The Okayplayer Interview: Omar Speaks On His New LP 'The Man'

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Though beloved by diehard music connoisseurs Omar Lye Fook maybe arguably the most unsung pioneer of the movement that has been called neo-soul but is really just soul--soul music in the age of intelligent machines, so to speak. Making his UK debut with "Mr. Postman" and "You And Me"--collaborations with the future voice of Soul II Soul, one Ms. Caron Wheeler, from 1985 and 1988, respectively--Omar was bringing melody back to airwaves full of 808s and Linn drums back when rap was still in its first wave of global popularity. In 1990 he came into musical maturity with the release of "Nothing Like This"--a signature sound that was equal parts lover's rock and Lonnie Liston Smith. In the process he helped draw the blueprint for the eclectic and sophisticated grooves that post-modern soul has taken, from Maxwell to Alicia Keys. With his new album The Man (dropping next Tuesday June 25th), his much-missed voice returns after an absence of some seven years--a gap that included moves into acting and Fatherhood, among other new phases of his evolution. On the eve of his new album release--and its premiere right here on Okayplayer--Omar got with us to discuss the new work, where music fits into his life these days and reuniting with Caron Wheeler, among other exciting collaborations. Hit the links below to stream or purchase The Man and scroll down for a brief glimpse into the soul of Omar.

>>>Stream Omar - The Man (via OKP Premiere)

Okayplayer: It's been a minute and a half since we've had a new Omar album to play — how does it feel to be back? What were the events that conspired to bring this new LP together after such a long hiatus from the new studio?

Omar: It’s great to be back. It took a while to make this album because in the meantime, me and my partner had twin girls--who are 6 now--we moved, I started acting. I was also touring, doing shows worldwide and composing the music for this new album.

OKP: What the hell have you been up to?

Omar: I think that’s answered in number one [laughs]. No, well in my career as an actor, I was lucky enough to get a part in a musical called Been So Long written by Ché Walker, and performed at the Young Vic in Waterloo. And since then, I had a one-man play written for me called Love Song — it’s kind of based on my music — also written by Ché Walker, which I’ve been touring as well. It’s been a great experience, because it’s kind of pushed me as an artist; artistically as well, it’s great to do something different.

OKP: As the father of twins, how does the free-flow of going back into the studio fit with your role as a family man?

Omar: The role of family man just fits in perfectly, I think. Having twins--well, having daughters--has given me a sense of purpose in life and I feel blessed and wouldn’t want it any other way. Before I had children, I was wondering how it was going to change my life, but it hasn’t really, it’s just made it all better, I couldn’t imagine my life without them — they’re such a joy to be with. It’s just fantastic.

OKP: You don't appear to have missed a step — the new songs definitely scratch the itch that fans of "Nothing Like This" have been suffering with, including a new version of "Nothing Like This" (!) Can't help but note the presence of Pino Palladino on that track, can you tell us a little about his role?

Omar: Well having Pino on the track was such a blessing because I had been trying to do a 20th anniversary of “There’s Nothing Like This” in 2010, because 1990 is when it originally came out. I’d been beating myself up about it because I tried so many different ways — I tried to just redo the original one and play everything again, but that wasn’t really cutting it. And it just kind of came to me was right around the same time that Pino contacted me, said he was in town, let’s get in and do some more music together. It was the night before he was supposed to come where it came to me how I was supposed to get the groove down, and how the beat was supposed to play, and the chord changes slightly. So when he came the next day, it was just such a touch to have this bass musician-god playing on the music. It just worked out well — I’m really, really happy with the new version. I know it’s going to be in two different camps — some people prefer the old version to the new one, but hey you know, it’s the song that they like, so that’s really cool for me.

OKP: Can you introduce the personnel that play on the other songs...Specifically how was it working with Caron Wheeler again, have you guys remained friends/collaborators through out? Or does "Treat You" represent a reunion of sorts?

Omar:  Other people, you know, Stuart Zender, I’ve known Stuart for years, me and him go way back. He just called me out of the blue... Funny thing is I haven’t seen him for years, but I sent him the track and he put the bass down on it and then I mixed it down. I still have yet to see him and give him a hug and give him thanks for blessing the track because he’s another bass genius from back in the days with Jamiroquai and beyond. Caron Wheeler was another godsend coming out of the...there was a Soul II Soul reunion that I attended and she was there. I was like, You know, I have this tune you might sound good on and she said, Oh yeah, let’s have a go. And she sent me her vocals from New York and everything that she put down, I basically used because everything she did was so sweet, you know? We go back years, from really back in the day, because she sang backing vocals on my second single “You and Me.” This is before Soul II Soul, so having her on the track now is like a repeat of history, really. And yeah, blessings. Also my brother Scratch Professor, who I always use because we gel together so well, he’s featuring on the track “Bully” and we also wrote “Eeni Meeni Myni Mo” together; he also plays some keys on various tracks like “I Can Listen” as well. It’s just great to have... You know I have a core of musicians that I usually use as well. The brass section: Jim Hunt, Nichol Thompson, Dom Glover, Duncan McKay... But I also manage to get players like Richie Stephens, Neville Malcolm on “Simplify,” and you know just various people that I have a stable with now that I use, and you can basically hear it in the sound.

>>>Purchase Omar -The Man (via US iTunes) 

>>>Purchase Omar -The Man (via UK iTunes)

>>>Puchase Omar - The Man (via Amazon UK)

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

OKP: "Bully" seems to have a distinctly reggae-ish influence on the horns and some other elements, can you speak to how much your West Indian background has shaped your ear and/or your music?

Omar: Well “Bully” is definitely a reggae influence and yeah, my heritage is that. You know, my parents are both Jamaican, and I definitely have an affinity with singers like John Holt and Dennis Brown for sure, because their smooth vocals is something that I kind of relate to. But also you know reggae music is about the basslines and the beats as well so, that was a track I did on the bass and the drums and as soon as I was playing it, I was like man, this is like a reggae tune. So the vocals came to me like in a reggae sort of way. And you know, it’s bound to come through. But they’re all connected, you know, because my music is partly Cuban, because my grandmother was born in Havana, Cuba; which I always wondered about because I love salsa music and you can definitely hear the connection there. But everything is connected by Mother Africa, simple as that.

OKP: The songs that first made your rep in the world of music definitely felt like a particular moment in UK soul and both sides of the Atlantic — with the recent return of Brand New Heavies it feels perhaps that moment is coming back around, what’s going on over there? Who do you feel are your kindred spirits in the music game in 2013, in the UK and otherwise?

Omar: Yeah, it’s kind of a coincidence that me and Brand New Heavies are coming back out at the same time. I definitely feel an affinity with those guys because I remember when I was at college I was hearing one of their tracks “Got To Give” on the radio and that just blew me away because it was the same kind of music I was trying to create; that retro, 70s, 60s, soulful funky feel is where we were coming from you know? I mean back in the day they called it acid jazz, I mean it was me, it was them, Young Disciples, Galliano, and Incog, Incognito of course, from a bit before. We’re trying to like pay homage to our heroes from back in the day, and I think yeah, it’s coming around again. I mean the names have changed; it used to be acid jazz, then it was new classic soul, now it’s neo-soul, I’m sure it’s going to be called something else. But it’s about musicians playing with other musicians and having that live feel. There’s something... There’s a core about it, there’s an earth-ly thing which people relate to. Sometimes, people just want to put down all the technology and they just want to get back to the simple things of a bunch of people in a room playing together. I mean that’s how all that fantastic music was made in the 60s and 70s — you didn’t have all these multi-tracks, you had to do everything in one go, everybody had to do their stuff in one time. And that’s the same kind of music that we’re trying to create, it just feels good to be part of that movement.

OKP: What's next for Omar?

Omar: Well next for me is basically getting out on the road, touring with the new music, seeing the fans. I definitely want to come back to the US because I haven’t been there for about four years now, so I think it’s about time we had a little reunion party. I’m still acting, I’ve signed up with United Agents, so anybody looking for an actor in a film, TV, commercial, whatever you need, I’m there [laughs]. But yeah, I’m just keeping on keeping on man, I’ve been blessed, and blessed enough to still be making music and almost 30 years on from when it started, so I give thanks for that. I’m very humbled by that and I’m very humbled that people are still willing to listen to my music, so give thanks.

>>>Purchase Omar -The Man (via US iTunes) 

>>>Purchase Omar -The Man (via UK iTunes)

>>>Puchase Omar - The Man (via Amazon UK)