Jamie Lidell: Cult of Personality

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Looking rather fidgety, Jamie Lidell sits in the swank lobby of New York’s Soho Grand Hotel, sipping coffee and furiously emailing on his laptop. He still has a few months before Jim–his third solo album and follow-up to 2005’s crossover success, Multiply–hits stores, but he’s already consumed with the work that accompanies an eagerly anticipated release.

“I haven’t got time!” he exclaims. “I have four days now to practice with the band. We have to audition, rehearse, teach them the parts–always, time’s running out. I’m doing videos, this press stuff, the artwork’s not sorted. I’m not used to it.”

It seems Lidell’s going to have to adjust to the frantic pace. The well-received Multiply–an accomplished album boosted by a spectacular live performance–quickly transformed him from a semi-obscure avant-garde knob twiddler to an unconventional R&B singer, whose songs have appeared on Grey’s Anatomy and in Target advertisements. Making matters worse for his schedule, his new album is even better (and even more accessible) than his last.

Soul Rebel
To examine Lidell as an artist–and to help explain his stylistic jump from IDM to 21st-century soul–is to study a musician with distinct periods of genre fixation. Throughout his life, he has always indulged musical obsessions; when one took hold, “everything else was out the window,” he says. As an adolescent, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) Prince, and then he became taken by jazz. Soaking up Miles and Coltrane, “the standard stuff but the fucking shit as well,” Lidell discovered a musical constant he could always rely on. Next came Marvin, Sly Stone, and Funkadelic before he fell head over heels for techno. “I guess it was rave culture,” he explains. “I just got fully into, like, hardcore banging shit.” That addiction would lead to his first recordings and collaboration with Cristian Vogel as Super_Collider. Observing each of these phases of influence helps put into focus the soulful, kaleidoscopic Multiply and its natural extension, Jim.

Multiply, more than anything, revealed Lidell’s unique voice–his gift for uncanny impersonations of Stevie, Marvin, and Otis–and a knack for solidly constructed R&B tunes infused with synthetic elements. Before the record was released, not everyone was convinced a mixture of glitch and Motown would sell. “Steve [Beckett] from Warp [Lidell’s label] was confused. He said I was in a gray area between pop and ‘something else.’ I said, ‘Yes, exactly where I want to be,’” recalls Lidell. “They thought maybe it wasn’t going to work, but it did work.”

The gamble having paid off, he now had the freedom to open up further on Jim, an even more tightly focused record and, intriguingly, one almost completely devoid of electronics. “I guess I was sort of continuing on this record where I left off with Multiply,” says Lidell. On the previous album, where tracks like “Newme” and “You Got Me Up” filtered Motown through modern electro, the songs on Jim strip away any superfluous components. At the songs’ core is a pure, melodic structure that feels like it was transplanted from the Stax back-catalog directly into the present. “My objective on this record was just to make 10 songs I could live with and nothing more,” he says modestly.

Mock Perfection
To create Jim, Lidell says he adopted a simple new approach to writing. “I’d record everything as really basic sketches on a Dictaphone–old-school style–to see first if it held water as a song. I’d say, ‘Could a guy, like, play that on a guitar in the street and you’d think, ‘Hey, nice song.’’ I put that as a working manifesto and stuck to it,” he explains. Discarding tunes that didn’t meet this criteria, Lidell would go on to construct tracks like the joyful album opener “Another Day” and “All I Wanna Do,” a gentle ballad featuring only spare acoustics and his inimitable vocals. But the album’s careful production isn’t all Lidell–much of it is owed to longtime collaborator and Jim co-producer Mocky.

“Mocky helped me decide about anything from instrumentation, the kind of configuration of sounds in an arrangement to the tempo of the piece,” says Lidell. “Everything, we sort of had a head-to-head about.”

Mocky, whose real name is Dominic Salole, is a Canadian jazz and hip-hop artist with a talent for coaxing great material out of friends like Peaches and Feist. He co-produced Feist’s smash hit The Reminder, and brings an invaluable sense of musicianship to the recording process. “A guy like Mocky is much more versed in the jazz tradition. He knows how to hold it down on the piano. That’s very helpful for me, because I can hear music very clearly but I’m not, like, a musician in the traditional sense,” says Lidell. The asymmetry between Mocky and Lidell also aided in the aesthetic sculpting of the record. “It’s pointless to work with someone that is just like you. The fact that we work as a complimentary/antagonistic pair–tricep/bicep, I guess you could call it–helps to lift the music,” explains Lidell.

Equally crucial to the recording of Jim was pianist Gonzales (a.k.a. Jason Beck), part of same the “Canadian contingent” as Mocky, Peaches, and Feist. He also contributed to the latter’s The Reminder and supplies similarly expert musicianship. “We always rely on his knowledge of arrangements,” says Lidell. “He’s a genius, a fucking genius. Easily the best keyboard player I’ve ever known.” Also useful was his unusual grasp of popular song. “Gonzo’s musical memory is just fucking insane. Literally, I doubt you could name a song from the ’80s on that he couldn’t play without hesitation. It’s frightening,” gushes Lidell. With Mocky and Gonzales on board, Lidell had a “dream team” in place, and Jim triumphs as a result of the group’s collaborative effort.

Road Scholars
Transferring Jim’s organic energy to the stage will be a different challenge for Lidell. While touring for Multiply, he executed frenetic one-man shows where he looped, tweaked, and spliced his material, singing and beatboxing atop off-the-cuff remixes. For Jim, he’s hoping to apply similar improvisational techniques to a live band. Lidell has assembled a “crazy drummer, a saxophonist,” and Taylor Savvy, a third Canadian multi-instrumentalist, to round out his onstage crew. “[Savvy is] a nasty motherfucker. He doesn’t want to conform, which I love. He’s always finding an edge that keeps it rock and roll,” says Lidell. “I haven’t gone for a safe, clean band. I’ve gone for quite a nasty band.” And that might present its own problem: “Keeping them in order to roll out regular versions of tracks for TV and those cunts is going to be a little tricky,” he laughs.

Looking ahead at the hectic months following Jim’s release, Lidell remains excited about the album but nervous about the broadened profile it might trigger. “I’m a bit scared about the way the label thinks they should push me,” he admits. “I guess that’s why it’s important for me to make sure the live show maintains grittiness. I’ve tried to keep my punk alive and not become John Legend. All due respect to Mr. Legend.”

So how does he feel about the prospect of being aggressively promoted? “It’s a bit shit,” he says. “They could easily try to market me as the male version of Amy Winehouse. Although they couldn’t because I don’t have any habits to get tabloid attention. Who knows, maybe all this shit will drive me to it.”

Three At Last
Mocky and Gonzales discuss Jim’s sweet synthesis.

“Jamie and I are like the perfect yin and yang,” says Mocky. “We both have areas of expertise that overlap but we are both very intuitive. I would say Jamie tends to think of music as sounds and I think more in terms of songs.” Gonzales, he says, helps to keep the duo grounded. “Gonzales is a very old-school cat in a lot of ways. He brings the next level to the arranging of a tune once we’ve tracked a song. He’s got a great eye for detail and a steady hand when Jamie and I are getting too crazy.” But when it comes to producing other artists, he prefers to stay close to his pals, with some possible exceptions. “I love working with real artists and friends, but I’d love to do Lil’ Wayne’s jazz album. The best would be if our whole crew got together and did a ‘supergoup’ project, though.” He’s just put the finishing touches on his as-yet-untitled record, the follow-up to 2006’s Navy Brown Blues, and says of it, “It’s almost all instrumental and acoustic. I think it’s the album a lot of people have been waiting for from me.”

When the three worked on Jim, “I was the piano man, more or less,” explains Gonzales. “I basically just try to be a third balancing wheel on the Jamie-Mocky tricycle. But Jamie’s a little more sound-and-song-oriented than I am. I tend to approach songs from a Tin Pan Alley perspective. Jamie might drop a tin pan in an alley and use that to write a song.” He’s also the arithmetical component in the trio. “To create complex emotions in music takes good instincts and correct mathematics. I suppose Jamie’s instinctive musicality becomes more effective when multiplied by age-old harmonic techniques, but he hears it all anyway,” says Gonzales. Is he surprised by the mainstream success of some of his contemporaries like Feist? “The only thing that surprises is the lack of mainstream success of my own albums. One can only hope to see into that murky crystal ball,” he jokes. And what of his own upcoming record, Soft Power? “I can’t pretend to be an outsider anymore, being a Grammy-nominated producer and all. So this is the album an insider is supposed to make, as painful as that transition was for me. It’s my Billy Joel album,” he offers.