“I live in a bubble, in a way. I just ignore all the world. I’m in my writing zone, or I’m disconnected. That’s not a good feeling, actually. It might be cool for a while. But it’s too selfish.” And yet Jamie Lidell is very charming. The British musician and soul artist ‘opens up for you’. Talking sincere and outspoken about being a perfectionist, the pressure caused by his parents, taking drugs, the obsession for sound, his depression, the admiration for Prince and Michael Jackson, and having tiny money.
September 18th is not just ‘Another day’ for Jamie Lidell. It’s his birthday and he’s turning 40. And he wants to have kids some time with his wife he married a couple of years ago. But first let’s talk about music, maestro.
When you look at your childhood, music seemed to be your destiny.
Jamie Lidell: “It would be cool to see how I was then. Because our memories of childhood are a bit weird. I’m not one of those people that can go back in time in my mind really easily: ‘I remember when I was four’. I can’t. It’s more just sensations. But I do have early memories going to my granddad. He was running the church in Scotland. It’s funny, these days I try to work out what my musical roots are: what I am and where I come from. I wasn’t literally surrounded by music. But my mom was a singer and still is. That’s definitely undeniable: the difference between having a family where there is music and where there is not. But ultimately it’s speculation. At school there was a music teacher. He taught us every subject. But he happened to be a music writer. He could see that I could sing. And he said: ‘Let’s try and sing some other songs, a bit more advanced. And try some school productions’. He put me in a spotlight a lot. So I guess I got a taste for that pretty early. More than being someone that was recognized by a teacher that I respected. You do a few things as a kid, and you check the response. You check your parents response, you check your teachers response. “Oh, this is cool’.”
You used to sing in the car all the time as a kid. What kind of songs?
Lidell: “I don’t know. My mom was singing to me. And she said: ‘You were definitely singing before you were speaking’. Music is very primal for humans: rhythm, fun. But at the same time exploring your voice. You can hear music in shapes. Maybe before you can hear a distinction between words and meaning. That’s a completely different brain function. You just mimic ‘whooo’ and ‘whaaa’. You do that in kinds of shapes and forms before we say like ‘I would like a cup of tea’ or ‘Mummy, time for milk now’.”
That teacher of you, did he give you the push to become a singer?
Lidell: “Not explicitly. More like a gentle push, an encouragement. That’s the best kind of push, when you don’t really feel you have to do so. I felt like I wanted to do it. It was selfish pleasure. I definitely enjoyed the attention. Kids love it, right? It was clear that I was never going to be the sports dude. I wanted to be good at something. For sure, this side is really from my dad – but my mom too: a perfectionist style. I wanted to learn, do something and dedicate my time to it. And do it with crazy passion. And also an obsessiveness comes in. Possibly sometimes unhealthy. And I guess that’s what it takes ones in a while. I’ve been recently listening stories about famous mixed engineers. And everyone has the same thing in common: you’ve got to be possessed in a way. The first thing you want to do in the morning. You’ve got to be a certain kind of fool.”
And the idea of becoming a professional singer, at what age did that occur?
Lidell: “You know at school you have that talk: ‘All right kids, what do you want to be?’ And you end up saying ‘astronaut’. You say all kinds of bullshit. I didn’t like that question. I knew I was too young to really answer that question meaningfully. But at the same time I said to him: ‘I want to get into recording. I have a couple of friends and we’re trying work on stuff. But I don’t wanna do records. I think I want to be record producer’. And he answered: ‘You might think of something that really is going to happen’. And that was really great for me. That was what I needed. Because I was like ‘I’m gonna show this dude’. I like people to doubt me. My parents were unimpressed by almost everything. You come home with all A’s. And they say ‘Well, not bad. But wait until the next results’. ‘What? I just put my ass off. Can’t I just get some love right now?’”
And you were then at the age of 16?
The same age as the moment you went on stage to be the supporting act of The Prodigy.
Lidell: “(laughs) Yes, it was at school. You are right. I was 17 in fact.”
Did you have stress? Or was it a normal thing?
Lidell: “It wasn’t a normal thing. Definitely not. But I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea what they were. I had no idea what I was.”
You didn’t know who The Prodigy was?
Lidell: “Not really. I knew their song ‘Charly says’. But I didn’t know what raving was. It was in the early days of acid house, the early nineties. But I didn’t really like that. I didn’t like the punk scene. It was not something that appealed to me. I was a good kid, you know. At school I did speak out about people smoking and taking drugs. I found them fools. But then there was a turning point for me around that Prodigy-thing. I was a top student. I got a letter from the headmaster.”
Lidell: “Well… More like I could get into Cambridge or something like that. I worked too hard and I burned out. And when I got to high school, I didn’t want any more school. Man, work even harder? I felt a rebellion coming up in me. My first time smoking wheat, a joint or two. The whole think just made me puke. But I wanted to be part of that crew. Getting out of this cycle I was in: a good kid always doing this or that. In a way, I was living for my parents. But at the same time, it never seemed to make them happy. Especially not my dad. So after a while, I thought: ‘Who am I doing this for anyway?’ So I started to hang out with my friends. I knew something was changing, a slow realization. I didn’t know at that point that I was gonna go into music. But I definitely got more into music, and into more crazy music like hard core. Trying to get laid. Taking speed. And I started raving a bit. I stopped listening to Prince. Before I was pretty much exclusively listening to him. As a teenager you want to fit in, be part of something. You can’t rave to Prince, do you? When I went to the university of Bristol, I studied sciences, but I stopped and started studying philosophy. I was into it, so I started it properly. But I was raving every weekend. All of a sudden I was out of my village life where I spent 17 years.”
And leaving the pressure of your parents?
Lidell: “Yeah. A little bit. I always wanted the respect. But I still always had that ‘good student’ mentality. Because I am a perfectionist. I actually didn’t make that much music in college. I had my little home set studio and my sampler. But when I finished university in 1995, I had a bunch of tracks on cassette. I was in bands in college. And I was making a kind of funk. And I listened to soul.”
Listening to soul was influenced by your mom, I guess?
Lidell: “Not really. She wasn’t into soul music. Her passion is classical music. If Marvin Gay would come on the radio, she would be digging it. But it wasn’t like she really cared that much. She feels music, she knows good music. Who doesn’t like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke? It’s hard not to love that. And I always kept that on. It wasn’t like I lost my love for Prince.”
It’s well known that you’re a great fan of Prince.
Lidell: “Yeah. Through Prince I did learn about Sly Stone, Funkadelic. And I had really weird bootlegs. I had the albums as well. But I preferred to hear him live.”
Did you want to be Prince at that time?
Lidell: “Definitely. If I could have been, I would have. I had an idol. That was my musical idol. I needed like a kind of a father figure, I guess. But what a twisted father figure, you know what I mean? A bit of a mental character to choose. Someone who could be my teacher. Prince is like my musical teacher. Even though I had some great music teachers. We did really crazy productions at school.”
Do you have some of those productions left?
Lidell: “No. And as far as I know, there is no video. I’m pretty upset about that, actually. (laughs) So much work, you know. We really worked our ass out of that stuff and had a lot of discipline from those teachers. They were getting angry if we didn’t do it right or didn’t pay a lot of attention. And Prince… I was filtering his music through my weird little English brain.”
Prince was like a father figure for you, you said. Your dad left you at the age of six. In what way did that influence you?
Lidell: “I was against my dad most of the time. It was an antagonistic relationship.”
In an interview you once said: ‘My father is always there. Maybe the tension it caused made me be an artist.’
Lidell: “Well, it’s a kind of a speculation for the actual causes. A lot of things lead to where we are now. And this is definitely involved in the mix. The feeling that he wasn’t there. And maybe look for attention. When he was at home, I really loved to hang out with him, my mom said. I looked to him all the time, more than my mom. When he left, it really did devastate me. ‘What the hell is going on?’ A pain that I couldn’t really understand. So yeah, I think music was a good way for me to express the emotions maybe.”
You were talking about Prince. But you are also a big fan of Michael Jackson.
Lidell: “Absolutely. I think everyone was into Michael, man. A musical phenomenon. Listen to ‘Off the wall’ and so. It just blew me away.”
Did you meet him once?
Lidell: “No. I met Prince, but not Michael. That would have been amazing.”
What would you have asked him, if you had just one question?
Lidell: “(laughs) I just would have wanted him to do some beatbox. He was really amazing at that. He was doing crazy shit with his voice. And that was kind of what I always wanted to do. That was what I always did as a kid: try to make the music with my voice. And I know that’s Michaels style.”
And the conversations with Prince, how do they go?
Lidell: “There was no conversation. Would have been cool… But I just met him. I sometimes meat Elton John. He is fan of my voice. It’s quite weird. In my twenties I was abusing my voice. Not having any technique at all. Just pure passion. Getting older, that literally hurt. It could destroy your voice. That was what was happening: I was losing my voice and I had to go to a voice coach.”
‘I was quite a lonely dude’, you said about earlier periods.
Lidell: “Definitely. Even if you are surrounded by a lot of people, you can be lonely. It is more of a mental attitude. A feeling you’re not fitting in. I felt most relationships were superficial and I didn’t like that. I only want decent connections with people.”
Is it true your first girlfriend left you? And that this event had quite an influence on you?
Lidell: “Yeah. Definitely. It was in college back in Bristol. It was also really an emotional time, taking so much xtc. (laughs) Being in this big changing time, and wanting everything to be perfect… I also liked the drama of being broken hearted. I hated it at the time. But there is something decadent about feeling strong emotions. At least you know you’re alive. It’s way worse than just feeling nothing. But I got really depressed and at the same time I got glandular fever. For six months I was just in bed, being away from school. I think it was the combination of not living healthy and taking drugs. I took a big dive. She broke my heart. And maybe that unlocked my emotions. When you feel down, you can take on every negative thought. All the things that you fear, for example ‘oh, we gonna die’. All your worries are taking you like a tsunami. A spiral of thoughts I couldn’t escape. I definitely had that classic depression.”
And how did you come out this depression? By music?
Lidell: “Actually no. It wasn’t music. I was listening to Miles Davis and so, all heavy shit. I wanted the saddest music, that would feel my state of mind. And that kept it going.”
So what was the reason then?
Lidell: “Just walking and looking at stuff. The color green, actually. I needed something really stupidly simple. Looking at the grass. And that had a really strong green. And I was like: ‘Wow, that’s pretty’. It hit me. I was taking everything for granted. But if you care to look, everything is amazing. Everything is super rich and detailed. And that was all I needed. Something really zen-like. Something potent. I was studying Buddhism a bit at that time as well. I wanted to get out. And it worked. I spired up.”
Let’s go back to music. What is the most important: the lyrics or the music?
Lidell: “Music for me. My wife is much more into lyrics. That’s why I never really got into hip hop early on: it’s all lyrics and stories. I appreciate that and I actually need the lyrics to be good. And I feel like I’m not really great at that. It annoys me. It’s a song, so you have to be able to tell a story that’s compelling. Look at Johnny Cash, that’s why he is so beloved. His stories are amazing. You listen to that over and over and over again. The great songwriters are people sitting around the fire ‘Hey kids, come get around, I’m gonna tell you a story’. And if you’ve got nothing to say, after a while you get bored.”
Are you a bit jealous of that great songwriters?
Lidell: “Not really jealous. I’m impressed, inspired and curious. I guess in my really weak moments I’m jealous. I understand now that lyrics are much more important than I used to think they were.”
Yes, because the image in general might be that Jamie Lidell is all into music, and the lyrics are just secondary. Is that true in some kind of way?
Lidell: “In some kind of way. I’m definitely more able of writing the musical part than I am on the lyrical part. I’ve put my emphasis on that. I’ve always made sound. The quality of sounds, what sounds are, were they come from, different sounds. I’ve always been obsessed by that. The sound is where I can get the depth. In classical music for example, with no voice or what so ever, you can create huge emotion. That are really important facts for me. To me, the voice is just another sound. I’ve not really been obsessed by stories, although I appreciate that. My mind is more interested in abstract. Sound is abstract, lyrics are not. But now I get older I appreciate that I need the story to be good. A simple song doesn’t have to have a complicated lyric. It’s in a way even more beautiful. A good lyric is something that connects with the emotion of the song. Then you’re up to something really magic.”
And what song is typical for what you just described?
Lidell: “‘Sitting on the dock of the bay’ (from Otis Redding). Doesn’t get any more simple and true than that one.”
And your song ‘I’m selfish’?
Lidell: “(laughs) Yeah, sure. Just try to think of something that’s real, that caused me a lot of problems before. It’s not a great thing to sing about. I’m not proud. (laughs)”
Nowadays it’s more ‘I used to be selfish’ than ‘I’m selfish, no?
Lidell: “No. I’m still saying I’m selfish. But I fight it. I know that I’m selfish. It’s a constant problem. I think artists in general are just really selfish. Most of the ones I’ve ever met.”
You have to be selfish as an artist?
Lidell: “No, you don’t have to be. In fact, it’s probably an advice not to be. But sometimes by being obsessive, you need to be. It’s like a cook. For becoming that, you gonna be really fucking selfish. Just to get that far and to be successful in the career, you have to be self-involved. That’s why ambition is such an ugly thing.”
If you would listen to you early stuff, you would not drop it?
Lidell: “It does sound pretty naive. But no, I won’t.”
During a big part of your career, you didn’t have money.
Lidell: “Definitely not. Until 2005 I had no commercial success with my music at all. And I’ve been releasing and working fully on music since 1995. So that’s ten years going a long way in shit. I had tiny money. Now I’ve got a house, I’ve got the work and the live shows. But I haven’t got money in the bank. I haven’t been that successful. So I got to keep working. I can release a record now, and it might go ‘Okay, another Jamie record. Not bad’. If it would be my first ever record, people would go ‘Wow, listen to this’. But because I’ve done a lot, they might say ‘Maybe it’s not as good as ‘Multiply’. All of a sudden, you’re only as good as your catalogue. It’s very hard to stay relevant. Some artists can make one album that can be massive. But album two it’s already over for them. I am very aware of that. I’m not into music for fashion reasons. I’m a career artist, because I’ve got that crazy thing. I’m obsessed with music.”
How important was ‘Multiply’? Was it the turning point?
Lidell: “Not the turning point, but one of the turning points. It was important, because before England didn’t really care. I was living in Berlin. The fact that I was living in Berlin was as important as the album. Certainly for the press. And the press was what I needed to be successful. I hadn’t have any real hardcore stress. Okay, my dad left. I had some middle class blues. But I did not live through a war.”
You say in your live you had few deceptions. And still you once declared: ‘I prepare myself for let downs’.
Lidell: “I don’t quite know what you mean.”
Well, that was my question. I heard it and I thought: ‘What does he mean? I’ve got to ask him’.
Lidell: (laughs hard)
Or perhaps you were lying towards the journalist?
Lidell: “Oh no. I don’t intend to anymore.”
Lidell: “Yeah. I used to. For fun. Sometimes you’re bored and you start to play. And saying shit. It creates a myth. But deceptions… Maybe what I meant was… (thinks for a moment) It’s hard to be really honest. With yourself, with other people. I think that’s incredibly hard, actually. That’s one of the real amazing skills about standup comedians. The reason that they make people laugh so hard, is that they search for things that are really ugly. Saying things no one wants to really say. The shock is what’s so funny. But at the same time, I don’t like it when musicians are too close to standup comedians. Presenting the rock ‘n roll cliché.”
When you have a show and you go on stage, do you still have stress?
Lidell: “Oh yeah. Every time. I still wanna do a good job. It’s a responsibility. So I get nervous.”
And it disappears once you are on stage, I suppose?
Lidell: “It kind of does. Because you just can’t think anymore. It takes all of your body to sing, which is good. You throw something out for the musical gods. It’s not just for the earthly pleasures. Sometimes you actually connect and you’re getting beyond just singing a song. You get in the crazy zone. Especially with the loops: making music that was purely improvised. It wasn’t like I had a set plan. In my early set I had no set list, I had no songs. I just got into that moment that I always had to wake up from the trance. It’s like surfing. You feel a wave coming and you just try to hang on to the wave. That is a seriously rocking feeling.”
Do you have that feeling often?
Lidell: “It’s harder when you’re playing songs, because they’re quite locked. You’re more doing a good job, a good performance. You’re keeping the song within boundaries, not too far out so that they recognize it. Music as being a selfish pleasure. Literally I was playing solo at the time. And I properly admit that that was the time I had that highest musical rush.”
More than with a band?
Lidell: “There’s been some amazing moments, when we really connect. I like the show as a whole now. I like the feeling that it gives me. Mostly I came of that solo shows and I said: ‘I had some musical rushes’. But I knew it was too selfish. The show was too decadent. Back then it felt great. But now it wouldn’t feel good anymore to do decadent solo stuff.”
You lived in different places like Berlin and Paris. Now you got a house in Nashville, US.
Lidell: “Yes. But for sure I’m staying British. I think psychologically you can’t shift your deep programming. From 0 to 8 years really dictates your whole life: the fundamental person who you are.”
You’re married just a couple of years ago. It balanced your life, didn’t it?
Lidell: “Definitely. It’s a great challenge for me. Because I’ve always been searching. As an artist, people are basically working for you. Even friends are working with you. You write stuff together, you’re making money together.”
You’re saying you’re not on the same level?
Lidell: “Yeah. My wife’s the only telling me when I’m really fucked up, in a way that I can’t just ignore that or walk away from that. I’m facing one of my characters that I didn’t want to face. Hence sometimes I’m selfish. (laughs) In terms of thoughtfulness for example. My wife is really thoughtful and really cares about other people. And I live in a bubble, in a way. I just ignore all the world. I’m in my writing zone, or I’m disconnected. That’s not a good feeling, actually. It might be cool for a while. But it’s too selfish. And that’s not cool. Alcoholics are selfish. They want to escape, don’t want to face things, don’t want to do estimable things. Things that can get you out of a bad cycle. My wife is making me look in the mirror.”
What may we write on your tombstone?
Lidell: “‘Feed me to the birds’. Or: ‘Free bird food’. I love the idea of some animal packing away, trying to pull your eyeball and grabbing it. (laughs)”
Foto’s: James Arthur