Lemar isn’t daunted by any musical situation. He’s had too many triumphs in a career that began way back in his teens; he’s sung alongside enough of his idols to know the drill; he’s a multi-platinum selling, double Brit Award winner who is well aware what he’s capable.
But last autumn, in legendary EastWest Studios in L.A, standing where Sinatra recorded My Way and Marvin made Let’s Get It On, surrounded by some of the world’s most experienced musicians, laying down songs in the old-school way for his soon-to-be seventh album, Lemar admits he felt nervous.
“I wouldn’t say scared,” he laughs. “It was a challenge. One of the most enjoyable challenges of my life, but also one of those times you think – shit – I really do have to dig deep here. There was definitely pressure, but I thrive on that.”
The Letter is the album Lemar has long known he would one day make. It’s a sumptuous soul record with a vintage vibe, recorded live, on which his distinctive, honeyed vocals are at their most versatile. Few modern singers have a voice as warm and instantly intimate, that can connect with an audience and keep them spellbound, whether on stripped-back, falsetto-strewn ballads or up-tempo tracks that effortlessly encompass soul, rock and a nod to gospel.
The Letter reflects the man who made it, a charismatic performer whose old-fashioned charm and infectiousness have always been part of his appeal. It’s a retro album, but with a modern feel, comprised of covers – some familiar, others less so, none obvious – and three original songs.
“Over the years, I’ve been approached to do several soul projects but the timing never felt right. After a decade on the road, it does. My voice has matured and strengthened so much that I knew I could do justice to the songs. But I also knew the right players had to be involved. It’s not only about my voice. It’s about the musicianship, the way the songs are recorded, where they’re recorded, the vibe. Getting all of those right isn’t easy.”
“For me, the artists who have made this type of album – interpreting other people’s work – and done it convincingly have taken a no-holds-barred approach. Basically, if I was going to do this, I had to do it properly. My versions had to be raw and gritty. They had to expose the essence of the songs.”
The first step was finding a management team who understood his vision. Last year, Lemar signed with ie music, Robbie Williams’s management, who along with Ric Salmon (A&R), suggested Larry Klein (Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell) as producer for the project. Larry and Lemar subsequently spent six weeks last summer – Lemar in London, Larry in L.A. – discussing which covers to rework.
“We both had short lists, which we sent back and forth,” says Lemar. “Larry is so knowledgeable – he has lived and breathed music for decades. He suggested Elton John’s Love Song, which I wasn’t familiar with. I listened and thought it wasn’t right for me, but I kept going back to it and eventually realised maybe I was wrong. I said I’d give it a go and it worked out wonderfully, so Larry was right.”
“I didn’t know about Lemar until I was called about working with him”, says Larry Klein. “When I listened to some previous live clips of him, I was immediately struck by his honesty, sincerity, and a lack of artifice in his singing. I already had one foot in, based on this, and his amazing and effortless facility as a singer. Then when I found out that the agenda was to make an album of great soul songs, I started getting very excited. I grew up listening to the soul music of the 60’s and 70’s, and it really played a great part in shaping my sensibility as a musician and producer. I think that when you cover a great song, you have an obligation to make people hear that song in a new way. With this project, our challenge was to keep the rawness and blood in what we were doing, but to bring something new to each song. Lemar is an incredibly secure person, both as a singer and as an artist. This made for a situation where we could work seamlessly together. No unnecessary bickering or conflict, just curiosity on both our parts.”
Some songs suggested themselves. One day, watching videos on YouTube, Lemar came across Tainted Love – not the Soft Cell version, but the 1960s original by Gloria Jones.
“That was the first time I’d heard it,” he says, “and I loved it. It’s not a song you’d expect on a soul album, which is partly why I wanted to record it. We played around with the song in the studio, adding hints of the Soft Cell version and bringing it up to date. It was one thing choosing the covers, but changing the arrangements, getting the songs to the stage where they become my versions was the real challenge.”
Larry rearranged two of the chosen covers – Love Song and The Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’ – for Lemar’s first session at EastWest in September, when they also recorded the original Love Turned To Hate. The producer enlisted a spectacular cast of backing musicians, among them the drummer for the likes of Frank Zappa, Sting and Jeff Beck, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Quincy Jones’ right-hand horn player, the five times Grammy winner Jerry Hey. Also enlisted were backing vocalists The Waters, three sisters whose heavenly harmonies have graced countless classic albums, from Michael Jackson’s Thriller to Adele’s 21.
“We hung out for a while to get each other’s vibe,” says Lemar. “Recording went so well that all three songs were done in a day. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a studio. We laid down the songs, live, old school style. There was no messing around with them or going back to fiddle with bits. If it wasn’t perfect, it didn’t matter. The point was not to overthink it, rather record what was happening in the moment. How you hear it is exactly as it was on the day.
“The calibre of musicians and the vibe in the studio made it magical. So many great artists have recorded there. Larry talked a lot about EastWest’s crazy history. Being inspired has so much to do with the vibe. It’s hard to write a happy song when you’re down. Being in those rooms, knowing who had been before me was inspirational.”
The Letter was completed after a second, week-long session at EastWest Studios in November, at which two original songs, the stripped-back Never Be Another You and the dramatic, horns-soaked Higher Love, were recorded alongside half a dozen more covers. Among the highlights was discovering that The Waters had sung on the original version of Someday We’ll Be Together, a 1969 US No.1 for Diana Ross.
“Recording that song was Larry’s idea,” says Lemar. “I would never have thought of covering a song made famous by a woman and I don’t think any men have released a version. In between recording, The Waters bantered about working with Marvin and Sam Cooke. For that one, they asked if we wanted them to sing like they had for Diana Ross. It was amazing to hear them reminisce about recording the original.”
Perhaps the most exposed Lemar sounds on The Letter is on his spine-tingling take on Van Morrison’s Crazy Love.
“There’s no space for faking emotions on that one,” he laughs. “That’s why I love it, I always have. It’s an incredibly intimate song and also quite soft. I had the lights turned down in the studio when we recorded it. It’s a song you have to give yourself up to.”
Other covers include a poignant yet soulfully spirited version of The Letter, a song originally recorded by The Boxtops, then by Joe Cocker.
“We had planned to do The Boxtops version but in the end we went for Joe Cocker’s, which is rougher and rockier and will be amazing to play live. Just after I got back to London, I heard Joe Cocker had died, so it became a sort of tribute to him. The energy he put into his music was something I tried to capture”, says Lemar. Larry Klein adds: “When “The Letter” came up as an idea for us to think about working with I immediately thought of Joe Cocker’s version from the Mad Dogs And Englishmen live album. It was done with a brilliant Leon Russell arrangement, and I thought of doing something that would look at that arrangement “through a looking glass”, so to speak. It turned out to have a poignant element to it as well when Joe Cocker passed away.”
Obvious covers were purposely avoided, but songs by both Sam Cooke and Al Green made the cut.
“I adore Al Green and my voice suits his songs. We went for Love and Happiness, which is less well known and quite difficult to sing. The music’s just a jam, so vocally; you have to find places to go. Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me was tough too, in the sense of trying to bring something new to it.”
Incredibly, the release of The Letter will mark Lemar’s 20th year in the music business. Now 37 and a father of two, he began performing aged 17, long before the public fell in love with him on Fame Academy. A trio of multi-platinum selling albums and half a dozen Top 10 singles followed, winning him multiple Brit and MOBO awards.
“What a lot of people didn’t realise when I went on Fame Academy was that I’d been making music for eight years already,” says Lemar. “I’d come close to a deal several times, but it hadn’t happened for me. Fame Academy helped on that front and I do look back on it fondly. But there are always hurdles. The key, for me, is to keep enjoying making music while you overcome them. And I always do. I’m a fighter from Tottenham, which means I never give up.”
– Lisa Verrico, 2015