Life & Culture

Abel and willing to be a success

Growing up without a father wasn't easy for 20- year-old Zak Abel, singer songwriter and former UK table-tennis champion.


Growing up without a father wasn't easy for 20- year-old Zak Abel, singer songwriter and former UK table-tennis champion.

With no father to act as role model, Abel turned to his coach, Eli Baraty, who inspired him to become the UK national table tennis champion between the ages of 12 and 16. Baraty even continued to support his young protégé when he gave up the sport to sign a record deal aged just 17.

"Eli became the role model I needed" says the former University College School pupil whose father passed away when he was 12.

The singer, who also attended the Jewish state school Matilda Marks, adds: "My dad was born in Morocco but moved to Israel, and I didn't really get to know him.

"He died when I was so young. But I had other positive male role models and Eli was one of them.

"I'm sure not having my dad around has affected my life completely; as you grow older you learn from the people around you, and I didn't have a dad growing up."

Abel met Baraty at his local Maccabi centre. "It was because of him I got into tennis and he has been around for me since," he explains.

The pair's relationship is so important that it is on show in Abel's latest video, for his single 'Everybody Needs Love'. There the duo show off their table tennis skills.

The 20 year old says: "We filmed it all in one take. It's basically me playing table tennis and singing at the camera.

"The song is about feeling disconnected with people and being numb and wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of life. Life isn't just happy all the time or sad all the time and I want to talk about the wide spectrum of emotions in my music."

But although he loves music, Abel, who grew up in Hendon with his mother Rachel, says he didn't ever imagine he would sign a record deal.

"I found some management through a family friend and started doing some song writing sessions with different people. One of the people who I wrote with was published by someone at Atlantic Records and the label heard my voice and said they want to meet me. It just happened like that."

And despite his tender age, he describes his music as closer in sound to a time when soul legends reigned supreme, citing Bobby Womack, Gil Scott Heron, Amy Winehouse, and Michael Jackson among his influences.

In the past year he has released two EPs, working with in-demand producers such as Haitian-Canadian electronic, DJ Kaytranada, and Joker, a British producer best known for his work in genres such as Dubstep and Grime.

Grime is a sound synonymous with East London council estates and not the suburbs Zak grew up in, so it may come as no surprise his Jewish mother had her reservations about him choosing late nights in the studio over a non-contact sport like table tennis.

He says: "When I first met Joker, I was 17. He was heavily known in the dubstep scene and I was quite out of my comfort zone, as a white Jewish boy from North London.

"My mum was a classic Jewish mother who wanted to weigh up the things that could go wrong."

He recalls trying to convince his mum it was "perfectly ok" for him to get into a cab at 2am to take him to Reading to be picked up by the Dubstep producer for the first time.

"I remember he picked me up and drove me to Bristol and we started work in his studio.

"I think at the time I just went into my mum's room and said 'listen, Joker said we could make this tune so I have to go now'.

"She was saying things like 'you shouldn't go' and 'do you know him? How do you know he is going to be there? What if his car runs out of petrol? What if he forgets how to drive?'

"But in the end I managed to convince her. She has always been really supportive."

With regular late nights in the studio and the prospect of long tours, the singer is only too aware of the trappings that come with fame.

"It does worry me," he says, "when I watched the Amy movie for example it was really difficult, because her life was pretty extreme."

He says he can see how easy it is for young stars to get caught in a downward spiral as "we are all human beings and we are all vulnerable.

"I think especially in the music industry you can get alienated quite quickly from your friends.

"For example yesterday I was in the studio from 10am to midnight so you don't really have that much time to talk or see people because you are busy. And when you are touring you can get quite lonely and you don't really think about that when you get into it."

However according to the singer, who won a competition to sing at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration in Wembley stadium when was still at primary school, it is his relationships with family and friends that will keep him from straying down the same path.

"When I have been in a bad place before I've never resorted to drugs and I hope I never will," he says. "It is just about having that support system around you."

He's now gearing up for the release of his debut album in August and recently moved from Hendon to trendy Hackney, but he hasn't lost touch with his roots. And it's an interview with the JC that "will give my mum the most nachas," he says, with a smile.

Oscar's buzz continues

"It's the biggest week of my life," 25-year-old musician Oscar Scheller says, and it's hard to disagree.

The singer, who started playing piano aged 6 and writing songs at 13, has just released his first album, "Cut And Paste," and is now embarking on a North American tour with Bloc Party, who he calls "Indie royalty."

More is to come in September, when he headlines his own UK tour.

This rapid rise comes after years of creating "DIY pop music" in his bedroom in Harlesden, passing every song he made by his mother, Rebecca, a graphic designer, before anyone else heard it.

"She's my litmus test," he says, laughing. "She used to be in a band and has a great ear for arrangement and melody, so I run everything by her first.

"She'll say 'it's a hit' or 'it's not a hit,' and she's really good at that."

But despite attracting more attention, the rising star - who explained he chose to be called simply "Oscar" because of figures like "Rihanna, Drake and Madonna, who go by one iconic name" - is not feeling the pressure.

"I'm touring with Bloc Party, which is mental; the venues are 2,000 to 3,000 capacity and it's going to be pretty surreal - but I'm up for the challenge.

"I prefer playing bigger places than small ones, because I feel more comfortable. I feed off the crowd's energy."

When he comes back, Oscar will be moving out of his home to Hackney, which he says means "going back to my roots - all my grandparents were born and raised in east London."

Josh Jackman

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