Remember Fame Academy? For those that don’t, it was (and probably still is) the only British reality show whereby musical talent and songwriting ability was a prerequisite. Lemar made the final in the first series of the show, back in 2002, which acted as a pedestal for some serious successes: seven top 10 singles, two million record sales, three MOBOs, and two BRIT Awards. His fifth studio album, Invincible, was released in 2012, and after a three year hiatus, he’s back with a bang. Album six, The Letter, is a fusion of original material and all-time classics, and was recorded at LA’s legendary East West Studio (rather refreshingly, with a full live band). “It was all about the vibe of the room, and all these amazing musicians feeding off each other,” Lemar tells Headliner, with a smile. Sounds good to us. We sit down with him in West London to find out more.
Perhaps predictably, we begin by asking Lemar to regress back to those Fame Academy days, where it all began for him. Politely, he concurs, though reminds us that actually, his musical story began a lot earlier than that.
“I got into music when I was 16, just trying to be an artist, really. I bumped into Best Kept Secret in London, and did about 200 gigs supporting the likes of Usher, Beyoncé, basically any US artist that came up,” he explains. We did not realise that. Do continue. “I did the roadshows with Trevor Nelson, met with all the record labels, but no joy [smiles]. Eventually, eight years on, I was going to give up music, and remember being in the NatWest bank and hearing Trevor Nelson’s voice as he was doing an advert for Fame Academy. I was like, ‘oh, it’s Trevor’, and I saw the advert for the show. I had already re-applied to go back to uni, so that was starting in two months, but I thought, ‘let’s give it one more try’, then I’ll call it quits.”
Divine intervention at its finest! Lemar went for the initial auditions and kept progressing until eventually, he made it onto the show.
“I look back now and think the stars couldn’t have aligned in a better way, but at the time, it was a struggle,” he admits. “The reactions were positive, I met Mariah Carey, sang with Lionel Richie, so I knew something was going to change, however far I progressed. And the cool thing about doing it was, I’d been working in music eight years earlier, so I’d seen so many artists get a deal, lose a deal, and so on; so when I did get a deal, it was something I really wanted to work on and look at the finite details of, to make sure it was perfect.”
Lemar finished third in Fame Academy, which acted as a springboard to a series of musical successes. He hasn’t made a record since 2012, so when he came out of the shadows to make his sixth album, he had to be completely focused on the job in hand, which began with an autumn tour of showcases in September.
“My band is normally a 10-piece, but we can add strings, too; it depends on the stage size and just availability, really. And all the numbers! [laughs] We always make sure it’s rocking, whatever the setup.”
The first single, The Letter, came out on August 21, and received critical acclaim, as well as playlisting on BBC Radio 2. Snippets of the album followed, and on October 9th, it was officially released, reaching no.31 in the UK Albums Chart.
“Recording in East West Studios was amazing,” Lemar recalls, adding that Larry Klein (Sinatra, Michael Jackson) aided with the production. “I had Vinnie Colaiuta, one of the best drummers in the world, and we had The Water Sisters on BVs. They’ve sung on so many hits. In fact, on the album there’s a cover of Someday We’ll Be Together by Diana Ross, and the girls said, ‘shall we do the same as we did on the original?’ I was like, ‘what?!’ They sang on that original track when they were just 16! Amazing! So getting us all in that room together with the band gave us that extra 10%, you know?”
The approach for The Letter, as Lemar hints, was all about getting that raw, live feel.
“We went in with a full band, with horns by Jerry Hey, who did Thriller,” Lemar enthuses. “We’d do the take, record the take, maybe do it two or three times, pick a take, and bang, it’s on the record! Although I had never recorded in this way before – I normally write and then the producer and I add elements in, or it’s a full production, and the musicians come and play the parts - all vibing off each other in a room was much quicker. The hardest thing was coming up with new songs, and then picking which reworks I was going to do.
“Once that was done, we would record two or three songs in a day, and there are 11 on the album, so there you go. After that, there was post production. The whole thing was done over the course of two to three months, but in terms of actual recording, it was more like two to three weeks.”
Impressive, and so refreshing to see a back to basics approach to recording. Talk turns to the US scene, and Lemar tells us he keeps a little place out in LA, because there’s a lot of music there, and of course there’s the incomparable movie scene:
“Because music and movies go so well together, it means people have had to group together a bit closer to the source of what’s happening. People have moved out of New York, and although I like the vibe of the city, I think it’s about the value of music, and also the way it’s being consumed at the moment.”
Although Lemar may have been out of the limelight for a while, he’s no slouch. We calculate that he’s been writing for over 20 years, which raises our respective eyebrows in unison, and he’s also been playing some incredible live shows: a few gigs in Monaco to celebrate the Prince of Monaco’s 10-year reign; and a huge show with Robbie Williams in Bucharest to 60,000 people.
“Yeah, that was pretty amazing with Robbie,” Lemar says, with a smile. We ask him about his writing process, and what else has kept him busy of late. “I’ve written for a few peeps, I set up a library company and signed some producers – you know, music for film – but with that it was very full-on. With my last album, I also set up my label and was doing deals - it was fully me - so now it’s really nice to operate on this level with a team behind me, where I can be at the top of my game as an artist.
“Because I wrote, produced, and released my last album on my own label, I was kind of burnt out [laughs] so I said to my management team, ‘I don’t feel like writing right now; I know loads [of writers], and I am sure they have their A-game songs; if we know any people, and the songs are cool, I will put in my two-pence, or if it’s great, I’ll just take the song’. So we have three new songs: A Higher Love; Love Turned Hate; and Never Be In Our League. I wanted to make sure the songs are in keeping with the classics, as they have to complement each other to provide some kind of continuity.”
Lemar is as full of modesty as his voice is of soul – a lovely attitude to have:
“I never wanted to do music to be famous,” he insists. “I am shy...[pauses]... I’ll be the one in the corner, saying very little! On stage, it’s a different thing. But I only ever wanted to sing, and if you can make a living out of that, brilliant. Once it’s your primary source of income, the pressure of success is a little bit more, but to me, If I can put on a show, and people buy the record, that is success. [pauses] You want to sell a trillion, of course, but as long as it’s not a calamity, and people are coming to your shows, it’s not a problem.”
After a brief chat about Lemar’s charity work, particularly for Cancer UK (he lost his mum to cancer in 2003), the Prince’s Trust, and Christian Aid, we ask him to leave us with a happy musical memory. He beams, and says:
“The performance that I learned most from was on Fame Academy with Lionel Richie. The one that got transmitted was cool, and set a bit of a tone, but before that, we did a soundcheck, and during it, Lionel does his bit and I then come out, look across, and he introduces me. So, I came out, totally forgot the lyrics to his song, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m from Tottenham. I’m trying to do some music. That is Lionel Richie; I am on the stage with him, and I can’t do this!’ [laughs] But Lionel was so cool; he called me over and told me a story about him when he was younger. He said, ‘I’m your mate, picture me as your next door neighbour; I picked you for a reason, and you have the ability. You know the songs backwards, your voice is fantastic, go back out there and forget about me and just deliver.’ So then, when I went back, I nailed the performance. It’s because of the gent he was, and I haven’t found anyone since that’s as nice as him in this industry.”
The Letter comes highly recommended: it's a mix of old school originals with a contemporary twist, and it’s been put together beautifully.
Lemar is currently on tour in the UK with fellow Brit, Will Young. Check out his website for more details.