"That’s it, right there. Oh Charles … my King. King Charles! Don’t stop King Charles. Yes, yes, Yayyyasss!”
Things are getting pretty hot between Camilla & Chuck at Clarence House. Which can only mean one thing, Prince Charles is playing the sultry, old school seventies do-over of There’s Nothing Like This from Omar’s brand new album.
Or at least, one imagines, that’s how it might have gone down, when His Royal Highness listened to his copy of Omar’s seventh album The Man. Sent to him personally by Omar, as promised, Omar mentioning the forthcoming project when collecting an MBE (member of the order of the British Empire) for his services to music earlier in the year.
It’s a well-deserved gong, a fitting tribute to a man who - 22 years since his Talkin’ Loud debut - has long been the King of British Soul.
“You know Prince Charles said to me recently, ‘make sure you drop off your new album’ so I did” says Omar, via Skype on a lovely summers evening in Brighton, where he now lives with his family. “Next I get a letter saying thank you for the CD. That he is looking forward to listening to it!”
When Charles hit play, he’d have been treated to Omar’s finest album yet, released - via uber cool label Freestyle Records in the UK and leading US record company Shanachie - a full seven years since we last heard from Omar on Sing If You Want It.
“It’s been that long because, well first, I’ve been working on my acting, in the plays Been So Long & Love Song,” explains Omar, “also we had the girls and my missus didn’t like it when we were in Thornton Heath near Croydon, she wasn’t comfortable. But she is here in Brighton.” Right on cue a seagull can be heard squawking in the background. “Her Mum lives just up the road; also my kids go to school just around the corner. But trying to find a deal took awhile, because I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m not getting any younger!”
Omar feels the title song, originally written in his trademark style (much like how Marvin Gaye used to create music and lyrics) of singing the melody along to the track until the words evolve, subconsciously began to reflect his own maturity, and that of becoming a father for the first time.
“I began singing ‘be the man’ at the end of the song and went backwards from there. Thinking, what could I be the man about? I started imagining a guy who’s changed his life around. I myself am a bit more of a mature fellow, becoming a Dad since the last record. But it wasn’t until I shot the video in Brighton with my wife and my girls that it all fell into place that, in hindsight, The Man was actually about me. I didn’t think about that when I was writing it.”
Whilst maintaining a fresh contemporary soul feel, much of The Man alludes to former glories, when Omar & British soul music was conquering the world.
“It’s fitting that (former Soul II Soul lead singer) Caron Wheeler features on Treat You because it reminds me of Loose Ends, that era - late eighties/early nineties - when UK soul had that particular feel. I sang with Caron 25 years ago on my third ever single (You & Me), so it was a nice feeling of coming back home having her on it. I caught up with her recently at the Soul II Soul reunion when they were unveiling the plaque outside of the Fridge in Brixton, in recognition of the first place Soul II Soul ever performed at.”
Omar has also revisited the golden era to record the song he is most famous for, the still brilliant soul killer There’s Nothing Like This.
“I was quite young when I did it originally and wanted to do a more mature version.” Says Omar, adding “things take me a long time to get right and I had wanted to do a 20th anniversary edition (Omar “without saying too much” alludes also to a conflict with the owners of the original recording), so I tried it three or four different ways but I just wasn’t happy. You know my brother (Scratch Professor – who works on Bully, another cut from The Man) is prolific, he’ll write a song everyday and do 3 different remixes, but me, I’ll work on a song for a little, leave it, come back, work on it and then work some more. I need time to get inspiration. I have the (original There’s Nothing Like This) master tape and tried to re-play everything again. But it just felt pedestrian - like I was phoning it in; I wasn’t getting a buzz. Then I had a flash of inspiration that I should do the groove in the style of Donny Hathaway or Marvin Gaye! That was the night before Pino Palladino was due to come round. And I was like Pino’s coming tomorrow (to work on a different song) but I really want to continue to work on this tune – but then I was like ‘wait … hold on, Pino’s coming round!’ – so we just worked on that instead. And boy … he just took it into the next stratosphere!”
With the Brand New Heavies having just released the brilliant new set Rewind it’s almost like the summer of ’91 again.
“We’re all coming back … me, them and Take That!”
You’re not likely to hear Take That record a song with the title Fuck War, Make Love (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that at first I mistakenly referred to the title as Fuck Love, Make War … something Omar found endlessly amusing). A title that, given its peace and love lyrical standpoint, is ironically aggressive.
“When it comes to war, you can’t say it softly. Not when it comes to people killing each other. It’s something you gotta make a noise about. It had to be done that way.”
The point is made over the albums nastiest groove too.
“Danny Fridell, the guy who produced that groove is from Sweden, I was rehearsing with a Danish band in Copenhagen for a tour in Scandinavia and East Africa and I was so impressed with his keyboard skills. We had to do something together. The first thing we did was The Man. But then when I was in London he said I’ve got some more stuff one of which was,” Omar laughs (again), “… let’s call it the clean version … Stop War, Make Love, and his skills were amazing. It’s what made me sing that stuff because at the time the Arab spring was happening – that’s why I said “people don’t wanna take it anymore.” Brothers are killing brothers, like in Syria now. But also we don’t want to fight.”
Not that Omar is against a bit of rough and tumble, having learnt how to box in the seven years since his last album. The last time I spoke to him in fact he was in training for a charity boxing match. “My cousin reckoned I won it, because I gave the guy an 8 second standing count. But you know, the guy kept knocking me. Normally they let you know who you’re boxing, but he was a young guy, too young! And much taller, too tall! Nobody told me! They call it white collar – its people that don’t normally get in the ring, who box for charity, but I’m a lot better than I was back then. I’ve kept it up - I go boxing every week. One of my trainers reckons I should go for a match now,” Omar pauses, “but I dunno. I’m a lover not a fighter.”