“It’s the melody that talks to me”: Omar on his collaboration with Courtney Pine, mentorship and soul values

Since bursting onto the scene in the early nineties with singles such as There’s Nothing Like This and Your Loss My Gain, Omar Lye-Fook MBE has become recognised as one of the finest vocalists in British neo-soul. The recipient of the ‘Legendary award’ at last month’s UK Entertainment awards, his dedication and versatility have stood him in good stead through the years, as have the musical skills honed at prestigious music institutes and the life experience gained from a three decade career in the arts.

This month, Omar joins good friend and collaborator Courtney Pine on the road, performing music from their recent collaborative effort, Black Notes from the Deep. An assured soul-jazz collection, capitalising upon the strongest traits of each contributor, Omar tells us that the album came about in a rather relaxed manner. “I’ve known Courtney for quite a long time,” he explains, “since we were kids; since primary school!” The pair had worked on various projects together, but this marks the first where they enjoyed a truly collaborative process. “He basically gave me some rough sketches,” Omar explains, “some demos of the backing, the music I was going to sing over, then I just had to craft the melodies and lyrics myself.”

Omar did so partially in response Courtney’s sketches and otherwise in response to external stimulus and the guidance of his collaborator. He raises Darker than the Blue as an example: “it’s a blues song, which itself explains the template that I was working with… I had to think about what I wanted to say. I thought about how a guy was feeling about a woman, how she had let him down, that type of thing.”

“When I write my lyrics, I always lead off with the melody” Omar concludes, “it’s the melody that talks to me and tells me what the subject is going to be.”

Omar’s understanding of melody, along with music’s other fundamentals, was honed at music college and with his father, with whom he worked on his label Kongo Dance at an early age. Having recently turned fifty, he’s now an artist with the knowledge and experience to assist the younger generation, which both he and Courtney Pine have done, with workshops and residencies to pass on their advice and help nurture the talent of young musicians. “I hadn’t actually thought about how it is that I do what I do, until it was time to explain it to other people” Omar states, referring to how his experiences as an artist and father have informed his mentorship.

“I feel with my kids that it’s in their genes to be singing, cause they sing all day long. And their mother is a dance teacher, so they’re beautiful dancers as well. It’s just an inherent thing. But for me to explain it to somebody else… there are so many different things that I draw from: ‘cause I’m a drummer, I play the bass, I play keys… I do vocal arrangements, horn arrangements, orchestration… so there’s a wealth of things I get experiences from. It can come from anywhere basically, I’m just blessed that I’ve been doing this for 34 years now, so I’ve got quite a bit of experience to share.”

A key piece of advice he imparts is how exercise has benefitted his craft. “I train in Muay Thai,” he explains, “not fighting but exercising.” Touching upon the condition of his voice and how he has managed its development, he says, “there’s definitely been a change in my voice. I hear myself in the beginning — I started on my father’s label, Kongo Dance — and when I listen back to myself then, obviously my voice wasn’t developed at the time and so I’d say to him: ‘how did you know I was going to become what I did’ and he says he thought I sounded great then. That’s the thing, you kind of grow into your skin and my thing is that I’ve always been into the classical but also reggae, soul music, funk, jazz, blues, latin… I kind of try and make everything fit. You can hear me on a funky house track as well as Courtney’s jazz thing, the big band thing or a reggae track, I just kind of go with the flow and I’ve been blessed enough to keep the voice.”

A tone and timbre like the one Omar possesses, epitomises soul music for many listeners. Addressing his thoughts on the defining characteristics of soul, Omar expresses, “When you talk about soul music, I think most people are thinking about the old school R&B. Stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s: we’re talking Marvin Gaye, Al Green, that kind of thing. But soul music is music from the soul. It depends where you come from because, the music we make here in the UK is a different animal to that which comes from the US. Our thing is more Caribbean and English heritage rather than the gospel and jazz thing they get over there. But it’s still from the soul y’know. Likewise, anyone experiencing grunge music, Nirvana, that’s soul music. Those guys who do heavy metal, that’s soul, because they’re really feeling it. That’s how I would describe soul music: something when you’re really feeling it, expressing yourself from within. That’s what soul music is for me.”

Omar joins Courtney Pine on the Black Notes from the Deep tour this week and beyond that, has plans for a television project and perhaps some new music. Pick up tickets for the tour here.