Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Lemar: Cometh the hour...

Lemar Lemar Lemar Lemar

Since the release of his debut album ‘Dedicated’ almost seven years ago, singer/songwriter Lemar has unquestionably emerged as the most successful black male UK soul artist of his 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 brother. 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, Lemar eventually went on to take a job as an accounts manager at Nat West 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 in particular 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’.

Meanwhile, 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!

The fruits of which are currently being celebrated via the release this week of Lemar’s first compilation album, ‘The Hits’. Which - in addition to including 11 hit singles from his four studio albums (2003’s ‘Dedicated’; 2004’s ‘Time To Grow’; 2006’s ‘The Truth About Love’; 2008’s ‘The Reason’) - also features four new tracks. These in turn include his punchy, uptempo current UK Top 10 single ‘The Way Love Goes’; plus a duet with Britain’s chart-topping pop/R&B boy-band JLS on a re-recording of Lemar’s own majestic 2003 ballad ‘What About Love’.

An ever-friendly, fast-talking Lemar reacquaints himself with an ever-attentive Pete Lewis at Sony Music’s busy Kensington HQ to discuss his aforementioned new LP, while simultaneously reflecting on the seven-year, trailblazing recording career that’s led up to it.

His latest UK Top 10 single - the uptempo, catchy ‘The Way Love Goes’

“With this ‘The Hits’ album being a celebration of what I’ve done so far as well as being a look into what I want to do in the future, I didn’t want the first single to be too serious. So, while lyrically the topic of the song is love and there is a serious thread going through it, sonically I wanted the actual track to be light-hearted, upbeat and different to what some people have become accustomed to from me. You know, after songs like ‘If There’s Any Justice’ and ‘It’s Not That Easy’, I think people just got used to hearing me in that very old skool soul style and maybe forgot about earlier songs like ‘Dance (With U)’ and ‘50/50’. So, with the ‘The Way Love Goes’, I just wanted to flip it and to show people there is another side to me - as well as coming with a live, upbeat track to help create a celebration-type vibe for the album.”

The thinking behind releasing an album of his past hits plus four new tracks at this stage in his career

“I want to be experimental and progress. You know, while I do want to keep that soul element in there, at the same time I want to keep soul music moving FORWARD. So I just figured that now was a nice time to close one chapter and open another one. Basically ‘The Hits’ has given me a chance to look back and remember some of the songs from the other four albums that I’ve done - and also remind the PEOPLE of them - while at the same time acting as a taster of where I might be going from HERE.”

Looking back on the different stages of his recording career - beginning with the musical diversity of his Platinum-selling, 2003 debut LP ‘Dedicated’

“I remember - before I signed with Sony in 2003 - having a conversation with this other label that wanted to sign me at the time. Basically they were asking me what was my demographic and who did I appeal to. And, when I answered ‘I honestly think I can appeal to anyone from 14 to 60’, they were like ‘Oh no, no, NO! You have to appeal to either teenagers or 20-year-olds; you have to appeal to either a soul audience or a pop audience’… Basically they couldn’t understand that I personally like artists as diverse as Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Janet Jackson - and all for different reasons. And so, to make music that was true to myself, my record would need to REFLECT all those different influences while obviously maintaining my own natural soul feel vocally... But then luckily, by later signing to Sony, I ended up in a place that DID understand that. And, as a result, with that first album I was able to diversify and be a bit experimental. Which is why songs like ‘Dance (With U)’, ‘50/50’, ‘Another Day’ and ‘Lullaby’ were all different, yet somehow they still all connected in some way.”

Lemar’s Double-Platinum 2004 sophomore set ‘Time To Grow’, which spawned his signature tune - the ultra-soulful UK Top Three smash ‘If There’s Any Justice’

“People always talk about ‘the difficult second album’. Yet for me, after all the support we’d got with the first album, moving on to the second one just felt like a nice, cool progression. But then, once we’d finished it, we still felt we hadn’t quite got that all-important first single. So then we remembered this song ‘If There’s Any Justice’ that we’d originally recorded for the first album, but that had never been released. So we went back to it, added some strings and horns, and decided to GO with it! And I remember being a little bit nervous because - at that time - by releasing a straight-out soul record, we were definitely going against the grain! Because all British (mainstream) radio was really playing back then was indie, pop and rock! But, we rolled the dice - and it WORKED! It landed on all SIXES! Radio supported it, everybody got into it, and it was a really big hit for me! And I also think it set the tone for the soulful feel of the FOLLOWING album.”

His 2006 Platinum-selling, soulful third album ‘The Truth About Love’. Which - reaching Number Three in the UK - remains Lemar’s highest-charting LP to date

“I spent a lot of time in America working on that album, and to me that just really represented a fun time. You know, recording those tracks, getting in the studio with those musicians, sitting down with some real legends… I remember being in the studio sitting around the piano with (Sixties Motown legend) Lamont Dozier, one of the biggest songwriters of all time. You know, we were writing together and he was telling me stories about working in the studio with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops... I mean, making that album was such an amazing, educational time for me! And I was really happy with the end result, and the fact that it was embraced so well. The single ‘It’s Not That Easy’ went Top 10; the album charted really well… And I actually think that album helped to reignite the soul movement in the UK. Because after that came Amy (Winehouse), Adele, Duffy... I mean, at the time you don’t realise you’re DOING that. But then later, when you look back and think ‘Actually, that was the trigger for a lot of stuff right there’, it is a really good feeling!”

His ill-fated 2008 LP ‘The Reason’. Which - though Lemar himself still describes it as his “best work” - has sales-wise been far-and-away his least successful album to date

“Well, I just think you learn a lot of lessons along the way. And one of those lessons is that there are a multitude of factors that affect whether or not an album sells or DOESN’T sell. You know, firstly it’s the content - and then, after that, there’s a whole bunch of other things that go along WITH it. And, at the end of the day, the only thing I’VE got control over is the content, and making sure that it’s the best I can do at that point. So, in that light, I totally stand by ‘The Reason’. Because, from beginning to end, I think it genuinely is my best, my most personal and my most complete album. And so, on that score, I’m very satisfied with it. I mean, I honestly can’t put my finger on why it didn’t do that well (UK-chart-wise it peaked at a lowly 41). But, you know, there was a lot of stuff happening at that time within the music industry, and within the record companies, that was affecting the sale of records. So, you know, it could have been a whole BUNCH of reasons.”

Re-recording his popular 2003 ballad ‘What About Love’ for ‘The Hits’, with chart-topping pop/R&B boy-band JLS

“When I was on tour around ‘The Reason’, JLS were my opening support act - and they obviously put on a good show, as well as bringing loads of fans with them! So I’d spoken to the guys quite a few times - we’re on the same record-label, we have the same management company… Plus I’d known Marvin (Humes) a little bit before he actually formed JLS with Oritse (Williams). So we just thought ‘Why not get on a TRACK together?’... So I spoke to the record-label and they suggested ‘What About Love’ - which was on my first album - because, though we never put it out as a single, it’s a song that always goes down a storm whenever we’re on tour. You know, it’s like everyone’s waiting for that moment - they all sing along, phones in the air... So we just decided to go into the studio together to give the song a new twist and breathe some new life into it. And we had a lotta fun DOING it!”

The album’s remaining two new tracks - ‘You Don’t Love Me’ and ‘Coming Home’, both of which combine Lemar’s soul vocal with an uptempo synthesized dance feel

“I recorded like 30 songs to get down to the three new ones that we finally included on there. And for me, the key thing was to be different and to be experimental. You know, it’s the fifth album, a greatest hits celebration - so you’re definitely gonna get your staple Lemar vibe within the course of the record. So - in terms of the new tracks - my thought was, ‘Why not mess around a bit while keeping that soul voice, and try to show some different angles?’. So with ‘You Don’t Love Me’ - as opposed to it being your standard love song where you’re hearing me crooning about someone - I’m taking another stance and saying ‘You keep accusing me, but you’re the person who doesn’t love ME’… You know, I’m trying a different approach, and there is that bit of anger in m voice. Which is something people really haven’t heard too much of from me before. And, while I guess ‘Coming Home’ is more of a straight-up love song, I’ve still played around SONICALLY with it. So it’s got some synths in there, plus the vocals have been messed around with electronically a bit as well.”

Lemar’s thoughts on why he’s stayed the course, and his ideas on today’s UK music scene in general

“In terms of why I’ve stayed the course, I think one reason is I have a great TEAM. You know, it’s never down to just you and you being a great singer. It is important to have a good team around you that wants to listen and is also willing to go AGAINST you sometimes. Plus I do believe strongly in just putting out good songs and putting on good live shows... And, as far as today’s scene goes, if I’m honest I do think last year was a healthy one for British music, especially on the urban front But, having said that, people do need to remember that today is a much more disposable TIME. You know, you can download music this afternoon and you can get rid of it TOMORROW if you want. And, as a result, I think artists who were previously putting in 100% do need to now put in 110% - and make sure that the WHOLE of the album is a great album! Because, if you’ve only got a few good songs, then people are just gonna pick those songs and leave the rest. You know, you do need to make sure you put in a lot of WORK these days!”

Lemar’s album ‘The Hits’ and single ‘The Way Love Goes’ are both out now through Sony Music/Epic

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