Jamie Lidell is known for his spontaneity. In a 2006 video interview for PitchFork, the British-born musician appears somewhat manic, if endearing: he jumps atop a wooden coffee table in a hotel suite to preform a Russian Trepak dance, attempts to spin on his head, and illustrates Indian throat singing for the camera. His past five albums have been called schizophrenic, moving from electronic pop to ’70s soul. For Lidell, however, music-making is about chasing an idea, rather than cohesion.
“I think I’m just a curious guy,” he said. “I find so many things so fascinating, I’ve got that post-modern condition. I would never want to draw straight lines.”
Leaning against the window at Brown Cafe on the Lower East Side, in a bright blue sweater and a five-o’clock shadow, Lidell is mild and composed, even after three cups of coffee. He eats a bear claw pastry and dots the crumbs off the plate with his finger. “You can’t get this in Nashville, but you get spoiled in New York,” he reflected.
Two years ago Lidell and his wife, and manager, Lindsey, swapped their Chelsea apartment in New York for a 3,500 sq. ft. home in Nashville. Trying create music in an apartment, where mere conversation can be overheard by a neighbor—not to mention the thumping vibrations from a music studio—proved a challenge.
“I couldn’t stretch out at all, literally and metaphorically,” he said. “Art can’t flourish when it is too fucking expensive. In Nashville there are incredible musicians everywhere, it’s a joke.”
On his sixth, self-titled album, which was released today, Lidell presents a relevant electronic beat blended to the whine of his R&B vocals. It is every bit the kaleidoscope of what has come before—a mesh of pop, electronic, funk, and soul—but his calm home life has left space to make music that is highly energetic and clearly joyful.
“What a Shame,” the first single off the album, was made while washing the dishes. Ever the techno-nerd, Lidell runs the recorder on his iPhone, storing random beats and lines of sound for future inspiration.
“I was trying to sing through the water and I knew I was writing on the subject of ‘I really didn’t want this to end,’ so I put my mind in a place where I had that emotion in the past. I kept it really simple because the beat is really raw. A lot of the album is like that.”
“What a Shame” is on the electronic-pop side of Lidell’s spectrum. It is one of the more organic sounding tracks—the entrance of the voice and pulse of the beat are thrown down at exactly the right moments—feeling both gritty and smooth. Lidell collaborated with Justin Stanley, an Australian who’s produced for Beck and The Vines, and the pair had just 10 days to nail together the album, which had been a year in the making. Over that year Lidell used his new Nashville studio—a converted modern library with floor to ceiling bookcases—to produce albums for Pegasus Warning and Guillermo Brown.
“Sound is a really mysterious thing,” Lidell said. “If you just sit in a room and think about sound and think about music it doesn’t add up. But once you start making sound, just playing, the emotion comes through the sound and the sound tells you what to do.”
Lidell finds his inspiration from machinery. For him, the physical experience of creating originates in the history of a musical instrument and the reverberations that come through it. Growing up around classical music, Lidell always felt encourage to express himself through sound. The first instrument he picked up was the trombone, a self-admittedly random choice, but it taught him the subtleties of precision and tuning. Next, Lidell turned to the guitar and automatically tried to grade at the cords, seeking something more electric and “fuzzed out.” At 16 he got a synthesizer and that was the turning point. “It’s the ultimate punk instrument because you can take any sound and make it yours,” he said. “It allowed poor musicians to access the annals of history, just hit record.” A sampler, Lidell explained, allows access to music made in costly production studios with enormous budgets just by combining tracks, “It takes the elitism out of recording.”
Now he is returning to the piano, learning it crudely from scratch. “Piano is a percussion instrument, really, because the string is limited so you have to have rhythm,” he illustrated the short banging motion required when hitting each key. “You have every note in the scale and so you get a sense of the [entire] scope of western music.”
For Jamie Lidell the instrument and inspiration was a 56-key 12-foot long console used to make Paula Abdul’s iconic 1988 track “Straight Up.” He likes the coldness of the machine, a hollow loneliness, warmed by adding in real drums.
The album was also a product of food. Late breakfasts and slow-cooked macrobiotic meals gave him the energy to sustain long studio sessions. He compared the album to homemade bread that is kneaded by hand, needs time to rise, and is cooked to create aromatic smells—a sharp contrast to the pace of a city and a take-out anatomy.
“I want to challenge myself to get beyond where I was in my last incarnation,” he said, “Mutation is part of survival.”
Going out solo on the brink of his world tour provides that challenge—this album is more complicated and technologically reliant then his past work. Now approaching 40, Lidell seems like a more mature version of his past selves, his former mania manifesting as a quieter, highly intellectual passion and concern for the craft.
“You need to be obsessive to be good, you can’t be half hearted,” he said. “I only really trust nerds, because where is you passion? Only if you live and breathe it, then I can relate.”