. Although, Robbi smiles, “you know it’s funny, I’ve actually been asked this all week and I’ve changed it every time.” Robbi says his musical taste has broadened a lot since he started out.
“We want to do something a wee bit different, sort of something that’s not been done before. But everything’s really been done, so you have to take that it’s been done and change it, to make it your own. I think we’d look to the 1975 and Stereophonics and stuff and try and base ourselves around that. But I think we’ll need to wait and see”.
Robbi is sure that youth is an advantage in this business. “There are also disadvantages. You’ve not got as much experience as the people who have been doing it for longer, people who are a bit older than you… but no definitely, I’ve been doing it in pubs and clubs in Scotland since I was, I don’t know, about fourteen, but nobody knows that so…” Robbi laughs. “Since I was about fourteen. So I’ve got quite a bit of experience in a gig setting.”
When asked about the proudest moment of his young career, Robbi doesn’t hesitate: “the EP launch, last Saturday”. There is a sense of more to come; an ellipsis seems to hang over Robbi, who defines his first EP as “pop-indie… just now”.
Robbi’s start to 2016 sounds like a whirlwind of new experiences: “This is the first time I’ve been on the road for so long. I miss my own room to be fair, I miss my bed. But it’s been amazing so far.”
Back at the set, the vibe is relaxed. People even clap with some appreciation after each song — yes, in the middle of the afternoon in a room full of lecture print-outs and meal deals — though perhaps less so after the Bieber cover. Teenage love lyrics pattern most songs. Robbi takes Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’, and completely transforms it into a pale, youthful melody. Just when you were starting to pine for Petty’s country twang, the chorus comes, and the strength of harmony between voices, guitar, and the ever-impassioned rattle of the drums astounds you. It’s radio-friendly teen pop, but it’s not bad considering.
There is the unmistakable impression that this lad could, with some luck, become the newest cog in the boy band machine: every two years they seem to churn out a new edition. Perhaps Robbi could be the pop icon from 1998; the Harry Styles of the future. All enhanced through the low velvety charm of a Scottish accent and the authentic purr of an acoustic guitar, of course.
Next Monday, 29th February, Cry Monster Cry are playing at the Guild.