Way back in March the soul fraternity was well impressed with a lovely tune that seemed to herald spring. ‘Morning Love’ had a real buzz about it, though to many, the tune’s creator, SIMON LAW, was a new “name”. Old soul heads though knew differently. They knew that Simon in fact is a battle-hardened soul veteran… a key member of the Soul II Soul collective who’d worked on all their albums except one, producing and co-writing many of their UK hit singles and he still performs regularly with the band. However the keyboardist has also worked on plenty of projects of his own – producing, writing and teaching music all over the place.
Some months ago Simon finally decided that the time was right to have his very own album and at last that long player, ‘Look To The Sky'(from which ‘Morning Love’ was taken) is about to hit the sales racks. We hooked up with Simon to discuss ‘Look To The Sky’ and we began with the most obvious of questions… why did he take so long to come up with an album all of his own?
Well, I’d been really busy working on other artists’ projects as producer and songwriter. I’ve been doing some production music for EMI. I also have taught music in schools in Toronto, written and produced children’s shows with casts of 100+! And for the last three years have been working with elderly folks with dementia at a Welllness Academy in Toronto. I had never thought seriously about doing a solo project until the opportunity presented itself at Dome Records through its owner Peter Robinson. There’s a beautiful arc to it all because it was Peter who signed me and my sister to Chrysalis Records at the beginning of my career in 1988.
So how did you begin to put it all together?
Actually, about 80% of the songs on the album were already written – through not necessarily intended for a solo project. It’s really my best songs from the last 25 years! In discussions with Peter I realized that the material accumulated was strong and could comprise a good album. Some of the later material came out of a burgeoning songwriting partnership with Lain Gray, formerly of NuColours, Wookie and West End musical fame (He’s been in ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Harder They Come’). Both of us are now living outside of the UK but working more closely than we’ve ever done! It also took time to all come together because I was coming out of a transition period in my personal life and by late 2015, when conversations began with Peter, I felt energized and ready to take on such a project. Finally, my partner Jen Schaffer and I have a band in Toronto (Jen Schaffer and the Shiners). That support and camaraderie has given me strong wings to do my own project.
OK ….so what makes your ‘Look To The Sky’ different to the Soul II Soul album’s you’ve worked on? You do use some of the Soul II Soul team… even Jazzie himself
There are some elements that are very much Soul II Soul on my album because I was part of that original team with Jazzie, Caron and Nellee. That sound, that vibe naturally occurs when I make music. But the album also goes into areas of orchestral, folk, jazz, reggae that wouldn’t necessarily be on a Soul II Soul record. The involvement of Jazzie and Caron and some of the string players from Soul II Soul is a very natural one. I love and respect these people – I love to work with people with whom there is a natural energy and flow. Remember, even before I joined Soul II Soul, and after our success in the early Nineties, I produced my own records and those of others … including Chante Moore, Maxi Priest, JT Taylor, Shabba Ranks, Joanna Law, The Jazz Warriors even Duran Duran.I have also worked with many musicians who are not part of Soul II Soul. This gives different flavours that can further distinguish this album from Soul II Soul’s music
You’ve been with Jazzie B and Soul II Soul for many years, so when you came to prepare and make this album did you work in the same way as Jazzie?
Jazzie and I are kindred spirits. We share a love of the same music, the same aspiration to create uplifting music. I am always inspired by his DJ-ing going back to the legendary SIIS club at The Africa Centre to the present day! To me, alongside Norman Jay and Giles Peterson, he’s one of the best DJs on the planet. But we differ in approach because as well as being a producer I am an instrumentalist and singer…playing keys and drums and arranging. I play the instruments and arrange much of the music – probably about 80% of the record. Another way it differs is that this is a collection of the best songs and music I’ve written. The earliest song was written in 1993 – Nadine Sutherland’s song “Love Comes Back to You” and the most recent song is “Message of Love” which was written in the autumn of 2016 with Lain Gray.
Why did you choose ‘Look To The Sky’ as the title track?
The idea was to have the best songs I have, coupled with the best artists I’ve worked with over my career. It was a long labour of love made easier by the wonders of technology. There are generous contributions from the featured artists and musicians who come from many parts of the globe: UK, Jamaica, Canada, Los Angeles, New York, Houston Texas, and South Africa. ‘Look To The Sky’ itself actually started off as an instrumental for Soul II Soul and it features some extraordinary signature percussion. It stayed on the shelf for a while but I always loved the tune so I decided to write a song with Lain Gray. I later asked Jazzie to contribute some spoken word passages. It contains many elements that I cherish in music – a heavy, melodic base line, layered percussion, strong driving beats and elements inspired by Jamaican music, in this case particularly Black Uhuru and Sly and Robbie. The lyric comes from an idea that I read by Brother Roger of Taize that spoke about the sky being an endless source of creativity and an inspiration to every one of us, at all times. I always loved that idea and wanted to put it into a song. Lain took my lyrical ideas and found beautiful melodies to compliment them.
Tell us about some of the collaborators on the album and apart from doing their bit as it were did they have any creative input… or were you always in charge?
Working as a producer all my life I’ve always appreciated that ultimately key decisions are made by the artist who you are producing. With this project the artist was me! As a Simon Law album, I made the final choices but all my life I’ve enjoyed and thrived with collaboration. To me it’s the essence of music. The collaborators… well Caron Wheeler is one of the best singers in the world to my mind and I had to do a song with her. We wrote ‘Morning Love’ several years ago in Toronto and New York (where she lives) and it fittingly launched the project as the first single. I had the music and the chorus lyric and melody but nothing else – Caron added the verses and beautiful bridge that harkens back to her lover’s rock days. There are also her glorious trademark background vocals on the track. Then there’s Lain Gray … my musical partner in crime! He sings lead vocal on six songs all of which we wrote together except for one, ‘Precious Child’. Lain also plays guitar and bass on various other songs and backgrounds on many of the songs. He is a multi-talented powerhouse and a diamond geeza! We also have Maxi Priest – one of the world’s most well known and enduring reggae artists… still performing regularly all over the world and releasing new music. His voice is a true wonder! We’ve always enjoyed working together, so it was a very natural choice to ask him to sing on my album. He sings ‘Sunshine Girl’ a song Lain and I wrote for him (Lain takes the second verse!) Maxi also contributed the only song on the album I didn’t write but only arranged and produced – ‘When You Love Someone’. Don’t forget Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare … they also contributed to both those songs – legends both and heavy influences on me.
There is a beautiful song Chante Moore sings – I had the track and she wrote the melody and lyrics to ‘Higher’. She was an artist I enjoyed success with in the Nineties and I really wanted her to be on my record. It was a major thrill to hear her amazing song when she sent it back from LA. I remember she Face Timed me from her car on the way back from the studio…so excited about what she’d created! It also features wonderful soulful bass and guitar playing from my dear friend and former production partner Ross Anderson. I dedicate the album to him and three other most precious folks (Maurice White and my Mum and Dad) Creative input also came from my partner Jen Schaffer (a talented songwriter in her own right), on the song ‘Heart of the Beast’. The track had existed for a few years without any topline or lyrics – I’d thought of it as an instrumental. Knowing well her craft with lyrics and melody from her own original work with our band The Shiners in Toronto, I asked her if she could develop a lyrical idea that I had: “There’s a sickness in the heart of the beast”. What she created were powerful lyrics and melodies that capture the message I wanted to convey about these precarious times. Jen also plays guitar on this track and contributed her beautiful acoustic guitar part for ‘Precious Child’. Oh, my sister Jo is my original musical collaborator. She sings ‘My Heart is Ready’, a song we wrote together several years ago based on Psalm 57. She also sings glorious background vocals on ‘Heart of God’ and ‘Rocket Ship’. On ‘Heart of God’ there is also some stunning wordless improvisation, inspired by Ennio Morricone, that Jo performs….glorious stuff!
Wow, a cast of thousands and plenty of variety so how would you describe the overall soundscape of the album?
The overall landscape is wide and expansive! As far as the eye can see…and the ear can listen! I am ecumenical in my appreciation of music. I wanted to represent as much of my musical palette as I could. As a producer’s album there are many featured artists and influences that I have woven together. That said, there has to be soul and funk, always a deep melodic bass, strong, often layered rhythms, rich chords and harmonies. And then, on the top – beautiful melodies that lift the soul ( As Quincy Jones said, “Melody is the voice of God!”) I want my music to lift the soul and move the heart and the body!
Can you, then, single out one track that says “This is the Simon Law sound”?
They all do!! I hope the listener can hear the common thread that weaves throughout every song on this album.
Fair comment, but what special tracks would you like to draw our attention to?
‘Your Light’ is unique as I play all the instruments on this track … and I sing!! Unusually the last element to be added to this tune was my live drums…it really brought the track out. I also wanted to feature my keyboard playing…I don’t usually solo, preferring to leave that to a true virtuoso … but here you can hear my Wurlitzer piano front and centre! Then there are two songs that directly address social, economic and racial injustice. ‘Message Of Love’ talks about police brutality and racial profiling, particularly in the US but actually here in the UK just as much. ‘Heart Of The Beast’ addresses economic injustice and income inequality. It’s always been the case but in this Trump/Brexit era it’s particularly important for me that my art reflects on these issues and both songs have rallying calls – “a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of love” and “Can’t you see the crack grow? Can’t you feel your blood flow?” and “summon up the sinew…” ‘Love Comes Back To You’ (Sung brilliantly by Nadine Sutherland, Bob Marley’s protégé) is the oldest song on the album… it was written in ’92/3 with Daniel Steggall and Sam Bergliter. It has a resonant message for these times I feel
‘Fire On Fire’ is getting lots of attention … what can you tell us about that one?
‘Fire’ was an instrumental for a long time. The bass line started it all, I was inspired by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards and created a track that I was very happy with….but it never found a proper home. Sometimes a song has to sit and percolate on the shelf for a year or two! I gave the track to Lain and he just flew with hit….it contains one of the best lyrics on the album for me:”The melody moves me as it tells my story. The beat and the bass line take me to glory!” It also has very funky bass and guitar playing from Ross Anderson…he played these parts about three months before he died tragically from asbestos-related cancer. He didn’t tell anyone he had a terminal illness, all the while he knew these tunes on my record were some of the last things he’d play. Hearing these parts has enormous power and emotion to me and I feel it truly comes through in the song. There is also the most glorious brass arrangement and playing from Gary Barnacle. I gave the song to him and, as Lain had done with the lyrics and melody he just flew with it …well more like blasted off! Gary plays alto and tenor sax
What about the almost country-flavoured ‘Precious Child’ …. Sounds very personal?
‘Precious’ is a heartfelt plea for those growing up and those yet to be born to let love and mindfulness guide them… so much in the world, more and more it seems to me…does not teach this.
How will you be promoting the album?
We have a lot of promo on radio and online, magazines, blogs etc. Dome are tremendously supportive in this. I am very active on social media, particularly Face Book and Twitter… and yes, I have got to get my Instagram game on! There are plans to do some live shows; I am just working on that right now.
… and is Soul II Soul still an entity…. and if so are you still very much part of that picture… and a new Soul II Soul album?
Yes SIIS continue to do lots of shows…many over this coming festival season. I would love to make another SIIS record! The smiling face, thumpin’ bass and loving race are still very much a thing!!
Where can we find out more about Simon law and ‘Look To The Sky’?
It’s all @ www.funkyginger.com and www.domerecords.co.uk and, of course, The Funky Ginger face book page and on Twitter.
SIMON LAW’S LOOK TO THE SKY is released DOME RECORDS on June 23rd. Go to our reviews archive for a full review.