As an artist, Kele Okereke has never stood still, relentlessly seeking new ways in which to present his luminous songs. Fresh from successfully reinventing his band Bloc Party last year, Kele has returned with his third solo album, Fatherland. The adrenalised electronics of his previous two solo records, The Boxer and Trick, are replaced here by a much more organic – even classic – sonic palette: delicate folk (Streets Been Talking), sumptuous soul (Do U Right), and insidious, dub reggae-meets-Weimar cabaret (You Keep On Whispering). It’s all as far from Bloc Party’s hectic wall of sound as can be imagined.
Kele’s lyrics are, as ever, perceptive and nakedly personal: a map of Kele’s consciousness as he squared up to the prospect of fatherhood – his daughter Savannah was born in December 2016.
“I’m fully conscious that this record is probably going to serve as a document for Savannah of the relationship between her fathers and who we were before she came into our lives,” says Kele in his back garden in London, as he balances his infant daughter on his knee. “It feels important for her to see that we don’t have all the answers but we’re trying.”
Originally envisaged as a largely acoustic album, Fatherland was produced last summer by Bloc Party bassist Justin Harris in Portland, Oregon. “He has a studio in the forest up on a hill, and I was there for a week, playing with lots of different musicians – there are over 20 on the record which is the largest cast of I’ve ever worked with,” says Kele. “But it was fun. It was quite a high pressure situation because we were doing a hell of a lot in a short space of time. There was a lot of winging it, but sometimes that’s what you have to do, you have to hustle and hope it falls in the right place, and I think it did.”
The sleeve depicts Kele relaxing in Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles: “That’s when I’m most happy, most at ease in green spaces and I thought that that would somehow frame the record a bit. With Trick and The Boxer both being quite synthetic, colder electronic records it was important to tale this into another visual space, to have something that represented nature.”
The album presents a facet of Kele we haven’t heard before; the singer/songwriter. “I was listening a lot to Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, Blue by Joni Mitchell, and the Al Green album, Still in Love With You.” Kele had always resisted the idea of the performer, singing their own songs, acoustic guitar in hand, “but recently it’s been resonating with me.There’s something about their vision that feels complete. It’s not mediated, this is how I see the world and this is what I want to say, whereas band collaborations can become muddied because everyone has an opinion about something.”
The expert musicians playing on Fatherland were largely drawn from Portland’s underground music scene; the record also features two duets. The triumphant Grounds For Resentment features Olly Alexander from Years and Years – a rare instance of a love duet sung by two gay men to one another. “I’m singing romantically about another boy and he’s singing about me – I couldn’t really think of any out gay artists who have done a similar thing, bar perhaps Elton John and RuPaul,” Kele smiles, remembering their 90s version of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. “That’s one of the things that I feel is important about this album, is that it’s very honestly depicting my life and how I see the world. Having Savannah coming into our lives has made me want to be more open about things than maybe I have been in the past.”
The album’s second duet is Versions of Us, a smoky, somber acoustic ballad sung with Corinne Bailey Rae. “She’s someone I met a very long time ago who I’ve always kept in contact with,” says Kele. “I knew when I was working on the song that her voice would fit it really well so I was so happy when she was down to do it.
Kele’s relationships with his family suffuse the album. Road to Ibadan is inspired by a journey Kele undertook with his father to visit Kele’s grandmother in Nigeria. “I’ve always had a slightly complicated relationship with my dad, so this trip was really important for us, to establish some kind of common ground,” Kele says. “That was a big part of what the trip was about and what the song’s about, against the backdrop of my dad’s village in Nigeria, seeing his mother and his family, how the two of us tried to reconnect in that time.” Gorgeous and stately, Kele wonders “Do I start to see you in the furrow of my brow?”, his voice expressing the mysterious emotional and genetic ties between parents and children.
Then there’s Capers, which adds a beguiling Cole Porter flavour to Fatherland. “It’s a very light, whimsical type song of a kind that I’ve never done before,” Kele says. “I’ve been working on a musical for the last year so I’ve kinda been immersing myself in the world of musical theatre. I think this song is a by product of that exploration. I don’t really tend to write light music and I realised that it’s important to vary tone and to be able to sing in different voices.” The subject matter, however, is more familiar. “It’s really a song about getting up to no good with someone which i guess is the staple of most pop music.”
Kele’s exploration of new musical textures have had a due effect on his voice; on Fatherland he reveals a new, deeper register. “With Bloc Party, because so much of the music is so frantic, I really have to push my voice to sit on top of everything, whereas with this record I was really able to sit back and hear a different timbre to my voice on songs like Streets Been Talking and Savannah. I was able to croon in a way that I haven’t before, and that was nice. It’s good to be able to experience new techniques, you still feel like you’re learning.”
There’s romantic angst on Fatherland, for instance the aching, simmering ballad Royal Reign. “I feel that generally I’m quite an easy-going partner, but I’ve been noticing over the years that I can have quite a jealous streak in me, and I guess that’s what the song’s about, watching someone that you care about start to fall for somebody else isn’t such a nice feeling.”
Yet ultimately the mood is one of optimism and open-heartedness, summed up by The New Year Party, in which Kele and his beloved make a pact never to spend new year’s eve apart again. “I’ve spent so many new years eves touring, I seem to spend a lot of time away from my partner at a time when it’s kind of crucial for you to be entering into the next year together,” he says. “The sentiment being that no matter how our lives change we have to keep making time for one another. That’s probably the most positive or affirming message on the record. It’s the one that feels the most romantic – not in a cliched sense but in a practical sense, this is what we’re going to have to do to keep our love alive. That’s what The Streets Have Been Talking is about, the first song on the album, this sense that we’re not perfect and we argue, and there are times when things really aren’t good, but it’s not about throwing the towel in.”
It all goes to create an atmosphere of gentleness and intimacy, which culminates in the song Savannah, a lullaby for his new baby, on which he implores her to “Open your heart, be kind.” It’s a more than worthy addition to the catalogue of songs by musicians about their children, from Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely to Joni Mitchell’s Little Green.
“Writing these songs and expressing these words and feelings, it’s something that’s vital for me,” he concludes. “I’m recognising I’m entering into a different part of my life and the best way for me to do that is commemorate it with song. That’s always what I’ve done. To me they serve as documents, these albums.” Fatherland is the most mature and musically adventurous chapter of an ever-evolving career.