The make or break time: Don-e is the multi-talented figurehead of a new wave of British soul. Joseph Gallivan talks to him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF YOU were a nervous record company type trying to capture the essence of the current new wave of London soul acts, you might perhaps be looking for someone who can play drums, keyboards and guitar, who writes and sings his own stuff, mixes and produces it, and still wows the girlies with his live performance. Probably a young lad from south of the River Thames with a crucial haircut and a dangerous line in raggamuffin clothing. You would be after someone so comfortable with the business that he calls Teddy Riley 'Teddy', Stevie Wonder 'Stevie' and, of course, Michael 'Michael'.

In fact, 22-year-old Don-e (pronounced Donny, ne Donald McLean) would do nicely, if it wasn't for the fact that Island Records got there a year before you.

The label's supremo, Chris Blackwell, is said to have taken a personal interest in Don-e's career since his scout signed him last summer. The result has been trips to LA to hang out with 'Teddy', to Miami to shoot the video (top- heavy with models) for the debut single 'Love Makes the World Go Round', and to Jamaica for a party at Blackwell's house, Goldeneye, which used to belong to Ian Fleming.

'I realised in Jamaica,'says Don-e, 'when I was out in the country visiting my relatives, you don't need all this.' He points to his Vodafone, the first symbol of his success. 'I met a guy from LA living on the beach who'd just never bothered to go home. He didn't even know Bush was President until I told him.' This Caribbean idyll and an ambivalence towards the attractions of America crops up frequently in conversation with Don-e, as they do on his forthcoming album, Unbreakable, to which high hopes are pinned.

'British soul is really happening at the moment, but you go over to America and they've got no English acts on TV. Maxi Priest, he's big. Soul II Soul opened the door, but they were a while back . . .' In fact, many Americans had never considered the possibility of a British black music until Jazzie B shook his locks on MTV. Now a curiosity about reggae is growing there, forcing Americans to look abroad to acts like Shabba Ranks and Supercat. Being steeped in Caribbean as well as Afro-American music means Don-e could find find himself conveniently placed from a commercial point of view: he understands how the American soul train made it from the Staple Singers through Wonder to Bobby Brown, but he also knows his Bob Marley from his Sugar Minott, and the result is a sound at once slick and streetwise.

'But right now, we're all looking to make London the place, not America.' 'We' in this case is the host of young, gifted and black artists who are making the London soul scene the best it's been for years, especially in terms of live performance. The list is worth committing to memory: Omar, Young Disciples, D-Influence, Brand New Heavies, Des'ree, Nu Colours, The Escofferys and McKoy.

Similarities between Don-e and Omar are easy to see. Both are multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters who are as at home in the studio as on the stage. Both are influenced by Stevie Wonder, from their keyboard sounds to their upfront, expressive vocal flexings. While Omar tends towards scat singing at times, Don-e's tone stays warm and sweet in enunciation, like Donny Hathaway's, but both control their bands' every sound with passionate gestures and intense looks. Any pop scene needs a talented, confident, even slightly narcissistic figurehead, and suddenly here are two.

Naturally, one wonders whether this duopoly can survive: Don-e sits up at the mention of the other's name. 'Omar? Wha'bout him? Good friend of mine, guy. Omar's my homey, man. I've just done a track with him for sickle cell. People try and build us up as rivals, say we don't talk, but it's not true. We talk nearly every day on the phone, about everything, 'what's happening tonight, what's going on, how're ya doing?' I first ran into him in the street after his gig at the Jazz Cafe and it was like, 'I heard about you,' and 'I heard about you,' and we've been friends ever since.'

Pop tends to greet novelty with hyperbole, and one of Island's plans was to have Don-e photographed in New York by Gordon Parks, who took pictures of Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, in some kind of an attempt to establish him within a tradition of black heroes. The shoot never happened, but the plan indicates the kind of marketing nonsense a new black artist like Don-e has to rise above.

For the most part, Don-e would rather talk about music. 'What I'm trying to do is take the best sounds from the different styles and decades. I love the clavinet, that ee-aw ee-aw sound like in the intro to 'Superstition', and the Wurlitzer, an electric piano with a warm sound, like in Bill Withers, and the Vocoda, a thing that makes your voice all electronic. All that, and things like the drum sounds in Songs In The Key Of Life, or Steve Gadd in Al Jarreau's band, they're what was so great about live Seventies soul. But I don't want to lose the computer sounds either, those Prince claps - kkkh] kkkh] - and hard edges.'

Speaking of modern heroes thaws Don-e's ragga cool somewhat. 'Most respect to Teddy. I met him in LA. He's bad, man. Where do you go after producing Michael (Jackson's Dangerous)? I think his swingbeat sound is the sound for the year 2000. Now he's taking more instruments off the track to get that dry sort of hard, pumping sound. It's sampled snares and two bass drums, all plonked together and gated down. He's got it all compressed so they sound wild.'

And likewise, he rates LA and Babyface, the duo who have produced Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, and The Jacksons' 2300 Jackson St album, for the way they work from the beat outwards.

'I usually work from the backbone. Once I've got the beat nothing can stop the song. I started as a drummer, and at school I was in a typical school band who played a lot of Beatles, so I got into Ringo. The most rocky things I was into were Steely Dan and Dr Hook . . . I've never bought a U2 album, for instance, but I check it, I've always been into that hardcore sound, because that's what rock is all about, man; it's about noise.'

All the noise on Unbreakable is of the joyful kind, though, which is probably as a result of Don-e's gospel background. 'My father's a preacher, so we always sang and played in church. We'd do like, a soul version of 'How Great Thou Art,' and there'd be electric gospel bands in church. At home we weren't allowed to listen to reggae, or 'blues music' as my father called it, but he couldn't stop it coming through the walls. So I use reggae basslines, little soul hooks, bits of hip hop and gospel, and try and make a song out of it.'

So is this what Island records thought they were getting when they signed Don-e? 'Hmm,' he says. 'I think they just thought hits, man. Some dollars.'

Unbreakable is released on Island records on 10 August.

(Photograph omitted)