Lemar’s sixth album, The Letter is just out, via BMG Records. Mainly a covers project, it was recorded at East West Studios in Los Angeles with famed producer Larry Klein [who has overseen albums by such as Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell and, more recently, Lizz Wright]. Tunes given a new Lemar-style makeover include Al Green’s Love And Happiness, The Box Tops’ The Letter, Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me, Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love, Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’, Diana Ross & The Supremes’ Someday We’ll Be Together and more.
Why now for a covers album?
“I find with your first, second and third album… well, everything was moving at such a pace. You’re promoting or touring or recording, and you have a lot to say. This is my sixth album and I thought a lot about the way I wanted it come out, as well as the content. I used to write 70 or 80 songs per album and, eventually, you start to repeat yourself. So that was another obstacle I needed to get around.
“I changed management, I changed record labels, I lived some life. And my music has matured as I’ve got older. You can be in a bubble as an artist, and you need to step outside and interact with your age group along the way. I don’t want to compete with an 18-year-old – you wouldn’t do that in normal life, so why would I do that as an artist? You have to step back sometimes to see that.”
Covers albums have become a ‘thing’ for a lot of soul guys these days…
“Yeah, they have, and I have been asked so many times to do this kind of album, but I never have. I’ve even had a lot of suggestions from people, including fans, about which songs I should do. In a way, it’s… well, I don’t want to say it’s like a ‘safety card’, but I knew I could do it at any time, if I felt it was right.
“Also, when I decided I would like to do it, I knew I wanted to do it with a live band and the right producer, and that would cost a fair bit of money. So that all had to be worked out properly. To get the right musicians, the right studio, the right producer… it’s expensive. If I’d tried it earlier in my career, I think, more than likely, it wouldn’t have been done this way.”
How did you prepare for it?
“I listened to a lot of albums to find out exactly what it was in the sound that made the originals worked. That way, I understood the songs better. I knew they had to be done live, with the right players. I also had to put on my own interpretation too, and you need the right producer with the right kind of sensitivity to do that properly. That’s where Larry came in.
“I listened to a lot of live recordings, through the wonders of youtube. I watched loads of Al Green, for example. Got a lot of performance tips too! And I listened to modern covers, to see what more recent artists did when they did covers – Seal, Gregory Porter, Leon Bridges… a lot of singers. Al Green’s version of Love And Happiness is so subtle and sensitive. Seal’s album is orchestral and big.
“After a while I realized I wanted a rawness to it. Jerry Hey did the horns for the whole alum and they made a massive difference. I wanted background singers and we used the Waters. They were amazing.”
Your first album recording with live-in-studio musicians?
“Yes! Singing to a bunch of live musicians is so different to singing to tracks. I haven’t done that before, you’re right. It’s fresher, it’s quicker, it’s exciting doing it that way. It took about two weeks, tops, to do the recording. I trusted Larry about what we should keep or re-do. I’m a perfectionist, but I just backed off and let him do his thing.
“There’s no chance I could have done this in this way without Larry. It’s down to him. He is so immersed in that world. He listens to music form the beginning of the day to the end. I love soul music, of course, but if you’re not alive when it was actually happening, being played on the radio, being played in the club… then what you have is a retrospective way of hearing the music. But Larry lived trough all that and played in some of those bands. It was his era. He understood it in a different way, and I needed that from him. And being in East West Studios is an amazing environment. Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye all recorded there. Doing it in LA with those people can give you confidence. If those guys say you did good, then it means something – you know they have seen enough to compare it and to know.”
Lots of white pop artists are supposedly singing soul now – and winning Grammys for it, and getting to sing James Bond themes. But  soul fans don’t really buy Sam Smith/Adele records and  soul ballads by black artists don’t get pop radio play or win awards. What’s that about?
“I see that. The thing is… trends are very hard to change. It’s true, the feeling is, if you made a type of album it wouldn’t get the same recognition as the white counterpart in the so called ‘soul’ world. The label will look at their stats as to the reason why they spend more money on an artist. They will say, ‘History shows that when a black artist made this type of music in the past, it sold X, so we make our budgets in line with that’. How much of that is down to the music industry, or the radio stations, or the way culture has panned out, or a mixture of the three, I don’t know.
“Hearing a black person singing soul seems to be slightly more a thing in a box, whereas a white person singing a soul tune is taken as a different phenomenon. Thing is, if you switched it around and had, say, a black artist doing rock… you know they’re not going to get the same thing in reverse. If it were the same both ways, it would be OK, but it’s not. And that can be frustrating.
“But then, sometimes, a thing will be successful for other reasons – the timing, the money spent, the belief at the label – is it from the top down or just from the middle down? Is the label trying to break UK artists in the States at the time? I have had some frank conversations with record labels about what they are willing to do for me and what they won’t. The best thing I can do is make sure what I do has an undeniable quality, and then hopefully the spark will light the fire.”
If Jill Scott were Adele, maybe she would have won a Grammy for You Don’t Know Nothing About Love.
“Ha, yeah! I guess you play the cards you’re dealt in life. Beyond just singing, I understand what the demographics and markets mean. If you understand what you’re trying to achieve and what’s realistic… it can still get frustrating, there is still some kind of glass ceiling sometimes, but you have to keep on doing what you do and hope for the break. If you start to compromise to get round the problem, it rarely works. I have done stuff like that and it’s harder to live with if it’s not successful. If it’s not going to break though you might as well do stuff that you like and that stands up 10 years later. I’d rather be proud of what I did.”