exclusive interview: omar lye-fook gives us the scoop on upcoming lp ‘the man’
By Sound Check
May 23, 2013
By: Justin Allen, AFROPUNK Contributor
AFROPUNK recently sat down with British soul musician Omar Lye-Fook, also known as Omar, to discuss his music making process, his inspirations and his forthcoming album, The Man, set to be released on June 25th.
Ushered in by a chorus of string instruments, the musician sings, “All at once I see something in your eyes.” The opening track, “Simplicity,” quickly blooms into a collage of soul, jazz and R&B—a sound as hybrid as it is organic. On his single, “The Man,” animated brass instruments color lyrics like, “I found love I can feel, it’s like walking in sunshine,” as the chorus spills into sharp string notes; the track “Bully” finds the musician singing falsetto over turntable scratching and string bass lurking behind his voice; and on “Fuck War Make Love” he belts,“How many more people have to die? Brothas killing borthas—that ain’t right,” fusing social commentary with the smooth groove of funk.
A recent recipient of an MBE, or Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, prestigious recognition for his contributions to music awarded to him by the Royal Family, he’s garnered a world following, first popularized by his hit “There’s Nothing Like This” in the early 90s. Now considered by many publications as the father of British neo-soul, he’s drawn the attention of and collaborated with such music artists as Stevie Wonder, Common and Erykah Badu. With the release of his seventh studio album approaching, the musician remains adamant in making music that feels true to himself, regardless of trends he hears on mainstream radio.
You describe your sound as a mix of Latin, funk, reggae, soul, jazz and classical. What attracts you to the sounds of these genres?
Africa, I think, is the motherland where they all come from. I was classically trained—I have it in my blood. My grandmother was born in Cuba, so there’s a Latin element and a jazz element. And the people I listen to are people like Stevie Wonder, Jon Hendricks, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh—the list goes on and on. A big mix.
One of your most notable singles, “There’s Nothing Like This,” was heavily-influenced by the sound of the Ohio Players. A number of albums later, on Sing (If You Want It), you infused hip-hop into your sound, including collaborations with Estelle and Common. How would you say your sound has evolved since the beginning of your career?
If you notice the new album, it’s an organic sound. It’s heavily influenced by rare groove. I was brought up playing percussion, brass, in ensembles and orchestras, so I’m quite used to using big arrangements. I wanted to keep that sound on this record.
How do you choose the musicians you work with?
I have a stable of people I’m used to working with and call upon them when I’m ready. We’ve been working together for years—a whole bunch of people I’ve known since college. College for me was in 1985—almost thirty years ago, so people from back then.
And what’s your process of composing a song? Where do you start?
It could be anything. It’s the baseline, it’s the beat, it’s the chord, it’s the melody. It could be brass arrangements. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in the studio by myself, and I can pretty much come up with a whole composition and arrangement and everything. And sometimes I need somebody else to bounce off. It’s always the music first, and then the lyrics I always come up with second.
How did you make the sound of this album cohesive? Did you begin with an overall sonic theme or did you start with individual songs and build outward?
This album has been growing for seven years. And, funny enough, the last song I finished is the one I started with first because it was just an introduction to the beginning of the last album—of Sing (If You Want It). Somebody said they loved it so much they wished there was more of the song. I thought, that’s not a bad idea. So I just worked at it, kept it going, and I didn’t actually finish it until the last bit, which was adding Caron Wheeler, making it a duet. It’s called “Treat You.”
What sets this album apart from your others?
In terms of a complete album, this one is the most organic. Sometimes I like to use a sequence or a sample, but this one is mostly being played. “Bully” I put samples into and my brother scratches on it, but for the most part it’s a bunch of musicians in the studio making noise together.
A lot of your music revives sounds and styles from the past. Do you seek to reach a younger generation of listeners with your music or to provide contemporary soul music for people of your own generation?
I just go with the vibe I feel compelled to create—I’m not trying to reach any generation. Luckily my music spans generations. I get youngsters coming up to me now telling me they love my music, or that either their father or their grandparents love my music. That’s great—I’m open to all ages. But I don’t start with the outset of trying to reach anybody. I’m just a person in the studio trying to get a vibe, and I’m blessed that people listen to my music and they get the same type of vibe that I’m getting from it, too.
You’ve said that after your first single came out, you hated it, and since you’ve vowed to make music that will stand the test of time. What makes a song timeless?
Not trying to fit in with what’s happening now. You can hear what’s going on on the radio—the pop tunes and pop R&B and things like that. It’s not always gonna be that way. There are certain songs that will last the test of time, but there’s other ones that are just fitting the sound right now. If you’re trying to chase that and fit something that’s now, now doesn’t last that long, and it’s soon to be the past.
* Justin Allen is an undergraduate writing student at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. He currently works as a contributing writer for AFROPUNK as well as writes for a zine, BAD GRAMMAR, that he produces in collaboration with friends Yulan Grant and Brandon Owens.
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