Music interview: Omar has '˜staying power'
Singer Omar Lye-Fook was one of the 50 vocalists featured on the recent chart-topping cover version of Bridge Over Troubled Water recorded to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
As an area of London he knew well, it he felt it important to be a part of the project that was organised by music mogul Simon Cowell.
“I was brought up in Westbourne Park and my father’s record label was set up in Harlesden so I’ve got an affinity with west London,” says the 48-year-old, best known for the hit There’s Nothing Like This. “You can see that building pretty much anywhere in that area. It was very significant that I had to get involved.”
Earlier this year, Omar released his eighth studio album, Love in Beats. The record is his first full-length collaboration with his brother Roland, otherwise known as Scratch Professor, who is a Grammy Award winning producer.
“We were typical brothers,” says Omar. “We get on one minute, the next minute we’re arguing and cussing. We stormed out on each other several times during the project but we’d come to our senses and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to finish what we started’.”
Despite the occasional heated moment in the studio, Omar reveals he has “already signed up” to make another album with his brother.
“It’s an ongoing project. You’re always writing, you’re always making stuff that if doesn’t make it to one album it’s going to be on the next,” he says.
“One of the first tunes I had on this is called Vicky’s Tune – I started that in 2003. I actually skipped over two albums before I used it, that’s how it works.”
The new record sees a focus on beats – a musical shift that Omar felt his music needed. “My thing is sort of primarily rare groove or cinematic sounds whereas this one I wanted to use my brother’s beats a bit more to have a bit more staying power,” he says.
“All my albums I try to keep it current as well as forward-looking. I suppose the perfect combination is his style and mine.”
The track Gave My Heart features a farewell performance by Leon Ware, the legendary Motown songwriter and producer, who died in February. The pair had been friends since meeting at a music festival in the 1990s and previously co-wrote the song Can’t Get Nowhere for Omar’s 1994 album For Pleasure.
“I think it was fitting that we made this song before he passed away,” Omar says. “I was very honoured to be able to do that because he was an amazing guy, an amazing friend as well as musician, so rest in peace.”
Vicky’s Tune features a piano solo by the Grammy Award winning jazz musician Robert Glasper. “Originally it was just bass, drums, keys then as I built the song I’d keep bumping into Robert in so many different places I just had to pin him down and say, ‘Look, you’re going to be on one of my tunes one of these days’. I think it took him about a year to get back to me and he said, ‘Did you like it? Was that good enough?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, that’s fine’. I had not listened to the track but when I listened to what he’d played of course it sounded perfect, I was chuffed.”
Of the many collaborations that Omar has done since the 90s, the Stevie Wonder duet Feeling You stands out. For Omar, it was a dream come true. “I’d been a fan of his since I was a little kid. Secret Life of Plants was my album, I borrowed it when I was nine or ten years old. When I finally got the phone call I didn’t believe it was him – when you hear somebody saying ‘It’s Stevie Wonder’ you do a double take – but when we got into the studio he was everything I hoped he would be. He was on the drums, on the keyboards, vocals, directing people and everything, it worked out sweet.”
The pair got on so well, they spent two weeks together in London. “I felt like an ambassador for him for a couple of weeks,” Omar fondly recalls.
In 2012 Omar received an MBE. For a self-confessed ‘non-mainstream person’, he was pleased his contribution to British music had been officially recognised. “I got quite emotional to have recognition for all that I’d done,” he says. “I’ve been very blessed to have the career that I’ve had and the catalogue that I’ve made. [Going to the Palace] was a good day out for the family as well. We had a good knees up and a good celebration after.”
In recent years Omar has also some some acting, attending classes at the Identity drama school in east London before taking part in plays written by Che Walker. “I’ve done a couple of his productions. Also he wrote me a one-man play called Lovesong. We’re working on a new feature at the moment. I think it goes hand in hand with the music, it’s a new medium, it’s an art, it’s still developing.”
Omar admits doing a monologue was nerve-wracking “at first”. “The work I’d had previously was playing a bartender [in Been So Long], there was not a lot to be said, it was more reacting. When Che showed me the first draft [of Lovesong] it was 19 pages of just me talking and it took a moment to get my head around it, but now it’s like second nature.”
Three decades into his musical career, Omar says he’s glad he put in the groundwork in his teens, attending Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and the Guildhall school in London. “When I was 16 I was offered a deal – I think it was Island or EMI. I was like ‘I want to go to school in Manchester, I want to finish my education and get some qualifications in case anything goes t**s up’. Looking back on it, my head was screwed on OK at that point.”
Omar plays at The Wardrobe, Leeds on August 11. www.omarmusic.co.uk