Sometimes the greatest soul singers emerge from the most unlikely places.
Born in the small, sleepy town of Landen in the Belgian countryside, Niels Delvaux’s parents met playing in a celtic folk band. But even as a boy, Delvaux was drawn to the kinds of soulful voices that spoke more deeply to him. “I was always a strange kid. I was really into comics and I remember I bought one that had a CD in the back. It was a compilation of gospel and blues singers like Mahalia Jackson and BB King. I would record myself on a tape player singing along to them. I loved how my voice could just get lost in theirs.”
With his floppy dark hair which he pulled up into a quiff, he got the nickname Delv!s at school, a striking moniker that would soon start to fit when he began making music with his next door neighbour. The teenagers, who called their band The Sapiens, would practice the traditional rock school staples of AC/DC and Nirvana covers in his friend’s basement but there was something about Delvaux’s voice that longed to soar. “I began to realize that I could really use my voice as an instrument. No more shouting - something subtler.”
After high school, Delv!s spent a year in Antwerp at music college studying jazz where he started to find his own understated style. “I loved to listen to Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone – people who have the blues. You have to have the blues to sing the blues. So if you look at their life story, you can hear it in their music. I think I sing more like a girl, so maybe I can relate to them a bit more.”
Restless for experience rather than study, Delv!s moved to Brussels in 2010 and quickly hooked up with old friends he knew from his hometown, electronica experimenters, the Up High Collective. The band asked him to sing over a track they had created. Delv!s went home and in one take, singing into his laptop, came up with the cooly mesmerising vocals for the single ‘Blend’. It was the first taste of his intimate yet hypnotic vocal style: cool, relaxed, yet also direct and powerfully affecting. “I was experimenting with a lot of things, with DJs and other musicians to get better. That was my ambition,” he recalls.
Influential DJ Gilles Peterson was bowled over with the record, releasing it on his Brownswood record label and the song was a massive hit on Belgium radio. Delv!s went on tour with the Up High Collective supporting Aloe Blacc, his first taste of life on the road. “We were pretty green behind the ears and we made a lot of mistakes but it was an amazing learning curve,” he reflects.
Back in Brussels, Delv!s was working in a bar when ‘Blend’ came on the radio. By chance, another rising Belgian soul star, Selah Sue, was also drinking in the bar and was amazed when she realized that the young man serving her was also the incredible voice coming out over the radio. “She couldn’t believe it was me,” recalls Delv!s. Sue knew another talent when she heard it and insisted he meet her manager, who signed Delv!s on the spot. He then supported Sue on some of her lives dates, joining her on stage as a stand in for Cee Lo Green on her hit duet with the American star, ‘Please’.
Another twist of fate meant Delv!s found himself sharing a flat in Brussels with a young DJ and producer called Title. Together they recorded Sidechain Reaction, another track transformed by Delv!s’s effortless vocals. Galvanized by his success, Delv!s pulled together his own seven-piece band, replicating the hard-working, tight funk ethos of his hero, James Brown, and they went on to support British soul sensation, John Newman. “I think back in the days, it was more romantic making music when all the musicians in the room were trying to create a sound together. But my band inspire me to take my music to another level. When we have a good vibe, everyone is happy, and you can hear that in the music.”
Now having put in the hard yards on the road, the 29-year-old is finally ready for his moment in the spotlight. Hooking up with in-demand French songwriter, Maxime Tribèche, his first EP for Because records shows off his soul and jazz roots but is overlaid with the dazzling disco-funk energy of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’s classic Eighties collaborations. The magic in the studio was instantaneous. “Maxime really pushed me to take my voice even higher and the words just came tumbling out of me. I was really ready to sing like I had never sung before.” Come My Way bursts with this newfound energy. “I don’t want music to get boring for me. It was really a good time to try something else.”
Delv!s is finally ready for the world to really hear his soul sing. “I just want to make great music. That is my only goal.”