Jamie Lidell’s new album is called Jim, which makes introductions more than somewhat confusing. “It’s actually quite rare that people call me Jim,” he says with a vigorous handshake. In his other hand is a pink cowboy hat. “Jimmy and Jimbo crop up. My sister calls me Jam and so does my mum. It pays to have a lot of names. I haven’t changed my name completely like Dylan. But maybe I should for the next record.”
Comparisons with Dylan are more apposite than you might think; Lidell is a musical chameleon, too. He started his career as one half of Super Collider, making dark, aggressive techno-funk.
The ghost of Prince past loomed large on his last album, Multiply. And now, with Jim, he has shuffled back a few decades into the dancing shoes of Sixties Motown, a proper showcase for his remarkable blue-eyed soul vocal.
He realises that he’s left the pink hat unexplained. “This is Madonna’s hat. I think she’s actually worn it. There’s a couple of her hairs in it,” he says, looking distant for a moment. “Maybe I’ll sell them on eBay.”
It turns out that his new publicist also works with Madonna, and he’s fairly convinced that the Queen of Pop herself left the hat behind here, at the publicist’s office. Lidell’s fondness for fancy dress is legendary. Every live performance features an array of sunglasses and glittery suits. When he played a one-man show at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004, he wore an outfit made from a mess of unspooled cassette tape. Seeing the pink cowboy hat lying about, he instinctively picked it up to wear for a photo-shoot. And why not? This is the sort of surreal brush with celebrity he might have to get used to now that Jim has hit record stores.
Until now, Lidell has been an underground artist, based in Berlin – officially the world’s coolest city – where he hangs out with a super-chic musical mafia that includes Feist, Peaches and his regular collaborators, Mocky and Gonzales. But Jim’s soul stylings have real mainstream appeal and, if all goes to plan, it ought to see him shift from the leftfield to somewhere approaching the centre ground (though not, he hopes, the middle of the road).
“We wanted to try and make something worthy of a radio experience,” he explains, “which is bloody hard when you’re recording in a home studio. We produced a couple of tracks at a studio in Paris, but most of it was home-grown, recorded in sheds. Then again, a lot of Motown shit was recorded in a shed and it sounds awesome.”
Lidell, who is 34, grew up in Cambridgeshire with his elder sister’s record collection for company. “Motown’s in the air again. The genius of [Motown founder] Berry Gordy was that he allowed music from Detroit to reach out to white kids in Huntingdon.”
For a man who makes such joyful music, Lidell seems a bit morose. Most of his sentences are prefaced with a heavy sigh.
Perhaps it’s just the relatively early hour. Or perhaps it’s a by-product of a fierce intelligence. Before he was a professional musician, Lidell was a physics and philosophy graduate, and he evidently thinks a lot about his place in the cultural universe. The white boy soul he explored on 2005’s Multiply has since, thanks to Mark Ronson and his protégés, become the sound du jour. “It’s no coincidence, guys,” jokes Lidell. “Give me the the Grammys I deserve!”
Somehow, though, Multiply didn’t become the crossover hit it could have been. Look for Multiply in record stores now and you’ll likely find it squirreled away in the dance section, alongside other eclectic artists from his record label, Warp, such as Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards Of Canada.
He seems jaded by that experience, but also wary of the things promised by a mainstream career. The first symptom of that is his new band. Lidell has been a solo performer ever since he took a year off to teach himself music technology. He devised a remarkable one-man band live set-up that allowed him to layer his augmented vocal beat-boxing into a sequenced track, over which he would sing his soul-tinged melodies. Now, for the first time in years, he has to delegate some responsibilities to a group of fellow musicians – most of whom have already forged distinguished careers in the outer reaches of contemporary jazz.
“The people I surround myself with are full of ideas and want to put their voices in the mix,” he says. “But it’s strange playing with a band. I’ve been playing solo for six years. It’s become a bit of a crutch, weirdly, to not have people around, because you only need to know where you’re gonna go. So now I’m learning how to do less.
“It’s very hard because I want to make noise all the time, which is what I’m used to doing. I’ve got to chill out and learn how to be in a band.” This innate control freakery also, he admits, translates to the studio: “I’m a big believer in detail. A perfectionist, maybe. I am a Virgo after all.”
So, what do his leftfield colleagues make of his more radio-friendly new sound?
“People who know my stuff are already saying that this album is a grower, which is weird to me because I thought it was just like ‘smack’ – a quick hit. But they expect X and they get Y and it takes another listen for them to realise that it’s got some really good songwriting in it.”
The idea of leaving his underground roots behind and branching out doesn’t bother him, though. “I don’t really think about music in terms of ‘selling out’ any more. I don’t feel I’ve got anything to prove to the underground.
“Hanging out with other artists, moving around the country and the world with them is amazing. It’s what I’ve always done – meeting cool people in every place and getting to know them. It’s an idyllic existence. But it’s an illusion that the underground supports you. There is no support in the underground, they just want to be cool.”
One artist who championed Lidell early in his career was Beck, whom Lidell supported on tour. He suggests that his fellow singer-songwriter has the ideal mix of celebrity and artistic credibility. Jim seems a calculated attempt to strive for the same kind of reputation. He’s at pains to assert the album’s self-awareness.
“I’m dipping my toe into homage,” he explains. “I’m like Tarantino making a B-movie and using old film stock. He knows what he’s doing, he knows his references, and he’s having fun playing with those genres and I’m playing with that too. It’s all quite conscious, it’s not accidental.”
While putting Jim together, Lidell talked to some of the major labels and even met Columbia’s Rick Rubin at the super-producer’s Malibu home. “He said, ‘You’ve made a great record, Jamie.’ That was cool. Whatever anyone says, I’ve got a pat on the back from Rubin. So I’ve definitely done something right.”
A lot of people seem to have told him what a great record he’s made, but Lidell’s still not convinced it’s going to be a success. Perhaps, after all, Jim has come too late to capitalise fully on the popularity of a sound that he helped to make cool again.
“I’m trying to keep my expectations low,” he says. “I want it to be on the radio and reach people, but I know what I’m competing against. It’s like opening a shop next to Whole Foods. Your produce might be better, but Whole Foods is massive and it has a big corporate machine behind it.”
Lidell sighs again, and puts on Madonna’s pink cowboy hat. He looks a little uncomfortable wearing the thing, but somehow it fits.
‘Jim’ is out now on Warp RecordsReuse content