Interview: Omar MBE
Mitch Hooper was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Omar MBE at his London home just after the release of his seventh album, ‘The Man’. After a warm welcome and a long chat about all things musical, they began the interview…
How would you describe your genre of music?
It’s been described as acid jazz to soul, basically trying to recreate 60s, 70s soul music. It’s a kind of retro vibe.
What is it that attracts you to this type of sound?
My father was a drummer in the 60s and 70s (as a part of funk band FBI), and used to play reggae drums for people like Doris Troy, Marcia Griffiths and the Rolling Stones. He told me stories about jamming with people like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix so I was bought up in that element. My music isn’t strictly soul though, I love latin, funk, reggae, and I was classically trained. What links it all is Africa; it’s an African style of music. But most of all it’s about bands playing together.
How do you go about writing a new song?
It comes in many forms, I play the bass, drums and keys, so it can come from those, or from the vocal melody, and everything kind of mushrooms out from there.
You’ve branched out recently, recording some tracks with Zed Bias, and the Henrik Schwarz remix of ‘Feeling You,’ how did this come about?
I met Zedd at a gig in Milton Keynes, listened to his tunes, the first track he played to me was the backing track to dancing, and I just got a vibe from it so we exchanged details. We actually worked the song together having not met for probably a year and a bit, sending bits back and forth through email. It’s the beauty of it now, you could never have done that fifteen years ago. The Henrik Schwarz one came out of the blue. I was signed to Mousse T’s (of I’m Horny, Horny Horny fame) label at the time, and he was trying to get people to do remixes, Henrik was one of them. When I first heard it I wasn’t so sure, as it’s very different from the original, but then it just blew up.
So how would you say your sound has evolved since the release of your first album? Who have been your biggest influences?
I’ve just been experimenting the whole time, it’s still the same kind of sounds, this album’s very organic, in that it’s bass, drums, keys and guitars and you can pretty much play them without plugging in. I use synthesizers of course, but they are the main sound because there’s just so much you can get out of them. As for evolution, this is the seventh evolution of me as a person, I’m always striving to find something new, something different, even though I’m using the same sounds but trying to keep it fresh at the same time. It’s just having fun really.
Any huge differences in your newest album to the ones released before?
Only in the way it’s been recorded, this and the last two albums were using logic, which has developed since I first used it. I’m kind of stubborn in how I record, I’ve got used to the way I work, I’ve got used to working with a certain bunch of people. I’ve used pretty much the same musicians in this album as I have in the past, people who I’ve been working with since I’ve been in my twenties. The only thing that’s personally changed is my life, so maybe that’s affected the music.
Do you have a favourite track on the album?
That’s like asking who’s my favourite kid! Each song has a different moment, it’s seven years worth of music so each time I recorded a track I was feeling very different. Each time I try and do something different, so there are about 150 of my kids out there!
You’ve combined with musicians such as Erykah Badhu on your new album, how do you choose which musicians to work with?
Whoever wants to work with me! It’s kind of right time, right place, when I first worked with Erykah she was in England, and people heard her on the radio talking about me as an influence, so I met up with her. Then when I was recording my fifth album and I needed a few more vocalists, she called me out of the blue, I was like perfect, good timing! Then we had problems with her label releasing her for the track. Luckily, Angie Stone was around, so I was like, can you do it? Once we got Angie’s vocal Erykah’s label gave her the go ahead so we ended up with two versions! But yeah, a lot of it is just right time, right place, being at the same club, the same show.
The big one, how did you begin working with Stevie Wonder? And how was it?
Fantastic! He’s a very big influence for me; I’ve been listening to him since I was 7 or 8 years old, really into his music. My manager at the time, Keith Harris, looks after Stevie, and passed him my second album. He liked it, and said he wanted to write me my first number one! I didn’t care where it ended up I just wanted to work with him! This was in 1992, in 2000 I actually got the call, and we put down ‘Feeling You’. We didn’t actually use it until 2006 so that song was probably percolating for 6 years.
What’s it like having your own studio? Any perks?
It’s free! The reason I built it was because I was coming to the end of yet another record deal that I’d had, so I thought what did I need most to survive? It was obvious, to have a studio. People tell me they pay 400 odd a month for a studio space so I made the initial investment and it’s payed off one hundred fold.
As well as a new studio, you’ve set up a new record label, what are the advantages of that?
The label the sixth album was going to be released on actually went bust so I had music I still wanted to get out there; the label was pretty much just for that. I wouldn’t get signed by me!
What would you say is the best show you’ve ever played?
There’s a show I did in New York, in 2004, at a place called SOB’s. When I was coming to the stage the roar of the crowd, and the warmth I was receiving as I came onto the stage, it was like I was coming home. If I have to pick one that stands out, it’s that one, definitely.
Do you enjoy playing at festivals? Any on the cards this year?
I’m actually flying out to France tomorrow to play one! I’m also playing Magic Fest in Guilford later on in the summer. I played Glasto in 1994 as well actually, you know Glastonbury the movie? I was in that! They had me performing ‘There’s Nothing Like This,’ I love festivals, but I’m not much of one for a tent! I did Latitude and it rained, so I was like next time I’m coming back with a camper!
Any tips for budding songwriters out there?
Speak from your heart and try and be original, I know that’s not easy to do, but keep at it because it’s not a thing that happens straight away, you need perseverance.
And what of the album itself? It more than lives up to it’s predecessors, with the self-titled debut single emanating class and style. Omar’s skill at writing a catchy melody is evident throughout; with opening track ‘Simplify’ giving Omar the opportunity to exhibit his grooving voice alongside majestic string based symphonies. With collaborations with artists such as Erykah Badhu and Hidden Jazz Quartett the album keeps to its opening tracks’ high standards throughout. Soul II Soul’s Caron Wheeler also appears on the duet ‘Treat You’, a track of minimal music that allows these two voices to play off each other beautifully. Africa and Latin America has long been an influence on Omar’s music and this is reflected throughout the album, with samba beats and crisp melodies aplenty. There’s also a re-recording of 1991 hit ‘There’s Nothing Like This’, now featuring Pino Palladino and a host of new strings and jazzy horns. Perfection has been improved upon.
I was also given the chance to listen to several remixes of ‘The Man’, with Zed Bias producing a frenetic take on the track that is sure to fill dance floors.
If you’re into your funky, soulful music this album is for you. If you’re not, as I wasn’t before I had listened to it, it’s well worth a listen. Omar is still very much, The Man.
by Mitch Hooper