Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Lemar: The People's Champion

Lemar Lemar Lemar Lemar

Since the release of his debut album “Dedicated” almost nine years ago, singer/songwriter Lemar has unquestionably emerged as the most successful black male UK soul artist of his time. With enduring Top 10 singles like 2003’s “Dance (With U)”, 2004’s “If There’s Any Justice” and 2006’s “It’s Not That Easy” pioneering mainstream album sales well in excess of two million. All of which in turn this month sees him celebrating 10 years in the mainstream spotlight with the release of his sixth LP “Invincible” and its romantically-themed title-track single. Which - with its blend of Lemar’s instantly-distinctive soulful vocal, twangy indie-style guitars and big chorus - interestingly also marks the North Londoner’s first release through his own label AMP via EMI Label Services.

Born Lamar Obika in April 1978 in London to Nigerian parents, the two-times BRIT Award winner (and three-times MOBO 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 prior to first performing in public locally at 17. Following which Lemar would go on to enjoy his first taste of success supporting visiting US chart-toppers like Destiny’s Child and Usher during their UK club tours before - having given up an opportunity to study pharmacy at Cardiff University to pursue a music career - eventually signing a record deal with BMG, who released his debut single “Got Me Saying Ooh” in 2001.

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 manger at Nat West Bank’s Enfield, North London branch. During which time he nevertheless continued his musical pursuits by applying in 2002 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 1972 US chart-topper “Let’s Stay Together” and singing a live duet with global megastar Lionel Richie on the latter’s classic 1977 ballad “Easy”.

Meanwhile, with “Fame Academy” (on which he eventually finished in third place) bringing Lemar to national public attention and widespread acclaim, so impressed were Sony Music with his potential that in early 2003 they ended up signing him to a five-year-record deal worth a cool one million pounds!... Which in turn immediately resulted in him going on to carve out a career as one of the Noughties most consistent and critically-acclaimed UK chart acts. The high-points of which would eventually become celebrated and gathered onto one CD in early 2010 via the release of Lemar’s first compilation album “The Hits”. Which - in addition to including an impressive 11 hit singles from his four previous studio albums (2003’s aforementioned Top 20 “Dedicated”; 2004’s double-Platinum-selling Top 10 “Time To Grow”; 2006’s Platinum-selling Top Three “The Truth About Love”; and 2008’s less-successful Top 50 “The Reason”) - also featured four new tracks, including the song which would become his seventh UK Top 10 single - the punchy, uptempo “The Way Love Goes”.

…Fast-forward to summer 2012, meanwhile, and it’s an ever-friendly, fast-talking Lemar who reacquaints himself with ever-attentive “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss his aforementioned new album and record label.

PETE: Let’s start on obvious ground - how your new single “Invincible” first came about

LEMAR: “Well, I’ve been writing this new album kinda sporadically over the last two years. You know, I was basically just taking a break and just writing songs generally, and then every so often I’d come up with a song where I’d be like ‘Oh, this would sound good for ME’… And it was actually during one of those moments that I ended up calling a friend who’s a really good singer/songwriter. Mostly because I’d been working on a track where I wasn’t happy with the drum sound I had and was asking for his ADVICE. So because of that, he sent me a track he was intending to send to someone else, just to see if it had the kind of drum sound that I’d been THINKING of. But then, as soon as I heard the track he sent me, I straightaway just fell in love with this musical kind of melody that was going through it. So I was like ‘Do you know what? Forget about the track I was just talking about, I really want that loop that’s going through the song you just SENT me. I really like that VIBE’… So from there we ended up working together on the song - and the single “Invincible” is the RESULT!”

PETE: So what inspired the song’s lyrical theme?

LEMAR: “Well, it was actually inspired by last summer’s riots and how everyone was AFFECTED by it. You know, I basically just thought I’d bring a romantic element into that whole scenario. In the sense that, when times are hard, just like sticking together and knowing what your values are is what makes a COMMUNITY invincible, the same also applies to a RELATIONSHIP. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around you or how other people may be trying to pull you apart, if you stick with WHAT you love and WHO you love then you become INVINCIBLE, and you can pretty much do whatever you WANT to do.”

PETE: Interestingly, “Invincible” marks your first release through your own new independent label AMP…

LEMAR: “Well that really all just came about NATURALLY. What happened was, because I’d finished the five albums I was contracted to release through Sony, the option was there for me to either re-sign with them or go elsewhere, or do whatever ELSE I needed to do. So I started going around the labels, having conversations... But then, because I’d done like eight or nine years of continuously touring, performing and releasing album after album - which I found pretty intense - I basically decided I just wanted to take a little bit of a BREAK. So from there I went to America, spent a lot of time in LA writing with the different producers I’d got to know over the years, came back home, started writing with friends over HERE… And before I knew it, I was at the point where I’d written like six or seven songs and was starting to think ‘You know what? This is sounding really STRONG. I think I’m now ready to finish a whole album and just get it OUT!’

PETE: So what can we expect musically from your new, fifth studio album - also titled “Invincible”?

LEMAR: “It’s basically just a natural progression from where my fourth album “The Reason” left off. You know, it’s still got that soulful element in my voice - but, as you can tell from the single this time, it’s more EXPERIMENTAL, with maybe some rock and other elements in it. Mainly because this time round I consciously tried to take the focus off the genre and the focus off of what other people want to hear, and basically just said ‘What are the best, most meaningful songs that I can WRITE?’... You know, I didn’t want this album to be PRODUCER-led. Instead of being like ‘Who’s the hottest writer and producer at the moment - let’s make some phonecalls and let’s go and work with him’, it was more ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning. I’ve got a great idea - let me go down to the studio and put it DOWN!’. Then a few days later, I’d visit it again and see where it went from THERE… Because by doing it that way I can paint a PICTURE, as opposed to trying to finish the song between nine and five and then that’s IT!... Which is why a lot of this album was actually written and produced by MYSELF.”

PETE: And are there any particular themes or messages you wanted to get across lyrically this time round?

LEMAR: “While obviously love is in there - mainly because I think love is a subject that we never quite master through life - at the same time it’s never really STRAIGHTFORWARD love. Sometimes it’s apologetic, sometimes it’s questions that you may ask in your head when you’re in a relationship but you’re too afraid to say or too INSECURE to say... You know, I have tried to just be very, very honest and very, very real with what I’m saying, as opposed to just the usual ‘I love you’ or ‘I need you’-type stuff. Which is why lyrically the songs have got many LAYERS to them and you do have to read things into what I’m SAYING. Because with me being a pretty private person anyway - I’m definitely not a kind of stand-on-the-hill-and-say-look-at-me-type guy - for me to pour my heart out the way I want to on my records, I do find layering is the best way to DO it... So yeah, there’s a bit of pain in there, a bit of upliftment… And I do genuinely think that lyrically this will be my strongest album YET.”

PETE: Did the fact you had no immediate pressure to meet record company deadlines mean you were able to indulge your creative side more with this album?

LEMAR: “Yeah, I think what was nice about me being able to take time out over the last couple of years was that I was able to NOT focus on making a record while MAKING a record. Because I think when you DO consciously focus on it, sometimes you can get caught up in the whole ‘Oh, I want a hit’-type mentality And - though ultimately you of course always want what you’re doing to be successful - sometimes that focus can be so intense and you’re moving at such a pace, you may not always be able to put out what you feel is 200% of your BEST… So yeah, I think the fact that this time around that focus WASN’T there and I WAS able to take my time - whether just staying in LA and experiencing things there, or spending time with my family and just doing regular everyday stuff - did get my mind to that point where you do have those moments of genius where you’re suddenly like ‘Hey, I’ve made a great SONG!’. Which for me is what’s IMPORTANT. Particularly in these days of the social media, where everyone has a voice, everyone has an opinion... You know, these days you can’t FAKE it. Quality is King, and you do have to put out your very best WORK.”

PETE: Speaking of today’s social media and the internet, what are your views on the way the industry (and the way people in general interact with music) has changed so drastically since you released your debut album in 2003?

LEMAR: “Well, while some may argue it’s changed for the worse, I actually think it’s changed for the BETTER. Because, though the level of multi-million sales the record companies were achieving 10/15 years ago may these days seem like a distant kind of memory, what to me is great about today is that, like I just said, everyone’s got a voice and everyone can share an OPINION. Which means nobody can kind of force-feed you with one song and then expect you to go ahead and buy an album when the only thing you like on it is that one SONG! You know, we’ve got I-tunes now, where you can go on, test all the songs and say ‘You know what? I wanna buy this or I DON’T’... So yeah, while obviously you still do need promotion and record companies can still play a massive part in helping artists - I mean, when everything works correctly they’re absolutely unbeatable - at the same time what I think is great about today is that the fans do have a much bigger SAY. Which means it’s much harder to BLAG it. Because if it’s good generally people will let you KNOW that it’s good, in the same way that if it’s bad they’ll let you know that TOO! Which overall has to be a positive THING.”

PETE: Also, how do you feel about the way the UK music scene itself has changed - in that, though when you first came out on Sony nine years ago it was very pop and rock-dominated, today there’s also an abundance of British soul, R&B and rap in the mainstream marketplace?

LEMAR: “I think it’s BEAUTIFUL, I really do! Because as you say, when I first came out I was literally one of barely a handful of artists doing the type of music I DO. Like Craig David had had a good run before me, then for a few years it was mainly just me... Whereas today it’s just FLOURISHING! There’s so many soulful vocalists and singer/songwriters, urban artists, R&B artists... So yeah, I think from that perspective it’s a very, very good time for ANYONE within those genres. And I just hope this variety of music that exists at the forefront of the UK scene today CONTINUES - because I really do think that’s what MAKES England and makes our whole musical EXPERIENCE. Because if you go to America, you’ve got R&B radio, then you’ve got soul radio, rock radio, pop radio, country radio... You know, it’s not INTEGRATED. Whereas over here we do have stations that play a huge VARIETY. And so I do think that should also be reflected in what’s bought, and what’s out there in terms of PERFORMERS. Because to me that is what will ultimately keep British music uniquely BRITISH. Because, when we’re writing or when we’re performing we don’t draw on just one kind of GENRE - because musically we’re all exposed to so MUCH!”

The single “Invincible” is out now. The album “Invincible” follows October 8, both through AMP


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