There's No One Like Him - UK soul star OMAR talks to SJF

Monday, 16 January 2017 20:28 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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There's No One Like Him - UK soul star OMAR talks to SJF
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"I hated my first single, 'Mr Postman,' so much that I didn't want to hear it again." So says UK soul grandee, OMAR LYE-FOOK, MBE, who accompanies this statement with a gravelly chuckle. "This was 1984 and after two weeks of hearing it, I couldn't stand it," he explains. "So from that point, any music that I made, I had to like because you've got to play it for the rest of your life."

Six years later, and, Omar, now 22, came up with a song that he could listen to repeatedly. It was called 'There's Nothing Like This.' "When I wrote that song, I made a demo of it and put it on a 90-minute cassette," he says. "There was 45 minutes on one side of just that song and it played and played and played. Nobody got bored of it so that was a sign that it was going to be quite a big hit."

Indeed, it was, and for many soul fans of a certain age, it was the song that represented their first acquaintance with OMAR's music. It was back in the summer of 1991 when Acid Jazz was the hip and exciting new currency in the world of British R&B and bands like the Brand New Heavies, Incognito, and the Young Disciples were setting the pace. OMAR, then 23 - a multi-instrumentalist and former percussionist for the Kent Youth Orchestra - was a label mate of the latter two groups (on Gilles Peterson's influential Talkin' Loud imprint) and broke into the UK charts with 'There's Nothing Like This.' With its summery vibe, feel-good groove and addictive chorus, for many people that particular song came to encapsulate a special moment in time and was adopted as an anthem.

'There's Nothing Like This' remains one of the highpoints in OMAR's canon even though it was recorded almost thirty years ago. Though its success has eclipsed almost everything else he has done in commercial terms, he doesn't view it as a heavy and uncomfortable  albatross around his neck.  "No, I'm very happy with it," he tells SJF. "If that's the only song of mine that people know then at least they can start with that one and then get to learn the rest," he laughs. He then reveals that some people, when they recognise him, often approach him singing the 'There's Nothing Like This's' chorus line. "For the most part it's fine," he says, "but when you're trying to meet someone or get a private moment, and people come up to you singing it, you think 'not right this second!'"

But 48-year-old OMAR - who was awarded an MBE in 2012 for his services to music - isn't content to rest on his laurels and live in the past. Though not a prolific recording artist, there's been a fairly steady stream of music during the last 25 years and now he's now about to release his eighth album, 'Love In Beats,' which follows in the wake of 2013's critically-acclaimed 'The Man.' The new LP - which features noteworthy cameos from keyboardist-of-the-moment, Robert Glasper, soul veteran, Leon Ware, spoken-word specialist the Floacist (aka Natalie Stewart) and singer Natasha Watts, to name a few - is an eclectic collision of soul, funk, jazz and Caribbean flavours that has been masterfully marinated by its genius creator together with his producer brother, Scratch Professor.

In an interview with SJF's Charles Waring, OMAR talks about his new record as well as other fascinating facets of his career, including his aspirations in the world of acting....



Tell us about your new album, 'Love In Beats.'

I'd been working on some music with my brother for the past three years and we just got to the point where we had enough music to make it work so we came up with an album. I just said 'right, let's do it.' We actually came up with more tracks than we needed, about nineteen or twenty songs. Some of them go back to 2003, like 'Vicky's Tune' (with Robert Glasper) and 'Feeds My Mind' (featuring The Floacist)  was something that was started in 2007. It's just that the timing was right to put them on the album. I kind of pride myself in making music that is timeless so it didn't really matter that we didn't put those songs out back then.

How does the album compare with what you've done before?

It's still eclectic like everything else that I've always done so it's a little bit ahead of the curve. I think the beats are a bit more harder. Scratch is very well versed in the art of hip-hop and reggae and stuff like that. That's why called it 'Love In Beats.' There are definitely beats in terms of the drums and stuff and so I thought 'Love In Beats' would fit the album.

You mentioned your brother, Scratch Professor. What's he like to work with and how would you describe his talent?

Something so unique. It's funny because you can imagine that as we're brothers we're getting on one minute and then fighting the next. It was quite stressful sometimes (laughs). We'd have a fight and leave and storm off and then at the same time we'd go 'okay, we've got a job to do, let's go back and finish it,' basically, which I'm glad we did, because we've come up with this little gem.

Yes, it's a very varied album musically and covers a lot of different musical bases. You've got some high-profile cameos on there from people like Robert Glasper, for instance. How did he come to be on board?

I met Robert a few years back at the North Sea Jazz Festival. We just kept in contact from then and kept bumping into each other all over the world. When I was putting this album together I said 'man, please, you've got to do a solo on this album and bless the track,' and he said 'no problem, man.' It took a while to get it done as the man is so busy because he's so good. So when he sent his solo to me, I didn't actually listen to it (laughs) and just flung it on the track. Someone asked me, 'is it any good?' and I said 'oh yeah, it's fine,' not having listen to it but knowing it was going to be fine. And what he did was beautiful.

So he sent you his solo digitally?

Yeah, I just sent him the track, which is how we do things these days. Quite a few people that I've worked with send me stuff and I put my vocals together in my studio and send it back to them and then they mix it. It's just like what I've done with (saxophonist) Courtney Pine as well for his new album on Freestyle. It's coming out in April I think. I've done four tracks. We did a cover of 'Butterfly,' the Herbie Hancock tune which was recorded by Norman Connors. I'm really loving the track. But that's how you can work these days with the Internet. Back in the day you had to get courier to get stuff between each other and now you just put it in Dropbox and send it back and forth that way.

Is that how you did the track 'Gave My Heart' with Leon Ware, who's also on the new album?

Yeah, same thing with Leon and (Cape Verdean singer) Mayra (Andrade). Natasha Watts actually came into the studio and we worked that way...

The traditional way...

(Laughs) Yeah, exactly, and funnily enough, with Jean-Michel (Rotin) too. I'd met him in Guadeloupe and it turns out that he lives in Croydon, which is just round the corner from me.

What can you tell me about him?

He's quite a big star in the French Caribbean in Zouk music. A friend of mine booked me for a show out in Guadeloupe last year which I went to and the band was fantastic and Jean-Michel was singing as well with the guys, so we put a duet together there and then we went to studio to put something down and the result that you hear is a tune called 'Destiny,' and I think it fits my overall view of how I put music together on the album, or albums, I should say.

You've  also got The Floacist on 'Feeds My Mind.' How did that collaboration come about?

I met Natalie (Stewart aka The Floacist) years ago. I went to one of her gigs at the Jazz Cafe. It was such a long time ago but it was one of the best gigs I ever remember. It was in the Top Five easy. And from that we became fans of each other and wanted to work together but it was just finding the right project to work on. When the track 'Feeds My Mind' came up me and my brother looked at each other and said 'yeah, that's Natalie' and she didn't disappoint. The poem that she put down is so fitting for the track and makes it come alive even more. 

What about the song 'De Ja Vu' featuring Paris-based Cape Verdean singer, Mayra Andrade? 

She came about because I worked with a friend of mine, (producer) Prince Fatty (aka Mike Pelanconi) in Brighton, and he was producing her album and I played some keys and did background vocals for her on it and kept in contact from then. One time I was in Paris and she happened to be there and we just got together and started writing a song together, which turned out perfectly. She asked me if I wanted to sing it in Portuguese or French but the sound of the song had very much a Parisian feel to it so I thought French was the way to go.

Tell us about the track, 'Girl Talk Interlude,' which sounds like you're eavesdropping on a conversation...

It is. The music you hear in the background is something that me and my brother had done a while back. When I heard it I thought that sounds perfect for an interlude for the album but I could hear a conversation going over the top and I wasn't sure what. Then one day I was sat down with my daughters and their mum round the dinner table chatting and they were playing a game called Would You Rather. It's a game that kids play, that offers you choices like 'would you rather eat a bucket of sick or a plate of shit' or something. So we were playing that and also the girls were doing acrostic poems where they turn each letter of their names into a word. You hear the rhythm of them talking and the music and it just fit it all perfectly. Every time I hear it,  I either cry or laugh, depending on the mood I'm in. It just seemed to fit.

In regards to your songwriting, do you write from your own experience or do you sometimes like to view things by wearing other people's shoes?

I kind of just go from the music. The melody is what speaks to me and the urgency of the rhythm of the songs and I kind of wing it from there really. I don't try to come to it with a life experience-type-thing: I'm just a guy who tries to write some words to melodies I'm singing.

You're a noted multi-instrumentalist. Do you write mostly on one particular instrument or do you use what happens to be lying around at the time?

I play bass, drums, and keys. I always do the music first and then the lyrics afterwards. A couple of times I've done it where I've had the lyrics before and then I've written the music around that, which is quite a different experience for me. But for the most part, I use the piano as it helps to get the overall view of the song but inspiration can come from anywhere.


Going right back, what first drew you to music?

I started when I was eight years old, and my father was a drummer so he gave me my first drum kit and that's what put me in that zone. My first lesson would have been with the cornet, followed by the guitar, then the piano, and then it was percussion, then the tuba and the euphonium. So I was always in and around music, but more so classical music.

You played in the Kent Youth Orchestra, didn't you?

Yes, the Kent Youth Orchestra. I was the principal percussionist there as well.

What memories do you have of those days?

Oh, fantastic (laughs). We toured Italy, Brazil, North America. I used to play the Royal Festival Hall every year pretty much. I remember all the smells of the Royal Festival Hall and round the backstage area. I can visually remember it after you've done an orchestral course for a week with kids and stuff but the pieces of music they picked - Mahler, Brahms, Dvorak, Debussy - stick in your head and that's where my classical string arrangements come from, from the influence of being in those settings. I've played with brass, percussion ensembles, orchestras, everything. And I think that has shaped my music. I remember thinking to myself when I was there, 'one day I'm going to play this place by myself as Omar.' I was 13 or 14 at the time because you know when you play percussion in an orchestra you're always at the back. 'I'm going to be at the front one day,' I said to myself, and since then I've played it twice and realised the dream.

What musician has influenced you the most in regards to your own music?

Well, that would have to be Stevie (Wonder), of course. 'The Secret Life of Plants' is my favourite album of his.

Was that the first record of his that you bought?

Yeah, I think so. I also remember buying Michael Jackson's 'Off the Wall,' The Police's 'Regatta De Blanc,' and the Stranglers' 'Golden Brown'...

Which you covered, of course...

Yeah, right, exactly! But 'The Secret Life of Plants' is the one where he encapsulates everything that I love about music: the vocal arrangements, the instrumentation, the production, you know, it's everything basically. He covers so many different things for me. He's a multi-instrumentalist as well and an amazing vocalist and does amazing harmonies. He taught me how to do harmonies.

How did it feel to actually work with him later in your career?

It was a pinch-me moment. I was lucky that my ex-manager, Keith Harris, gave Stevie my second album, 'Music.' He heard it and said he wanted to work with me from then. We did a TV show together and then I went to LA and he invited me to the studio but we didn't get anything done then and then eight years later, I get a phone call out the blue, and it's him; 'hi, man, I'm in town.' I said 'who is this?' He said 'Stevie.' I said 'Stevie who?' He said 'Stevie Wonder.' Then for two weeks we were just hanging out, in restaurants, clubs, and hotels and we said let's go to the studio again. I thought 'wow, is this really happening?'

Does that count as one of the highlights of your career?

Oh yeah, absolutely, and having him write a song for me as well, the duet called 'Feeling You.' I think I can go to my grave quite comfortably and say I'm done after that. To work with him is top of the pile.


What are your memories of the summer of '91, when you made your breakthrough with 'There's Nothing like This'?

Well, it was the time of Acid Jazz, I remember. People were learning to sample but they were going back to live instruments as well. There was myself, the Young Disciples, the Brand New Heavies, Incognito, and Jamiroquai, who came out not long after that. So it was all like a revival thing. It was an exciting time.  I was glad to be riding part of that wave.

What about today's new talent? Do you keep your ear to the ground regarding up and coming people in the R&B world?

I do. There are a couple of young singers I've been checking out. One is called Shanice Smith, who plays guitar and sings. Ego Ella May is another young singer and there's also a young girl called Kianja. So there's a lot of young, unsigned talent out there. I wasn't anything like that at 19. I had to develop my vocals and writing skills but the stuff they are coming out with right now is amazing.

They sound fully-formed, I suppose...

Well, pretty much. It's amazing. I've got a couple of website things coming up next weekend and I've been singing with a singer/guitarist called Ollie Clark. Check this kid out, he's great. He's only 23 but has amazing skills on the guitar.

You've been recording since the mid-'80s and a lot of your contemporaries are no longer active. How have you managed to stay in the game so long?

I'm not a group in the first place. A lot of groups go through a lot of things. It's like a marriage and it's tough to keep everything together. I'm just one man so I can't breakup at all and I'm stubborn enough to enjoy what I do and reflect that in the music that I make. As long as I've still got a fire in my belly to make music and get excited, like when I've got a rhythm going and a song, that sounds fantastic to me, I'm just going to keep making it. I'm still enjoying myself and I've been blessed enough to be in this for 33 years. I go in the studio and go on tour and I'm on my eighth album now and working on album number nine as we speak.

Have you got any unfulfilled ambitions or are there any projects or collaborations you would like to do in the future?

Well, if you asked me who would I like to work with, alive or dead, I would say Bobby Womack. He was a big influence on me. Also, Bill Withers. I would love to work with him. He's still around but he doesn't work and has shunned the music industry, which is a shame. I've been acting as well. I've got a one-man play called Lovesong that has been written for me by a guy named Che Walker, and I've been performing that. I'm also developing a script for a four-part drama series as well, based on my time at a school in Manchester, at Chetham's School of Music.

How does acting compare was being a musician?

Oh it's so much harder (laughs), just to get your head above water. I started late, very late. I've got a certain look, a certain colour, a certain age, everything. You know what I mean? Lots of things are against me, basically. I've got a friend, Max Beesley, who used to play keys and percussion and then decided to do acting and went full force into it. He's done so well at it but he dedicated his whole time to it. His agent told him he couldn't tour as a musician so he just had to totally focus on that and had to make a choice. But there's no choice between acting in music for me. It's music all the way.

Tell us about your one-man-show, Lovesong.

I did three sold-out nights at the Shepherd's Bush Theatre. I bring it out every so often and I've been doing it since 2012. It's just a great little piece and I'm blessed that Che wrote it for me. It's a 50-minute monologue with my songs in it and every time people leave, they seem to be really impressed by the story and the songs. So I'd like to develop from that and get some parts in films, so if anybody's listening... 



Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 January 2017 14:39


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