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Singer/songwriter/producer Jamie Lidell is a sound artist in the truest sense of the concept–he loves a good sonic experiment and isn’t afraid to go down a rabbit hole to explore a musical idea that has potential. Over the course of six albums released in the past two decades, he deftly navigates genres, weaving together his electronic music roots, soul influences, and love for vocal exploration.
Jamie talked to us recently, from his sunny Nashville home studio, and took us behind the scenes of five of his favorite records. Read on to learn about how his first hit came together in Berlin, the surprising advice that worked when he was low on ideas, and how cutting vegetables in the kitchen helped change the vibe of a song he was working on.
When I was making Multiply, around 2003, I was stationed in Berlin in this great room in the Funkhaus which has been used for Superbooths and things, but at the time it was available for studios and I had my little room there. I’d just come from making techno music and moving through making two albums with Super Collider, with my partner Cristian Vogel. They were very intense albums and I’m very proud of them; I think they still hold up today–we put everything we had into those records and they’re well ahead of their time. I was a little bit lost but I had a deal with Warp Records, which I'd started in about 1999, and I'd only given them one record, which was a license from a label called Spymania for an album called Muddlin Gear, which is hard to find online, but it is out there; so I needed to make a new record for Warp.
I was living in Berlin and I started to meet a couple of people–I'd done this little recording with a Canadian guy called Taylor Savvy. Somehow, our paths had crossed and I later found out that he was connected with acts like Peaches, Chilly Gonzales, and Mocky; they were all Canadian expats living in Berlin, a great bunch of friends, just hilarious and full of energy and super talented. Mocky heard our recording, and he was like, “Who is this singer? This is interesting.” Then he asked to hear my music, so I played him all these things I was working on, one of which was a version of Multiply with the lyrics and the melody already done, but at the time it was like a really doomy song; it was like a little drum machine, very lost and like a soft, sad dystopian song.
Now he’s the kind of musician who’s very traditional in a way; the first thing he would do is pick up a guitar and be like, “So how does it go?” And I was like, “I don't know, I didn’t play it on the guitar, it’s not a guitar song.” Then he played a version of it on the guitar and I was like, I'm not about to do a version like that but he suggested that we try it anyway. So we just went in one afternoon with this guy I was sharing the studio with called Daniel Raymond Gahn–a German chap who was a good drummer, Mocky played bass and guitar, and I did the vocal. It was just supposed to be a way for us to try something together and I was really not into it; I thought it sounded alright but that this was a joke, this is not how I wanted this song to be. Over time though, the damn song was just in my head! I thought “This thing is catchy.” I couldn't help but agree that it was a compelling angle. Mocky was very persistent with me, like, “This is great! Maybe we should do something else.” And it was really fun; I had a lot of ideas, he had a lot of ideas and it was just really ace to work with someone like him. He’s very much a producer and our two skill sets were really interesting in the way they overlapped. He was also just really good at pushing me and trying to get me to finish stuff, very much in the old school Quincy Jones style who is one of his idols–he probably wouldn’t mind me saying that.
I have to give credit to Mocky for a lot of the sound I'm known for; he really compelled me to go down that road, even though it was happening for me anyway because, after almost ten years of making electronic music, I had started to get a bit sick of not having songs. I was sick of everyone making faster, harder, louder electronic beats and things. I wasn't really excited to do it and I was a bit lost and wanted to get back into songs, so it gave me a reason to get back to my roots really, as a singer and to make songs. Back in those days, I was doing so many live shows that I was in good condition vocally–like a fighter or something. I just knocked those vocals out pretty easily. I had just bought the Neumann 269 mic (a variant of the classic u67) and a V72 preamp in Berlin, both of which were very cheap in those days; I'd had a makeshift vocal booth which I put together with my friend Bill Youngman and it was done on very rudimentary equipment. I had an RME Fireface portable sound card that I was using for my live shows and that's what we tracked into.
We cut the demo, did the multitracks in Logic, and worked with a guy in Paris called Renaud Letang of Ferber Studios, which was quite famous for its work with Serge Gainsbourg. I remember that the compressor on the vocal was an old Urei 1176, one of the nice silver ones, and Renaud did a lot of automation on the Neve VR; he's a very tasteful mix engineer, very musical. It was a beautiful experience for me to hear songs coming out of the speakers and to hear how we could augment them and it taught me a great deal; I learned so much from being in a room with Renaud. He put the mix onto the Neve VR and really put a lot of life back into the mix–that was a huge part of what made that record sound so great.
I remember working with Mocky again and telling him that I didn’t have any more ideas right then—and this is possibly bad advice, but this was the advice he gave me—he’s like, “Why don’t you get a bottle of whiskey and just get a bit wasted and see if anything comes out?” And that's basically exactly what I did. [Laughs] I got a bottle of good whiskey and sat upstairs in my house in Berlin with a guitar and a little dictaphone and I started to just sort of slur this Simon and Garfunkel sort of folk song. The first version of Another Day is like this folk song basically, kind of a sad ballad. In fact, a lot of these songs start out as really sad sometimes. [Laughs] I think it's an easier place to write from often, isn’t it? It's nice to write from the blues a little bit; it’s quite hard to write like Stevie Wonder, and I think almost no one does it actually. Everyone wants to write on minor chords, it's very hard to find anyone that wants to write on major chords.
I sat on that song for a while, going, “I like this song, but what are we going to do with it?” And it was a moment in my kitchen–this is a good thing about keeping songs in your head and trying stuff out–I was chopping carrots, which is quite a rhythmic chop, while humming that song and it was a lot faster than the folk version and I thought, “Hang on a minute, this is kind of like a gospel song, this could be really exuberant!” So I went to Mocky and I said, “Let's try that Another Day song, but way more up.” He got on the piano and he found this turnaround phrase and I think at that point we just had a new way of doing Another Day.
One of the things I loved about working with Mocky was that he had this great studio right by mine in Berlin–he had the drums and a piano, and it was very much an old school set up, a bit like Motown; there would be jam sessions almost every night, us all hanging out and it was beautiful. I have great memories of that and he was really the one who put that together.
At that point, I also started to work with Justin Stanley, who became a really great friend of mine. I met him when I toured and opened for Beck in 2006. He had this beautiful home studio, so we went there to do a lot of the stuff for Jim; we did piano, we did a horn section and came up with ideas on the fly about how to do this kind of Burt Bacharach-style bridge and it was really fun. I recorded the birds outside his house and put them in the beginning and it was such a nice, easy time making that record. I mean it’s all about people, isn’t it? Justin Stanley and Mocky–they're enthusiastic, they bring out things that you had inside but maybe didn't know, I think that's the ultimate quality.
Compass is a song off the album of the same name, which was co-produced by Beck. After doing a tour with him, he asked if I would want to make a record with him, so I went over to his studio to start recording and it was a nice session. It was one of the most successful songs I think I did with Beck. The reason I wanted to talk about this song is because it brought out a vocal quality that I'm sort of still pursuing now; it's a little bit less of the soul voice and it's a little bit more of the kind of choirboy voice, like how I started to sing when I was young in England and this song was quite an opportunity for me to sing like that. Also in the studio was Feist–she was playing guitar with Beck–we had a great ensemble that day, and everyone was sitting around and playing their guitars and I took it further and continued it.
After I stopped working with Beck on the record, I carried on working with Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear, who's a friend and labelmate from Warp Records. He’s another tremendous influence and friend, and a great producer because he has ideas of sonic worlds; he sees them just like I do, but in his own way and it was so fun to work with someone like him. We went to Feist’s house in Canada to finish the recording; that's where we did the trumpets and a lot of the more interesting, strange sounds and added all of these worlds and atmospheres and it tied together really well. It brought out my voice and in a way, showed me a new path–a compass, if you will. [Laughs]
Also, it's the only song of mine that's been sampled by Lil Wayne! There are very sleazy lyrics on the vocal which I won't repeat. [Laughs] It’s hilarious. My theory is he played the video game Red Dead Redemption and although I have not played it, I believe the song is used at the end of the game. Being the last song is quite an honor really, you're riding off, I can imagine, with the trumpets. It's quite Morricone in a way so it goes well with that kind of western land and the Spaghetti Western feel. But you know, my theory is that’s how Lil Wayne found it and now I'm singing with him; it's quite a trip.
I was in my apartment in Chelsea in New York–it was a tiny little room, the smallest studio I've ever had, kind of like a walk-in closet, but I just felt like I captured something on that song. It was quite unique, it kind of has a soul vibe and I worked so hard on the pre-mix to get everything feeling very specific. It was a good example, I think, of using sound effects and sounds that were not normal to create a unified world.
Sometimes you find with electronics that they don't feel sensual, they feel quite cold; so my search is often to find something more romantic in electronic sounds and that's very hard to do. In It’s A Kiss, I think I managed to pull it off a little bit. There are some interesting sounds in there–I think there's a sound like microphone feedback, a whooshing sound that has a surging feel that I just really loved. It was a cool process and I just wanted to mention it because I think it was a song I put a lot of energy into and I think it just went kind of unnoticed but I was quite proud of that one.
I had these Barefoot speakers that were really pivotal for the sound. What was great was I could only ever use them on an extremely quiet setting because I would really annoy the neighbors otherwise. So I think I got used to playing everything so quietly which made me very attuned to the sound field–I think that's the key to the sound of this song. If there was anything that disturbed the sound field, I was like, “That's taking me out, what's going on over here?” So it was a very meticulous piece of crafting; not every song is like that, but this one was and I remember it was a question of being really careful. I think quiet listening would be the key on this one–I don’t do it nearly enough anymore. Listening quietly is underrated–everyone knows to do it, but not many people actually do it.
I feel like I'm very bad at minimalism; there's usually a lot going on in my songs, like an aquarium full of little things, catching your ear. So I'd always wanted to make something that was pretty sparse but focused on a certain kind of energy and I think Believe In Me gets that a little bit.
It’s more like a crescendo–the whole song is just a crescendo. I enjoyed the sort of simplicity that came from just the pedal note mindset of creating that offset against the melody. The tension of the song is quite pure and I think that has been good for the longevity of things. We were talking about songwriting advice earlier, and I think this is good for people coming up–just try to distill the intention of the thing and try not to cloud it if you can. Ask yourself, “Is this really helping the song or am I distracting from the zoomed-out feeling this song could give me?” It’s sometimes hard to answer that question, but for me, I think with this song, it was easy to know.
It was about choosing my sound sources, and a good use of the Oberheim OB-X8 because it’s very good at portamentos, like these very extreme, massively powerful portamentos and I used that for the end. I was using the synthesizer very much like they used in Minneapolis as a brass section really, like some kind of swelling, supportive brass but with a bend. The portamento really appeals to me, I realize that's the kind of sound I often respond to just because it's very human and it really demonstrates the rise of urgency. Obviously, people have risers all the time in songs but I wanted to bring that energy without needing too many drums; again, that was part of the minimalist philosophy. I didn't want to suddenly come in with thunderous Hollywood drums. It was all about allowing the bombast to happen from the vocal pressure and the mid-range support versus all of the rhythm section showing you what to feel.
So I think it was an exercise in working out how you create an emotional response and sometimes you get more power by not filling the spectrum. There’s a lot more energy that you can have in a midrange without clashing with the drums; sometimes drums being big and long can really mess everything up. I just feel like it is a song that I liked and still like; a lot of the songs I grow less fond of over time, but I think It’s A Kiss, Precious Years, and Believe In Me really stand the test of time for me.
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