When Ben Sharples answers the phone, he is in the company of Delleile Ankrah, Kaine Ofoeme and Michael Welch. Together, the four — along with Akia Jones, who isn’t with them because he’s not feeling well — they make up MiC LOWRY, Liverpool’s emerging acoustically based R&B group. And other than a call with Billboard, their reason for gathering today is to rehearse new original music.
The young men — all five are 21 or 22 years old — have already arrived on a global stage by opening for 38 dates of Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour European leg last fall, appearing in Charli XCX’s star-studded “Boys” music video, and releasing their debut hit single, “Oh Lord.” But now, they are preparing to drop their second EP (the first since signing with UK label Polydor in October 2016) titled MOOD, which is now available for pre-order and will be released on Oct. 18. When asked if they’re nervous about following up a stint with Bieber and the success of “Oh Lord,” the answer is an immediate chorus of “Yeah.”
“Definitely, definitely nervous,” Welch elaborates. “Obviously, ‘Oh Lord’ was quite a successful track. It’s been daunting to think we have to follow that up, but I think we’re really confident in this next batch of original music. We’ve been so involved in the creative process of writing. We’ve put our hearts and souls into it so I feel like we’re real confident to do [well].”
Yet, Ankrah can’t help admitting, “We’ve got butterflies in our stomachs.”
There are six tracks featured (plus an interlude, “2U”), but cutting it down from the 30-plus songs they had written beginning in Dec. 2016 wasn’t an easy process, balancing opinions of the five members and management. But when it came to choosing the lead single, the guys were all pretty stoked about “Don’t Tempt Me,” which they debuted with a performance on Facebook Live Tuesday evening (Sept. 19).
Sharples says the track was chosen as the lead because of its acoustic nature that allows listeners to clearly hear each of the five voices that make up MiC LOWRY — something that is familiar to fans given the group’s history with acoustic covers and the feel of “Oh Lord.” “It kind of lends to what we’re all about as a group.”
That’s not to say that the EP will be the same as their past material, though, as the guys say this EP houses a range of different tracks thanks to production help from MNEK (Beyonce, Disclosure), Stereotypes (Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber), Harmony Samuels (Ariana Grande, Chris Brown) and Shift Key (Stormzy, Tinie Tempah). But as Sharples suggests, their history as a group — the five guys have known each other since they were 14 and 15 years old, meeting at a local performing arts youth group called Positive Impact — helps their latest effort feel as MiC LOWRY as anything.
The EP artwork came into view as the guys were scrolling through Pinterest for inspiration and dug up an old photo of the Beatles sipping tea. They felt drawn to recreate it — also a nod to the once-viral Kermit sipping-tea meme, which Welch says would often be hashtagged with the word “mood,” making the picture all the more fitting. And above all, Sharples admits it’s an appropriate gesture for the Liverpool boys: “It’s a very British thing. Everybody thinks we drink tea all the time.”
MiC LOWRY actually share roots with The Beatles, as all five guys once attended Calderstones School in Liverpool, just as John Lennon had. And while their Beatles tie isn’t necessarily obvious, the group’s name in itself is an ode to artists come before them — repurposed from Will Smith’s character, Mike Lowrey, in the 1995 film Bad Boys. As an added bonus, it was a way to keep the ‘90s with them always. They cite their largest influences in general as Jagged Edge, 412, Boyz II Men, Destiny’s Child, and Blackstreet: “All them hardass songs,” Ankrah laughs.
Ofoeme adds that they’re also influenced by some of today’s hottest rising stars as well, like SZA and Bryson Tiller, with Sharples declaring that “it’s a perfect example of old school mixed with new school.” If they were to cite inspirations for MOOD specifically, though, Welch shouts out Jagged Edge and Michael Jackson. (“Hee hee!” Ankrah chimes in, with his best MJ impersonation.)
All jokes aside, coming up in music with a management team focused on mental health and described more as family than business (“our manager Barbara, she’s like a second mom to us,” Sharples says), MiC LOWRY finally feels ready to expose new areas of themselves in MOOD. For example, “Can’t Lie” addresses owning up to cheating on a significant other, regardless of whether you’ve actually been caught. Ofoeme notes that this isn’t a subject they’ve touched on before — even though their catalog is largely about “girls, girls and girls” — and frankly, it has a sense of honesty that’s “missing in a lot of songs today.”
“You can get a lot of things off your chest in a song that you couldn’t just get away with [otherwise], because you’ve got a bit of license to go into subjects that are a bit more touchy,” Sharples adds. “In that way, obviously, we’re five 21 or 22-year-old guys, so don’t tend much about your feelings with each other.”
And that alludes to what MiC LOWRY is hoping for those who listen to MOOD to carry with them. “In terms of general listening, I think we’d like for people to take away the harmonies and the structure, and how the songs actually sound,” Welch explains. “And in terms of message, the fact that you can be in different moods with different people and express things. It doesn’t all have to be the same. You don’t always have to be bright and sunny, or Ariana Grande-happy. You can change it up. That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what I’d love for people to take away.”
Following the debut of “Don’t Tempt Me” in MiC LOWRY’s Facebook Live, fans can listen to the track exclusively on Billboard before it’s officially released on Sept. 20. Check it out below.
As the guys mentioned in our interview, they plan to take the new tunes on tour at the start of 2018 in the U.K., Europe and hopefully the U.S. Dates have not yet been confirmed.