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Issue 1084

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Feature

Lemar: Cometh the hour...

Lemar @bluesandsoul.com
Lemar @bluesandsoul.com Lemar @bluesandsoul.com Lemar @bluesandsoul.com Lemar @bluesandsoul.com

Since the release of his debut album âDedicatedâ 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 âDanceâ, âIf Thereâs Any Justiceâ and Itâs Not That Easyâ 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 Destinyâs Child and Usher during their UK club tours before eventually signing a record deal with BMG, who released his debut single âGot Me Saying Oohâ 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 Bankâs Enfield, North London branch. During which time he nevertheless continued his musical pursuits by applying in 1992 to participate in the BBCâs then-new âFame Academyâ. 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 Greenâs âLetâs Stay Togetherâ and singing a live duet with global megastar Lionel Richie on the latterâs classic ballad âEasyâ.

Meanwhile, with âFame Academyâ 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 Lemarâs first compilation album, âThe Hitsâ. Which - in addition to including 11 hit singles from his four studio albums (2003âs âDedicatedâ; 2004âs âTime To Growâ; 2006âs âThe Truth About Loveâ; 2008âs âThe Reasonâ) - also features four new tracks. These in turn include his punchy, uptempo current UK Top 10 single âThe Way Love Goesâ; plus a duet with Britainâs chart-topping pop/R&B boy-band JLS on a re-recording of Lemarâs own majestic 2003 ballad âWhat About Loveâ.

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

His latest UK Top 10 single - the uptempo, catchy âThe Way Love Goesâ

âWith this âThe Hitsâ album being a celebration of what Iâve done so far as well as being a look into what I want to do in the future, I didnât 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 âIf Thereâs Any Justiceâ and âItâs Not That Easyâ, I think people just got used to hearing me in that very old skool soul style and maybe forgot about earlier songs like âDance (With U)â and â50/50â. So, with the âThe Way Love Goesâ, 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.â

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

âI 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 âThe Hitsâ has given me a chance to look back and remember some of the songs from the other four albums that Iâve 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.â

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

âI 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 âI honestly think I can appeal to anyone from 14 to 60â, they were like âOh 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 audienceâ⦠Basically they couldnât 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 âDance (With U)â, â50/50â, âAnother Dayâ and âLullabyâ were all different, yet somehow they still all connected in some way.â

Lemarâs Double-Platinum 2004 sophomore set âTime To Growâ, which spawned his signature tune - the ultra-soulful UK Top Three smash âIf Thereâs Any Justiceâ

âPeople always talk about âthe difficult second albumâ. Yet for me, after all the support weâd got with the first album, moving on to the second one just felt like a nice, cool progression. But then, once weâd finished it, we still felt we hadnât quite got that all-important first single. So then we remembered this song âIf Thereâs Any Justiceâ that weâd 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.â

His 2006 Platinum-selling, soulful third album âThe Truth About Loveâ. Which - reaching Number Three in the UK - remains Lemarâs highest-charting LP to date

âI 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 âItâs Not That Easyâ 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 donât realise youâre DOING that. But then later, when you look back and think âActually, that was the trigger for a lot of stuff right thereâ, it is a really good feeling!â

His ill-fated 2008 LP âThe Reasonâ. Which - though Lemar himself still describes it as his âbest workâ - has sales-wise been far-and-away his least successful album to date

âWell, 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 DOESNâT sell. You know, firstly itâs the content - and then, after that, thereâs a whole bunch of other things that go along WITH it. And, at the end of the day, the only thing IâVE got control over is the content, and making sure that itâs the best I can do at that point. So, in that light, I totally stand by âThe Reasonâ. 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, Iâm very satisfied with it. I mean, I honestly canât put my finger on why it didnât 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.â

Re-recording his popular 2003 ballad âWhat About Loveâ for âThe Hitsâ, with chart-topping pop/R&B boy-band JLS

âWhen I was on tour around âThe Reasonâ, JLS were my opening support act - and they obviously put on a good show, as well as bringing loads of fans with them! So Iâd spoken to the guys quite a few times - weâre on the same record-label, we have the same management company⦠Plus Iâd known Marvin (Humes) a little bit before he actually formed JLS with Oritse (Williams). So we just thought âWhy not get on a TRACK together?â... So I spoke to the record-label and they suggested âWhat About Loveâ - which was on my first album - because, though we never put it out as a single, itâs a song that always goes down a storm whenever weâre on tour. You know, itâs like everyoneâs 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!â

The albumâs remaining two new tracks - âYou Donât Love Meâ and âComing Homeâ, both of which combine Lemarâs soul vocal with an uptempo synthesized dance feel

âI 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, itâs the fifth album, a greatest hits celebration - so youâre definitely gonna get your staple Lemar vibe within the course of the record. So - in terms of the new tracks - my thought was, âWhy not mess around a bit while keeping that soul voice, and try to show some different angles?â. So with âYou Donât Love Meâ - as opposed to it being your standard love song where youâre hearing me crooning about someone - Iâm taking another stance and saying âYou keep accusing me, but youâre the person who doesnât love MEâ⦠You know, Iâm trying a different approach, and there is that bit of anger in m voice. Which is something people really havenât heard too much of from me before. And, while I guess âComing Homeâ is more of a straight-up love song, Iâve still played around SONICALLY with it. So itâs got some synths in there, plus the vocals have been messed around with electronically a bit as well.â

Lemarâs thoughts on why heâs stayed the course, and his ideas on todayâs UK music scene in general

âIn terms of why Iâve stayed the course, I think one reason is I have a great TEAM. You know, itâs 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 todayâs scene goes, if Iâm 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 youâve 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!â

Lemarâs album âThe Hitsâ and single âThe Way Love Goesâ are both out now through Sony Music/Epic
Words PETE LEWIS

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