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Jamie Lidell is the sort of person your grandmother might lovingly call a "character," someone whose eccentricity and intelligence come perilously and gloriously close to madness. In a single sitting, the 33-year-old British singer/DJ/composer goes from discussing Nazism to the importance of stage confidence in a kind of lightning-strike stream of consciousness that makes keeping up with him a daunting task.
Speaking via phone amid the bustling backstage sounds of a TV studio, Lidell has just finished taping a performance on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. He likens the experience to "being locked in a surrealist room with Craig Ferguson and a bunch of loveys running around doing people's makeup, and getting five seconds to rehearse with a band I've never met before for a performance on American television. A bit surreal, in'it? But it was good fun."
That's a bustle Lidell will have to get used to, particularly if the swell of interest surrounding his music continues. His sophomore effort, 2005's Multiply, thrust the low-profile electronic artist onto a path of steadily increasing notoriety. Inspired by jazz and funk performers who did wheelies with improvisation, Lidell's sound breaks apart and shifts in the exact same manner in which he vacilates from the specific to the abstract in conversation. From Super_Collider, his Prince-by-way-of-Aphex Twin project with Christian Vogel, to "Multiply," the single that made him the toast of the blogosphere last year -- or as Lidell puts it, "the song even your mother will groove on" -- he changes from record to record. Inevitably, though, as he's made the transition from being part of the white-label European underground to being the "new Otis Redding" -- a tag many critics have assigned to him -- Lidell has been slandered by his own rising popularity, met with suspicion as another outsider golden boy trying to be soulful.
Part of the criticism stems from the fact that the classic soul sound Lidell is channeling is inextricably linked to race and its historical frictions in America. It's the same initial credibility gap that Eminem encountered, or what Britney Spears would face if she decided that her next record was going to be an old-timey gospel-hour affair. When Lidell climbs his enormous vocal range, does a funky strut and then looks out from the blue-plate eyes of a gaunt, scruffy white man, people might have reason to suspect, if just for a few seconds, that there's a hint of minstrel show there. Soul music, especially music that might invoke legends like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, often gets its critical respect by being entombed. Contemporary R&B has only touchstones and remnants of this sacred past; even many black performers shy away from being overshadowed by giants.
That Lidell, a white Brit, takes that music and plants it in such a futuristic, technologically heavy context, makes some people twitch and fuss. But British teenagers, people like Jamie's parents, had their own love affair with Motown, which led to the Northern Soul movement, in which British artists such as the Velvelettes and Ellie Greenwich unself-consciously took the music on as their own. Likewise, when speaking with Lidell, you get the sense that he's indeed playing music that he loves.
Lidell grew up in the countryside, perhaps one reason (other than the obvious economic ones) that he's so comfortable creating huge performance pieces solo. After all, kids who spend their formative years in relative isolation have to learn to find ways to entertain themselves. Despite being on stage alone, he's had several successful creative marriages. The album Multiply was co-created with the Har Mar Superstar-ish Mocky, a rapper, producer and singer in his own right. Musing about his current American tour, Lidell seems to be excited about future collaborations and the state of sketches for a new record.
"I got really lucky on the Beck tour and met a lot of great musicians," he explains. "It's just really exciting for me to take a song out of my head and realize it, and to continually push myself. As far as I'm concerned, it's about continually trying to grow, to not stop, not get bored, not repeat yourself, not end up in the same old shoes, running down the same fucking road. For me, I'm still really excited about the prospect of going into a studio."
Long before he had any reason to enter a studio, Lidell studied philosophy for a time in college -- and it shows. Regardless of what he's being asked, he spins each answer into philosophical terms. Clearly irritated by questions about the influence of Motown on his music, he changes up the question, pointing out that he believes motivation is more important than trying to tie an artist to his record collection.
"You should have an intention behind something," he asserts. "Like Nietzsche, for example, and the way that his concept of the Superman led many people to believe that he was propping up Nazism. That's one way of reading that material. I think it's important as an artist to clarify your motives."
Lidell's free-form float becomes downright striking when transformed in the concert setting. And it's in his performance that the rubber meets the road and his audio-visual point of view comes into play. Live, he toys with tracks on the fly, keeping several loops going between trips to center stage for some song-and-dance theatrics. If the final product weren't so stunning, it would be an instructional video for identifying symptoms of some sort of Post-Traumatic Attention Deficit Disorder.
At a tour stop in Austin last year, Lidell's improvisational skills were put to the test when his gear crashed a couple of songs into his set. After several attempts to revive the equipment, armed with only a single working microphone, he beckoned members of the audience to beatbox while he continued on with his full set, ultimately salvaging the performance. Lidell remembers the show vividly.
"They knew that I was genuinely in trouble," he says, "so everybody gathered together in this crazy charity effort, singing along and rocking in the audience. I was just trying to hold it all down as soon as I realized everything had gone wrong.
"I'll tell you, touring is a really good way of getting into an artist's psychology," he goes on. "You go through so many different energy states. I think the assumption is that when people meet you during one of these low-energy states, that's just who you are, that you're somehow always a bit of a retard."
But it's his versatility among creative states that has served Lidell so well over the course of his career. It's what has allowed him to be just as adaptable to playing through equipment failure as performing with an ad hoc TV-show band. In essence, it's also what makes him such a compelling performer.
Just don't tell him that.
"I think you believe your own hype, and you can also believe the criticism of others," he concludes. "You can be on a roll and develop a certain mentality. If you start to do well with a record and then you buy into the hype around it, and then you do another record and it gets slammed, you're rock-bottom and can't pick yourself up, because somehow the hype got in the way of the real shit."