"I never get called a delightful guy."
Jason Rowe - the London-based artist commonly known as "Jai" - is being modest. After just a few moments on the telephone with him, I'm smiling and nodding as if I'm talking to my best pal...err, mate.
It's mid-morning in New York, and the self-described "mod for the hip hop generation" is hunkered down in a hotel room with his publicist, making the obligatory round of press calls. In the midst of a brief tour in support of their shimmering debut, 1997's Heaven (RCA), Jai and his collaborator Joel Bogen are still taking baby steps down the path to world domination.
The night before, the pair performed "Cry Me A River" and "I Believe," two standout tracks from the record, at a somewhat disjointed showcase in the Big Apple.
"It was a bit strange just doing two songs," he says wistfully. "They had these curtains in front of the stage, so you couldn't really hear the audience's response."
Such are the travails of an emerging artist, having to summon career-making performances on a moment's notice, often in dank, ill-attended venues. Jai takes it in stride.
"I try as hard as I can to be as natural as I possibly can," he tells me. "If you let it get to you, you can drive yourself insane."
Having already inspired favorable comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Smoky Robinson among others (if you want to upset Jai, try telling him he sounds like George Michael), the affable, young soul singer doesn't shy away from identifying his influences. He proudly acknowledges a debt to artists like Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, a musical vocabulary he acquired from his parents' rich record collection.
Jai is also a fan of acts like The Jam, The Beastie Boys, and The Smiths, an affinity that explains the distinctly modern veneer to the songs. "A lot of people say [our music] is a cross between Portishead and Prince," he explains, happy to extend the lineage.
He met Bogen, a guitarist and producer, in a London nightclub. As the pair stood at the bar lamenting the state of the current dance music ("Joel said, 'This is terrible music!' And I told him I'd rather listen to old Stax records, that that would make me get up and dance..."), they discovered that each was a musician in search of the right collaborator. Distrustful ("everyone's a guitar player") but desperate, Jai followed Bogen back to his place and listened to him play.
"It blew me away," he remembers. "We started writing, and that was it really; we took the first demos to the record company, and they wanted us straightaway." (Before label execs met Jai, they thought he was a girl, mistaking his expressive falsetto for a female vocal.)
On Heaven, Jai and Bogen evoke a rare blending of nightclub aesthetics from past to present, cloaking precious crooning in hypnotic dance beats, lush production, and well-tailored suits.
"It has that sort of film soundtrack feel to it," he says. "Our perfect live setting would be like Pink Floyd, with all the lights."
An avid English football fan, Jai is ecstatic over the recent success of his beloved Chelsea. "They haven't done this well since the Sixties!" he enthuses.
The same might be said of Jai's Heaven. By merging modern beats with timeless melodies and expert production, the record manages to take us back to the glory days of soul and R&B without playing the retro card. It's an aural experience that's almost as endearing as the man who created it.