Omar Lye-Fook, one of the UK’s greatest soul voices, talks to Music Republic Magazine editor Simon Redley about his stunning new album “Love In Beats”.
In recent times, I interviewed US soul star Maxwell for a cover feature for a magazine I used to contribute to, and he was loudly singing the praises of a UK artist being one of his main influences.
The legend that is Steve Wonder said on live TV, that he wanted to be like this singer-songwriter-producer. So blown away by his voice and talent, he wrote him a song and spent two days in the recording studio with him.
“Still …one of the best voices I’ve ever heard,” so says Erykah Badu. His fame and the respect for his talents are global. One can only imagine what it must have felt like to hear 10,000 Indonesians singing his timeless song, “There’s Nothing Like This,” back to him during a concert there.
The man I am referring to has been around a while but is still making great, great music and was awarded the MBE in 2012 for his achievements. An artist who doesn’t need a surname for us to know who he is, but more importantly; an artist whose mega-soulful voice is instantly recognisable on the radio or on record.
There really is only one Omar…..
The Londoner who shot to fame in 1991 with his awesome hit single “There’s Nothing Like This,” has taken three years to deliver his latest album, “Love In Beats,” and seven years for the one before that; “The Man”. Was this one worth waiting for? Hell, yes. There’s a slew of VIP guests joining Omar, but this is not an album that needed it. Value is added greatly, but the songs and Omar’s vocals hold up bigtime without the features. The record includes collaborations with the late US soul legend Leon Ware, Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper, grime star Ty, Guadeloupe born singer Jean-Michele Rotin, UK soulstress Natasha Watts, The Floacist and Mayra Andrade, the Cape Verdean born singer who lives and records in Paris.
Omar’s’ younger brother, the Grammy winning producer, remixer and DJ professionally known as Scratch Professor (aka Roland) has been making jaws drop since the age of 10 years old, stunning the crowd at the 1988 DMC UK Finals with his turntablist skills. The two have worked together before on the odd track, but this time Omar had his kid bruv work with him on half the album. He provides the beats on half the cuts, but who provided the love? Like most siblings, these guys argue. But this time, it almost meant the album did not get finished, as Omar told me during a long chat on the dog and bone while he was driving through London (yes, hands free officer!)
“Yeah, we bumped heads a few times while making this record and it nearly didn’t get finished. Depending on the argument, would depend on how long it would take to get over it and to continue work. We fell out maybe seven times or more…..The longest time we didn’t speak, was maybe a month. Our middle brother passed away two years ago, and since then we (Roland and Omar) have locked antlers more on what we are supposed to be doing. He has got his ways about him; that he needs to do things in certain ways, and that’s when we kind of clash and have arguments.
“I remember one time he was storming out of the studio and said he was going, and I was like, ‘Yeah go on then, fuck off then’. The next minute he is back saying, ‘Oh I forgot my hat again’, and calling me big head; which I know he is making a joke, and we are back at work again. It could be the smallest thing; take the cups and plates out or about a myriad of things…”. But Omar has huge respect for his baby brother – five years younger than him – and the skills he brings to the table to help him make his records. Especially this time, and gives him massive props for how this one turned out.
Recorded in Omar’s own “Backyard Studio,” in the garden of his South London home, he says from the three years it took to make “Love and Beats,” his brother “lived” in his studio for the final six months. “Whenever we are in the studio together and he comes up with beats, I always have ideas for songs and add to it, and before you know it, we come up with a bunch of songs which resemble something of an album. I just keep writing. We are already on album nine with stuff that didn’t make this album. Still really good stuff, but it did not fit with what we have on the album now. I needed 12 to 14 songs and we came up with 18/19 songs. So, album nine is already on its way, but how long it will take to do, I don’t know”.
“It’s like getting back to the old days, working with my brother… He is a frigging machine in the studio. We do the song, then he will do four remixes in a day. He inspired me. He brought out songs we did years before and he’d go, ‘ahh, you forgot about this one, didn’t you?’ ‘Feeds My Mind’, (track four with Floacist), we did back in 2007. ‘Vicky’s Tune’ (the opener with Ty and Robert Glasper), was when I first built my studio in 2003.
“I pride myself that my music has longevity, so it doesn’t really matter when I recorded it, or when I bring it out. It is still going to have the desired effect”. Well, if the desired effect is to wow and to send shivers up and down the spine, then he scored big. I have heard pretty much all of Omar’s output, and reviewed a fair few of them over the years. But for me; his voice never sounded better than on “Love In Beats,” and the song writing is finely crafted stuff. The production faultless.
So, about that silken and soulful one-off voice. This may surprise you; but Omar “hated” his own voice when he was younger and when he first started out as an artist, and still doesn’t class himself as a singer. Excuse the language in this next bit, but I’ll run the verbal exchange we had about his voice, verbatim and uncensored.
I hated the sound of my voice
“My voice has changed so much. I had to work at that incredibly. I hated the sound of my voice. I told my Dad (who released Omar’s very first single and album on his label) I am amazed at how he could see and hear what I would sound like now, back then. My daughters sing now and at nine, their voices are amazing. I never sounded anything like that.
“It has taken me a while to get to this point. I still don’t call myself a singer. I’m a vibes man, musician, producer, arranger, that kind of thing. I am OK with it now, but I still don’t blow my own trumpet when it comes to it.
“There’s me and then there’s singers, that’s how I put it. I’m more of the overall vibes thing. I have no illusion about what it is that I do. I’m a lot more happy (sic) with it now than when I started 33 years ago”. I remind Omar that a certain Mr Stevie Wonder says: “When I grow up I want to be like Omar,” and that he wanted to – and did – write him a song and performed on it with him. Stevie tells people he loves Omar’s voice, and his style…..and was blown away by the hit “There’s Nothing Like This.”
I add: “But …you still don’t get it? You still think there are singers and there is you…..are you fucking mad”? Omar howls with laughter down the phone, and responds: “Yes I am fucking mad”. OK, that has cleared that one up then?
He continues: “Got to take things with a pinch of salt. What the fuck man; I still have to queue up when I go to the bank. That’s where I am at really; I never see myself as any better than anyone else. Don’t believe the hype….”
I point out that there are singers who just “sing,” and there are those with a gift from above, who can create an emotional connection; capable of moving people to tears. Omar being very much of that latter ilk. Voices that come on the radio while you are driving, and literally stop traffic.
In the very early 90s, I saw and photographed Omar on the same bill with Incognito as part of the JVC (or may have been Capital Radio) Jazz festival at the Royal Festival hall in London. One of the best gigs I have seen in a four decade career, and that was down to Omar’s other-worldly performance. Mica Paris guesting with him, and Jocelyn Brown featured with Bluey and the gang. Had a chat with Omar in the backstage bar, and we shared a backstage lift together, I recall. Humble, modest, decent guy and that gig has always stayed with me in the memory bank for the sheer hair-on-end effect his voice had on me.
He is from talented stock. The Lye-Fook family has musical talent embedded deep in its DNA. Omars’ father Byron worked as a studio musician and drummer with Bob Marley, Horace Andy and even The Rolling Stones. Samia Lye-Fook (Omar’s sister) is a highly-regarded vocalist in her own right, and a BRIT School alumni. There is also, of course, Omar’s’ younger brother, aka Scratch Professor.
Back in 1985, Omar released his first single” ‘Mr Postman” on his father Byron’s’ Kongo label, which was also the original home for his first album, which contained the track that changed everything: “There’s Nothing Like This”. That album was re-issued by Gilles Peterson on his Talkin’ Loud imprint in 1991. After a second album, Omar signed to RCA, for whom he cut two further albums and collaborated with LA-based musician and producer David Frank (Chaka Khan, Billy Idol, Destiny’s Child) that notched up acres of critical acclaim, as well as introduced him to several of his musical heroes and heroines.
So how does Omar stay current? “I don’t attach myself to any genre or bag, or anything that is happening at the time. It really is about me being an artist to be able to express myself. But I gotta give my brother credit. Even though like brothers, we want to kill each other, we got the job done and he inspired me to work a little bit harder, you know.
“It turned out even better than I heard it in my head. When I did ‘I Want It To Be’, (track nine) I was just stunned; fucking blown away. I have always said it is not me doing it, I am just a vessel for somebody creating this music. I am the portal which they use, to realise the music is like a physical force”.
Half way through the dozen on the new album, we hear his beloved nine-year-old twin daughters Carmen & Gabrielle chatting and giggling with their Mum on the delightful “Girl Talk Interlude.” Caught on Omar’s iPhone when the girls and Mum were playing a game of “Would you rather…..” My lips are sealed as to what it is they are actually laughing at. Funny thing is; when he took the recording and dropped it on top of an existing music track, it fitted exactly. “There is a lump in my throat very time I listen to it. I am either laughing or crying….”
If you hear me doing a Motown album, then forget it – it is time to hang up the boots
So, eight albums, 32 years since the first single when Omar was 16 and dropped “Mr Postman,” and 27 years since the debut album. Is it harder to come up with ideas and stay motivated and driven? “You know what; if you hear me doing a Motown album, then forget it; it is time to hang up the boots. At the moment, I am still enjoying it; you know when you get that buzz when you first make a tune or the beat or the chord progression or the harmonies…and it brings it all back to you again. I am still getting that buzz.
“I know a lot of people my age who have been in the business 33 years or whatever it is, might sound a bit tired by now, but I am still up for it man. Still up for trying to blend different things; jazz funk, reggae, classic, Latin. All those genres can be blended to come out with something interesting still; and that is this album”. Yep, he’s still bang at it. We talk about his imminent 50th birthday in October next year, 2018, and if that plays on his mind. It does not. “Obviously, it is a milestone. Not far off it now. I am OK as long as I can keep going, until I can’t go any more”.
Labelled “the Father of British neo-soul”, how does that label sit? Omar laughs. “If people want to label me with that; then fine. But there were people before me; Incognito, Bluey from Incog’. Brass Construction, Central Line; all them boys there. Heatwave, I mean fucking hell, you can go back before me. When I started, it was Acid Jazz; Brand New Heavies, Young Disciples. Incognito was already part of it. Jamiroquai was starting not long after that. It’s all part of a movement, and I’m kind of lucky I was probably the only solo artist”.
I mention Maxwell recently raving about Omar to me. “Yeah, I saw a clip of him saying nice things about me in a TV interview. That’s flattering man, absolutely. To influence people is amazing. Jill Scott even asked me to come to her show because she loved what I was doing. But I’m still at the back of the queue when I go the bank”! Someone needs to have a word at his bank. Don’t you know who he is? He’s got an MBE you know.
Quick to answer my question; is there ever any pressure to come up with another song as big as “There’s Nothing Like This”, with an emphatic; “No, never”. “I am kinda proud I have done so many songs that are not like that. A song called ‘Tell Me’, seems to be even bigger (from his album ‘Best By Far’) than ‘There’s Nothing Like This’, but that’s with the black crowd, the soul people. But it’s nothing like ‘There’s Nothing Like This’. That’s not what making music is about; it’s about expressing yourself and going with the vibe. Always trying to do something a little bit different. Obviously, I am one man and I have my influences and my modus operandi, but I like to keep things moving. There’s only one “Its So,” there’s only one “Tell Me,” there’s only one, “There’s Nothing Like This.” Everything else I have done is different, so no; there’s no pressure at all”.
So, when the Queen awarded him his MBE, presented to him at Buckingham palace on her behalf by Prince Charles (who asked him to drop off a copy of his CD, I kid you not!), did he think he deserved it? Subtle question, huh? “I think I definitely deserve it. I think my contribution to music is there. I think I’ve been around doing enough, and staked my sound. While I was growing up, one of the things I always said to myself was; I want to make music that as soon as anyone hears it, they are going to know it is me. I’ve achieved that.
“One of the other things I said… I was the principal percussionist of the Kent County Youth Orchestra, and every year we played at the Royal Festival Hall (I was 12 or 13) and I said; I’m gonna play here by myself one day. I am gonna play here with my music. I’ve achieved that as well.” Omar played the cornet, baritone euphonium, tuba, piano, bass, guitar and percussion as a youngster, and was later a graduate of the Guildhall School Of Music.
The best advice he can give young artists coming up now: “Have patience, perseverance, learn your craft. Ask yourself if it is gonna be a business, do you want to earn money from it or is it a hobby. There is a lot to learn, for sure”. One lesson Omar has learned is, make sure you get paid, after getting shafted in Japan after a gig. On the subject of the best advice he has ever been given, he tells me what that was and who said it; Paul Weller, but I cannot go further than saying it was about song writing, or they’ll both kick my arse! It’s funny though………………
Yes, Mr Omar keeps good company. His favourite collaboration, out of the many, many across his career with the likes of Angie Stone, Syreeta Wright, Common, Estelle, Incognito’s Bluey Maunick, Erykah Badu, Carleen Anderson, Caron Wheeler, Leon Ware, India Arie, Lamont Dozier, Zed Bias, Pino Palladino, Roger Sanchez, Guru & Jazzmatazz, Maddslinky, Kele le Roc, Mario Biondi…is undoubtedly Steve Wonder.
Stevie has been a fan of Omar’s music since he first heard ‘There’s Nothing Like This’, back in 1991 – the same year he promised to write Omar “his first number one”. The 14-year wait turned out to be well worth it when, one day, Stevie called Omar out of the blue and told him he was in London and had just what he’d promised. A jam session later and the irrepressibly funky and melodic “Feeling You”, with Stevie on vocals and keyboards, was born.
“Loved him since I was eight years old and he is my main influence. In terms of vocals, arrangements, instrumentation, production, everything. So, to get the man in a studio, that was just a mind-blowing thing”. Omar opened for his pal and mentor Stevie Wonder at 2016’s epic Hyde Park concert in London. Omar would love to have collaborated with the late icon Bobby Womack, who Omar saw just before he passed away. Of those still with us, Bill Withers is the # 1 on his wish list. Ambitions left? To perform a full concert with an orchestra.
After appearances in the Javon Prince show on BBC 2 on TV, he fancies some more acting roles. There’s been a one-man play written for him called “Love Songs”, which is in development, and he is working with the same writer to come up with a drama series based on Omar’s time at boarding school in Manchester, at the Chetham School of Music.
So that’s plans for the future; let’s look at his start as a performer. His first public performance was at the age of ten when he lived in Canterbury, on drums in his Step-Dad’s band at the University where his Step-Dad taught. He and some other teachers formed the band and Omar Hammer, as he was called then, joined on drums.
“That was the first time I did a gig. And I can remember a woman came up afterwards and said, ‘you were fantastic, can I have your autograph?’ The first time I sang in public was when I sang with orchestras, when I was 10 and 11. Music was a big thing after school, at weekends, and on courses. But I was 16 when I first sang solo, and when my first single came out. A venue in Camden. Five Star was singing too. It was packed for them and I went on afterwards and the place had emptied, and I was singing to an empty floor”.
Omar has just cut four tracks on Courtney Pine’s new album (CP played on an Omar record circa 20 years ago), and is now touring with him. He revealed he will be producing some other artists this year, and bookings for his own headline gigs will take him to South Africa, Canada, USA, UK and Europe when things are finalised.
So, if he had his time again, what would he change about his life and career? “Not a thing. Everything is a learning process. To come up with the catalogue I’ve done, I’ve had to go through whatever I have had to go through. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have come up with that catalogue. I can’t really say I’d change anything. Obviously when you learn lessons like not to get fucked over by money, or not to get put in certain hotels or not to deal with certain people, those are the minor stuff (sic). I’d keep it the same, because that makes you the person that you are, and makes me make the music I make”.
So, summing up then; you’d not change a thing because; wait for it, wait for it……………There’s nothing like this! Omar groans and we end the call. Still friends, I think!
“Love In Beats” on Freestyle Records is out now. Omar performs on Vintage TV, Thursday 30th March. He is touring with Courtney Pine throughout March.
By Simon Redley