Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Lemar: Ride On Time

Lemar Lemar Lemar Lemar

Since the release of his debut album “Dedicated” twelve 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 20 years in the music business with the release of his seventh LP “The Letter”. Which, recorded in the legendary EastWest Studios in Los Angeles (where Sinatra recorded “My Way” and Marvin Gaye made “Let’s Get It On”) finds him reinterpreting eight classic soulful songs - initially made famous by the likes of Al Green, Sam Cooke, Joe Cocker and Van Morrison - alongside three brand-new original tracks, including the new single “Love Turned Hate”.

Indeed, produced by the iconic Larry Klein (famed for his work with the likes of Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones and Joni Mitchell), “The Letter” additionally boasts input from such legendary names as Quincy Jones’ right-hand horn arranger and five-times Grammy winner Jerry Hey as well as backing vocalists The Waters, the three sisters whose distinctive harmonies have graced countless classic albums ranging from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to Adele’s “21”. While songs covered include The Box Tops’ 1967 transatlantic smash “The Letter”; The Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 stormer “Gimme Some Lovin’”; Diana Ross & The Supremes’ 1969 chart-topper “Someday We’ll Be Together”; Sam Cooke’s 1962 classic lilter “Bring It On Home To Me”; and Al Green’s 1973 groover “Love And Happiness”.

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 prior to first performing in public locally at 17. Following which Lemar would go on to enjoy his first taste of success supporting visiting UK 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 manager at Nat West Bank’s Enfield, North London branch. During which time he nevertheless continued his musical pursuits by applying in 2001 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 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 with 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 autumn 2015 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 the experience of recording it live in the studio with some of the world’ s most in-demand musicians.

PETE: Let’s start on obvious ground - how the concept behind your new album “The Letter” originally came about
LEMAR: “Well, I’d finished my last album (2012’s independently-released “Invincible”); I was taking a little bit of a break; there were a few changes that had gone on in terms of management, etc... And so while all this was going on I came up with the concept for “The LETTER”. Because what had been happening was, ever since my first single “Dance (With U)” I’d had fans coming up to me with names of artists whose songs they’d like me to cover - you know, Sam Cooke, Al Green - and though I’d always previously put it off, this time I just thought to myself ‘Well, I’m now on my sixth studio album - maybe now’s a good time to DO that’... So I spoke to my team about it and basically said ’But if I AM gonna do this type of album I really wanna pull out all the stops and really GO for it by doing it in an old skool WAY’… So once we’d all agreed on that, the next step was to find the right PRODUCER. Which we did in Larry KLEIN, who’s worked with Tracy Chapman, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell… So yeah, once I’d whittled down our initial list of around 200 songs to 40 I started having conversations with Larry who in turn threw in a few curveballs with HIS contributions – and then from there we eventually got down to the ones we now have on the ALBUM.”


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You can read more from our exclusive interview with Lemar in our latest issue... including, how the songs on the new album were chosen. Also, what it felt like recording at the legendary East West Studios in Los Angeles?

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