Lemar: GRADUATING WITH HONOURS
Since the release of his debut album 'Dedicated' five years ago, singer/songwriter Lemar has unquestionably emerged as the most successful black male UK soul artist of our time. With enduring airplay smashes like 'Dance', 'If There`s Any Justice' and 'It`s Not That Easy' pioneering mainstream album sales well in excess of two million.
Born Lemar Obika in April 1978 in London to Nigerian parents, the two-times BRIT Award winner was raised in Tottenham listening to soul and R&B music, and regularly singing Jackson 5 songs at home with his sister and brothers. Having begun performing in public locally at 17, Lemar went on to enjoy some success supporting visiting US chart-toppers like Destiny`s Child and Usher during their UK club tours before eventually signing a record deal with BMG, who released his debut single ´Got Me Saying Ooh` in 1991.
However, with label restructuring unfortunately seeing his aforementioned first deal fall through in less than a year, he eventually went on to take a job as an accounts manager at NatWest bank`s Enfield, North London branch. During which time he nevertheless continued his musical pursuits by applying in 1992 to participate in the BBC`s then-new 'Fame Academy'. A combination of a talent quest and reality television show, the programme justifiably found Lemar ending up in the finals; earning plaudits particularly for his rendition of Al Green`s 'Let`s Stay Together' and singing a live duet with global megastar Lionel Richie on the latter`s classic ballad 'Easy'.
With 'Fame Academy' bringing Lemar to national public attention and widespread acclaim, so impressed were Sony Music with his potential that they ended up signing him to a five-year record deal worth a cool one million pounds! Which today - on the eve of his fourth LP 'The Reason' being released this month - has to date resulted in six UK Top Ten singles plus three big-selling albums (2003`s 'Dedicated': 2004`s 'Time To Grow': 2006`s 'The Truth About Love'); his British pop success also spreading across Europe plus Australia and New Zealand.
Having spent the last two years crafting said new album (with recording/writing sessions happening in such far-flung locations as Los Angeles, Miami and Sweden), the aforementioned 'The Reason'- pioneered by the heartfelt lyrics and acoustic guitar of its Top 15 single 'If She Knew' - signals a broader direction in Lemar`s sound. Boasting input from world-class urban producers like Jim Johnson (Lil Wayne); Jack Splash (Alicia Keys); SoulShock & Karlin (Whitney Houston); and Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse), its 10 tracks range from the electro-bounce of 'Weight Of The World' to the punchy, uptempo old skool vibe of 'Little Miss Heartbreaker'. Meanwhile, the infectious singalong feel of 'Over You' celebrates Lemar´s soul roots, with the piano-led 'Mayday' typifying his signature impassioned balladry.
The only contemporary UK black male artist to appeal to a similar across-the-board/multi-age-group soul audience as the likes of Amy/Corinne/Duffy, an ever-polite`n`professional Mr. Obika spills the beans on his new project - and recent activities in general - to 'Blues & Soul`s ever-attentive Pete Lewis.
The reason behind calling his new, fourth LP 'The Reason'
“I`d got to the end of my last album, and I was kinda feeling that I just needed to get AWAY. That I needed to refind my passion for music, to refind my passion for life... You know, at certain points in life you ask yourself a lotta questions. And I think I was just in that phase of my life. So, as a result, just getting away allowed me to think more about life, and more about love. And I called the album 'The Reason', because I wanted it to remind me of the reasons why I became a musician in the first place. You know, I think the reason I became a recording artist was because the music I was listening to at the time was inspirational, exciting; it wasn`t obvious... And that´s what I wanted THIS album to be. I wanted to bring out a collection of songs that for me was inspiring, was thought-provoking, was current, and that hopefully came with an exciting, eclectic mix of styles.”
What Lemar wanted to achieve musically this time around
“When I went into the studio, I wanted to go in with no agenda. Except that the music should be exciting and a step up from the last album. You know, I wanted it to be different so that the listener could feel that I`d taken a chance musically. That, even though there was still soul and R&B and elements of pop in there, the overall vibe was still at the same time very current and fresh. So songs like 'Little Miss Heartbreaker' or 'Not What You Say', have horns, drums and different types of live sounds on there. But then, for instance, on the single 'If She Only Knew' there`s much more of a synthy kind of club sound. Basically I just wanted to make sure that I kept that balance in there. I wanted to keep it fresh and funky with all those different musical elements. So I could hear all sides of my character musically, as well as vocally. And so, on that score, while I think it´s the most solid album I´ve done from beginning to end, it´s also the
How he breaks down some of the songs lyrically
“The title track, 'The Reason', is kind of a philosophical song. It´s me breaking down what I think life`s about and talks about finding a reason for the things that you do. Whether it be music, whether it be living, whether it be the reasons why people are in your life… Then with 'Mayday', while it talks about love, when I was writing the song I was actually thinking about the war. You know, sometimes we can all be patriotic, but at the end of the day someone always suffers. And it`s not until you lose someone , or you get hurt in that process, that you start thinking retrospectively along the lines of ´Maybe we shouldn`t be DOING this`. So it basically compares a pilot at war going down in his plane to that loss of control you have in your life when you lose someone. But then - alongside the more thoughtful and philosophical songs - there`s party tracks like 'Little Miss Heartbreaker', or more sentimental songs like 'If She Knew'. Which is very
literal, in that it talks about that misunderstanding that occurs when there`s a miscommunication between two partners in a relationship.”
Working with world-class producers like Jim Johnson; Jack Splash; Salaam Remi; and SoulShock & Karlin
“Usually in the past, when I´ve gone in to work with a producer, it´s been an arranged scenario. So we just meet up in the studio; I´m like ´Hi, my name`s Lemar`; we each talk a little bit about what we`ve been up to; and then it`s straight to work on writing the song. But on this occasion - because I was in that thoughtful process and I needed a break - the record company said it was cool for me to just spend some time away meeting producers, just hanging out, and seeing who I actually had a natural vibe with. So I spent two weeks in Miami, two weeks in LA, two weeks in Sweden… And the people that you just mentioned are the ones I actually ended up connecting with. So I think, in the end , THEY really got to know ME, and I really got to know THEM! And I feel that´s definitely reflected in the music this time. Plus I think sometimes - when you go into a studio with producers of that level who have that calibre of work behind them - it then
brings out the best in you too. So, from a writing perspective, you then up your game as well - and it´s just interesting what comes out.”
Whether Lemar feels the different recording locations in themselves made a difference
“I think for me it was more just the getting away itself which inspired me to then be much more creative. Because, by being away from home on my own, I was learning a lot more about myself and the pen just started flowing. You know, I think a change is as good as a holiday. So I definitely think that being in places like Miami and LA did kinda free me up a lot and let me experience things differently. Plus the fact I was with some really cool people also helped give me a good vibe. Because different people work differently. And I just think all those different elements just came together to create the album as it is.”
Whether becoming a father for the first time last January also impacted on his songwriting this time round
“Yeah , it`s definitely influenced me a lot - though I don`t think it was a conscious thing. Like there`s no song on my album that says 'Oh, my new-born daughter that I love` and you won`t find me getting all mushy-mushy about it anywhere! But, at the same time, you do hear overtones of a wiser person on the songs. You can definitely hear the guy that`s thinking more about the world, about life.. And I think that´s what having a child DOES for you. It makes you kind of second-guess everything, `cause you can`t be selfish any more! Because you really do love this child - and the child loves you back - unconditionally! So it does make you think about everything you`ve done in your life , and re-evaluate your life in general.”
Lemar`s early upbringing in Tottenham, North London
“Well, we didn`t have loads. But, at the same time, we weren`t suffering. And I think the most important thing was that at home there was a lot of love. So, as a result, that kept me on a level playing field. Obviously there`s what your neighbourhood brings - you know, there`s good AND there`s bad. But I just think in life you`re dealt with certain cards, and you just have to make the most of the cards that you`re dealt with. And I think that`s what I`ve always tried to do. To just stay focused and, if an opportunity arises, to grab it with both hands and keep on moving forward. You know, I was always surrounded by music. My mother was a good singer; my brothers and sister were good singers; we used to mess around and play and practise… But, in terms of taking it seriously, it wasn`t till I was about 16, when I stumbled across some producers in West London, that I thought I should start recording. And to me that`s what life`s ABOUT! You see an
opportunity, you grasp it, you keep on practising… And eventually you find yourself in a PLACE! Because, once you focus on something and you enjoy it, then you can just take it to the LIMIT! You can take it as far as you can go!”
How he first started singing professionally
“I was at home one day, when someone who was fixing their car outside my house heard me singing. So he knocked on my door and suggested I went to this studio in West London to meet these producers called Best Kept Secret. So I went there. They were working with Kele LeRoc at the time, who I thought was amazing. So I decided to audition for them; they were like ´Wow!´… So I started recording and writing songs there, while I was at college studying to do pharmacy. Then, once I finished my exams, I had to decide between that and music. So I thought ´Let me take a year out to do music`. But then, every time I wanted to go back to studying, someone would offer a deal or a management contract, or we`d get closer to finishing something… So eventually eight years went past, and I basically thought to myself ´You know what? It hasn`t happened yet. So let`s call it a day and give up`… So that`s what I did. Then one day, while I was at work, I saw this
advert for 'Fame Academy', and thought ´Well, let me just try that one last time before I start university in September`… And it WORKED!”
How Lemar now looks back on his pre-'Fame Academy' years of struggling
“It was a very frustrating period. Sometimes there were tears; sometimes there was happiness... And overall there were a lot of moments that I could look back on and say Ýeah, that was a bit harsh`. And of course it´s always easier - once you`ve made it - to look back and say 'OK, those times were part of the learning process and it`s made me the person I am today`. Although at the time you just felt ´Wow, the whole world`s against me and I don`t think I`ll ever get my chance!`! But, you know, overall yes, I`m genuinely glad I went through it. Because it made me understand the business that I`m in a bit more. It`s made me a better songwriter, a much better performer and singer... You know, every lesson you learn along the way is always a good thing.”
How he looks back on the 'Fame Academy' experience itself
“I look back on 'Fame Academy' very fondly. At the end of the day I was at a stage in my life where I`d done eight years of grafting and I`d had no joy. So I was gonna give up and just go and do computer programming or pharmacy. But then I thought ´Let me give it one last shot` - `cause that was the last opportunity for me. And, as I said, it worked out and I haven`t had a single negative from it!”
Lemar`s ideas on reality TV talent shows in general
“Well, talent shows themselves have been around for years. It`s just that someone had a great idea of putting a camera on the people who were ON the talent show and then started calling it ´a reality TV show`. You know, there`s a bit of humour in it - where there`s people who THINK they can sing but can`t REALLY sing. Which is the fun TV part of it. But personally I feel that, as long as at the end of the TV show someone good and talented wins - and in turn gets the opportunity to do what they`ve always WANTED to do - then it`s a good thing! I think the fact that Leona Lewis won not too long ago - and has had great success in America and worldwide - has inspired other people who are genuinely talented to appear on the show. Whereas before - when people weren`t so sure what the end result was - certain types of people weren`t applying to go on. Which meant the calibre of the shows in general wasn`t so great. Whereas now - as I think you can see this
year - the talent is definitely of a higher standard.”
His ongoing charity work
“I think one great thing about being a bit of a celebrity is that you can use your public appeal to influence other people to maybe think a little bit deeper about people who are worse off than yourself. And, while one way of doing that is by writing songs and putting your thoughts down on paper so that people will listen to it, you also get the opportunity to SPEAK about issues that are close to your heart. So, you know, I`ve been to Ethiopia, to Uganda; I`ve looked at poverty and AIDS and global warming there… While, closer to home, I`ve also been doing what I can in trying to help with breast cancer sufferers. Obviously, my mother passed away from cancer. So, whenever I can help bring awareness to that scenario, I always do. So yeah, when you`re fortunate enough to have that bit of fame in your life, I just think it is important to help wherever you can, when it comes to people in worse scenarios than your own.”
The current boom in UK soul singer/songwriters
“I agree that there has definitely been a resurgence in that area - from Paolo Nutini, to James Morrison, to Will Young, to Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Estelle… And I definitely feel I`ve been a PART of that. And, while it`s always a difficult one to kinda analyse in terms of any black/white issues, I do think there are more UK black artists doing soul, and just music in general, in a mainstream way now than there were last year, the year before that, and the year before THAT. And I think Estelle is great proof of the fact that it`s all about keeping on doing good music, keeping on fighting and not giving up. Because the more good music we put out there - and the more COMPETITIVE music we put out there - then the more OTHER people will in turn have a chance to come through. Because the record companies want to make money too! So, as long as you`re making that good music that makes them money, then they`ll look for more of that in the FUTURE! You know,
overall I think we`re definitely in a better place today than we were yesterday. And we just need to keep on moving forward.”
The album 'The Reason' and the single 'If She Knew' are both out now through Epic/SonyBMG Music Entertainment
Words PETE LEWIS