Jamie Lidell: 'I’m glad I didn’t lock myself into being this crazy electronic dude'

He started out as a Prince fanboy with a penchant for circuit bending, but ended up an unlikely pop star. With a new record all about his new family and content small-town life in Nashville, is this the real Jamie Lidell?

“I don’t trust anyone who’s not a nerd,” says Jamie Lidell. “If you’re not really a nerd then you’re not really into something.” Anyone who saw Lidell’s live show a decade ago wouldn’t confuse him for a man who wasn’t into what he was doing. Back in 2005 Lidell toured the UK in a jacket made out of VHS tape and a helmet with a camera strapped to his head, alongside an audio visual sidekick by the name of Pablo Fiasco.

It was a ramshackle yet captivating live show that stood out on a bill he shared with the London Sinfonietta and fellow Warp records signee Squarepusher and felt more like a cyberpunk circus act than a conventional gig. “It was a cool chance for me and my visual guy to cause a ruckus because everyone was very formal and we were super messy,” says Lidell. The organised chaos, partly enabled by a loop programme he developed himself, gave Lidell a new audience and brought his vision of nerd Nirvana to venues like London’s Royal Festival Hall.

But for all the gear and talk of nerding out, Lidell is most well-known for his more soulful work, where he puts the wires and gadgets to one side and places his vocals at the forefront. His new record Building A Beginning is a mix of upbeat soul and reflective ballads that recall the more somber work of Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. It’s been called a career best by some, and will be released on his own label.

Originally from Cambridgeshire in the UK, Lidell now lives in Nashville with his wife and young son, after being encouraged to relocate from New York by director Harmony Korine, who Lidell met through their respective work on Warp, the revered electronica label which introduced the Aphex Twin to the world. Lidell collaborates with his wife – the photographer Lindsey Rome – on lyrics, and has put together a band (the Royal Pharaohs) who’ve worked with everyone from Beck and Elton John to Prince and Chaka Khan. It’s a dream set up for someone who grew up being the only kid in his school listening to the purple one.

Jamie Lidell – Believe In Me

But for a while Lidell was looking like he might become a British soul singer of a different sort. Less smalltown happiness and self-published albums, more massive billboards with your name on and major label deals.

Around the time of his album Multiply in 2005, Lidell had tapped into renewed interest in British soul, led by Amy Winehouse. Not everyone was convinced by him though. The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan didn’t see what all the fuss was about – “He looks authentically intense (spectacles, beard); well, so does Rolf Harris. So what am I not getting? Is it me, or does the emperor have no clothes?” Neither, initially, was his label Warp, who after a three-year wait for the album might have expected something similar to his more abrasive debut album, Muddlin Gear.

“I handed it in to Steve [Beckett, boss of Warp] and he didn’t say anything. He called me and said is it not going to be a bit more fucked up? And I said ‘No, I’m trying to make it more concise’ and it was a bit too pop for what they were used to on Warp, I guess,” he remembers. “It turned out to be a really big seller for Warp. I don’t think they knew that was going to happen. They put the brakes on it in terms of promotion, they didn’t really go that hard on it.

“But it sort of just went on its own. I was doing that and then the Amy Winehouse thing [Back to Black] came out the next year. The time was perfect for that kind of sound. It’s really about luck.”

After the release of Multiply, Lidell followed the album up with his most mainstream record to date, Jim. It was his brazen bid for the big time and earned him comparisons to the blue-eyed soul of David Bowie’s Young Americans. “I was blatantly going for it. First time in my career and probably the last. I thought ‘let’s have a go’ … ultimately I don’t regret any of it,” he says.

He was getting invited to co-write with people like Lianne La Havas, and his music was popping up on TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, but for Lidell there was a conflict between operating as an underground artist and knowing that with a few compromises perhaps he could have been much bigger. It’s not a goal he says that interests him now, but around the release of Jim, there was serious interest from major labels.

Jaime Lidell at Prospect Park with the Royal Pharaohs
Jaime Lidell at Prospect Park with the Royal Pharaohs. Photograph: PR

“I got a lot of major label offers in 2008, Columbia and all those biggies started sniffing around. Rick Rubin [got in touch] I went and met him. But Steve wouldn’t let me go,” he says. He adds that Beckett told him any label that wanted him would have to pay a million pounds to release him from his deal with Warp (Beckett didn’t want to comment on the veracity of this claim).

“It made me a little bit like ‘fuck, I can’t get off this now’. I had a bit of a Prince moment. A mini slave moment. But at the same time I’ll always like Warp, they did a good job. I’ll never know what it would have been like had I side stepped it on to a major label at the high point of my career. Ultimately, it probably would have gone pretty well actually.”

Jim was his most successful release, but it came at a price artistically, and again asked the question of what kind of artist Lidell wanted to be: bedroom noodler with a jacket made out of videotapes, or a bonafide mainstream star? “To be honest after I’d done Jim I was a little gutted because I felt like I wasn’t really doing music I loved. I felt as if I watered I’d down a little bit to get on the radio.”

The radio play and sales led to a grueling tour schedule. That, coupled with a taste for hedonism, led a predictable burnout and period of self-reflection, which culminated in his last two albums, the Beck-produced Compass and self-titled 2013 album, where he called out his own behaviour out on tracks like the self-explanatory I’m Selfish.

Building a Beginning sees him sing about his relationship with his parents, his wife and his son. It feels like Lidell writing about his own little world rather than trying to reach a bigger one outside. “You’ve got to be honest about where you’re at,” he says of his current approach. “I’m really glad I didn’t lock myself into being this crazy electronic dude, who can only do this and my brand is that. It would have messed with me.

“Things worked out great, I’m happy, I’m healthy. I don’t know: is it better to have loads of money? Maybe. But I might not have done stuff I really believe in,” he says. “It might have been terrible and I might have turned into a real dick, and started making music I hated. The slow and low has paid off for me. I see people pursue it and I see them peaking, and it’s hard to come back from.”

Building A Beginning is out Friday on Jajulin Records


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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