Words: ill Will
Omar Lye-Fook is the true definition of an icon. With close to 30 years experience in the field of music, his passionate expression of matters of the heart and distinctive sense of style and individuality is what has set him apart from the rest for so long. With a high level of respect, working relationships between himself and the likes of Erykah Badu, Common and Mica Paris have aided him in raising his profile to such a level that a certain Stevie Wonder now calls him up whenever he’s in town just to hang out. When he’s not rubbing shoulders with Motown greats he’s busy being a father to his twin daughters, Gabrielle and Carmen, as well as starring in a stage show musical.
On the cusp of releasing his seventh studio album, The Man, Omar sits down with IMC to chop it up about various subjects, including his recently received MBE for services to music, hating his first ever single and his opinion on the current state of UK soul.
Calling Adele soul is kinda stretching it a bit…
Recognition is a hard thing to earn when it comes to music. Especially these days. With more and more watered down and recycled ideas gaining increased attention that say an instrumentally raw and unfiltered song of the heart wouldn’t, the connection to the human soul via music has become disconnected. “Calling Adele soul is kinda stretching it a bit,” Omar says, in a critically educational mood. “Her music has soul because obviously it’s coming from her heart but I don’t really see it as soul music. Not in the traditional sense at least. But there is a soul scene out there it’s just being suppressed. It’s not getting any [love] because [the industry is] only interested in the new versions. You know? All the Tinie Tempahs, the Labrinths, Emeli Sandes. Which is great. I’m really happy for those kids. They’re successful and they’re icons for the youth growing up. But that’s just one section of the music.”
Obviously not hating on the new age of, dare we call it, watered down soul, Omar’s merely defending his artistic integrity. As the unofficial spokesperson for the UK soul scene, the wisdom along with the wise head on his shoulders is worth more than a few hits on the radio. “There’s enough room for everyone,” he explains. “Me and my girls be singing [Emeli Sande] tunes when we’re sitting down at the dinner table. I’m signing her tunes but it’s not what I do. It’s a different compartment.”
While it wasn’t too long ago that the commercial market were embracing acts such as Beverley Knight, Joss Stone and The Brand New Heavies, the question now is do the labels need to take some responsibility for the decline in mass interest themselves? It’s a tricky one according to Omar.
“Currently the labels are at a crisis point because all of their jobs have been going. All the stuff that they once controlled they haven’t really got control over anymore. If you go back 10 or 15 years there were only certain TV stations and certain radio shows where you could get your music heard. Now that the internet has blown up you can get your own YouTube channel, your own website and Facebook. People can listen to your [music] direct. They don’t have to go through that same rigmarole. A&R guys just don’t have the same job anymore because they can’t tell you that you’ve gotta do this to get it on this show or that show. There’s no middle man anymore. So you have this plethora of music coming at you, and some of it is gonna be bullshit, but at the same time people are going to be making the music they wanna make without being told what they should be making.”
Despite the lack of commercial acknowledgment as far as chart listeners are concerned, there has been some other major recognition for Omar more recently. Last year awarded an MBE, a symbol of being a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for his services to music, he’s now on the first step of the ladder that ends with becoming a Sir.
“A guy at the British Arts Council nominated me for an MBE because he thought it was about time I got some recognition for what I was doing,” he explains. “I took it in one ear and out the other because that’s the type of thing… I don’t get nominated for anything in the mainstream so when I heard that I was like, “Okay. Whatever.” Well not really whatever but I put it to one side. Then I just came home one day, I think I had just been on holiday with the Missis, I opened a letter and bam there it was.” Proud of his achievements, he laughs for a second and adds, “Jazzy [B] (of Soul II Soul) is an officer. So every time I see him I salute him because he outranks me you know?”
Following the much preferred independent route himself, Omar’s latest business venture has landed him at Freestyle Records. Formed in 2003 and ran by musician, broadcaster and DJ Greg Boraman, the jazz/funk/soul/house inspired label have been very serious about Omar’s latest product. After an unfortunate decision to sign with a label that went bust one week before the release of his album Sing (If You Want It), he needed a home with a solid reputation and belief in the product itself instead of looking at an album as a monetary figure. “It’s sort of like when I signed up to Talking Loud,” comparing it to one of his earlier label homes. “They had Giles Peterson and Norman Jay. Those boys are well in to their music and know about the business side of things too. That’s the same kind of vibe I’m getting from Freestyle and that just suits me perfectly right now.”
So what can listeners expect from Omar’s first release on Freestyle? Titled The Man, according to the Londoner, who now lives in Brighton & Hove, it’s some of the best music he’s ever laid down. Proud of his entire back catalogue, he claims to be happy with the outcome of each album yet he’s always striving to improve. “[This is] seven years worth of me trying to enjoy myself,” he casually states. “That’s the one thing I still have. The fire in my belly when I’m writing a song. I get a vibe from it. I want to carry this across to the people because I give thanks every day for my life. I’m in a blessed position. Almost 30 years I’ve been making music now. So for me to still be making music and for people to still be talking about my music, and getting excited about it, it’s a blessing.” Admitting that he knows a few musicians that have had to take a second job to survive during music’s financially unstable times, he acknowledges that it’s not easy out there anymore. He feels truly blessed.
“When I put my albums together I just look at all the titles and just think, “That’s the one.” You know? This Is Not A Love Song, Sing (If You Want It), Best By Far. The Man was pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s a part of my evolution.” Breaking down his process for selecting album titles, Omar explains that this time around he realised, upon filming the video for his lead single, that the title itself really did reflect his current standpoint in life.
“I started thinking about what I was singing. The first part is about how I used to be wild and [how] something made me calm down. That was my girls. Then in the second verse I’m talking about my baby does this thing. That’s my Missis. When I wrote the lyrics I wasn’t thinking about that. I’ve got a song specifically for them called “Ordinary Day,” which is the last track on the album. But then when we did the video for the single it all just fell in to place. It just made sense. You see the video and it’s a day out with my family and it falls in line with the thing about me being a man. But up until that point I was just Omar the boy. The youngster. Now I’ve got responsibilities to take care of. So I hope that I’m being a man about looking after people and taking care of things.”
Widely known for his 1991 top twenty hit “There’s Nothing Like This,” performing it is something he has to do on the regular because it’s the song most audiences recognise him by – think Kings of Leon with “Sex On Fire.” Omar admits that it’s not a problem and that he loves the song. However, there is a song in his back catalogue he doesn’t care too much for. “When I first started out my first single, I fucking hated it,” he says of 1985’s “Mr. Postman.” “Do you remember Five Star?” he asks. “That’s how old I am. I had to do PA’s where I went on after Five Star. They were huge! The whole room would be clearing out and I’m singing this shitty song that I didn’t like. I just promised myself [at that point] that I’d never write another tune that I’m gonna hate because you’re gonna have to sing that tune over and over and over again. Can you imagine if I hated “There’s Nothing Like This?” I’d be trying to stab myself in the eye every night I sing it. You know what I mean?”
Having not spoken to his idol Stevie Wonder in about a year, Omar admits to being a fan since the age of seven. Not worried about achieving anything else because he has his daughters and he has his memories of working with the Motown legend, he jokes that he’s a simple man. Listing that the mortgage is coming out on the 1st of the month and the council tax on the 15th, his time spent walking around Wonderland Studios, recording music, and wining and dining, all with the musical icon that inspired him, is all that consumes his thoughts. He remembers one story in particular.
“I didn’t believe him [when he called me one time] so I asked him to sing for me. He sang for me. He told me he was in town and he wanted to hang out. So for two weeks I was his ambassador. He told me he had a tune for me that I would like. The one thing with Stevie is that you’ve got to be patient because he doesn’t rush for no one. I got there at 11pm and I told everyone that Stevie was coming and they had to be there. So about 30 or 40 people were in the studio waiting for Stevie Wonder to arrive. He got there at 5:30 in the morning. [By that point] it was only the hardcore people that were left but they got a ride of a lifetime!”
Visit Omar online: omarmusic.co.uk
Follow on Twitter: @OmaeLyeFookMBE
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