Jamie Lidell: soul man turns the page
Jamie Lidell's latest album is feel-good and funky, and reflects a growing optimism. It's all down to his new wife, the singer tells Elisa Bray
It's hard to keep up with Jamie Lidell. He left Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, where he was born, to live first in Bristol, then Brighton, then Berlin for nine years, then he moved to New York before settling last year in Nashville. His music is just as restless: leaving his beginnings in dark, cutting-edge electronica as one half of the duo Super Collider for soul and Seventies funk with 2005's Multiply - all the while retaining his distinct soulful vocals applied to electronic beats - gained him the tag “musical chameleon”. He was a solo artist for many years, he's had a band, and now he's gone solo again.
Except now Lidell appears to have settled into a new, comfortable place. We meet to discuss his forthcoming fifth studio album at a plush London hotel, and it's a strikingly pretty blonde American woman – his manager – who first greets me. She, it transpires, is Lidell's wife, and the source of the newfound relaxed stability that radiates from him. The pair married six months ago, turning Lidell's lifelong cynical views on their head. “I always was adamant I would never get married,” he says, sunk comfortably into an armchair. “I've come from a family where marriage has always been pretty miserable – for my parents and sister, it never worked out. But then my [now] wife said 'just do it for the romance'. I'd never even thought of that”. He smiles. “I'm much more grounded than I was.”
Marriage prompted him to reflect on his former self, and to realise quite how unhappy he'd become after the release of his third album in 2008, Jim. His previous album, Multiply, had spawned two songs played on the hit US television show Grey's Anatomy, and given him his first taster of success, and hedonism was just around the corner. “It was quite an optimistic time, I'd done [Jim] and it had taken me forever to do and I was really buoyant and up for it. It was a huge success comparatively to anything I'd done before so of course I was really enjoying the ride.” No stranger to analysis – Lidell has a degree in philosophy and physics – his recent self-deconstruction, coinciding as it did with the writing of the new album, found its way into the lyrics, most candidly in the album's opener, “I'm Selfish”.
“Learning in love, and being responsible and good and who I want to be, all that comes out in the lyrics. I got really into the habit of living a completely selfish life, being hedonistic. It's a lonely life. I was often touring solo and the loneliness almost rules that hedonism because you're all out for yourself, which is miserable. I remember doing long tours and coming back to my house in Berlin on my own, shutting the door and desperately trying to call people. When there wasn't anyone there I'd be almost scared. I just remember that feeling; I was really lost.” One of the benefits of having a spouse for a manager - a companion on tours and promotional trips - means that loneliness is a thing of the past.
Another pointer to his new sense of self-realisation is that, despite being several years into his career, this fifth album is self-titled. For Lidell, it's a statement of where he's at. “It does feel like it's very me,” he agrees. “It's got all the things that I love crammed into one place. Even though it's later on in my release schedule, it feels like a new beginning. I'm really proud to put my name on it.”
He eschewed ballads, and made the whole album as pop and accessible as possible, taking in funky grooves from the Eighties, while pulling them into a futuristic electronics sound. He started to listen to Janet Jackson, and lots of it. “I got into Rhythm Nation and Control and thought 'these are amazing songs, why don't they make them like this anymore? I want to make them like that!' So that's what kicked it off for me.”
On that same electronic soul tip, he discovered George Clinton, Mtume and Cameo. “It's just good, positive electronic music. When you live in Berlin, a lot of that electronic sound can become quite minimalist, dark in a way. The first albums I did, with Super Collider, were all about making these crazy barren landscapes. This album is a lot more pop - familiar chords that are quite bright, and more accessible, but at the same time there's a lot of that electronics craft that I'd been honing for a long time. I tried to marry that with my love of pop and soul and make the songs communicate on a lot of levels: be fun, but also ambitious. I wanted it to be more ambitious than the last record, which is quite a lot to try to achieve.”
Achieve it he does, with the kind of album you could play at a party and be sure to have the most sophisticated guests on their feet. It is also appropriate that his most self-sufficient album should be self-titled. For an artist so famed for his collaborations with heavy hitters such as Beck, Simian Mobile Disco and Feist, this album was created almost alone by Lidell, and recorded in the couple's vast house in Nashville, where every room became a recording studio at different points. It was also the first time he mixed a record at home. “Literally, from the minute I started to the minute I finished it was all in-house. It's definitely more my sound”.
It does, however, borrow much from Lidell's idol since childhood, Prince, whose funk style is apparent on the new album. And in 2010 Lidell met his idol for the first time, when he played the same night as the then rising star Janelle Monáe, who Prince had come to watch at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
“I was petrified,” recalls Lidell. “I was incapable of answering anything – not that Prince asked me a damn thing. Prince wouldn't even look at me. The simplest gesture would have made my year. He looked at my wife, which I think is more the way he likes to do it. There he was, acting like royalty. At the time it really pissed me off. On reflection, it was a perfect meeting with Prince – very odd, very mysterious, and really uncomfortable. You wouldn't really want it any other way.”
Lidell will once again be back in restless mode, travelling the world when he goes on tour. But right now he's grounded in a way he's never been before. “It's been a great time,” he smiles. “It's definitely closer to a Disney movie than I've ever had.”
'Jamie Lidell' is released on 18 February on Warp Records. The single “What a Shame” is out now
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