Lemar on Page In My Heart, where he’s been and Lemar from Afar

In an alternative life, Lemar would be working in a pharmacy. Instead, in the 21 years since appearing on BBC’s Fame Academy, the Tottenham singer has won three MOBOs, two Brits and has released seven studio albums. On his new album, Page In My Heart, Lemar explains where he’s been and why it’s important to remind yourself who you are.

“I'd probably be working in a bank, or a pharmacy actually!” says Lemar on what he might have done had he not featured on the hit reality TV show in 2002. “I was gonna be a pharmacist. I had a place at Cardiff University, but then fate had its own decisions, or its own intentions…”

Fate took on the form of a set of forgotten keys when Lemar was working at NatWest:

“I was working at a bank and at the time I was also touring with Trevor Nelson,” he recalls. “There was another show on – I think it was Pop Idol – and his voice was the one they used for their advert. I was on my lunch break and I went back to my desk. 

"I forgot my keys in the canteen so I went back to pick them up, and as I was leaving I heard his voice. That's what made me turn around – his voiceover for the show. I thought, ‘If Trevor's doing it, maybe it's a bit of karma or an omen in there,’ so I'll throw my hat in for this one before I go back to uni and call it quits on music.”

You've got to make the most of the cards you are dealt.

Lemar came third in the reality TV talent show, and the following year his double-platinum debut album Dedicated was released, which contained the singles Dance (With U), 50/50 and Another Day, all of which charted in the top 10. 

His second album, Time to Grow also achieved double platinum certification, and contains his most successful single, If There's Any Justice, which peaked at number three and spent four months in the UK Singles Chart.

“20 years,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “I was very new to it. I was rolling the dice, taking a chance on life and taking a chance on an opportunity – not really knowing what it would lead to. Much like Big Brother, we weren't really in contact with anyone that was outside the building or outside the show for a good three months. While I was in, I didn't really know the magnitude of how well or how bad things were going until it was finished. Then I realised, ‘Okay, life might be a little bit different.’”

His life was forever changed, going on to release album after album, winning three MOBO Awards (two for Best UK male and one for Best Album), two BRIT Awards for Best British Urban Act, sharing the stage with Beyoncé, Lionel Richie, Mary J Blige, George Benson, Usher and Justin Timberlake, as well as producing for other artists, gaining credibility as an actor, making a string of TV appearances and hosting his own podcast.

“In life, you're presented with whatever opportunities are in front of you; you're dealt some cards and you've got to make the most of the cards you are dealt,” he muses. 

“Everyone needs a bit of luck to start. You need an opportunity to get your talent, or whatever it is that you've been working on, in front of people. Once that's done, it's up to you to try and keep that engine turning and show that you're even more than that. I'm very glad that I took that opportunity – it's got me here.”

I've had the highest highs and there have been some lows – you have to remind yourself who you are.

Seven albums later, his new album, Page In My Heart chronicles his emotional journey over the last few years, including the ups and the downs that go hand in hand with being in a constantly evolving music industry.

“I'm older now, so I understand the music business much more; you understand what an audience is and how to get through to people. Evolution is evolution. Back in the day, it was a cool thing for the artists to be mysterious and for you only to see them on the stage, but nowadays it's a much more connected world. 

"They want to see you everyday and they want to be really connected with you, which develops a stronger relationship, or a closer one. But it's definitely more demanding. It's just a different way of working to achieve the same thing.”

To mark it being 20 years since the release of Dedicated, Lemar recently played two special shows in London and Manchester to celebrate two decades of music. For Lemar, those years have gone by in a flash.

“It's crazy! You start off with an album, and as one's finishing, the next one is starting, and then as the next one's finishing, the next one’s starting, so it does become a bit of a blur. Back then you were extremely busy when you were busy; it was a lot of drama. 

"About a year and a half ago, someone reminded me that it was going to be 20 years in 2023. I had to count a few times on my fingers like, ‘No, you're right. It's 20 years!’ But it does not feel like it at all.”

It doesn't get more ‘me’ than this, musically.

Part of his post Fame Academy promo cycle saw Lemar appear on the Miquita Oliver and Simon Amstell-fronted Sunday morning show, Popworld, known for its pisstaking segments and distinct lack of pandering to the guests brave enough to feature. 

It soon amassed a cult following for its non-sycophantic approach, and featured bizarre segments including There’s a Rat in McCutcheon, but what are the Sugababes going to do?, The Big Ones (Amstell asks a baffled Britney Spears if she’s ever licked a battery), and Lemar from Afar, in which Amstell shouted questions into a megaphone from one end of a car park while Lemar stood at the other end.

“Do you know what…” he says, a hint of recognition in his eyes. “I do remember Simon and Miquita, but I don't fully remember what the piece exactly was. I do remember the saying ‘Lemar from Afar,’ but not the details,” he laughs. 

“Whatever it was, it was always tongue in cheek. Simon was always a joker, Miquita too. As I’ve just demonstrated, you do forget a lot of the things that you do along the way!”

Fast forward back to present day, and Lemar’s new album is his first release in eight years, and is made for fans that enjoyed Dedicated, evidenced by the funky Dance (With U)-esque single, Future Love.

“That was very intentional,” he says of the upbeat tune. “I didn't want to come back on a downer like, ‘I'm brokenhearted’ and for everyone to be like, ‘Oh here he is, the grim reaper.’ I wanted to come back a bit happy. Topically, the album is quite relationship-based,” he says. 

“I think that's where my strength is – my voice lends itself well to the emotional stuff, so there's a few songs on there that I hope that people will relate to. [My songwriting] has definitely matured along with my life experiences.”

I was gonna be a pharmacist, but then fate had its own intentions…

Album track, I Been was written at a particularly low point and sees Lemar reflecting on his journey in the music industry after repeatedly being asked, ‘Where have you been?’ over the years.

“This was one of those 2am songs,” he shares. “I have had quite a few of those early morning ones. I Been is me talking about the highs and the lows. The highs are when everything's going good and everything's positive and everything's great – you're winning awards, you're performing, you're going all over the place. 

"Then you have low moments when you don't really want to do music that much, you don't really want to play another tune, you may have moved on from labels or managers, etc. Unless you're a very resilient person, it does…” he trails off.

“Like I mentioned before, social media – as great as it can be – it's good to step back a couple of times, analyse things and take your moment to regroup. I've Been is me regrouping and saying, ‘Alright, cool. This is where things are, this is where things could be, these are the cards in front of me.’

“I've been doing this a while, so I've had the highest highs, and there have been some lows as well – you have to remind yourself who you are,” he points out. 

“It's good to surround yourself with people that see you in a certain light and appreciate you, so whenever you have a doubt in your ability or a doubt about who you are – which you will have over 20 plus years – it's good to surround yourself with positivity so that you can take that next step. 

"Ultimately, everything does work out. So yeah, that's what I've been doing!”

I didn't want to come back on a downer like: I'm brokenhearted.

Working again with longtime writing partners Craig Hardy (who co-wrote Dance (With U)) and Mathias Andermo, Page In My Heart sees Lemar creating music that he says is very much true to himself. Releasing the album on his own label also allowed him to take the reins fully as an independent artist.

The self confessed “super private dude” shares that he has allowed himself to be vulnerable through his songwriting:

“That's the beauty of music and songwriting. When you write a song, it has its own meaning to you and it's personal to you and you know why you wrote things. But you put it out and other people take it and make their own memories and put their own meanings to it. 

"The meaning that you have in your mind is kind of like therapy, and it's my way of getting things that I might not want to talk about, or I find difficult to say, out there. It has turned out extremely personal,” he nods. “It doesn't get more ‘me’ than this, musically. The way this album was written and the way it came to fruition, I don't think it could have been a purer process than this one.”

Lemar’s fans have been patient in between album releases (he still recognises fans that have been with him since Fame Academy), flocking to see him belt out his hits at his recent shows, including a packed Indigo at The O2. When it comes to fan favourites, he says it’s a tough call:

Justice always smashes it. 50/50 always smashes it as well. But then people love It's Not That Easy, Someone Should Tell You, What About Love?, and Dance (With U) live is good as well, because we do an extended version. I mean… I'm not saying I've got loads of hits, but I'm just sayin’, you know...” he laughs.

Lemar is performing at The Cambridge Club Festival this summer, and after the success of his recent shows, warm reception to Page In My Heart, and cameo in the new season of Bridgerton, hopefully it won’t be another eight years before he releases a project again.

“Yeah! It’s gonna be Lemar from up close,” he laughs.