A Simon Cowell protege with a difference performs his unique pop in Auckland tomorrow.

Tom McKenzie has come a long way from playing instruments made out of cardboard as a kid.

Growing up in Hackney, north-east London, McKenzie and his eight siblings were not from a wealthy family and had to make their own musical fun.

"We used to make cardboard cut-outs of guitars," remembers the genre-busting pop star now known as Labrinth. "And we'd use lunch boxes to play drums on," he says with a laugh.

But then one Christmas his mum had a surprise for them.


"She got us to close our eyes and when we opened them there was a guitar, drums, bass, keyboard all sitting in the back room. She didn't have the money to pay for it but she got all our aunties and uncles to chip in. It was amazing, man."

And now the 23-year-old is one of Britain's brightest and most forward-thinking music makers, who's best known for the rib-rattling sonic pop of Earthquake, his second single from last year, which featured like-minded musical mate and regular collaborator Tinie Tempah.

"After [Earthquake] it really really kicked off, so I'm really happy with the way it's been so far. It's been quite extraordinary for an artist like myself," he says, referring to his unconventional sounding pop music which combines everything from R&B and soul to dubstep and rock.

He plays New Zealand for the first time tomorrow night as part of R&V Soundcheck at Vector Arena along with British electronic act Nero, dubstep producer Rusko, and local hip-hop group Home Brew (who are up for five Music Awards this year), among others.

His debut album, Electronic Earth, released earlier this year, is ambitious and, you might even say, all over the place. There's the stomping and distorted Sweet Riot, the synth-powered, Coldplayesque, R&B rock of Treatment, and trancey, stacatto breakbeat banger Climb on Board.

His music does sound futuristic, and that's a reason why at this early stage in his career it sometimes doesn't quite gel. Which begs the question whether he has to tell himself to rein in his creativity at times.

"That's what I'm still trying to work out," he laughs. "I think the album was quite weird for some people in terms of genre, because it was quite mixed."

But he says that clash of styles and experimentation with sound has always been how he's made music ever since he started writing and producing his own songs as a 13-year-old.

"I was the one who was always in my bedroom drawing a picture, or playing on my Casio keyboard. I was always finding something weird to do, I was the oddball. So it's pretty normal for me to be musically the way I am. So hopefully people get used to it and say, 'oh, that's just Labrinth'.

"And I'm still just like a young kid that wants to have fun with music, so whatever I hear inspires me as well as trying to put classical [music]-inspired energy into the music I make."

He may not sound like it, but Labrinth is a Simon Cowell protege of sorts. However, he is unique in that he did not come out of Cowell's X Factor talent show factory. Instead, he was approached by Cowell's Syco record label to be signed as a solo artist following his writing and production work on chart hits by the likes of Tinie Tempah and others.

And Labrinth is quick to say that while Cowell has been a big part of his success, the talent franchise mastermind has had little to do with his music.

"But definitely, he's taught me a lot about the music business and the entertainment industry because Simon Cowell is more of an all-round entertainment business manager."

He says when he first started hitting the big time he was only just out of his teens and he needed some guidance, admitting to being "very fresh" and not really sure what was going on.

"Everything looked amazing and dreamy," he remembers. "But then I had my eyes opened to what was going on behind all the excitement and the hype and the smiling faces on TV. Behind all the smoke and mirrors. So there was lots of watching and learning from seeing what was going on a round me."

And Labrinth does have a master plan mapped out which extends beyond music, though he's not about to offer up any details just yet. But one imagines a good-looking chap like him will be approached to make a film sometime soon.

But for now it's all about the music and in the future he wants to head off into a more rock 'n' roll direction, and even hints that there will be "country-influenced" songs at a later date too.

"I think it's coming together as I move forward. It's not just about pop music.

"As an artist there are so many arenas to explore and I want to explore all of them and see which ones I feel most excited by. Because that's what our job is to do, man, as musicians we have to explore as much as possible.

"The big thing for me is, I want to sell musical freedom. That equals happiness to me. I'm almost like a musical atheist. I don't believe in one style, I believe in all of them."

Who: Labrinth

What: British future pop producer and singer

Debut album: Electronic Earth, out now

Where and when: R&V Soundcheck, Vector Arena, tomorrow night with Nero, DJ Rusko, and Home Brew

- TimeOut