A wise woman once said, “A change would do you good.” And a few years before issuing this simple yet salient insight, the same woman famously admitted, “All I wanna do is have some fun.” If anyone understands the dual truths that Sheryl Crow spoke of a few decades ago, it’s none other than Mr. Jan Kincaid.
After spending 30 years as an integral member of the influential and universally beloved UK funk/soul band The Brand New Heavies, the accomplished songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist decided to call it a day with the group he co-founded back in 1985. Following the release of the Heavies’ 2014 album Sweet Freaks and less than favorable working circumstances, Kincaid and vocalist Dawn Joseph departed to explore new musical adventures together. The kindred spirits’ ambition and vision soon came to fruition in the form of MF Robots, a vivacious outfit that just released their stellar debut album Music for Robots earlier this month.
A noticeably rejuvenated and impassioned Kincaid recently sat down with me to discuss his cathartic career pivot, the inspiration behind Music for Robots, his undeniable chemistry with Joseph, and more.
Justin Chadwick: Congratulations on the official release of MF Robots’ debut album! It’s an incredible record and it represents the formal beginning of this next chapter in your musical career. How does it feel to introduce Music for Robots to the world?
Jan Kincaid: It feels great! We’ve been in the creative kitchen for a while now cooking something up, so it’s nice to finally be able to release our baby into the world. And it’s also been incredibly satisfying creatively and therapeutic to do something completely new, with some new people. The energy around it is great, we’ve got a small effective team and the band we’ve put together is smoking live!
JC: So what prompted you to embark upon this new adventure with Dawn Joseph, and how would you say MF Robots extends—or diverges from— the musical legacy you established with the Brand New Heavies?
JK: It was long overdue for me to try something new. I’d personally reached a wall within the Brand New Heavies and there was a lot of frustration and dysfunction in the way the band was run. It had become self-managed, which doesn’t work if you’re all pulling in different directions and was something I saw as a hindrance to moving forward, musically and professionally.
I really clicked with Dawn when she joined the group in 2012 and soon we found ourselves to be kindred spirits creatively with a similar drive and vision of how things should be. Resentment at this closeness grew with other members and eventually, along with some dodgy business moves, led to me realizing the situation was really no longer how I wanted to spend my time and my energy.
In terms of how the two have grown into each other, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about making records and writing songs over the years. Dawn is someone who has a lot to offer and brings a freshness to the writing process, which is a free flowing exchange of ideas and really exciting. The Heavies’ sound, both in the writing and the production, was something that I played a very big part in so I have that in me. But this project is about celebrating a new freedom of expression, celebrating our common influences and being fearless, newly energized, excited and unconstrained by an established formula that had become a little stale.
JC: During your tenure with the Brand New Heavies, you had the luxury of working with some of the most dynamic vocalists around, including N’Dea Davenport, Siedah Garrett, Carleen Anderson, Sy Smith, Nicole Russo, and of course, Dawn Joseph. Can you talk more about your songwriting partnership with Dawn and why you think it works so well?
JK: Writing with Dawn is a breath of fresh air. We trust each other’s ears and skills, which is important. We both have a lot to offer and when we write, it’s very open. I may throw in something, she’ll take that, add something really quirky and between us we make something really exciting before too long. She knows all the references, is plugged in to many different styles of songwriting and has great taste as well as being a fantastic singer. I love the process of starting with a musical idea and watching it grow and take on a life of its own. It’s a fascinating and magical experience, and we get a massive kick out of it.
JC: What inspired the moniker “MF Robots?” What does it mean?
JK: Music For Robots. It’s ironic really. It’s kind of a dig at a quite generic musical landscape, both in songwriting style, production and quite often the artists themselves, so we’re making fun of that. Also there’s a lot of talk about A.I., the role of robotics and robots taking over our lives in the future on a lot of levels. It’s really all of that rolled into one. Also the “MF” part could be misconstrued too, as meaning something rude. And we quite like that!
JC: You’ve previously mentioned that MF Robots’ songs are intended to serve as “the pressure valve; the escapism; the much needed party funk” as a counterweight to all of the turmoil and unrest currently plaguing our lives. Why do you think offering this more vibrant, hedonistic release through music is needed more than ever right now?
JK: Because I think there’s a media frenzy on how crap everything is right now. And there is a lot to be negative about in the world, but in our opinion there’s also many positives. That spirit needs celebrating too. Maybe that doesn’t get headlines in the same way, but there has to be some respite! There are enough sound-alike introspective singer-songwriters out there to satisfy all of our depressed collective angst. We’re trying to throw a little lightness back into it. Escapism. Party a little bit and bring a little fun back in. If we can make you pull the “nasty funk face” in the process, then even better!
JC: The album contains echoes of soul and funk music’s past, but pulls off the tricky balancing act of also sounding very much current and fresh. How did Dawn, you and the band achieve this happy hybrid of retro and contemporary flourishes in the studio?
JK: I think we’re a product of everything we listen to. Obviously we’re influenced by classic soul, funk, classic songwriting and the like, but we’re making music today and the way we’ve put the record together, the way we’ve mixed it, was very much with a modern slant. We draw from the past, as there’s so much rich music there, and translate through modern-tuned ears to make something we hope will be timeless. We check out everything that we hear about that’s current and if we can learn from it, we do, organically. Spotify and the internet make the accessibility of music very easy which means it’s all out there to check out if you’re up for it. The mixing of older and modern styles of music and production has always been there and makes for some great new sounds.
JC: What are your plans for taking the album out on the open road? I believe you have a handful of dates planned in England and other European locales—including a support slot for the legendary Nile Rodgers & Chic along with Soul II Soul—but do you also intend to bring your tour across the Atlantic to the States at some point?
JK: Absolutely, the US is potentially a massive market for us. The record is just being released over there, we have a great agent and team behind us and really the most exciting thing now is to bring our cracking live show to as many different people as possible in as many places. Music is a universal thing, it ties us together, and if we can touch some people with what we do then we absolutely want to do that. The live show is so much fun, and Dawn and the band really bring the house down. Come to party!
JC: OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
JK: I hate these questions, as I have a very large music collection and have so many favorites in so many genres and my taste changes. I don’t really see one being better than the other, just an important other voice in the magical, never-ending dialogue of the human experience.
Some that speak to me in no particular order are Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Miles Davis’ E.S.P., Donny Hathaway’s Live, and Steely Dan’s Aja. There’s hundreds of others!