Jamie Lidell: The New King of Blue-Eyed Soul

By: Tim Dwenger

Jamie Lidell
White singers making a mark on the traditionally black world of funk, R&B and soul is not a new concept, and from Van Morrison to Tower Of Power there are many that have done it well. In recent years however, blue-eyed soul as it's called, has been a genre frequently ignored or scoffed at by younger music fans because of its connections with smooth jazz and modern Motown. However, there is a new blue-eyed soul man on the scene and he is making the youth of the world stand-up and take notice. Though Jamie Lidell has been creating music for years, his personal odyssey had ventured far off into the realm electronica before coming full circle and landing him squarely in the center of the soul genre with the recent Jim (released April 29 on Warp Records).

"When I was a kid I didn't really give a shit about music," Lidell said during a recent phone interview from Amsterdam where he claimed to be eating tons of Dim Sum. "But when it came time to decide if I was cool or not, I chose Prince which made me really un-cool. All the kids at my school were listening to The Cure, the fuckin' Smiths, The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses and while I'd get down to some of that, my bag was Prince and 'the funk.' That put me really on the fringes of popularity to say the least. It was pretty damn un-cool to be into 'the funk' but I felt it. I couldn't handle Morrissey, although now I understand why people were down with it, I was like 'where's the beat man, I can't dance to this.'"

As he made his way through some tough high school years in England it wasn't long before Lidell found something he could really dance to when he got into the rave scene and completed the migration toward electronic music when he bought his first sampler. "I had been playing a little guitar but this was different as suddenly I was sitting in my bedroom taking samples from Gil Evans and Miles Davis and huge mega-productions like that and it sounded like I was making that music," he said. "I became a little producer all of a sudden because I was pitting different elements together. It taught me very quickly about what makes up sound and music. It is a really cool, open device to have at that age and buying it was one of the best decisions I ever made."

Jamie Lidell
This foray into electronic music formed the backbone of Lidell's musical career as he blossomed into a respected producer and electronic artist in the late '90s. On his own, and with Cristian Vogel as Super_Collider, Lidell released four albums of wonderfully spacey electronic weirdness that showed tell-tale signs of what was to come. Then, in 2005, Lidell dropped the album that propelled him one step closer to the mainstream, Multiply. While Multiply featured the electronics that he had been come known for on the underground circuit, the album also showcased his soulful voice and talent for writing pop songs with catchy hooks.

As strong as Multiply was, it's the recent follow-up that landed Lidell on his press junket in Amsterdam. Though he claimed that he hadn't "even found any of the good shit yet" as he had been too busy with "interviews, photo shoots, subterfuge, smoke screens and general malarkey," he did follow up by saying, "I think I'm going to have to step out and get into some of the coffee shops. I'm trying to write a little song cause I've got a date with a little band called Simian Mobile Disco in a couple of days. I'm going to be recording a track with them so I am in the process of writing something, so obviously I am getting as wasted as possible to allow the muse to work its magic."

To be fair, the conversation was peppered with Lidell's playful sarcasm and humor, so it was tough to get a read on whether he was being serious or not. One thing was for sure; he did have a recording session with Simian Mobile Disco and was going to be heading off to London in a few days for it. "I'm going to go see my tailor and get me a hat for the occasion and basically try and hold it together when they press record. It's been a while and I'm nervous."

While whether or not he was actually nervous is up for debate, it would stand to reason as it had been about eight months since he had last been in the studio laying down tracks for Jim. Lidell's foil on this album was musician and producer, Mocky who was also involved with Multiply. "Mocky has been a longtime collaborator of mine. He's a great friend a great producer and a great musician," said Lidell. "I knew that we were going to have to do this together because A: I'm insane, B: he's sane, and C: we think differently but the overlap of our conflicting skill sets is an essential force for me to be productive and think outside of my narrow musical world."

Having worked together on several projects, the pair drew on their past experience to ensure that the recording of Jim went as smoothly as possible. "Mocky and I spent a lot of time, before we went into the studio, solidifying the foundation of songs. We would just write really old school, on a piano or a guitar with some kind of timekeeper, and make sure that the verses were tight, the lengths of everything were good and the bridge provided a satisfying release. A lot of arrangement decisions were made spontaneously listening to quick demo recordings we'd made before we even went into the studio."

Continue reading for more on Jamie Lidell...

I am a kind of schizophrenic guy and on the one hand I go out on the road and play crazy electronic solo shows and on the other hand I am go into the studio and make a classic soul record. It really confuses people.

-Jamie Lidell

The fleshed out songs that came from these sessions may not have been the final arrangements that made it to the record but it guaranteed that there was a solid place to start from. In the studio Lidell wasn't too proud to take coaching from the other musicians and understood the importance of admitting when something wasn't working. Maybe a piano line isn't right, or maybe a song is just begging for a little more to put it over the top. "Usually I feel the holes in the music and I just sing a fill for them. Mocky will interpret that for the others because sometimes players need it to be written in a formal way, sometimes they need the notes and can't just take my vocals and translate them," Lidell explained. "I write with my voice, I just sorta sing stuff and sometimes record it down on top of the track. [The track] 'Another Day' was a classic example of that. It didn't have that Bacharach section in there at all when the song was going down and I said 'well you know what, I feel like it needs a little bridge.' So, I made a hole for it in the pro-tools arrangement and just sang in an extra section that came to me and then we just filled it in, padded in some new piano sections, extended the drums, added the horns and it was done."

Jamie Lidell
Though Lidell and Mocky were the core of the project there were several others who contributed significant pieces to the puzzle. "Gonzales is another major voice on this record. He's playing piano on quite a few of the tracks and he wrote the song 'Where D'You Go.' He was a really important element bringing a lot of finger work," laughed Lidell. "Nikka Costa is also on this record. She's a lovely person, full of joy and it was a great pleasure to work with her. She's together with Justin Stanley who is also featured quite heavily and it was his studio in L.A. where I recorded most of the music for this project and he turned out to be a great asset and general dude."

In addition to Stanley's studio in L.A., Lidell also spent time recording in Berlin and Paris. Across the three cities they were joined by a number of studio musicians to help mold the sound to the sharp edge they were seeking. "There are a lot of backing singers, four or five different keyboard players, guitars, cello from a lovely Icelandic string player, you name it and we've put it in there. We really blew this one open, there's a lot of talent on there," Lidell said.

The finished product transports the listener back to those simpler days with nods to Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and other classic funk and soul artists of the '60s and '70s while at the same time keeping things fresh. "I put myself into this record like a man jumping into a pair of old shoes and I've been proud to walk in them ever since," said Lidell.

Those familiar with Lidell's previous work may be surprised at how polished and accessible this record is. "By the time I hit the stop button I was like 'hey, that's cool, it really feels like a step forward for me and I feel like I've achieved my goal of making a radio friendly album that is, at the same time, something that I really like," he said. "Those are two things that are usually hard to get to sit in the same room together. They repel each other pretty forcefully."

Jamie Lidell
It may also come as a surprise that an artist like Jamie Lidell had the goal of making a radio friendly record after the tone and experimental nature of so much of his output over the years. He counters this by saying, "We are all walking contradictions and I am just living proof of the human contradiction. I live it with pride and I sing it with pride too. That's my mission statement." When Lidell's catalogue is analyzed it becomes quite clear that Jim is the next step in the musical evolution that his sound has been undergoing throughout his career.

"For this project I tried to summon ten tracks from me that were really up-beat and characterized the kind of musical situation I am in and what I want to present to the world right now," said Lidell. Though the songs feature more actual instruments than anything he has released in the past, Jim does use electronic manipulation and the other studio wizardry that Lidell is known for to enhance the vintage feel of the tracks. "Snax did join us in the studio to add some synth magic when it was needed but sometimes the synthesizer is a powerful tool for evil. It just dominates the mix often," said Lidell. "When you try to slip it in with subtlety it doesn't really work. You've got to make a statement with a synthesizer. For me the synthesizer was taking me to the eighties a lot and I didn't really want to hang out in that decade. On this record, the kind of synths that I ended up using are a bit more '70s tinged."

While the '70s sound that is a theme throughout the album might hook some listeners, it is the pure soul of songs like "Wait for Me," and the album's first single "Little Bit of Feelgood," that remind folks of Gnarls Barkley's megahit "Crazy."

While the fickle and rollercoaster nature of the music business makes it impossible to guess what is going to the top of the charts in a given year, Jim is a record that seems to draw on feel-good music from the last thirty years as influences. From R&B to garage pop, it's all there and it seems to be portioned out in just the right doses.

Continue reading for more on Jamie Lidell...

I think I'm going to have to step out and get into some of the coffee shops. I'm trying to write a little song... so obviously I am getting as wasted as possible to allow the muse to work its magic.

-Jamie Lidell, working in Amsterdam

"I like other people to decide what the influences might be," Lidell said before launching into a list of more than 20 artists that have influenced his music ranging from Prince to Kraftwerk to Bob Dylan. "Somewhere out of all those people comes my global influence and somewhere out of that comes this music. It's strange for me; I don't really like the idea of saying 'this song was influenced by this and that song was influenced by that.' For other people the influences may seem really clear but for me it is all mashed up together. I am a kind of schizophrenic guy and on the one hand I go out on the road and play crazy electronic solo shows and on the other hand I am go into the studio and make a classic soul record. It really confuses people."

Jamie Lidell
Confused or not there are bound to be comparisons flying as this record works its way into the mainstream. While Lidell seems to channel Curtis Mayfield on "All I Wanna Do," "Figured Me Out," seems to steal a page from the playbook of Jamiroquai and the smooth and jazzy feel of "Green Light," could land him on tour with Steely Dan.

In another twist, Lidell will be performing with a live band on this tour. After years of touring as a one man show and layering electronics and vocals to create a blend of high energy soul tinged electronica, he is forgoing that to interact with other musicians on stage.

After playing with so many talented artists on the album it is easy to assume that Lidell was able to pull a band together easily but that didn't prove to be the case. "I'm in a difficult bind as a solo artist who's decided to get a band together. It can often go wrong when people do that," he explained. "You can get a bunch of hired guns and they might be good players technically but they sometimes are in it as a money making gig. I was really conscious of that and I spent a long time honing in on a combination of good friends of mine who I had to persuade pretty heavily to drop their solo stuff and other commitments to come on the road with me and also a couple of new players who have fit the bill perfectly."

In his searches he was able to find a pretty amazing group of musicians including a "drummer who can play bass at the same time as drumming. He uses organ bass pedals on his left foot. He's kind of a freak and it is amazing that he can do it." Also joining the band will be a guitarist who also plays bass, and a horn player that brings something very interesting to the table. "My man, Andre Vida will be taking on horn duties. One man, two horns. Think Roland Kirk. Crazy harmonized saxophones from one mouth. It's amazing to see and to hear," Lidell said. "He's had a lot of experience in the free jazz world. He's played with Anthony Braxton for example and it's going to be cool for audiences to hear that crazy shit because it is usually reserved for the snobby jazz crowds."

In the end, Lidell wound up with an ensemble that he is particularly excited to work with. "In addition to the band, Pablo Fiasco, my visualist and visionary, will be gracing the stage with his madcap action as well," Lidell said. "It's going to be quite a show. I know that I've got the players I want and they've got the talent and the individual character. I'm going to try to pull a Duke Ellington and work out what everyone's strengths are and not just make them play my music, but have them play their music and my music at the same time."

The importance that Lidell places on letting his band members discover his or her own musical identity within the parameters of his songs is a testament to his belief in how important music is to the identity of a person. While he has obviously chosen musicians that he works well with and shares ideals with, he is not simply spoon feeding them the charts. "I decided I want a bunch of innovative and expressive players up there with me as opposed to talented but traditional players. I am very conscious of the fact that there are so many great players that can really kick my ass and rather than viewing that as a weakness of mine, I really enjoy the fact that I get to open it up and hear how other people interpret my ideas and add their experience and knowledge to them." As a result he is relying on the band to be fluid and expecting that they will help the music to evolve and to grow as the band matures.

It is this kind of modesty, open mindedness, and respect for the ideas of others that has helped define the progression of Lidell's music. From the sampling and electronic meanderings of 1997's Freakin' The Frame to the edgy electronic soul of Multiply, it looks like he has been plotting this course toward refined soul music for the 21st century for the last ten or more years. While it is clear that electronic music is important to him and has helped him to get where he is today, he made it very clear that "deep down I was always a beats man and for lack of a better term, a soul man. That's what always stirred me up inside."

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All Loving Liberal White Guy Tue 5/6/2008 09:30PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

All Loving Liberal White Guy

you'd have to be an elephant gonad sized douche bag with a cold heart not to get any enjoyment out of jamie lidell's music. his songs are soo effing groovy. one cant help but shake their ass.

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/7/2008 08:02AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


This guy makes some good ass music!

hobex Wed 5/7/2008 10:42PM
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If you dig Jamie, you'd probably dig HOBEX. Opening for George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic in Raleigh this Saturday, May 10. 7 pm outside the Lincoln Theatre!

HoodooVoodoo Fri 5/9/2008 03:19PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Never heard of him.

amayam Sun 5/11/2008 12:17AM
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Get his new album, soooo much fun.

hajimemashite Wed 5/14/2008 10:54AM
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I was turned on to Jamie by the same friend who blew my head open w/Squarepusher a few years back. We're driving down from Humboldt County to catch SF and LA. I recommend ya'll do the same.