“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.