[12 March 2013]
Looking back, Jamie Lidell can’t say why he chose the life of a drifter.
Over the years, the British-born electronic-soul artist has lived in Berlin, Paris, New York, and— most recently—Nashville. “There’s some weird alienation that goes along with it,” he says, reflecting upon his nomadic lifestyle. “You’re always the outsider and I think I’ve come to terms with being that guy, with being a bit of an underdog, with being a bit of a weirdo, you know? Maybe it’s not ideal, but I feel comfortable with that in a way. I mean, I keep doing it.”
It makes sense that Lidell would find comfort in alienation. His music blends classic R&B with futuristic electronics and jazz-inspired improvisation. And this unique merging of genres has made him a perpetual outsider in his artistic life as well. He began his solo career as an experimental electronic musician signed to Warp Records. Then, with the release of 2005’s, Multiply, he morphed into an astonishingly adept soul-revivalist channeling the spirits of classic American R&B singers like Stevie Wonder, Otis Reddingm, and Prince.
Songs like Multiple‘s title track played as meticulously reconstructed period pieces. But in his live performances, Lidell maintained his freewheeling, experimental bent—looping and layering his own voice into towering concoctions of sound that were both undeniably danceable and utterly bizarre. And though his next two albums (2008’s Jim and 2010’s Beck-produced Compass) would see Lidell hovering ever closer to mainstream viability, he has retained that quintessential weirdness, and defiant, outsider sensibility throughout his career.
British pop artists have been borrowing from their urban American counterparts going back at least as far as the Beatles, whose first few albums owe a considerable debt to the early Motown era. And in today’s indie music milieu of post-PBR&B art-pop—think How To Dress Well, Jai Paul, and Autre Ne Veut—Lidell’s repurposed soul stylings and glitchy electronics suddenly sound very of-the-moment.
Still, people tend to focus on the seeming contradiction between Lidell’s Englishness, his whiteness, and his undeniable talent for crafting sounds that evoke traditionally black forms of American music. But, despite these biographical details, Lidell’s music feels effortless and true. And it draws upon a deep and genuine love for the soul and R&B traditions.
Lidell responds to this question of authenticity by returning to that sense of alienation that defines him: “Sometimes people will have a stab at, like: ‘You know you can’t do this, Jamie. You’re white, you’re English, what are you doing? This isn’t authentic.’ And that will always be a position, which is legitimate, in a way. But, I don’t belong. I just feel like I don’t belong and I’m doing something perfectly natural as far as I’m concerned.”
Lidell loves to talk about the music that inspires him. He cites the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones partnership, as well as the Janet Jackson/Jam and Lewis-era as key influences on his new self-titled album. But the artist who he admires most, and who he feels an intense formative connection with is Prince.
“He’s so central to the way that I experience and love music,” he says, “When people say, ‘But, Jamie, you’re mixing synthesizers and drum machines and soul and all this stuff,’ I’m like, ‘Have you never heard of Prince?’ As if this were some new thing.”
For Lidell, Prince exemplifies the creative freedom that emerges when you stop worrying about being authentic, and focus on doing what comes natural. “He’s so out there, in his early work, especially. He was such a lunatic—creating all of these universes and just living in this complete bubble. It was completely free of the real world. But he wasn’t trying to be authentic. I mean, Prince is authentically weird but there’s a freedom to it. So, I’m not American, or any of that other stuff, but I’m authentically getting my freak on, there’s no doubt about it.”
Prince’s guiding spirit permeates Lidell’s new record, as does that of Michael, Janet and the 80s new jack swing era. It’s a big departure from 2010’s Compass which saw Lidell peeling back the layers of his sound for a record that felt stark and introspective compared to his previous work. “I was going down a road,” says Lidell, reflecting upon the creative arc of his career thus far, “with Multiply and Jim, and then I severed that path by doing Compass. That was a very deliberate move, but it put me right in the middle of a crossroads.”
After Compass, Lidell decided to get back to basics, setting up a studio in his home, and returning to a more organic compositional approach. “It was like—plug the machines in and hit record and jamming and seeing if we’ve got some good shit. Just keeping the expectations low and keeping it fun, you know—all of the good stuff. Keeping that in the foreground.”
This uninhibited method resulted in the most exuberant record Lidell has ever created—all candy-colored synth tones, enormous, undulating bass lines and dance-floor shattering rhythms. Songs like “Big Love” and “You Naked” burst at the seams with a flamboyant and benevolent energy, as though Lidell tried to cram as much hedonistic happiness into them as could possibly fit. “I gotta admit, I’m a maximalist.” He says, describing the robust, borderline gluttonous, nature of these tracks. “I try not to leave things out that I think could be at the party. It’s definitely that kind of record, and a lot of the records that I love are like that. Michael Jackson records are like that, and Janet and a lot of the Jam and Lewis shit that was a really big influence on this album. I know a song is finished when I can’t cram anything more into the track without it feeling bloated.”
On this record, more so than ever before, Lidell embraces the freakier side of the funk/soul/electronic traditions. The dirty, churning robo-swing of “Why_Ya_Why” and the laser-blasted grandiosity of “What a Shame” exude that Lidellian eccentricity. While the rollicking one-two punch of “You Know My Name” and “So Cold” pays tribute to a lineage of funked-out freaks from George Clinton and Rick James to Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo.
“I love to mix and match the past and future,” says Lidell, considering the interplay between influence and individuality in his music. “It’s a tough thing, in a way. Even when I was doing Multiply, which is clearly referencing a lot of old sounds, I couldn’t just make it a dedication to a certain era. I had to mess it up, in a way. There’s a part of me that wants to do really fine work and then scruff it up at the end. Or just shine a light on it and show the weird elements.”
Nowhere does Lidell’s weirdness come out more proudly than in his live performances. His trademark vocal looping adds an unhinged and free-flowing energy to his shows, transforming his songs into mind-bending amalgamations of beat-boxed rhythms and break-neck vocal riffs. His integration of samplers, synths and sequencers comes from those formative years spent in Berlin’s electronic music scene. But his improvisational approach derives from an early interest in the stream-of-consciousness compositional techniques of jazz: “As a kid, I was always fascinated and confused in a really healthy way by how musicians like Miles and Coltrane could just conjure music. Like—how can that music just come from their minds like that? And I think that because I started out like that, by learning to follow that improvising road, I’ve always just thought of music in that way.”
For his upcoming world tour, Lidell has added another dimension to the mix—a responsive visual display: “It’s interactive visual manipulation—pretty abstract, really, but awesome.” He says, describing the custom audio-visual interface developed by the British design studio Flat-e. The system projects laser-like geometrics, triggered by the sounds from his console and the movements of his body. “[The mic stand] has motion detectors, and it can detect magnetic radiation. It has got far too many controls in it, really, for a mic stand. It can change color on command. It’s probably got more funk than me, that mic stand, It’s just technoed out.”
The tour will take Lidell through much of western Europe, Turkey and the United States in just over one month’s time. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but he’s no stranger to the road. And when he’s finished, he has a new home to come back to in Nashville, where he moved with his wife following their recent marriage.
Once again, he’s thriving off that familiar sense of being the outsider in a new place. “Nashville has a different tempo and feel completely, so it’s good,” he says, in regard to the unassuming character of his new hometown. “It’s hot, and I’m really confused, sometimes, in the heat. So it’s quite funny to see me struggling through August, but why not, man? I’ve gotten pretty good at the grill. There are a lot of side effects to living in Nashville.”
If his new record is any indication, Lidell is in a good place all around. “It’s all Lionel Richie and coconuts all night long,” He says, acknowledging the joy and celebration that infuse these new songs. “There’s plenty of up on this record.”
Robert Alford is a writer and a critic who lives in Seattle. His work has appeared, most recently, in Paste Magazine, Bookforum.com and Real Change News.