33 years is a long time to do anything. 33 years working professionally in the music business, an industry that might be more accurately measured in dog years, is a feat just short of miraculous. But British soul pioneer Omar Lye-Fook MBE was built for this. Music is in this multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter/producer’s bloodline. It’s a purpose, and a profession, that he shares with his father, sister, brother and perhaps someday, daughters. This musical DNA plays a key role in his forthcoming eighth studio album, Love In Beats, an album that comes more than 30 years after the release of the then teenaged Omar’s debut single “Mr. Postman” in 1985.
It’s also at least one contributing reason why his latest project, which arrives in stores this Friday, January 27th courtesy of Freestyle Records, manages to sound so fresh and stands alongside his very best. In a wide-ranging conversation this past Friday, we chopped it up with Omar about the new album, as well as his key influences, career legacy, working with Robert Glasper and Stevie Wonder, winemaking, and the possible benefits of producing his own line of prophylactics. One week to the day until he unveils Love In Beats to the world, Omar sounded inspired, and despite the chilly January English air, “on fire.” It was a blessing to bask in the afterglow.
Matt Koelling: There’s a lot going on across the new album Love In Beats, a lot of different sounds. How long did it take you to put the album together?
Omar: Well, the tracks have been ongoing. I started stuff in 2003 and “Vicky’s Tune,” I started writing a long time ago. And I released two other albums before I used “Vicky’s Tune.” We did a track called “Doobie Doobie Doo,” and ‘Feeds My Mind” with Floacist…we did that in 2007. It’s the sort of thing where we did some new stuff, and I decided to work with my brother more closely and that’s why the beats are much harder on this one.
MK: You come from a very musical family, it’s fair to say. Is this the first true full album collaboration with your brother, Scratch Professer?
O: He’s always had two or three tracks on each of my albums. This one has six of his tracks and six of mine, in terms of production and I co-produced a few. We said “let’s see what we can do.” And it worked out, you know. We’ve come out with a really strong album.
MK: What’s the process of making an album like? How does the inspiration come to you?
O: You start off with the groove or the chords or the melody, and then everything blossoms from there. You have the strong arrangements, the horn arrangements, and then the last thing you add is the actual lyrics. But it’s really weird, like I said, we started the songs a while ago and I’ve completely forgotten about them. And my brother’s going, “You don’t remember this tune, do you?” And I’m like, “Well, no, I actually don’t.” [Laughs] You just forget it, because that’s just what you were doing. And it kinda keeps things fresh, because you’re in a state of limbo and then you tap into it again and get the fresh vibe again. And you add to it. Maybe it’s like what they do when they’re making cheese or wine, you know letting it ferment and keep well until you’re ready to use it. That’s the first time I’ve used that analogy. I’m quite impressed with that. [Laughs]
MK: It seems pretty self-explanatory, but what inspired the title Love In Beats? You mentioned you split the work with your brother, so is it almost like a sibling version of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy?
O: You hit the nail right on the head there. It’s definitely about the beats. It’s soul and beats, love and beats, since the majority are love songs. But love is in the beats. It’s a mixture of what my brother does and what I do. It’s a nice little blend.
MK: You collaborated with Robert Glasper on “Vicky’s Tune.” What was that like?
O: I saw him here in Camden, and it blew me away. I mean, I’ve seen him play with the trio before, but the [Robert Glasper] Experiment was something else. So then he agreed to play with me on the album, but it took a while since he’s so busy. When he sent me his solo, he was like “man, did you like it?” And I said “yeah, sure.” I didn’t even listen to it. [Laughs] I was like, there’s no way I’m not going to like it. So I just said yes anyway. But after hearing it, it fit perfectly on the track. Brilliant.
MK: The song with Natasha Watts, “Insatiable,” now that track’s a sexy joint right there.
O: Well, I find that it’s a really typical UK soul track. There’s something very UK about it, and something I’m very proud of.
MK: Speaking of the UK soul tradition, where do you see yourself fitting into that lineage?
O: Well, I’ve been doing this for 33 years now, so I think I’m in there somehow. I’m just blessed, like I said. This is the eighth album I’ve released, and to be able to still do it is great. It’s a much easier time now because of the internet, downloads, YouTube and things like that. People can access my music much more easily than they used to. It was very hard for people to get imports and stuff like that before. Now, with everything done on the internet, it’s definitely helped me out.
MK: So for you, this era has opened things up a bit?
O: Absolutely. I saw that somebody put up six of my albums online and did a compilation of my stuff. Stuff that you might not have. Stuff I didn’t even have. I read the comments in the forum afterwards, and everybody was saying, “oh man, thank you for doing this. I was trying to get this guy’s music for years, and I couldn’t do it.” I think that’s more the point…that people get to hear the music. And then I go to various countries, I do gigs, I can sell my CDs, my t-shirts, my key rings, my condoms, whatever.
MK: Oh yeah, you have Omar condoms?
O: [Laughs] They should do. I’m on fire, man. That’s the next deal I’ll do. [Laughs]
MK: Going back to what you mentioned a moment ago, first of all, congrats on being able to make it for over 30 years in this business. That’s amazing.
O: Yeah, I can feed my kids, put clothes on their backs, which is thanks to the music. And I give thanks for that every day.
MK: How would you say you’ve been able to maintain your longevity?
O: The thing is, with the music I’m making, the stuff I wrote fourteen years ago is still relevant now. I don’t really pay attention to what’s happening, or what’s in, or who’s this and who’s that. I don’t really listen to the radio. But I know a good tune when I hear one. Just gotta keep it fresh and have that fire in your belly, that pit in your stomach where you can feel that tune is going to be slammin.’ It’s not about “that’ll do,” it’s about “that’s it, that’s the one.”
MK: Was growing up in a house with a father that was in music your point of entry?
O: Well, I didn’t live with my dad until I was sixteen. But I was always in and around the studio when he was playing. So obviously that had a little bearing on what I did. I was classically trained. It wasn’t until I started writing songs, around fourteen, fifteen or sixteen, that he played a pivotal role in terms of my production. He has a way of explaining stuff that isn’t very technical. He gives you the general vibe on where things are supposed to be placed. And I’ve used that production and songwriting technique for all of my music. So yeah, he was definitely a great influence on me.
MK: And in terms of outside influences, who were some of your musical heroes growing up who inspired you to want to do this?
O: Stevie Wonder’s the big one. I was a big fan from seven, eight years old, listening to Secret Life of Plants. That was the first one, in terms of the sound, that I managed to learn how my production was supposed to go. His vocal arrangements, the rhythms he uses, it’s all such a beautiful thing. And to not be influenced by him would be very odd. Also people like Level 42, their early stuff. Jeff Lorber Fusion. And being classically trained made a big impact on my string and horn arrangements, as I try to do more orchestral things with my music. And, [my father] was the reggae influence. Dennis Brown and John Holt, they were two that I also got into. I’ve had exposure to a lot of various styles, but I would say these are the most pivotal ones.
MK: Since you cited Stevie Wonder as one of your great inspirations, what was it like to actually then go on to collaborate with him on “Feeling You” from your 2006 album Sing (If You Want It)?
O: Well, it’s mind-blowing for anybody. This guy I’ve been listening to since I was a kid said he wanted to write my first #1 track. I’ll take anything from Stevie, you know. And that was another thing I needed to wait for. That was ’92 when he said that to me, and I didn’t get into the studio with him until 2000. I got a phone call, and he says “Yo, man! It’s your boy.” And I say, “Who’s that?” He goes “Stevie.” And I’m like “Stevie Wonder? Yeah, whatever.” And then he sang for me, and I said “oh, shit.” For two weeks, we hung out at his hotel, restaurants, clubs, the studio. I was like his ambassador for two weeks. People would ask me to take a picture with him and all that stuff. The song we came up with was phenomenal. Just to be able to say we’ve done it. Amazing.
MK: Let’s talk about hip-hop for a moment. You incorporate elements of hip-hop across the new album, so where does it fit within your listening diet?
O: I like the old school, like A Tribe Called Quest. 2000s, the ‘90s. J Dilla, of course. My brother was very heavily influenced by J Dilla, which you can hear in some of the tunes. So it’s always been a factor, but I’m more old-school than the new-school.
MK: Is there any particular song on Love In Beats that resonates the most with you at the moment?
O: It’s all so different, it depends on what I’m feeling on that day. The “Girl Talk” interlude track, those are my daughters talking. My brother had already done the music, and when I heard the piece, all I knew is that it had to be a conversation over the top. I wasn’t sure who would be talking or what it was going to be. And then one day, we were sitting down at dinner—me, the girls, their mum—and we did an acrostic poem, which is when you take each letter of your name and you spell a word that describes you. So that’s what they were initially doing, spelling out their name. And then we played a game called “Would You Rather.” And depending on how I feel, I’m either crying when I listen to it, or I’m laughing. It’s very infectious.
MK: Well, I think Love In Beats is one of your best albums, which is pretty crazy considering how long you’ve been making music.
O: I feel blessed. I try to keep things moving and evolving, and when I finish an album, I always put my heart and soul into it. So to be able to come up with another little gem like this is great. I’m looking at it from an outsider’s point of view, because I never really see myself making the music. It’s like I’m the vessel and somebody’s controlling what I do, I just happen to be the one that gets the praise for it.