Omar: Life...and Soul
Widely acknowledged as “the Father on British neo-soul”, classically-trained singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer - and now MBE! - Omar Lye-Fook returns this month with his seventh album “The Man”, 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 Germany’s Hidden Jazz Orchestra, “The Man” boasts musical moods ranging from the strings-and-horns-enhanced hard groove of “Simplify” and Scratch Professor-featuring, jerkily-pushing “Bully” to the angry, down’n’dirty beats of “High Heels” and even a warmly-vibrant, live-and-acoustic-flavoured update of Omar’s own Ohio-Players-inspired 1990 street-soul anthem “There’s Nothing Like This” - while also taking in the restless South American rhythms of tracks like the freshly-melodic “Come On Speak To Me” and samba-fuelled “Ordinary Day” 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 Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and the Guildhall School of Music in London. Following which he would release his first two singles - 1985’s “Mr. Postman” and 1988’s “You And Me” - via his father’s (Byron Lye-Fook) Harlesden-based label Kongo Records, through which he would eventually also release his 1990 debut album “There’s Nothing Like This” 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 Peterson’s seminal Talkin’ Loud Records. Whose subsequent re-release of both single and album would ultimately result in them both eventually reaching the UK Top 20.
With Omar’s more orchestral and organic second album - 1992’s “Music” - attaining considerably less success, 1994 would find him leaving Talkin’ Loud and signing with RCA Records. For whom he would go on to release two albums - 1994’s “For Pleasure” and 1997’s “This Is Not A Love Song” - 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 System’s David Frank. All of which in turn brought him to the attention of a then-rapidly-rising entire generation of US “nu-classic soul” stars, with the likes of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, 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 Omar’s 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 - 2001’s “Best By Far” for France’s Naïve Records and 2006’s “Sing (If You Want It)” for the UK’s Blunt Music - while continuing to uphold his international-cult-hero status as one of Britain’s 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 Queen’s 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 - “Blues & Soul” 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 “the most eclectic, mature and soulful album of his career”); being made an MBE; plus his many’n’varied current-and-future plans.
PETE: So let’s start on obvious ground - why you’ve titled your new album “The Man”…
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 “The Man” just seemed to be the right ONE! And I have to say, the more time has gone on the more I’ve come to realise it was the PERFECT choice! Because I’m older now, I’m 45, I’ve become a father, I’m hopefully more mature… I mean, for me these days it’s 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 I’m always evolving and improving on what I did PREVIOUSLY... So yeah, “The MAN”!”
PETE: One of the tracks that’s predictably attracting much attention is your update of your own 1990 street-soul classic “There’s Nothing Like This”. So what was the thinking behind you covering one of your own songs?
OMAR: “Well, 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 that’s the one that most people know and the one that most people GO to.”
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 “There’s Nothing Like This”?
OMAR: “Well, Pino was just a BLESSING really. Because I’d been working on doing a new version of “There’s Nothing Like This” for quite some time, You know, I’d actually been trying to do it since 2010 - ’cause that would have been its twentieth anniversary - but I just hadn’t got it RIGHT… So anyway, one day Pino called me out-of-the-blue - we hadn’t spoken for a while, he’d last played on my “Sing (If You Want It)” album back in 2006 - and said ‘Let’s do some STUFF together!’. So I was like ‘OK, cool’; we set a date.... But then the night before he was supposed to come I was actually in the studio working on “There’s Nothing Like This”, getting really into it like ‘YEAH, it’s 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-da’… And as I was going along I was like ‘Man, this is FANTASTIC - but I’ve got Pino coming tomorrow and I wanna work on this TUNE!’... But then I suddenly thought ‘Hold on, if I’ve got Pino coming tomorrow then why don’t I get him to play bass and guitar on this TRACK?!’... So he came and he blessed it, and just took it somewhere ELSE really - and I was very, very happy with the finished VERSION!”
PETE: So let’s talk about some of the other people who guest on “The Man”…
OMAR: “Well, 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 ‘cause it was the first venue they’d performed at. So I was like ‘I’ve got this duet if you’re interested’. So when she was like ‘Of course’, because she lives in New York now I sent her the track to “Treat You”, she sent it back to me - and she’d done a fantastic JOB! And I actually think it was really fitting that she was the person to DO it, because it’s 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 he’s my brother we’re ALWAYS working together. And so on the album we wrote and produced “Eeni Meeni Myni Mo” together, plus he features on “Bully” 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 T’s label which I was on at the time. He basically asked me if I’d feature on a track he was doing. But though straightaway I was like ‘OK’, because I’ve always gotta be 100% happy with what I’m doing it actually took me a year to actually DO anything. You know, the poor man was calling me every other month and I’d be like ‘Yeah, it’s coming, it’s coming’ - when the truth is, nothing WAS! But then when it DID finally come it SETTLED! And when I played the track - “High Heels” - to my missus she was like ‘This is FANTASTIC - you’ve gotta have this on your ALBUM!’… But though at first I was like ‘Nah’, when I actually thought about it I said to myself ‘You know what? This does fit really well into the soundscape of what I do ANYWAY - the jazz, the Latin, the funk’... So I decided I WOULD put it on “The Man” - and it turned out to be a perfect ADDITION!” PETE: So how do you feel about you having been awarded an MBE in The Queen’s 2012 Birthday Honours List for services to music? OMAR: “Well, it’s recognition for my MUSIC - which was a big DEAL as far as I’m concerned. Because I’m not really MAINSTREAM - or at least I haven’t 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 it’s 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 don’t make music for the purpose of getting mainstream awards - if I did I’d 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!”
PETE: And what was the day - and the whole Royal experience - like in itself?
OMAR: “FANTASTIC! I mean, we all went up to Buckingham Palace in the car - the kids couldn’t 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 it’s ‘Thank you, BYE!’!... 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. James’ PALACE! He was like ‘Oh, I remember you!’ - and I’m like ‘YEAH, you gave me my MEDAL in JANUARY!’... So then he goes ‘Make sure you drop off your album when it’s ready!’- you know, he really was quite friendly! So I DID - and since then I’ve had a letter back from The Palace saying that he says thank you for the CD and that he’ll give it a listen as soon as he gets a CHANCE!”
The album “The Man” and single “The Man” are both out now through Freestyle Records
TO READ MORE FROM THIS INTERVIEW WITH OMAR CHECK OUT OUR PRINT ISSUE - CLICK BELOW OR VISIT YOUR LOCAL MAG OUTLET (inc: WH SMITH AND JOHN MENZIES)
Words PETE LEWIS