Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

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Feature

Kenny Thomas: Don't call it a comeback

Kenny Thomas @bluesandsoul.com
Kenny Thomas @bluesandsoul.com

Back in the early-Nineties, Londoner Kenny Thomas - thanks to a string of mainstream hit singles and multi-Platinum album sales for the now-sorely-missed Cooltempo label - was without question Britainâs Number One crossover blue-eyed soulster. Meanwhile, this month sees him once more entering the music arena with his new, fourth studio album âBreatheâ being released independently through his own new Solus label.

Indeed, featuring production input from such UK-based studio-bods as Mark Jaimes & Danny Saxon, 5AM, Sir Piers and The Drizabone Soul Family, musical moods on the 14-track âBreatheâ range from the funky, gliding âUnconditional Loveâ and edgily pushing âBreatheâ; to an infectious, springy take on Bobby Caldwellâs âComing Down From Loveâ and even a jaunty, bass-prodded update of Thomasâ own biggest hit âThinking About Your Loveâ. Meanwhile, elsewhere Kennyâs wife Francisca Thomas duets with her husband on the slow-swaying âGet Outâ while also lending her songwriting talent to the setâs poignant first single, the shuffling, acoustic-guitar-accompanied âThe Show Is Overâ.

Born in Islington in September 1968, Kenny started out as both a boxer and a BT technician before, in the late-Eighties, turning his hand to a singing career - cutting his first sessions at UK black music icon Eddy Grantâs East London-based studio The Coach House. Following which, with his upbringing on a multi-cultural North London housing estate having led to an enduring love of Seventies/Eighties soul and jazz-funk, Thomasâ chart breakthrough finally arrived in 1991. When his debut hit - a cover of The Gap Bandâs 1983 funk classic âOutstandingâ - hit Number 12 in the UK singles chart. Which was impressively followed later the same year by two further Top 15 hits - the aforementioned Top Five smash âThinking About Your Loveâ and âBest Of Youâ. All of which were featured on his double-Platinum-selling, BRIT-nominated Top Three debut album âVoices.â

Nevertheless, despite Kennyâs 1993 sophomore set âWait For Meâ also hitting the UK Top Ten and spawning a Number 17 single with his cover of The Staple Singersâ âTrippinâ On Your Loveâ, the mid-Nineties found his record sales gradually dwindling - ultimately resulting in him splitting from his record-label in 1995. After which it was not until 2006 that he finally re-emerged with his third studio album âReal Loveâ. Whose more mature musical feel interestingly found Thomasâ fan-base and appeal shifting from that of one-time Nineties âTop Of The Popsâ regular to becoming fully embraced as a credible homegrown hero of Britainâs highly-discerning modern soul crowd, via such connoisseur-favoured tracks as âCrazy Worldâ, âHimâ and âLet It Rainâ⦠An audience and career change he has now wisely chosen to build upon and consolidate with his much-anticipated, aforementioned soulful new LP âBreatheâ.

⦠All of which now finds an ever-affable Kenny (who interestingly last year graduated with a Bachelor Of Science degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) happily reacquainting himself with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis. As, speaking from his Newcastle hotel-room in earthy-yet-articulate inner-London tones, he warmly enthuses about his already-well-received new album; his latter-day re-emergence as the Soul Weekender crowdâs big-voiced homegrown hero; plus his decision to release independently this time around via his own new label.

The main ways in which Kenny feels âBreatheâ differs from his previous albums

âWell, to me this album is a step up a notch - in that itâs an album I completely A&Râd and funded MYSELF. Which meant I pretty much made every decision - the tracks that stayed, the tracks that got trashed, the ones I went in and re-recorded, the people I wrote with, the producers, the musicians... So in that way itâs more my baby than anything Iâve ever done BEFORE⦠Plus another new development is that, because I figured going into studios all the time with engineers was gonna become very expensive, I actually spent some time setting up a nice studio set-up at HOME. And - with the help of other producers and engineers - I learn pro-tools, I taught myself Logic⦠To the point where I actually ended up doing quite a bit of pre-production as WELL. Like I co-produced a track with The Drizabone The Soul Family; I managed to pull in a guitarist from Simply Red; I got a bass-player in from Massive Attack... And all this was going on in one of the bedrooms in my HOUSE!â

His reasons for titling the album âBreatheâ

âI actually wrote the song âBreatheâ with the producers 5AM, whoâve done a lotta street soul as well as some gospel. And with those guys - like me - being Christian, what youâll find, if you look inside the lyrics of the track, is that itâs not actually about a typical girl/.boy love thing - though you could be led to THINK it was! You know, while it has got a great groove, its lyrical roots are actually in GOSPEL. And so I just thought it would be nice to call the actual ALBUM âBreatheâ! In that, in addition to resonating with my own Christian beliefs and the whole breath-of-life thing, it also resonates with where my life has gone in the last few years in terms of MEDICINE! Because I have completed a Bachelor Of Science Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as well also becoming quite a devotee of yoga! Which has in turn made me realise that what we all need to do more of is BREATHE!.. So yeah, as a title for me it has got two sides to it - the Western Christian spirituality and the Eastern medicinal side!â

What he wanted to achieve musically this time round

âI donât think you can make music purely based upon what you think others would like to listen to. Because to me, if you make a record based on what you think radio stations are gonna play or what you think others would like to hear, then youâve missed the whole point of creativity and the whole point of what you are as an ARTIST. I mean, itâs a bit like the Marvin Gaye âWhatâs Going Onâ scenario. Where, though a lot of people didnât want him to go that way and werenât so impressed that he was locking himself away making an album that was so self-indulgent, the record itself ended up being a beautiful piece of WORK!... So yeah, with this album every song was basically a reflection of what I was feeling, or what I enjoyed making, at the TIME! Which is why youâve got tracks on there like âAddictedâ that has a bit of Massive Attack feel where it goes off on a bit of tangent, while on âTroubled Manâ youâve got more of a Motown beat with those beautiful BVs from Sean Escoffrey and myself... You know, what I actually set out to achieve was nothing more than purely making a record that totally satisfied me at that moment in TIME!... And then, if other people happen to come along and say they identify with it and they connect with it, then you know youâve succeeded in striking the right CHORD with people!â

Kennyâs thoughts on the producers and writers heâs collaborated with on âBreatheâ

âWith this album, you could essentially say âThis is Kenny and friendsâ! Because the producers and writers Iâve used are all people that Iâve met and got to know over the years, and theyâre also people who I think should be more well-know than the actually ARE, because I think their work is FANTASTIC! You know, a lot of them are unmanaged, a lot of them are unpublished, a lot of them havenât fully been discovered⦠And I LIKE that! Because I too come from that underdog position. Like even when I had my enormous success in the Nineties - with the string of hits and doing every TV show you COULD do back then - someone in âThe Sunday Timesâ still wrote âKenny Thomas achieves his success via STEALTH!â - and I think thereâs a lot of that right here on this ALBUM!... So yeah, in answer to your question, itâs basically just a very, very deliberate collection of people I like and enjoy WORKING with! Like Scott Whitman is a good friend of mine, Billy Freeman from The Drizabone Soul Family is someone Iâve known for years⦠And what this album has also done is open up doors for the FUTURE! Because Iâll be going BACK to work with 5AM, Iâll be going BACK to work with Billy... You know, weâll start to develop this whole thing FURTHER! Which is why my mind already is on the next RECORD!â

The albumâs first single âThe Show Is Overâ - which has been described as âa poignant, thought-provoking song that marks a slight departure from Kennyâs trademark soul soundâ

âThat song actually came about because, when the album was more or less done, I decided to have a meeting with this guy called David Austin - a hugely successful writer and producer who works with George Michael - because I feel itâs always good to get an input from someone whoâs sold like 30/40 million ALBUMS! So when I played it to him, while he loved the album as it was, he was like âI think you know your market inside-out and I think itâs a fantastic record. But Iâm really dying to hear maybe just ONE SONG thatâs slightly different lyrically and in the vocal approachâ⦠And in a way, by saying that, I think he was basically just articulating what I was already THINKING!... So from that, I went back to the drawing-board. And then, a couple days later, my wife - whoâs a fabulous singer and songwriter from Cape Town - was like âLet me play you some of the songs IâVE written in the last three or four yearsâ... So she did - and, though I loved them all, âThe Show Is Overâ was the one that really jumped OUT at me! So I went in, rewrote some of it, took, the lyric slightly elsewhere⦠And, in a nutshell, I guess the theme behind the song deals with the trappings of FAME. In that itâs about a girl - could be a model, could be a music superstar - who has everything she ever wanted. Yet ultimately, underneath it all, sheâs very empty, unhappy and disillusioned.â

Kennyâs thoughts on how - with the release of his critically-acclaimed 2006 album âCrazy Worldâ - he metamorphosed from Nineties pop-star into a homegrown hero of Britainâs ever-discerning modern soul scene

âMy take on that is this, which one of those two careers will LAST?... You know, the one thatâll last is the one that is more faithful, more real, and has more FOUNDATION to it! Because Iâm sorry, but a pop career is a house built on SAND - and it always WILL be! So if you wanna build a house on ROCK, then you go to the people who really know their ONIONS - people who know their music and who do not suffer fools GLADLY! They may not buy enough of your record to put you in the Top 10, but who CARES? Because, at the end of the day, how do you define SUCCESS?... So yeah, being accepted by the modern soul audience has been a very, very good development in my career. Because I could so easily have sunk into obscurity, never made another record, and just been that person who had success in the Nineties and gets the odd person pointing at you on the STREET! Whereas now Iâm doing what was always in my HEART! You know, it is an absolute fact - as anyone who knew me back then will tell you - that when I first started out at the age of 18 going to Eddy Grantâs Coach House studio in East London, my intention was never really to be a pop star OR be famous! It was just to make good MUSIC! Which is why I donât miss my glory days of pop success! Instead I just think to myself âWell, Iâm happy to make a really good album that I think will stand the test of TIMEâ! Because in my eyes, as Iâve always said to people, the MUSIC is more important than ME!â

Kennyâs reasons for releasing âBreatheâ independently through his own new label Solus

âWhen I was making this album, I didnât play it to any record companies WHATSOEVER! You know, despite some people saying âYou should go in and see this one, you should go in and see that oneâ, I didnât actually WANT to. Because - though if they get to hear it now that itâs finished and want to talk Iâll gladly listen - in the initial stages I knew that I just wanted to get this out in my own way, put a theme around it I was comfortable with, and just gently go about my business and get it out to the people that MATTER! I mean, the idea behind naming the label âSolusâ came out of it being a Latin phrase which means âthe one, the onlyâ or âaloneâ. Because the fact is that, with the label, I am out there on my own and I am forging ahead with it - and I kinda LIKE that!... Which I guess is something that comes from my boxing background! In that, when you get out of the corner of that ring your will has to be totally resolved and you have to just GO for it!... So yeah, the mindset that Iâm putting behind this whole project is definitely that it is unstoppable and it is relentless! Which I feel is also sending out a positive message that this is do-able for the little man!â

Single âBaby Its You' is due in February (review coming soon) is taken from Kenny's superb album âBreatheâ out now on Solus.
Words PETE LEWIS

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