Sold To Soul
Omar: comin' to ya, on a dust road
Emerging from the British soul underground, Omar's latest album is called simply, Music. And it is - to Simon Trask's ears...
When young British soul singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Omar released his debut album There's Nothing Like This on his dad's record label, Kongo Dance, in June 1990, it went straight into the UK Top 50 and also took up residence at the top of the UK soul charts for nine weeks, going on to sell in excess of 30,000 copies and receive a number of music industry awards. The title track, an instant mellow soul classic, no doubt had a lot to do with its success, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that the album as a whole was a remarkably assured and well-rounded debut, marking out Omar as an artist with a distinctive voice and the potential to go far.
The lion's share of the writing, arranging and playing on the album is down to Omar himself - a typical track credit reads 'Omar: lead vocal, background vocals, Korg M1 synthesiser and drum programming', with others variously contributing female backing vocals, guitar parts and scratching and mixing. Soul music done the Omar way is rootsy yet contemporary, drawing inspiration from the intensity and warmth of Stevie Wonder's classic seventies albums while ensuring that the beats have a typically eighties tightness and hard-edged funkiness. Thankfully, it's all a million miles from the blandness of much eighties mainstream soul.
In December 1990, Omar and his live band played to a packed house at the Hammersmith Odeon, making him the first independent British soul artist to play a sell-out date there. His popularity confirmed, he took another step up the ladder of success by signing to Phonogram's Talkin' Loud label, which reissued There's Nothing Like This some six months later, after Omar himself had remixed most of the tracks on the album. Then in October of last year he began work on his second album, Music, with a bigger budget that allowed him to take more time and care over not only the music, but also the production and mixing. The result is a more mature, more sophisticated album than the first, characterised by a sound which is fuller, warmer and somehow more organic.
"When I recorded There's Nothing Like This, they were only meant to be rough mixes, but when I'd done them they sounded good enough so I thought 'Put it out. It's the music that's going to sell it, not how many hours you've been spending on it.'," the 23-year-old musician recalls as we sit in a small basement recording studio in southwest London, "I only had ten days in the studio to record the first album, whereas this time I started last October and had five days in the studio, then the next month I had another five days, and so on until I finished recording in March. And it wasn't just a matter of being happy with the first mix, but listening to it again and thinking 'I want to add this' or 'I want to take that out', which I think shows in the end result."
The M1 is still present, providing some very characteristic Omar sounds, but programmed drums have been all but usurped by live drums (played by Omar himself, of course) in an attempt to go for a more 'old-fashioned' sound and feel. At the same time, he's introduced the sound of analogue synth technology into the music in the form of a Roland SH101 monosynth. Building a track around the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of a sound is a typically Omar thing to do, and the burpy basslines and snaking toplines which he coaxes from the 101 have a significant influence on the character of the music on the new album.
Another significant new element is the real string section which the album's budget has allowed Omar to bring in on selected tracks - most notably 'Who Chooses the Seasons?', a lush duet with ex-Young Disciples singer Carleen Anderson, and the closing track 'Last Request.' Omar is well pleased with the results - and with arranger Chris Cameron's approach to his task...
"Using live strings just adds a whole extra dimension to the music," he enthuses. "Chris knew exactly how the music was supposed to sound, and how to complement it as opposed to putting his arrangement on it. People are asking me if I've done the arrangements, which shows you how close he's got it to what my sound is; you would think it was the same person doing the music and the arrangements. They fit, they're not too big."
Omar's propensity for playing most of the parts on his records himself comes to the fore again on Music. But why didn't he record the album using his live band and try to achieve more of a live feel that way?
"I hear the music in a certain way, and I play that way," he replies. "It's not like I'm being selfish, like I don't want to use other musicians. It's just this thing of 'well, this is the bassline I hear' so I play it. It's as simple as that. There's no philosophical reason why I do it, I just do everything myself 'cos that's how I'm used to doing it. I can play keyboards, I can play bass, I can play drums, I can play percussion, I can sing, and so on - so why not do it?"
Why not indeed? Especially when you have the musicality to make all the parts sound convincing - and when the result is as good as Music.
A naturally talented musician, Omar was playing cornet, guitar, piano and drums by the time he was eleven, encouraged by a primary school which was interested in getting its pupils to make music. He began playing guitar because one of the teachers held lunchtime sessions teaching Beatles songs to any pupils who wanted to learn them. As they say, from small acorns...
"Because I had all those opportunities at school, it was just a case of why not do it?" says Omar. "I was always into music, and I was always willing to learn how that instrument makes that sound and stuff. I was a very good blagger, in a sense, 'cos I would just master an instrument to the extent that I could play what I wanted to play, what I heard in my head."
Willing or not, like any kid Omar sometimes needed encouragement to keep up with his practicing.
"I got a lot of that from my mum!" he recalls with a grin. "Make sure you do half an hour every day, and make sure you do this, make sure you do that. She always took a good interest in it, so I never got away with not doing any practice!" Ah, but how it's paid off.
For Omar, the world of classical music has always existed alongside reggae, soul, Latin, funk and jazz music. While a teenager, he spent six years as principal percussionist in the Kent County Youth Orchestra and studied classical music at Cheetham's School of Music in Manchester. At the same time he was making his own music, taking his early musical influences from his parents' record collection ("Stevie Wonder, Steel Pulse, Joan Armatrading, Bob Marley, Santana, a lot of jazz fusion music.") and the music he heard on John Peel's Radio One show.
"A lot of the times when I've listened to music on the radio I've missed who it is, or when I've had tapes of music they've never had who the tracks are by, so I've just ended up listening to music," Omar says, giving a clue to the reasoning behind his choice of title for the new album. "Now when people ask me what are my musical influences, I just quote jazz, reggae, soul, Latin, rather than certain people. I still say Stevie Wonder, though, 'cos he was definitely one of the people I was listening to back then. Songs In The Key Of Life and Secret Life Of Plants, I just killed those albums off listening to them again and again and again. It was the same thing with Level 42, teaching me the bass, just listening to their music over and over."
When he was 14, Omar auditioned for the prestigious Henry Purcell School of Music and was offered a place.
"I auditioned on drums and piano," he recalls, "and I was surprised I got in, 'cos I did a loud audition on my drum kit, and they're world-renowned for their classical training."
In the event, he decided to go to the Kent Music School instead. While there he developed an interest in jazz, and started playing drums with the Kent Youth Jazz Ensemble. It was also at this time that he started making his own music, which he would record by bouncing between two stereo tape decks and adding a new part each time. And the music...?
"I'm thinking of checking out all the new keyboards to get me onto my next vibe. I think I've drained the last out of those I've got. When I get hold of new sounds, a whole batch of new music just comes out."
"At that time, everything I did was really technical, really fast jazzy fusion with lots of chord changes; being very clever musically," he recalls. His attitude, however, began to change when one day his father, who was a session drummer and had an eight-track studio in the Edgeware Road in London, invited him along to record some music.
"It was while I was doing the music there that it changed from the clever stuff to the vibe, just groove stuff. My dad isn't someone who can sing me perfect basslines or beats and stuff, he's just got a vibe to it. So he would be saying 'Put a gap there, just leave a space', and that style of putting things together is set in my head, now. Him and my manager, too, gave me that inspiration just to know how to groove; how to put the gaps in the right places, how to make sure that things don't clash but still sound good together. It's hard to explain literally, 'cos it's just a feeling. Not a lot of people have it, but you know when somebody's got it."
Omar recalls another influence which helped turn him towards the all-important vibe: "I was doing all my fast jazz fusion stuff when I was first at Cheethams, but then I started getting tapes from London of the music that was being played in black clubs, and that just swung everything around. I was listening to this stuff and thinking 'this is out of tune' or 'this is out of time', but after a while I began to think 'well, that's got nothing to do with it. This is a vibe thing. So what if they make a mistake? They're only human. People do that kind of thing all the time, you don't have to be spot-on perfect.'
"So I went from being really fast, 'let's be clever about it, boy?', to bringing it right down, taking half of the things out and making the music talk through the groove... the vibe. I still always want the music to be tight, everything's got to fit together and sit nicely, but it's always got to have this vibe in it where there's enough space to move about. I've heard so many different reggae songs, Latin tunes, soul tunes where everything's so laid back, but it just fits together so well. I want to hold that kind of vibe."
A visit to Brazil with the Kent County Youth Orchestra in '86 provided Omar with another insight into different ways of approaching music: "When you're classically trained you're taught to read notes, and there's always this thing of phrasing and following all the directions written in the score, but in Brazil it's just a vibes thing, the feel of the music. Especially how they play their rhythms; you could write it down to a certain extent, but there's still that extra bit."
Omar's time at Cheetham's (which he says was "a bit like Animal House - we're at boarding school, let's go mad!") provided further opportunities for him to expand his musical horizons.
"The guy who was in the room next to me used to listen to Philip Glass, John Cage, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, Lou Reed," he recalls. "I was listening to Jeff Lorber, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, reggae sound system tapes. And we both learnt each other's music, simply 'cos the walls were so thin that we couldn't help but hear it."
Er, what about the classical music you were supposed to be studying...? "You had to do your percussion ensembles and orchestras and choirs - stuff like that," Omar replies, "but outside of that I was in a band at the school, and I was doing my own stuff 'cos I'd just got a four-track, and I just took advantage of all the equipment in the place - pianos, drums and stuff."
Omar released his first single, Mr Postman, on his father's record label in 1985 followed by a second single, Get It Out Of Your System a year later in 1986. A third single, you And Me, was released in 1988, and in the same year Omar enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, initially studying classical music but quickly moving over to the Jazz course.
In the following year a fourth single, I Don't Mind The Waiting came out, and Omar began his professional career as a musician by touring Japan as a percussionist with the Style Council, and continued it by spending a couple of months playing percussion for the ill-fated London musical King. Then there was There's Nothing Like This...
At home, Omar works with a modest equipment setup comprising the aforementioned Korg M1 (bought with the money he got from the Style Council tour) an SH101, a D50, a TR606, a Tascam 688 MIDIstudio, a Fender Precision bass guitar, his dad's drum kit ("It's one knackered old kit, but it has a great sound") and "bits and bobs of percussion."
"At the moment I'm thinking of checking out all the new keyboards to get me onto my next vibe. I think I've drained the last out of those I've got. When I get hold of new sounds, a whole batch of new music just comes out", he reveals. "If I had the JX10 I'm using here, because I've never used it before I could probably start making up different kinds of songs, just because of the sounds of the instrument. That was the case with the M1. The sounds dictate everything in the music, basically. I'm also thinking of getting a Fender Rhodes - the old original. I like how it sounds, and the touch and the feel."
Omar is the first to admit that he has a "really bad head" for the workings of modern musical technology - more especially, for the manuals. "Most often I'll just work it out by trial and error, then once I've worked it out myself I'll read what they say and it makes sense. But I find it very hard to get over the wording. Maybe that's what holds me back on it."
He also claims to be "very lazy" when it comes to programming sounds on his much-used M1. "It's only by chance if I've been messing about with it and something nice comes out," he says. "There's one Combi sound which I made up, I just ended up calling it 'The Bolock' for some reason! It has flute, vibes, piano... there's some hard-hitting sounds in it. Actually, I won't let it out, 'cos it's one which I just came across and it's mine. I used it quite a lot on the first album, and it's in a couple of tracks on the second one as well. Apart from that I like the acoustic bass and organ presets."
And what of Omar the songwriter? Is he a four-songs-a-day man, perhaps?
"I'm not the type of person to be constantly writing," he admits. "I don't write four songs a day, or even four songs a week, it's more like four songs in four months. 'Cos I'm always looking for a tune to do, as opposed to just 'doing' music. Sometimes I'll have 'nuff ideas and just fling them down and then take some out. But most of the time I have to find the right idea at each stage, and it has to work in a certain way with whatever else I've put down.
"I went from being really fast, 'let's be clever about it, boys', to bringing it right down, taking half of the things out and making the music talk through the groove... the vibe."
"Generally, it takes me about a day to get a basic form for a song, but it could take anything outside of that to get a finished product. With some songs, they could start off alright and then I'll think 'no, I don't like that', and I'll leave it for a while and then come back to it and think 'That was alright. Why didn't I do this to it?' It depends how long the incubation period is inbetween."
Current projects include a theme tune he's recording for Lenny Henry's new comedy series (his first venture into the world of TV music) and there are also plans for playing live - an important part of his musical life. "It's all well and good doing it in a studio, but being able to perform it with a live band... It's the other half of expressing your music. I like performing. I like doing a good set, and I like singing live, basically. So yeah, it is quite important. Also, it's very healthy for promoting the music."
Omar's label Talkin Loud runs a club night in London every week which makes a point of putting on a live band. Having seen Omar play there with his band I put it to him that it's nice to see a real band on stage within a club setting, rather than the dreaded PAs which some clubs seem to think constitute live music. It turns out, however, that he's not averse to singing to a backing track...
"I wouldn't want to build my career on PAs, 'cos playing live is where it's at for me," he says, "but I started off in this business doing PAs in clubs, and every so often I like to go back and sing my songs at a dance. There's a different kind of vibe that you get from doing PAs in black clubs. It's all part of performing, really."
Unlike Talkin Loud label-mates Incognito, who've allowed the company to put out housified, 'raver-friendly' remixes of their jazz-funk tunes, Omar is not about to let anyone else touch his music - unless it's just to do a different mix of the parts he's recorded.
"As long as it's done in that sense, I'm happy with it 'cos it's always good to hear somebody else's interpretation of how the mix is supposed to be," he comments. "The next single's just been remixed, but it's not the normal remix where a guy's come in with a drum machine and a computer and flung some things down. Everything's live, anyway, so for them to drop out stuff, they'd have to play the shit back in themselves, or have a very hard time with the SMPTE code. My music's kind of remixer-proof."
Or, to put it another way, Omar's music is just fine as it is.
Interview by Simon Trask
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