He may have lyrically described himself as a “walking, talking question mark,” but as a musician and producer, Jamie Lidell is quite comfortable with what he likes and the sounds he makes. Over his decade-plus career, the English pop maestro has blended old-school soul and R&B with more contemporary electronic and digital elements, resulting in a unique take on electro-funk and neo-soul. His last two albums, Jim and Compass, reflect a more traditionally soulful approach, whereas Multiply and his new album, Jamie Lidell, are filled with far more funky and hard-driving dance numbers — and just enough nastiness to elicit a double take.
This week, Lidell hits North America in support of his new effort. Before he used his SkyMiles, however, Consequence of Sound caught up with the songwriter to discuss the new album, lessons learned, and improvisation.
Your last two releases were very soulful albums. Your latest seems to return you to that electro funk foundation you worked so well with on Multiply. You once said something to the effect that “getting typecast as this neo-soul Brit…sends shutters up [your] spine”. Is this album a response to or a preemptive strike against such typecasting?
Well, I kind of think Compass was that album and this is just me having fun again. I was definitely conscious of the fact that typecasting was going on. But to be honest, there’s always going to be some kind of typecasting. I can split the crowd quite often, I think, as a musician. I can create a lot of hate it seems just by being a white Brit soul guy; of any kind, whether it’s weird electronics or with a band. Some people really hate that concept. [Laughs.] I’m just in that zone now where I’m just making music that I like and I feel lucky that I get to do that.
It was something of a talking point about you sort of self-titling your album Jim, but there doesn’t seem to be much blowback with this album, a truly self-titled album. You’ve previously discussed personality within your music. Was there a reason for self-titling this album?
It would be nice if this was material that existed before Muddlin’ Gear and I was finally releasing it. [Laughs.] That was the kind of thought that I had recently, “Yeah, this is my first album! I’m just re-releasing it after all these years.” [Laughs.] In some weird way, although that’s not literally true, it is funny how much this music sounds a little bit like the kind of stuff I was making when I was 16, when I first started experimenting. It’s quite amazing to me the through lines and stuff that remained. I think you always think as an artist you’re really growing and changing a lot all the time; it’s amazing how many things keep cropping up in my work. I think I just knew with this album I had taken it upon myself to really focus myself and put a lot of coherence in what could be quite a scattered output. I knew that I needed to come back strong after Compass if I wanted to even capture the attention of what seems to be a waning attention span in the modern world.
Having a fifth album as a prospect as an artist on an independent label, I must tell you, is not a very easy one; it’s tricky. It’s tricky to make people care. And I understand; the marketplace is a very bizarre one at the moment, very speedy and fickle. I knew I was coming back with something ambitious. I just wanted to catch people’s ear in a way. And people who haven’t heard of me, perhaps. I wanted to come back with something almost obnoxiously bold, so I thought what better way than to self-title an album. And to create a talking point as a result doesn’t hurt.
This album was recorded in Nashville, in a studio that you built there, and you currently live there. Was this album completely conceived and birthed in Nashville or were you kicking it around before you movied to town?
It was basically completely Nashville grown. Before my wife and I moved into our current house, which is the home of the studio where this album was made, we had a rental place. Actually, a house that used to belong to Ben Folds; a really lovely place, I must say. I didn’t have much room to set up stuff. I just had a sampler and a couple of keyboards in what was effectively a kind of corridor, an off-shoot of one of the main rooms. That was the room where I wrote “Big Love” and “What a Shame” and a couple of prototypes for “In Your Mind” and a couple of songs that ended up on the album. Their gestation kind of started in that rental place; they went through various incarnations until they finally found their Technicolor home in the main studio. I was kind of working on stuff, but I’ve got to say it was strictly a Nashville geographical gestation.
Do you think this album could have been recorded in Berlin or Paris? How did Nashville affect the final product, or did the city affect it at all?
It’s a popular question, and it’s a question that remains a little bit of a mystery to me, in terms of a clean answer. And I’ve searched myself for a good answer to this over the years, actually, because it’s been something people have been curious about, just with my relative nomadic existence, the itchy foot and what have you. Just knowing that I’m in a different place, I think the activity, the action of moving itself, is definitely a powerful force to me to create something. In a way, it’s a creative act. It’s kind of a like a destructive thing to move house and also a creative act to make another one. So, it kind of reflects that, in a way, if you will, metaphorically.
But also, yeah, in terms of like a time-space, Nashville operates on a totally different level to a metropolis like New York. The “New York minute” is definitely not something you find in Nashville. The spaciousness, the lack of choice, the lack of, somewhat, diversity, and also the push and pull, the pros and cons of a metropolis; you don’t get in Nashville. There’s more time to dream, more time to create. I’m ultimately living a much slower-paced life with a lot more predictability. Which, actually, for a guy like me, is not a bad thing; it allowed me to stretch out mentally. I took my time making the record, and I got very detailed. It’s interesting; I think people don’t really understand the kind of work it takes to make a record like I’ve just made, because they think it’s just some kind of thrown-together ’80s pastiche or something. It’s quite the opposite, actually. The whole thing is grown from the ground up sonically and in terms of the whole construction. It’s a very time-consuming affair, and I’ve put the time in.
Well, speaking of building the album, after Jim you said that you felt you were leaving large parts of your love of music out, and therefore, to get an overview of Compass, you quickly sketched out a lot of the songs. How did you approach this album? Did you maintain your philosophy that “there’s no fucking rules”?
Yes, though I had a lot of songs that never made the cut. Not because they weren’t good songs but because I didn’t like the way they sat with the others. In the past, I might’ve not filtered them out. I think I was a little bit more conscious of trying to present a coherent fraction of my output with this record. It wasn’t something I set out to do; it evolved. I had a handful of songs. I maybe wrote 20 or 25 songs for this record and ended up with 11. So, the others, the b-sides and stuff, range from much slower ballads to more stretched-out jams that were a little bit more decadent, in a different way. I mean, a song like “Big Love” is an extremely decadent affair, but I’m talking about the kind of decadence where it’s the more “going nowhere” music, minimalism that creates another kind of decadence. I had a handle on what I wanted to present a little bit once I started to hear some songs. The whole process is relatively organic. I definitely don’t start with a rule book, though. I definitely start with “Ooh, I like where this is going.”
A few years ago, you suggested an uncertainty about how to be marketable, and earlier you were talking about that. Last summer you said that you thought this album might be your “time to get on the airwaves.” What did you learn between Compass and now?
It’s hard to say what I really learned. I don’t know if I’ve fully learned the lessons I should have learned a long time before Compass. It’s really hard to make pure music. It’s really hard to make pure expression. You always feel like if you did do that you might not be able to communicate properly. If you speak in your own, almost “Id language,” you might feel like it just might fall flat, so it’s some kind of mediation between pure visceral expression and a decent, coherent, chapter-by-chapter book resume of ideas. It’s a constant push-pull for me — that balance, how far you go. I’m still exploring that. I want to get back to a purer… I feel like I really enjoy… I’m a contradiction on a lot levels, like everyone I think. But I really love pop. I love the pop form. I love a good song. I love something with some real meat on it. I love it like a resolve, a great bridge going into a double chorus and some decadent backing vocals and the percussion and some horns and the ride out. I love a good Quincy [Jones] production where everything feels so calculated but in a really effortless way. At the same time, I really enjoy really decadent, stretched-out pieces by Can and noise pieces, pure electronic music, and real angry hip-hop and angular music. It’s all in the mix somehow in my mind with what I really appreciate and love.
I think nothing has really changed in terms of marketing and all of that stuff; I still remain, in a way, in the dark about the way the industry really works. I think there are some people who claim to have this formula or the keys, or at least it seems that way, and I think, constantly over time, that the industry is shifting too quickly to be predictable. It’s very hard to make the right moves; I just do my best. I just try to think about what feels right. On a business level, I’ve never felt completely that I have a grasp on what it is I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to market it. All of that stuff, in a way, is a disgusting thing to try and incorporate into your worldview, but it is real. I’m sorry. That’s not a very clear answer.
Was there a reason you pared down the number of contributors on this record, especially compared to how many people worked on the last album? Was it because you initially started in such a small space?
It could definitely be part of it. Some of the explanations are really simple. I bought some drum machines, and I never really got into using them, and I just kind of wanted to. [Laughs.] So, it’s kind of like I just wanted to plug some gear in because I was just really excited to hear some sounds. I still have a really simple, childish joy of just hearing good drum machine or a really powerful synth just making a pad. Just working on sounds, there’s a simple pleasure, a bit like a painter just working with really primary colors. There’s a real rudimentary pleasure just putting it on the canvas and just going, “Ah, man, look at that thing; it looks beautiful.” It’s like that with a drum machine of a certain caliber; you just hear it rolling, and that thing is singing. For me at least, I hear drum machines like that; some people hate drum machines. I was taking pleasure in just hearing sounds. That inevitably led me to finish tracks in my brain at least and sketch them out quickly.
I was working primarily with this keyboard guy, Mr. Jimmy, a really exceptionally talented keyboard player. Between the two of us, we could get a lot of ground covered in a short period of time. Just jamming with a guy like that yields a lot of ideas really quickly, so I had a lot of raw tracks within a few weeks and months. From that moment, I can tinker and really get deep on the sound levels and the production levels. I took the record about 90% of the way on my own, and then I really needed to enlist the help of Justin Stanley; I got my good friend Jake Aron, who’s a fantastic producer. He’s part of the band Fort Lean, the bass player in Fort Lean. He’s also worked a lot with Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear. He’s an all-around great musician and engineer. I worked with him and Justin Stanley, who’s an old friend and collaborator from Jim, and they kind of took it the rest of the 10%. There’s a big difference between 90% and 100%, I think, in production, so I was conscious of that. Especially as a vocalist, someone who’s putting layers of my own vocals down. You can become quite blind to what’s good and bad after a while.
When discussing songwriting, you mentioned how artists like Beck write with the guitar, but that you write with your voice. I did not take this to mean that you write all your lyrics and then the melodies. What is it to write with your voice?
It can be all kinds of things, definitely. A lot of the songs on this album like “Blaming Something”… actually, “Blaming Something” is a weird one because “Blaming Something”, for example, started, a classic example, and then I got known, I guess, on the electronic scene at least, as a vocal improviser who spontaneously creates; I have no plan, and I just go out and make noise with my voice, beatbox, anything I felt was working, basically creating a hybrid of technology and the vocals. I’m not sacred. I’m not like a beatboxer that tries to get up on the mic with no effects and deliver a perfect rendition of “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa. I’m the kind of guy who just uses the voice, spills over effects on it, and says,“Oh man, it sounds great with all this pitch shift on it.” I just use the voice as an oscillator almost, like you would on a synthesizer or like the string of a guitar. Once you have the string vibrating, you can modulate it any which way you want, but the fact is you’re playing the guitar. For me, I just play the voice. I’ve always been into that; it’s how I think.
Once I developed the looping stuff and really got into that, I did turn that kind of into my instrument. I think of a lot of songs that way. I layer harmonies and beats and cross-rhythms and all the counterpoints, put a lot of melodies with the vocals. I can get a vague idea of a rhythm track much quicker that way than I can sitting in front of a sequencer, so I tend to favor that approach. When it comes to layering legitimate vocals, sometimes once the bed track is established, I’ll ad lib a few takes and listen to the recordings, because it’s a bit different, your recollection of a take versus the cold facts of a playback. So, I’m trying to get into that state where I’m listening to the cold playbacks as quickly as possible going, “Okay, it’s not as good as it could be, but the melody shape there is really good; I’ll keep that.” What I’m doing is, in a sense, building a jigsaw puzzle of melody over time from a kind of cut-up approach of ad lib collage, and from that I’ll try to establish… basically, I get the melody first is what I’m saying. And then work the lyrics out after. Not for every song, but for a lot of songs.
You’ve also indicated that you write with improvisation in mind. Do you ever improvise on the record, or is that only for the live setting?
It’s funny. The idea of writing, ultimately, to me, is improvising. You basically record an improvisation, and by doing so, you turn it into a statue. A lot of the times, when I’m making stuff, the ideas and the shapes, they will remain kind of final versions, but they’re essentially an improvisation. I’m always just throwing stuff down and throwing other ideas until I feel like they’re gelling.
You said how you felt like this was going back to pre-Muddlin’ Gear. Do you think you’d ever do another Super_Collider album or another album like Muddlin’ Gear again?
It’s funny. I actually wrote to Cris Vogel recently. He’s living in Berlin. He’s a very unique guy, Cris — an exceptional electronic artist. There’s no one like Cris; there’ll never be anyone like him. I’ve met a lot of people who make music, and there’s no one like him. I really respect that. He taught me so much about how to create sound, and he’ll always be one of my mentors. We had a hard time trying to make the third Super_Collider album. We actually made about four songs, but they were kind of canned. We never saw it through. I actually wrote him and said, “Why don’t we make another Super_Collider album?”, and rather than dismiss it, he said, “Wouldn’t that be something?” We both scratched our chins a little bit and left it at that for a while. That was interesting; who knows, I might’ve opened a box.
You talked once about your first time meeting Prince and how it was somewhat of a disappointment. Have you ever gotten a second chance to talk with him?
No, I’ve not. And I feel bad about talking shit about that rendezvous. I mean, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be Prince. He’s an idol of mine, and I guess I just wanted him to like me. [Laughs.] I hope I get to meet Prince again. We can have a one-on-one. I’d like to play him at ping-pong; I hear he’s a big fan.