When Amy Winehouse founded Lioness records at the height of her tabloid nadir in late-2009 as a medium through which to promote the precocious talents of her 15-year old goddaughter, eyebrows were raised. Dionne Bromfield’s record of soul and Motown covers duly stumbled into the charts at 33. The vultures sniggered. But they were premature. Mercurial as ever Ms Winehouse is, last year she began touting a little-known Nottingham-born singer-songwriter called Liam Bailey, and this time she was onto a winner.
Anyone who had the fortune to catch Bailey’s debut EP 2am Rough Tracks may have thought they had been sent back in time by some benevolent musical Gods, where the marriage of gospel and rhythm and blues consolidated into the blissful sound of 1960s American soul. Recorded into a laptop with just a guitar for company, the stripped-back arrangement showcased a voice of raucous beauty – soulful yet incendiary, and entirely uncharacteristic of the slew of feted modern vocalists. With another fine EP, So Down,Cold, and a soaring cameo on Chase and Status’ top-5 stadium drum ‘n’ bass anthem ‘Blind Faith’ under his belt, Bailey appears primed for a starring role in a feel-good summer 2011. He talks to TLOBF about cornrows, insulting X Factor also-rans, and his debut long-player Out of the Shadows.
So, the word on the wind is that you’re going to be this summer’s soul smash, à la Amy Winehouse, Plan B or, er, Duffy. What do you reckon?
[Laughing] Really? I don’t know about that. But this summer should be good. I’ve got some festivals to do with Chase and Status and I’ll be doing some on my own. Summers are all about that feeling of being about 15 and watching Glastonbury on TV and thinking “I could do that”. Imagine that, but this time you’ve got a nice shower instead of horrible portaloos. To be fair, I just can’t wait for a summer when I feel really positive, because last year was difficult…
Why was last year difficult?
I always seem to have my most intense arguments in the summer – must be something to do with the heat. My ex-girlfriend took my ticket to Glastonbury, after I got her in because I was playing with a side project called The Accidental. We were going together, but last minute I had to go to the studio. [Pause] She went anyway…
Hmmm, must’ve been a tough one…
That’s what the whole album is about, unfortunately – the bitterness, sadness, regret. Plus an outpouring of release. You know, “fuck it, I can’t be arsed, I don’t wanna fall in love”.
Bummer. Let’s talk about the good times instead – how did ‘Blind Faith’ with Chase and Status come about?
They sent me the track and loads of emails with videos of mad mosh-pits going on at their festival shows. Me and my mates sat round all fucked, played it, and my mate who’s a big drum ‘n’ bass fan is going “fucking hell mate, this is wicked”. The lyrics are so fitting ‘cos when I recorded the vocal I was on a comedown – “riding with automatic self-destruction” is just how it feels when your throat’s fucked and you’ve been battering drugs all weekend.
Sounds like you know how to enjoy yourself. Bearing this in mind, do you think you’d be where you are now if you hadn’t moved out of Nottingham when you were 10?
Probably not. I grew up on a council estate and I remember doing petty crime from a young age – just nicking sweets, but that evolves. I remember looking up to this kid who was a bit older than me. He was swearing at his Mum, telling her to fuck off when she told him to come in, and I thought, “he’s cool he is”, but it wasn’t right. I think moving to the sticks contributed to me steering clear of inner city social problems.
Still, you must’ve had to work pretty hard to get where you are now?
I’ve had jobs since I was 11 – I lied to get a paper round because I didn’t get £5 a week pocket money, I got £1.50 so if I wanted money I had to go and get a job. When I was 14 I was getting up at 3.30 in the morning to do the milk round for £5 a day.
You’re 27 now, so what other jobs have you done in the meantime?
I’ve worked in call centres, Pret, McDonalds, on a food stall, packing in factories, selling plasma screens – I’ve done it all. I once worked in sales for a gas and electricity company and they pulled me aside because I had cornrows at the time, like D’Angelo. They said “you’re gonna have to get rid of that, David Beckham’s got it and it’s not professional”. I said if I don’t have it like this it’s going to be a massive afro. So they said “can’t you just shave it off’?” Pffff – I was straight back on the dole thanks very much.
Let’s talk about the new record. Anyone who’s heard your 2am Rough Tracks might be expecting something quite lo-fi, but you’ve been working with Amy Winehouse’s producer Salaam Remi – do you worry the new stuff is too polished?
[Thinking] I remember when I got signed, I said “I don’t fucking write hits”. But it’s got some of them on, apparently. And the kitchen sink’s been thrown in on some songs – strings and that – but others are still stripped back. It’s like a buffet – if you want the fucking vol au vents, have it. If you don’t like it there are some drumsticks over there.
So you weren’t under pressure from the record company to make something more chart-friendly?
I never thought of it like that. Maybe the record company are sitting around a table now thinking “this is just the record we wanted”. But then what did Geffen do when Nirvana dropped Nevermind? They went “fucking HAVE IT!”, we just won’t play it to the Meat Puppets fans. I’ve never had anyone say “we don’t want this, start again, and make it work”. I know others that have, who I won’t name, but I’ve had it easy compared to some of the shit that goes on.
So you wouldn’t have taken the X Factor route then?
[Recoiling with a grimace] Oh no, I wouldn’t last five minutes. It makes me cringe. Horrible, isn’t it? They’re only interested in your malleability – can you sing ‘Will I Still Love You Tomorrow’ and can you sing Snow Patrol, in a generic and non-identifiable way. The X Factor kids haven’t got to the stage where they’ve listened to Jimi Hendrix or Carole King and decided they want to be musicians – they just want to be famous. Their life is Asda, ITV, and Heat magazine.
Ever run into any of the X Factor starlets on the circuit?
I met that Katie Weasel. She’s alright, but I said to her – “why is it every time I turn on the fucking TV you’re either singing out of tune or crying?” And she said “I can’t believe you just said that”. But it’s true. She’s too used to people telling her she’s amazing. She told me she can play guitar and I said to her, “you’ve got millions of people following your YouTube, so why don’t you get out there and do it?” But she won’t, ‘cos she just wants to be famous.
And you don’t?
I don’t like the way it works. I went to the Libertines reunion gig with Amy and there were paparazzi everywhere, a massacre of cameras on ya. And I realised she knew this was blatantly gonna happen – she wanted it that night or she just would’ve stayed at home. I’ll always find little loopholes where I can just be myself. I won’t get away with walking round Nottingham acting like a diva anyway. I wanna sell records cos I wanna eat, but I won’t write music just to sell records. I’ll be able to eat, but I’m not expecting to be a millionaire anytime soon.
Out of the Shadows is released via Polydor on 13 June.