Say the word surreal" and various things come to mind - dreamlike, unreal, fantastic, odd, bizarre or even weird. For me the experiences leading to the final outcome of Incognito’s fifteenth studio album have been an amalgamation of all these synonyms and expressions!
We have our own sound and we have a fan base worldwide, but this was not the time to sit on our laurels or cut corners to compete in a struggling market place, nor was it time to just do just enough to get by. For each one of us taking part in the making of Surreal this was our chance to make bold statements, hone in our skills, dig deep into our creative souls and produce a body of work that we would all be extremely proud of. Job done!
On the 19th of February 2012, the album was completed and it was an incredible sensation to ride with the band with the tracks blasting out of the car stereo system. It’s one thing to have lived with these songs for several months in the studio, but the true satisfaction comes from enjoying the songs without critically analyzing them.
Unlike the last album apart from the welcome appearance of my awesome musical muse Maysa and a few special guest musicians, this was a real band effort with most of the material performed by the current touring band. My focus from day one was song writing. From 50 songs down to 30, and then to 25 solid recordings and finally to the chosen 14 that makes Surreal.
From the thunderous opening of the very funky bass driven “The Less You Know,” co- produced and co-written by our bassist Francis Hylton. Maysa delivers like only she can with a sweetness that is not only contrasting to the heavy rhythm but with a tonal delivery that combines to create something totally fresh and unique. Maysa is also featured on “Capricorn Sun,” a song which I had written on my guitar after reflecting on a friend’s ongoing battles with his Capricorn partner. The song is given greater expression by Maysa’s outstanding voice.
From the moment I played “Goodbye To Yesterday,” to my band, my manager, my family and our various international record companies, I got the same response… “That’s the first single” they all chimed! Co-written and co-produced by the band’s new wonder kid, Mo Brandis, this song has had an amazing effect on everybody involved in the Incognito machinery. If there is a young vocalist that can deliver on both sides as a modern R&B vocalist and a soulful old school crooner - it is Mo! This song and “Don’t Wanna Know,” came from one the most enjoyable co-writing sessions I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of. The last of his three cuts “This Must Be Love” came from a band collaborative effort in early 2011. I had written the lyrics as and expression of gratitude for the presence of love in my life.
Song writing is such a personal thing and lyric writing, in particular, is something that I have always felt uneasy with when collaborating. This was indeed not the case on this album, first with Mo and then with Natalie (Williams). I felt strength in sharing ideas and formulating stories and real joy in the structure of the melodies. “Above The Night” was the first of three songs featuring Natalie Williams and it still blows me away every time I hear it. I first became aware of Natalie when we played Ronnie Scott’s and she was the lead vocalist of the house band. My first reaction was “She is amazing, what can we do to get this super busy bee (she is the most in demand vocalist in London) to join the band. With the help of our intrepid musical director Matt Cooper, who was also part of this writing partnership, we began a pressure group that she finally relented to. “Restless As We are” and the sparse 70’s rhythm box inspired Bossa Nova “The Stars From Here,” are the other cuts featuring Natalie.
If there was ever one person that you need in your corner to deliver massive vocal performances throughout heavy touring schedules and time constricted studio sessions, it is Vanessa Haynes. “Ain’t It Time,” “Don’t Break Me Down” and “To Be With You” are three fine examples of her incredible power and subtlety. Her naturally giving nature is reflected in each of her performances. There is a smile on my face whenever Vanessa is around and now listening to her cuts on this album, I realize that the smile will be there whenever I listen to these songs!
Surreal’s penultimate track, “The Way You Love,” is collaboration with my dear friend and Incognito contributor Richard Bull, and as can be expected, his drum grooves and his bass lines dominate the proceedings, creating a muscular platform for the unison vocals to dance on.
Jazz funk hardcore Incognito fans will be happy to hear that my passion for the music that shaped my musical career is on display in the form of two driving instrumentals “Rivers On The Sun,” complete with solos and a superb horn arrangement, and “Thoughtful Fantasies,” a nod to our beloved Brazilian Funk with all horns blazing, percussion break and everything!
To complete the package, I turned to West London’s highly creative graphic designer, Mitchy Bwoy, which has resulted in the album’s vibrant and distinctive look. The great surrealist painter Salvador Dali once said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”
With this album another part of my ambition has been realized… I’m a lucky fellow!
ONE ON ONE WITH BLUEY
What is the secret to Incognito's longevity and success?
We have a sound of our own and we are not trying to follow anyone else's groove! People love the contrast in this band, it keeps folks interested in the journey whether live or on record. Incognito has never been a band that tries to dazzle with flashiness and technical prowess, we groove to make you move, we shift to uplift and we use captivating melodies to tell our stories. Our fans feel that they are a part of it all and not just spectators!
Can you tell me in a sentence or two what these four vocalists have that is special: Maysa, Vanessa Haynes, Natalie Williams and Mo Brandis?
Maysa... A tone that most singers would sell their souls for! The right combination of soul sassiness and jazz headiness. She's got that magic that aspires to greatness.
Vanessa Haynes... My girl has a power house of a voice and the sensuality and sensitivity to induce highly emotional responses. She’s got grit and team spirit! She is incredibly reliable, the kind of friend everyone should have.
Natalie Williams... The sweetest voice mad riffing skills, she can scat for days and boy can she write! Natalie also has great stage presence, she is a natural!
Mo Brandis... A new school soul voice with the delivery and charm of the old school. Because he has mastered so many instruments (Keyboards and Saxophone being the prominent ones), he is able to sing with great rhythm and musicality. He brings freshness to the band both as a singer and a songwriter.
What continues to inspire you to create? The shear joy of making music, the buzz I get connecting the dots from inspiration to creation and the massive gratitude I feel that I can make a living from my labor of love.
Tell me something special about each of the tracks on the name album. It could be the songs inspiration, something musically unique, something that happened during the recording of the song, etc.
1. The Less You Know" featuring Maysa. Written and produced with our bass player Francis Hylton. My brief to Francis was for him to come up with a track that would have every bassist in the world showing off their version to the world on You Tube. He came up with this monster and had me sweating with delight from the moment I heard it! I wrote a lyric and melody for Maysa's voice as I thought that the sweet warm amber tones of her voice would be the great counter to the edgy relentless shifting funk of the rhythm section.
2. Goodbye To Yesterday" featuring Mo Brandis, who also co- wrote and co- produced the track with me. The by-product of two creative minds a generation apart, proves that great melodies and well crafted lyrics hold the key to creations that have a timeless quality to them. This song could have easily been sung by Steve Winwood in the 60's, Stevie Wonder in the 70's, Michael Jackson in the 80's, George Michael in the 90's. The catchy horn lines arranged by Trevor Mires make the track even more hooky and immediate.
3. Above The Night" featuring Natalie Williams who also happens to be my co-writer on this song. It's a song that celebrates the forgiving, undying, unquestioning and consistent nature of true love! I played this to a friend of mine and he was beaming as he rocked back and forth whilst muttering the odd superlatives here and there. Sounds like Erykah on the verse... Oh Adele right here on the bridge oh yeah... Sarah Vaughn on that scat!" I smiled a contented smile.
4. Ain’t It Time" featuring Vanessa Haynes. The idea of doing a cover of this song came from an epiphany moment on stage in Japan. Vanessa had just finished singing a stripped down version of Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing” accompanied by Matt Cooper on piano and there was not a dry eye in the house. The power of her voice still rings in my ear as I imagine her doing this song. I have always loved the Queen Yahna original from 1976 and thought it was time to make that moment a reality.
5. Capricorn Sun" featuring Maysa. This is not an indictment on all Capricorns, just a story of a certain controlling individual born under that star sign. The song contains the self explanatory lines You can't judge a book until you've taken time to read it, get to know my life before you start to change my world!"
6. Don’t Wanna Know" featuring Mo Brandis. The first of our collaborations on a sunny summer's day in a little studio tucked away in a quiet oasis at the centre of vibrant Brixton. Song writing is a very personal thing and it is sometimes hard to even allow someone in the same room, let alone open yourself up to their ideas. But one knows instantly when something is right and Mo and I clicked from the first minute. From chord structures to melody lines, from groove to tempo, sentiment to lyrics we were one!
7. Restless As We Are" featuring Natalie Williams. Matt's chords were the foundation for this song. It's about finding love when you least expect it. It's about that time when you no longer mope around moaning and wishing that love would come your way and you are getting on with your life without that shadow hanging over you. And suddenly out of the blue, in a serendipitous moment, your life is transformed and you find yourself burning the candle at both ends in a world of adventure that can only be found in the early stages of romance. Every one should experience this at least once in their lives!
8. Rivers On The Sun" is the album's first instrumental. I don't like to give verbal explanations to instrumental compositions, it defeats the object!
9. Don’t Break Me Down" featuring Vanessa Haynes. Sadly in some relationships, there comes a time when, in an attempt to hold on to a partner we become controlling and desperate. We end up tearing apart the very thing that is dearest to us. In order to remain functional we agree to disagree and we end up disagreeing for the majority of the time. The song's opening verse sets the scene... Tears well up and words exchanged as we try to match each other blow by blow, the days go by but nothing's changed, we simply patch the surface of what lies below." That is the time when we must learn to let things go, no matter how dear they may have been to us in the past. If we can't bring it to the present, it's best to move on!
10. The Stars From Here" featuring Natalie Williams. Me and my guitar, Natalie pen, paper and that animated mind, Matt on that 1970's classic Fender Rhodes electric piano throwing sparkle dust across the Bossa rhythm of drums and a drum box... Nothing's ever been so clear, that sparkle love implies, like a thousand warm July’s".
11. To Be With You" featuring Vanessa Haynes on vocals and Sid Gauld on Trumpet. I guess that the opening lines of the song say it all... Nothing says I love you like I love you, It’s simply what I want to say to you." Sid's solo at the end captures the joy of that feeling!
12. This Must Be Love" featuring Mo Brandis. This song shows Mo's ability to deliver on a more laid back groove. This is dedicated to all the good hearted folks out there who sometimes feel like the universe has conspired against them, ensuring that love be always tantalizingly out of their reach. IT CAN HAPPEN! Maysa... Maysa! hope you are listening.
13. The Way You Love". Unison vocals handled by Vanessa Haynes, Imaani, Mo Brandis. This is a collaboration with my old mate Richard Bull. I wanted this to have an old school disco feel without all the cliché's. It's already a big favorite with the Incognito forum on our band's website. I guess I know my audience as this was intended for the hardcore fans.
14. Thoughtful Fantasies". Written and produced with my friend from the Talkin' Loud label days, Ski Oakenfull. This is in the main an instrumental with some choral vocal layers. There is a little nod here to our love of Brazilian funk from the 70's.
Is it still a thrill for you to perform for U.S. audiences...are they unique in any way?
America has so much home grown music and so many venues. In a way you guys are a little spoiled for choice, that's why it feels extra special to be received by an American audience. We feel truly grateful that our blend of British Jazz, Funk & Soul has made a connection across the pond.
Tell me anything you think is important to get across about this album.
33 years of Incognito, our 15th studio album, as long as there is inspiration there will be creation. I'm loving it!