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Issue 1093

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Soulpersona and Princess Freesia: Raising the game

Soulpersona and Princess Freesia @bluesandsoul.com
Soulpersona and Princess Freesia @bluesandsoul.com

Brighton-based duo Soulpersona (Morgan Howell) and Princess Freesia (Lija Rolavs, an Australian from New South Wales) have been making cool and sophisticated funky music for well over a decade, delighting their many admirers with each release. They have the perfect partnership with Soulpersona producing the music and Freesia coming up with the lyrics and the melodies, backed by her own highly emotive singing style.

Despite their extraordinary compatibility, it is also a highly unlikely partnership so I hooked up with them both to find out more and to discuss their superb, hugely important new album, “The Game”.
Fifteen years ago you were living 10,000 miles apart. How did you discover each other?

SoulP: I met Freesia quite by accident in 2005. I had just put a home studio together and was scouring Myspace for vocalists to work with and perhaps sign with my label at the time - Digisoul - which I ran with my brother. It was a Sunday afternoon and I stumbled across an artist called Princess Freesia under the Soul Jazz Funk categories.

Princess: I had short spiky punk rocker hair and that intrigued him as I didn't seem to fit the obvious mould for the genre.

SoulP: Something made me click on her profile and immediately her Myspace player started playing “Got Me Started On It’. It was a clever blend of singing and rapping over this lovely 'Mutroned' bassline, beautiful electric piano chords and crazy synths. I'd never heard anything quite like it before. I read a little further into her profile and learned that she'd also produced it herself which I thought was brilliant.
Princess: I guess he thought I was halfway decent (laughs)! He contacted me and if memory serves he said some very complimentary things to me about my music.

SoulP: Yeah, when I listened to the next song ‘Shooting Stars And Rockets”, that song completely blew my mind, the chord structure, the writing, the melodies, the intellect. She was certainly something unique, individual and completely original. She ticked all my boxes. I simply had to work with her!

Princess: He asked if I would like to write some lyrics and vocals for an album he was working on (“Soulacoaster”). I'd never received recognition for my solo work before so to drink in this praise and interest from someone overseas felt like a big deal to me. I was extremely honoured to be seen and recognised for who I was as an artist. And so I went on to write five songs for his first album and our musical relationship blossomed from there!

SoulP: I remember getting the vocals back from her. She had recorded the vocals in Australia and they were beautifully delivered and brilliantly performed. As time went by, we kept in touch and in 2010 she moved to the UK on a two-year visa and rented a room in my house in Watford so that we could work on music together as well as work on her own projects.

Princess: I decided that I needed to make a go of it in this part of the world. It felt like there were better opportunities for me on the whole by coming over. As a primarily soul/jazz-funk writer and vocalist I just felt like I had more of a receptive audience and base in the UK. I stayed for two years on a working visa before having to return home. Thankfully I was able to get my Latvian EU passport due to my ancestry and so I found myself with Morgan again, but this time in Brighton. It's nice to have the sea close by.

Since those early days the pair have continued to record, both individually and apart, and Soulpersona's growing reputation for making great contemporary music with nods back to a golden era has enabled him to work with some big names in Black music, most notably Jocelyn Brown, Change, Jody Watley and the late, great, Leon Ware, as well as bringing some previously untapped talent some much-needed exposure. Yet the magic he creates always seems to go up a notch when he teams up with Freesia. What is the secret?

SoulP: We have always made music the same way I make music for anyone I work with. I come up with a groove, often a very simple and bare arrangement, so that it provides plenty of space for her to fill with her melodies. I'll usually write so many of these grooves, I'll just play them to her and she will cherry-pick the ones she's feeling the most. She'll then take the groove away and that's the last I hear from it until she's finished recording it. She writes and arranges the backing parts, comes up with all the melodies and records all the vocals herself. She then gives me the vocal stem mixes back and I just add all the compressions and effects. It's an unusual way of working, but it seems to work for us, any other way of working would seem completely alien. Once I have all of the vocals mixed over my groove I set about building and embellishing the musical arrangements. I'll often get some live guitar by Terry Lewis, he's a good friend and lives down the road from me which is very convenient! I like some Fender Rhodes to interact with my chunky chords, to put a bit of icing on the cake so to speak. For that, there's usually only one man for the job, Carl Hudson, an amazing player with such a good feel that suits my style perfectly. I might add some live bass. On “The Game” I used another neighbour, Marcus Porter.

“The Game”, Soulpersona and Princess Freesia's fifth album, was released in May and without question is their most accomplished set to date. Stylistically it contains everything and more from what you'd expect from a Soulpersona album but what makes it truly compelling is the theme which runs throughout. Mental health issues directly or indirectly affect millions of people in this country but although society has made great strides to make this subject no longer taboo, too many people still feel they need to suffer in silence or are too afraid to ask for the help they desperately need. It is a topic Freesia knows about only too well and the duo proceeded to create an album of creative brilliance marked by her outstanding soul searching vocals.

SoulP: Once we established that the album would be geared towards her mental health battles, being her partner and knowing her so well, I am aware of the many struggles she goes through on a daily basis and how hard it is for her.

Princess: This album took A LOT of time and trouble to extract. I'm sort of half-laughing about it whilst trying not to return to dwelling on the mental and emotional spaces I was occupying during its inception. In the beginning, I wasn't aware that we would end up creating a mental health-themed album. We had plans to build on ideas based on a futuristic slant on society. So when it took its harrowing turn during the first two tracks that were created I quickly realised that I was using the sonic vessel provided by Soulpersona to voice not the machinations of a fantasy land, but the cold hard realities of my personal issues and pain. I don't usually focus on my real-life self and prefer a more whimsical ‘layer cake' of mysterious meaning and turns of phrase. Although this album has elements of that approach, I've been much more frank, straightforward and deeply personal with the content. I can't really listen to the album at the moment as it's still too raw for me. When I was in the studio I got so frustrated with the uncontrollable emotion and despair in my voice that I was forced to stop and I proceeded to have a full-blown breakdown, screaming and shouting my distress in a way that completely breaks my heart to think about it. I am never really settled or satisfied with the music I make anyway and struggle to listen unless I'm merry, but because it's an acute expression of the pain and torment I experience in my life I'm happier to leave it where it is and let people uncover the meaning for themselves, which they're doing beautifully. I am grateful for that”

SoulP: Top of form for me, trying to make music for a living is a constant battle and I've suffered - and continue to suffer - some incredible lows myself, so I suppose each song represents the mood I was in at the time of composing it. Often it's with the gloom and doom of 'How am I going to pay the rent this month? Can I afford grocery shopping for the week? Can I cover my utility bills this month? Will anyone ever hire me for a remix ever again? Am I a shit musician? How many albums do I have left in me before all the inspiration runs dry'. These kind of questions constantly dance round my head most days, and the main burning one 'How long can I get away with doing this for before the wheels fall off?' It's all a risk that I have no other choice to make as music is pretty much all I am any good at. Will I have to subsidise my living still making albums when I'm 70? Will anyone even buy them then? All these questions and many more helped this album along the way. Despair, anger, frustration and stress ironically all played their part in making the album what it is. At times on the album, Freesia sounds incandescent, a mixture of fear and rage which can explode into a torrent of violent hyperbole as her safety mechanisms are forced into action.

Princess: Yes, my naughty ‘sweary' moments ended up taking centre stage a few times, (turning to SoulP) didn't they (laughs)? “Live Your Life” is possibly the angriest and most depressive I've felt writing a song. The anger was fuelled by the state of mind I was in at the time and exacerbated by the fact that after writing the song I didn't want to go into the studio and force myself to get through it over and over. I felt resentful that I'd have to go through a marathon endurance, to sing about it, to have written a song I couldn't escape from. I had no plan for any improvisations to sections in any of the songs so whatever came out were in the spur of the moment and when it happened on “Live Your Life” I was left reeling and had to halt recording to gather myself. I know that people can be offended by swearing in music, especially in these genres for some unfathomable reason. But I was also tired of binding myself to the rules of what was expected of me. That was simply another chastity belt, another form of elicited control and resistance that I resented having to comply with. Yet I'd also say that as I made my way through the album, there came to a point in which I started to feel a quiet sort of liberation growing in me. A kind rebellion that lured honesty to the forefront as well as a modicum of peaceful acceptance. I can now say that it grew into a profoundly cathartic body of work that I am extremely proud of.

In much the same way that Marvin Gaye tackled difficult issues in some of his songs yet was still able to make his messages accessible, Soulpersona and Princess Freesia have managed successfully to do the same with material that could so easily have become too much to bear. By doing so hopefully people will take heed and help those in distress.

Soulpersona and Princess Freesia’s excellent album “The Game” is out on Sunset City Records
Words DUNCAN PAYNE

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