The Okayplayer Interview: Philip Owusu Speaks On His New Album SUBS
Rising to prominence as one half of the duo Owusu & Hannibal, Philip Owusu was the enigmatic innovator behind much of the critical acclaim that followed Living With Owusu & Hannibal - his debut project with Robin Hannibal of Quadron fame. Both men unquenchable forces of massive talent, Hannibal went on to team with Coco O. for Boom Clap Bachelors and the aforementioned Quadron - producing with a veritable midas touch that has made them almost untouchable as a combo. As Hannibal made his ascent, however, Owusu found himself facing considerable adversity with the loss of his voice and a very limited budget for his latest project - a set of circumstances that kept him off the radar for quite some time. Determined to overcome, the producer/singer dug in and completed his solo debut, returning to the fore for the first time in nearly a decade with an album titled SUBS—a project that is unflinchingly honest and beautiful to the point that it will feel much too short when its over. Hearkening to the gorgeous bass and layered vocals that many okayplayers already know and love from his time in the duo, Owusu returns to stand on a body of work he produced and performed entirely on his own - dispelling rumors that left him with little credit for his contributions to Living With… and doing a bang-up job of setting the stage for what's to come (>>>stream his first single "Goodnight" here--debuted on radio by Gilles Peterson and presented in its online premiere right here on Okayplayer). It seems safe to say that he's back, and thankfully so. With SUBS we witness the rebirth of Philip Owusu. From where he stands, this is just the beginning.
Okayplayer: Your new project is called SUBS. What inspired the title? Is it an acronym?
Philip Owosu: It isn't actually. SUBS are kind of like the suburbs. In Denmark, for instance, a lot of the people with immigrant backgrounds tend to live in the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs myself. It was just the idea of doing something that's a sub-culture. Something that lives underneath what you initially perceive on the surface. It was kind of like the underdogs. My idea was to do a tribute to society's underdogs.
OKP: How did you get your start as a musician?
PO: My earliest musical interests were some of the old soul stuff that my parents had. I was brought up on a lot of the old Stevie Wonder records - that kind of stuff. I think kind of started my interest in soul music itself, but the way I got into it was I took some guitar and bass lessons as a kid. I started playing bass at one point - I think it was a Cameo record; "Candy”--I loved that track. Once I heard it I started learning bass and just went on from there to the guitar at some point and piano to help me write better songs.
OKP: What are the most essential items in your studio setup?
PO: I write most of my songs on my acoustic guitar so that would definitely have to be there. Then I have this thing - it's a Yamaha DX-7. I'm a sucker for that synth. The way it sounds. It's basically the synth that I used most on the last record. Obviously there's a lot of vocal stuff with my music, so there'd have to be a microphone as well. I think those are probably the most essential.
OKP: You are obviously influenced by funk & soul. Your production also takes a lot of cues from the 80s dance & pop aesthetic - things like Wham!; El DeBarge, etc. How have those types of sounds affected your work?
PO: I think the soul stuff is the foundation of all the stuff that I do. I try to put something new on the table with every song that I do. I pick up things from all different types of genres that I like and I try to put them into the mix as much as I can. I also try to go for untraditional choices and combinations - a lot of different textures. Not just the obvious things that you expect from a soul track. I look around as much as possible for all types of inspiration from all types of music.
OKP: You have recorded under the banners of Owusu & Green as well as Owusu & Hannibal. While one is more dance driven than the other, what made each experience unique?
PO: I think it was the time. Owusu & Green came out in 2001 on Naked Music. The label we were doing the work for colored the way we did the songs. They are both projects that are close to my heart but maybe the Owusu & Hannibal is even closer, because it gave me a chance to get completely into a pop album and really exploring the possibilities that one could do with over 15 songs that we did for that record.
OKP: Have you done or considered doing any work with Robin Hannibal's groups Quadron/Boom Clap Bachelors?
PO: I did a couple of tracks for the first Quadron record. I did "Day" and "Patience" with Robin. They are produced under the title of Owusu & Hannibal. I also did a song on their upcoming record, but that was just as a guest vocalist.
OKP: With all the critical acclaim that followed the Owusu & Hannibal debut, why the solo release and not a follow-up to the duo?
PO: As far as another Owusu & Hannibal, I don't know. These days they [Quadron] seem to be doing pretty well on their own. We'll see. I also have stuff that I want to do by myself, but we'll see.
OKP: You produced and performed virtually everything on this record. How did the division of labor break down on Living With… with shared responsibility? Do you prefer working alone to collaboration?
PO: I tend to be a loner in the way I work. I sit by myself most of the time and an idea starts - I like having the opportunity to take that idea as far as I can without being interrupted. Even with the Owusu & Hannibal record. We never worked in the same room at the same time. Robin lived just across the street from me so it was a case of me going across the street with a USB drive full of stuff that I'd done during that day. Usually I just prefer to be allowed to sit and see how far I can take something before I introduce another person or play it for somebody else.
OKP: How do you feel about the public response to your music? Is it better in Europe than in the states?
PO: Most of the music that I've done has been put out on American labels so I would say that the response has been better from the States than it has here. Denmark doesn't really have a soul scene. It's getting there, but it's still difficult to get music out if you do soul here. It's very much electronic music or rock music. All of the people I know that do soul stuff, they send it out of the country to get it out there. I'm surprised when I go to the states and I meet people who tell me things like "I really liked that record you did" - it's not the response I get here.
OKP: When you began working on this album, what were your goals? Do you feel you were able to accomplish them?
PO: Whenever I do music, my goal is to make music I like. I'm very selfish in that way. I always try to make the most beautiful sound that I can imagine. During the process of recording it never turns out to be the most beautiful song, but that's always the aim - that's always the goal: to achieve perfection. The first time when I sit down with the melody--I tend to record things first on my phone--when I record the first few lines of a song, I think to myself "Just wait until they hear this song. This is going to knock them over."
OKP: How do you feel about the record now that it's finished? Are you able to enjoy yourself?
PO: I do enjoy the record. It's still very close to me - it's still very recent, so I think I need a little more time to be able to judge it. But there are moments on the album I'm really proud of. The same with the Owusu & Hannibal record. There are moments that I'm really proud of and I think as time goes on that I may be able to sit back one day and listen to the record with fresh ears. That I'll be able to listen to the record as one body of work without concentrating on the tracks and the mistakes; appreciate it as a whole.
OKP: Have you tested your own limits with this latest production in ways you hadn't with earlier projects?
PO: This is the first time I've done a whole record by myself. So, even just the task of doing that has been a test. I think the fun part of doing music is in the beginning when all doors are open and it seems the song can go anywhere. But the hard part is wrapping it up and I must admit that part of it was never really fun for me. I've always had a lot of songs that I haven't finished. They just need a little bit of work. I think doing a whole record by yourself forces you to make those decisions. You need to do the tiresome part of the work and make those difficult decisions too, so that was probably a big test. And also just seeing a record from the very first note to the very last. Seeing it right through until the end as one person - every decision is a decision you make, when it comes to what's being played - what's being sung. It's tiring.
OKP: How do you deal with the stress that comes as a result of working the way you do?
PO: I read somewhere that there are a lot of musicians - particularly jazz musicians - that do martial arts. Martial arts have this whole thing where there's a spiritual side of it. So, I do that. I do some Kung Fu. For a time I also went running. When you sit with an instrument all day or you're by a computer all day, you need to get the energy and frustrations out. A nice way to channel is to do some type of exercise - particularly martial arts or something like that that also has the mind behind it.
OKP: Ok, we’ve got to ask--what is the story behind “Goodnight”?
PO: The song is sort of like the story of Don Quixote--the knight that's basically schizophrenic or whatever. It's kind of about an anti-hero; it's a guy who comes home and is received by his mom or girlfriend - his daughter or whatever - after a night of being drunk. In his delusion he's fought a great battle but in real life he's not so important. Maybe it's autobiographical to some extent. It’s from a sketch for a song I did around the time of Owusu & Hannibal that I never finished but I always wanted to do. I was thinking about adding it to Owusu & Hannibal at that time, but for some reason I didn't. I decided to keep it.
OKP: What is your own favorite song on the album?
PO: I don't think I have favorite songs on the album, but I think there are songs where I got closer to what I was looking for with the finished product. Like with Owusu & Hannibal, I think my favorite two songs are "Le Fox" and "Blue Jay" because I think we managed to get what we were looking for when we started out. To me at least, it seemed a unique sound. Some people prefer "Lonnie's Secret" and I like that song, but at the same time the sound is still not that unique. I think it’s the same with the new record. For instance, I like the song "Bionic." To me that was basically what I was looking for when I did that song. I also like "Goodnight" too.
OKP: It sounds like the journey from Owosu & Hannibal to SUBS was quite a struggle--were there any low points and how did that translate in the end product?
PO: There were a lot of low points, which I think was also part of making this record really personal for me. First of all, I had no budget for it. I had to borrow instruments from my friends to finish it and the process dragged out for a long time. The amount of time I had to spend was extremely stressful. I lost my voice for almost two years. I couldn't sing. I had to do treatment and I have been seeing a lot of voice specialists to get over it. Its okay now, but I think it was partly due to the stress of working on the project and the way that in some cases it just took longer than it should have because I had no money and I was depending on a lot of outside forces.
OKP: Do you feel like you're able to relax with the album officially on its way?
PO: Not yet. There's still a lot of work to be done before it comes out. The times that I can really relax and really enjoy myself are when I’m doing new music, but it seems that I want to get this off my chest before I can really feel free to take a deep breath or go into a full project again. I'm still doing stuff before the record comes out, so I don't know if I can take a deep breath yet.