Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Omar: Life...and Soul


Widely acknowledged as âthe Father on British neo-soulâ, classically-trained singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer - and now MBE! - Omar Lye-Fook returns this month with his seventh album âThe Manâ, pioneered by the bass-synth-propelled, hypnotic funk groove of its Bobby Womack-influenced title-track single.

Indeed, featuring such guests as Soul II Soul songstress Caron Wheeler, Welsh bassist-to-the-stars Pino Palladino and Germanyâs Hidden Jazz Orchestra, âThe Manâ boasts musical moods ranging from the strings-and-horns-enhanced hard groove of âSimplifyâ and Scratch Professor-featuring, jerkily-pushing âBullyâ to the angry, downânâdirty beats of âHigh Heelsâ and even a warmly-vibrant, live-and-acoustic-flavoured update of Omarâs own Ohio-Players-inspired 1990 street-soul anthem âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ - while also taking in the restless South American rhythms of tracks like the freshly-melodic âCome On Speak To Meâ and samba-fuelled âOrdinary Dayâ along the way.

Born Omar Christopher Lye-Fook on October 14, 1968 in London, Omar actually grew up in Canterbury, Kent where he learnt his craft classically playing the trumpet, piano and percussion before spending two years studying at both Chethamâs School of Music in Manchester and the Guildhall School of Music in London. Following which he would release his first two singles - 1985âs âMr. Postmanâ and 1988âs âYou And Meâ - via his fatherâs (Byron Lye-Fook) Harlesden-based label Kongo Records, through which he would eventually also release his 1990 debut album âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ and its aforementioned groundbreaking title-track single. Both of which would attain notable underground success - in turn resulting in Omar the following year signing his first major-label deal with Gilles Petersonâs seminal Talkinâ Loud Records. Whose subsequent re-release of both single and album would ultimately result in them both eventually reaching the UK Top 20.

With Omarâs more orchestral and organic second album - 1992âs âMusicâ - attaining considerably less success, 1994 would find him leaving Talkinâ Loud and signing with RCA Records. For whom he would go on to release two albums - 1994âs âFor Pleasureâ and 1997âs âThis Is Not A Love Songâ - which both found him recording in The States and between them saw him collaborating with such bona fide former Motown legends as Lamont Dozier, Leon Ware and Syreeta Wright, in addition to (Eighties R&B/club duo) The Systemâs David Frank. All of which in turn brought him to the attention of a then-rapidly-rising entire generation of US ânu-classic soulâ stars, with the likes of Erykah Badu, DâAngelo, Maxwell and Eric Benet all unanimously and unreservedly hailing Omar as one of their favourite artists.

Nevertheless, despite ongoing worldwide acclaim and collaborations with the likes of megastar Stevie Wonder (who has publicly declared himself an Omar fan), the Top 20 success of Omarâs debut set was not repeated - which in turn resulted in him parting ways with RCA. Following which the next decade would find him releasing two further critically-lauded albums via the independent-label route - 2001âs âBest By Farâ for Franceâs Naïve Records and 2006âs âSing (If You Want It)â for the UKâs Blunt Music - while continuing to uphold his international-cult-hero status as one of Britainâs most individual and unique musical talents. A reputation which last year would prestigiously result in him being appointed Member of The Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queenâs 2012 Birthday Honours for services to music.

⦠Which neatly brings us back to the present. As an ever-down-to-earth and affable Omar Lye-Fook MBE reacquaints himself with the man who gave him one of his first-ever press interviews way back in the summer of 1990 - âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis - in the tranquility of his South London home, to discuss his aforementioned new LP (his first for the independent Freestyle Records and already described as âthe most eclectic, mature and soulful album of his careerâ); being made an MBE; plus his manyânâvaried current-and-future plans.

PETE: So letâs start on obvious ground - why youâve titled your new album âThe Manââ¦

OMAR: When it comes to picking album titles, what I always do is just get all the songs together and then decide from that which is the one that best represents the project as a WHOLE - and for this latest record âThe Manâ just seemed to be the right ONE! And I have to say, the more time has gone on the more Iâve come to realise it was the PERFECT choice! Because Iâm older now, Iâm 45, Iâve become a father, Iâm hopefully more mature⦠I mean, for me these days itâs all about the kids and trying to be a man and looking after my RESPONSIBILITIES⦠So in that way this record does kinda represent a coming-of-AGE... Plus musically too I guess it ALSO represents part of my evolution, for the simple reason that each time I do an album Iâm always evolving and improving on what I did PREVIOUSLY... So yeah, âThe MANâ!â

PETE: One of the tracks thatâs predictably attracting much attention is your update of your own 1990 street-soul classic âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ. So what was the thinking behind you covering one of your own songs?

OMAR: âWell, when it comes to the original version, while I have got the PUBLISHING for it, in terms of using the recording itself it still actually belongs to UNIVERSAL. So I really just wanted to have a version that would be a clean BREAK from that. Plus I also just wanted to celebrate the SONG. Because though my catalogue is vast, the fact is that wherever you are in the world thatâs the one that most people know and the one that most people GO to.â

PETE: And so what was the story behind Welsh bass-player-to-the-gods Pino Palladino (Simon & Garfunkel/Eric Clapton/The Who) guesting on said remake of âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ?

OMAR: âWell, Pino was just a BLESSING really. Because Iâd been working on doing a new version of âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ for quite some time, You know, Iâd actually been trying to do it since 2010 - âcause that would have been its twentieth anniversary - but I just hadnât got it RIGHT⦠So anyway, one day Pino called me out-of-the-blue - we hadnât spoken for a while, heâd last played on my âSing (If You Want It)â album back in 2006 - and said âLetâs do some STUFF together!â. So I was like âOK, coolâ; we set a date.... But then the night before he was supposed to come I was actually in the studio working on âThereâs Nothing Like Thisâ, getting really into it like âYEAH, itâs gotta be in a kinda Donny Hathaway/Marvin Gaye beat and we need to change the chords slightly in the front-end and back-end, da-da-daâ⦠And as I was going along I was like âMan, this is FANTASTIC - but Iâve got Pino coming tomorrow and I wanna work on this TUNE!â... But then I suddenly thought âHold on, if Iâve got Pino coming tomorrow then why donât I get him to play bass and guitar on this TRACK?!â... So he came and he blessed it, and just took it somewhere ELSE really - and I was very, very happy with the finished VERSION!â

PETE: So letâs talk about some of the other people who guest on âThe Manââ¦

OMAR: âWell, with Caron Wheeler I actually bumped into her at a Soul II Soul reunion in Brixton - they were giving them a plaque outside The Fridge âcause it was the first venue theyâd performed at. So I was like âIâve got this duet if youâre interestedâ. So when she was like âOf courseâ, because she lives in New York now I sent her the track to âTreat Youâ, she sent it back to me - and sheâd done a fantastic JOB! And I actually think it was really fitting that she was the person to DO it, because itâs very much a UK-sounding track that really does remind me of that Soul II Soul/Loose Ends-type of production. So to me the match was just PERFECT⦠Then with Scratch Professor, because heâs my brother weâre ALWAYS working together. And so on the album we wrote and produced âEeni Meeni Myni Moâ together, plus he features on âBullyâ doing the scratching... While the hook-up with Hidden Jazz Orchestra actually came about though their producer - a guy called Ralf Zitzmann - contacting me through Peppermint Jam, Mousse Tâs label which I was on at the time. He basically asked me if Iâd feature on a track he was doing. But though straightaway I was like âOKâ, because Iâve always gotta be 100% happy with what Iâm doing it actually took me a year to actually DO anything. You know, the poor man was calling me every other month and Iâd be like âYeah, itâs coming, itâs comingâ - when the truth is, nothing WAS! But then when it DID finally come it SETTLED! And when I played the track - âHigh Heelsâ - to my missus she was like âThis is FANTASTIC - youâve gotta have this on your ALBUM!â⦠But though at first I was like âNahâ, when I actually thought about it I said to myself âYou know what? This does fit really well into the soundscape of what I do ANYWAY - the jazz, the Latin, the funkâ... So I decided I WOULD put it on âThe Manâ - and it turned out to be a perfect ADDITION!â PETE: So how do you feel about you having been awarded an MBE in The Queenâs 2012 Birthday Honours List for services to music? OMAR: âWell, itâs recognition for my MUSIC - which was a big DEAL as far as Iâm concerned. Because Iâm not really MAINSTREAM - or at least I havenât been mainstream for a long TIME. And so to get that honour was very much out-of-the-blue and I feel real PROUD of it, you know? Because itâs kind of a big deal for my parents, for my missus, my kids - who can now get married in St. Pauls Cathedral by the way!... So yeah, while I donât make music for the purpose of getting mainstream awards - if I did Iâd have stopped a long TIME ago! - at the same time to be recognised at that sort of level genuinely does mean a LOT to me!â

PETE: And what was the day - and the whole Royal experience - like in itself?

OMAR: âFANTASTIC! I mean, we all went up to Buckingham Palace in the car - the kids couldnât come in because they too young, plus they only had a certain amount of seats. So me, my mum and dad and my missus went in - and it was actually quite a short ceremony really. You wait your turn, you go in, get your medal - and itâs âThank you, BYE!â!... So from there we had a nice family lunch, and then a couple of weeks later we had a big party to CELEBRATE!... And then I actually saw Prince Charles again a few weeks later at a reception for Caribbean Community Day at St. Jamesâ PALACE! He was like âOh, I remember you!â - and Iâm like âYEAH, you gave me my MEDAL in JANUARY!â... So then he goes âMake sure you drop off your album when itâs ready!â- you know, he really was quite friendly! So I DID - and since then Iâve had a letter back from The Palace saying that he says thank you for the CD and that heâll give it a listen as soon as he gets a CHANCE!â

The album âThe Manâ and single âThe Manâ are both out now through Freestyle Records


From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz
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