Jamie Lidell: Modernity Can’t Save Your Soul

Music Features Jamie Lidell

Hometown: Berlin, Germany (via Brighton, U.K.)
Album: Jim
Why He’s Worth Watching: With a background in electronica, Jamie Lidell is an unlikely candidate for soul-music stardom, but with his multilayered live shows, disarmingly personal lyrics and intricate revisions of 1960s classics, the British musician proves that he doesn’t care about rules or expectations. As he continues to fuse the past and the present, his scope will only increase—even Lidell may not know where he’s going next.
For Fans Of: Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder, Caribou

Jamie Lidell and Conor Oberst have a lot in common. Alright, not a lot. But they do have one significant thing in common: a determined, earnest pursuit of authenticity. Their methods, though, couldn’t be more different, which is why, on a beautiful Saturday morning in June when he’d rather be outdoors than in the lobby of a photo studio, Lidell has a hard time competing with Oberst, whose music bellows at us through the speakers. “I can’t fucking concentrate with this shit,” Lidell gripes. “Shut the fuck up!”

Lidell speaks in Pynchonian paragraphs, and it’s unwise for Oberst—or anyone else—to interrupt his thoughts. He’s both thorough and tentative, an interview subject who repeats questions and offers four or five variations on his original answer.

As a kid, Lidell played acoustic guitar and trombone, but by 16, an electric guitar, a sampler and a keyboard convinced him that “everything else [was] bullshit. I was sort of an electronic kid, basically.”

It was an apt description until 2005, when Lidell surprised just about everyone, including Warp, his orthodox record label (home to other “electronic kids” such as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Squarepusher), by releasing Multiply, an album that had (gasp!) vocals and was essentially (shock!) a soul record. Perhaps the only person who wasn’t taken aback was Lidell himself: “I was making all this electronic music for years,” he says, sounding a bit fatigued. “I knew that somehow my creative process was stagnating rapidly, and I was thinking ‘I don’t know what to do next.’”

This past spring, he returned with Jim—a record more earnest and less electronic than anything he’d ever done before. It all feels organic and whole: the cheerful, upbeat horns, the big percussion, the precise choruses and especially his voice, full of unexpected tonal shifts as jarring as sudden altitude changes and are never more than a step removed from potential heartbreak.

Unlike many artists, Lidell doesn’t raid recent musical history in search of quick-fix gravitas or easy career transformations. “I kind of lean on a bygone era of the sound world,” he says, “because I feel like this is a world I understand, at least in my own naive way.”

If anything, the specificity of, say, the Motown aesthetic, matters less than the era’s dedication to technique and craft: “Live playing, everyone playing together—not a lot of overdubs. The ’80s was all about clinical, one by one, each musician went in and had their photo taken, and then they were comped together to give this vacuum-packed sonic image, but the ’60s was a lot more to do with, ‘Can you play the fucking song?’ If you can, let’s try to catch the ghost in one go.”

This is not to say that, at 34, Lidell has become anti-modern and conservative. No, mainly, he’s just bored, and he’s not easily seduced by the cult of the new. His historical perspective, which lets him grasp soul music’s technical intricacy, also allows him some healthy skepticism toward his once-beloved electronic music. While others search for the newest, most forward-thinking tone, Lidell insists that “everything still has a reference point—synths almost have a stronger signature than acoustic instruments. It’s kind of like, ‘so what’s a modern sound, man?’ Synths are old to me—synths are ooooooold, they sound really played out.”

In looking toward the past for inspiration and guidance, Lidell is searching for honesty and trying to be honest about his search. “I’m not gonna revel in modernity just for the sake of it,” he says, but at the same time, his dense, layered production is far from regressive. Instead of being stuck between the past and the future, he occupies a realm somewhere between his old, more precise approach (“I have a perfectionist streak in me which is fighting against the mistakes, which is kind of crappy, really”) and his appreciation for sloppiness and imperfection—it’s an uncertain position, but a musically gratifying one, and it might be the most modern condition of all.

Jamie Lidell on MySpace
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