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?