Singer songwriter Omar has never been one to steal the limelight. But his lengthy career at the forefront of British soul does much to undermine his claim that he’s never been mainstream. He may not be establishment, but he and his music are definitely established.
Over the course of six albums he’s become an essential part of the UK’s rich pop tapestry. His debut single, There’s Nothing Like This, crash-landed into the UK singles charts at number 14. Since then, he’s done much to become, whisper it, a national institution via his well-received releases and collaborations with a who’s who from the worlds of soul and hip hop. Stevie Wonder, Angie Stone, Common, Estelle and garage producer Zed Bias are among the list of luminaries to all feature in his music.
These records and performances led to the recent MBE for his “ongoing contribution to the cultural life of the United Kingdom” from the palace, an award few soul singers have received. But, if those words conjure up images of Alan Carr being put out to pasture at the Royal Variety Show, then never fear. Omar’s music sounds more vital and fresh than ever. His latest record (his seventh), the boldly titled The Man, sees him continuing to make music from a rich canvas of funk, soul and reggae, all laced to together by that golden voice.
In an interview ahead of the release of his forthcoming record, M quizzed him about how he first got into music, why he doesn’t like his debut single and when he’s going to Buckingham Palace to drop off a copy of this new album…
How did you first get into music?
I was eight years old when I first started learning the cornet. I went on to play guitar, percussion and a little bit of piano. I studied at Saturday morning music school in Canterbury in Maidstone, then went to Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. I was 14/15 when I first started singing.
Who were you listening to at the time?
When I was younger, I was mainly listening to classical music. I was into reggae and funk but also DeBussy, Brahms and Stravinksy. All these people we were studying. Jazz wise we were listening to people like Jon Hendricks or King Pleasure.
How did you go from listening to music to writing songs?
Just by sitting down at a piano. I wasn’t content enough to read notes off a page as a way of taking my musical instruction so I tackled it that way. You start with a few basic chords, follow the key and go round and round.
I was listening to some early stuff the other day and was cringing. I think my first single is awful. But that’s a bonus because it reminds me that any time I write a song I have to like it. It’s not good if you write a song which you hate and you have to perform it again and again.
Where do you find your musical inspiration after writing songs for 20 plus years?
It comes in bits and pieces. This album has taken me seven years to complete or at least to be happy with the selection and I’ve done quite a few songs for it over that time.
But I still have that passion when I do it. You get into the tune, the different sections, the brass. I still have the fire in my belly when I’m recording. I’m really happy with the sound, the song selection and musical the direction of this album.
Is it breaking new ground for you?
If you know my stuff, then not really. I’ve definitely evolved from the last one but if you’ve known my music from the beginning, then you’ll realise it’s part of the journey I’ve been on. The reggae, the soul, the funk, the jazz and the classical arrangements. It’s all in there.
Is the new album full of musical collaboration?
The last album was an administrative nightmare because you’ve got to go through so many people to sort out any kind of collaboration. This time, I’ve kept it short and sweet.
I’m playing with Pino Palledino on a new version of There Ain’t Nothing Like This. He’s my hero. I nicked a bassline from him when I was 16 so it’s an honour for him to be playing on my stuff. There’s also a duet with Karen Wheeler but that’s it.
I find collaborating a bit easier because it takes the pressure off me. I’m usually trying to do everything. The arrangements, the bass, the drums, the keys, the production. So anyone stepping in with their inout really does make it go easier.
On this album I also let the lyrics go to other people which I never normally do. But I wanted things to be different. I really enjoyed doing it in a different way.
Do you get nervous working with a musical hero?
In the studio we just vibe. I first worked with Pino on a song called Get It Together on my last album Sing If You Want It. That was a dream moment. You know he’s easy to play with and a down to earth guy so it’s really easy to get the process going without any stress. Sometimes it can be harder with other people and you can feel that.
What was it like working with Stevie Wonder?
He’s my idol from day one. I’ve sung his songs from when I was eight years old so to get in the studio with him was just mind blowing. And he didn’t disappoint as he did everything you’d want Steve Wonder to do. He sang, played the drums, did the keyboards and wrote two songs for me. I was a happy little boy for a good couple of weeks.
How did you feel about receiving an MBE?
I picked it up from the Palace. Prince Charles was there and he asked me if I was still making music. So I need to go and drop off a copy of this new album at the palace for him!
I’m not mainstream. I’ve never said that I was. My thing is I enjoy whatever attention I get and I always get enough love wherever I go – and that’s good enough for me to keep on doing what I’m doing. But to get an award like this is mind blowing. I was very chuffed.