Whether Jack Peñate liked it or not, the moment his friends first realised he was going places was when his song Torn On The Platform featured on teen soap Hollyoaks, as he tells me when I grab him for a chat between rehearsals for his album promo tour.
“The most text messages I’ve ever had was when my song was on Hollyoaks,” he says. “I don’t even watch it and I got about 30 texts. It was funny. I’ve never seen it but I guess it’s pretty big.”
It may be surprising that Peñate appears to have little knowledge which TV shows his music ends up on, but it’s less surprising that his upbeat pop music should be absorbed so quickly into popular culture.
With debut album Matinée, Peñate cleverly combines the sweet innocence of 50s rhythm and blues – the direct antecedent of pop – with a contemporary lyrical edge; a quirky fusion of old and new not dissimilar to that employed by Amy Winehouse on her Motown-tinged Back to Black last year.
Peñate himself clarifies the point: “I think there’s a lot of really great pop music just now. I grew up in the 90s when there was just guitar music or cheesy, computerised pop. What has happened I think is that people are looking back to old, great pop music. People want tunes now, but they also don’t want it to be bullshit. They’re not interested in fakeness and people looking like perfect pop stars.”
As for his own musical style, even Peñate struggles to translate it into words: “I find my music quite hard to define. It’s kinda like guitar-indie music which has been inflected by black music. I listened to a lot of soul and hip hop growing up.”
“Some of it’s very simple,” he continues. “It harks back to old rock ‘n’ roll and lyrically I wanted it to be very simple. I haven’t got a very big brain so I need to write lyrics that affect me easily.”
He may be modest but Peñate’s no dimwit: he dropped out of a degree in Classics at university – his song Learning Lines was inspired by his rote-based Latin lessons – to pursue his musical career, a decision he looks back on as pivotal.
“It was a turning point,” he says. “I had nothing, I wasn’t signed and I decided that the only way I could do what I really wanted to do was to just do music. I moved back home with my mum, worked with my dad in the daytime smashing down walls and painting and stuff, and then played gigs at night. Now it seems kinda minor but at the time it was a big step, like jumping into the unknown.”
Peñate doesn’t mind admitting that he always “had a vision” of being a solo artist. He started off in classic busker style with just his acoustic guitar, but has since recruited a bassist and his best mate on drums, and his live shows are notable for Peñate’s unique, loose-limbed dancing.
“I always wanted to be a musician who gave a performance and it just felt natural to me to move,” he explains. “For me it was a really good way of building energy because when I didn’t have a band I had these upbeat songs but no drums and no bass.”
Four years after he quit university, the 23-year-old had the dubious pleasure of seeing his face staring back at him from every newsagent in the country this August, when he was photographed with Kate Nash for the cover of the NME.
“I never thought starting off that I’d be on an NME cover because I didn’t think I was NME-ish or indie enough,” Peñate says. “It was really overwhelming but amazing.”
But it wasn’t a clear-cut decision to accept the offer. It may be the kind of publicity to make a label boss cream his designer trousers, but it could easily divide opinion on Peñate among the chattering, muso legions of the blogosphere, where it’s safe to say that the NME is no longer the arbiter of cool, if indeed it ever was.
“To tell the truth we didn’t accept it straight away,” Peñate recalls. “I was a bit worried because it’s a big thing and there were reservations because it definitely can change people’s opinions of you. But I thought it was something that if I didn’t do I might regret and it’s better to do things than have regrets.”
It certainly looks likely that Peñate is set to achieve more than he’ll live to regret. In conversation he doesn’t display any of the arrogance that so often accompanies early success and over-exposure.
When asked what his ambitions are now, Peñate, as always, prefers to keep it simple: “I’d just like to be given a platform where I can carry on writing music for as long as possible.”