To borrow a very ’90s Americanism, Liam Bailey keeps it real. The words ‘truthfully’ and ‘honest’ surface frequently during his SoulCulture interview and no-one could accuse Liam of being anything else. There’s something so refreshingly unguarded and guileless about him it’s impossible not to feel completely at ease in his company; that and his wicked sense of humour.
We’re sat upstairs in one of Camden’s celebrated drinking holes and Liam waxes lyrical about holey trousers and the monotony of Dance music since the late 1990s. Just as he settles down to answer some questions he spontaneously bursts into a rendition of Michael Jackson and Patti Austen’s ‘It’s the Falling In Love’. Heck, I can’t resist the urge to join him.
Born and raised in Nottingham, Bailey hails from a family of ‘music appreciators’ as he puts it. His own musical journey started during the ’90s Britpop explosion and a life-long fascination with the band Oasis began. It was Noel Gallagher that inspired Liam to pick up the guitar.
“I was a Radio One boy like you are when you’re 13 or 14,” he shares. “I remember going to Derby with the family and I bought Mark Morrison’s ‘Return of the Mack’ and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’ That made me want to play guitar, man. I found out [Noel] wrote it himself. Oasis made me want to play, write my own songs.”
Liam is more or less self-taught bar a couple of lessons with a local guitar teacher. “The chords he taught me are the ones I mainly use now-basically E Minor, A Minor and G. It was only a half an hour lesson and it hurt and he said to me…” – at this point Liam affects a broad Yorkshire accent – “’Look Youth, all you need to do, is sit in front of t’TV, when you’re watching Brookside with your mum and just hold G like that,’ and that’s what I did.
“After that I got an Oasis songbook. That’s literally how I learned to play guitar, from just reading guitar tabs of Oasis songs.”
According to Liam, Nottingham is a hotbed of eclecticism with thriving Hip Hop, Heavy Metal, Indie as well as Soul scenes. He even sang with an Indie band for a while before going solo. This diversity seeps into Bailey’s sound. Listening to his striking voice there are traces of Andrew Roachford, Sam Cooke and Bob Marley. Liam makes no bones about the heavy impact of Soul singers on his craft…
“I adored Michael Jackson. I would listen and replicate his vocal style in the Jacksons because I used to be able to sing that high. I remember replicating Stevie Wonder… Marvin Gaye; his style, the falsetto – that was something I really wanted to do … Otis Redding… When you heard something that amazed you, you tried to copy it. When you’re in love with so many styles of music and you listen to it all the time, you end up incorporating it. It just gets into your soul. I was like a sponge; I still am.”
Nevertheless, rather surprisingly-or perhaps not-once again it’s the Gallagher brothers who have been a major influence on Bailey’s vocals, specifically Liam Gallagher. Bailey says, “If it wasn’t for me getting into Oasis I think my vocal style would be slightly more generically soul.”
And it is quite a voice. There are centuries of stories and life experience in Bailey’s rich, gravelly tone alone, not to mention his doleful lyrics. It’s a voice that sounds very ‘lived in’, I tell him. As with everything else about Liam it seems, his sound is 100% organic.
“I would say the reason my voice sounds the way it does is because of the sponge element, soaking things in. I’m not cussing it but I’ve never had singing lessons. I never went to the BRITS school; I didn’t do performing arts at college. I had to work. I worked in an office, in a factory, in a pub. I smoke and drink. I don’t do the things that singers do. I think it is quite fitting if you wanted to describe my voice as ‘lived in’ because I have lived through quite a lot of things. I think I’ve been to the darkest, darkest, darkest place and I’ve been to the happiest.”
This might be the reason behind the morose feel to some of Liam’s songs. A good deal of the album is about his previous relationship. You could even say it is the unofficial theme of the record although this wasn’t necessarily Bailey’s original intention.
He explains, “Those were the songs I had; it wasn’t a conscious decision. I think the best songs are the ones that come out when your back’s against the wall and you don’t know what you’re doing. It just pours out of you in those emotive states.”
Still, Liam admits some variety wouldn’t go amiss. “To be honest, sometimes I think it’s a shame the whole album is about that [relationship]. At the end of the day I want some variation for the listener. At gigs when I’m playing it does cross my mind. I’m five songs in and I’m like, ‘S***, I’m still on about her’. It’s like the conversation is going on too long but that’s what I’ve got so I roll with it.”
Speaking to Liam his encyclopaedic knowledge of music becomes apparent very quickly. He’s even given to the odd reverential silence when he reflects on greats such as Sam Cooke and founding member of Fleetwood Mac, Pete Green. One contemporary artist for which he has nothing but the highest regard is fellow Brit, soul/pop sensation Rox.
“I tell you, her voice is outstanding, absolutely outstanding,” Liam enthuses. “It’s people like that who need to be singing soul music because it’s not just about technical ability. It’s about the way you walk the streets, the way you cry and laugh. Rox is one of them. You’re not going to get any diva bulls**t out of her, you’re going to get real s*** and that’s how she is.”
Liam supported Rox on some UK tour dates earlier this year and there’s a possibility of a future collaboration. “We have talked about jamming but the stars haven’t aligned yet.” Bailey assures us that if it does happen it will be very special indeed. “When we write a song [together], God help this country man!”
The past couple of years have been notably eventful for Liam. At one stage he had four labels wining and dining him before he eventually decided to sign with Polydor. Bailey remains resolutely unimpressed by it all. Whilst this might be misconceived by some as arrogance, rather it’s indicative of just how grounded Liam really is.
“I was aware of the fact people tell you what you want to hear because money is involved,” he expounds. “You know what’s interesting? To see what kind of people make or break people’s futures…A&R men. You just think, ‘I wonder what they are like, these people?’ It is A&R men and radio that have determined what music I listen to.”
There was one encounter with record company execs that left Bailey in a particularly pensive mood.
“I remember the first offer I had was from Colombia Records. It was quite a depressing day coming from that. I met the head of Colombia and he wanted to sign me. I had just written the song ‘It’s Not the Same’ and it’s not just about my girlfriend that song. S**t is not the same, man. When I was young I thought getting a record deal was like, ‘That was it! Rich, famous. Life’s not hard’.
“That’s part of the reason people want to get record deals – because they don’t want to work. That’s what X-Factor is about. They love singing but they don’t want a job. It’s hard; life’s hard. I realised it’s not going to change s**t getting a record deal. The only privilege of it is that I get to be a musician, which is obviously a blessed position to be in – but I was that anyway. The other privilege is a stamp of approval… and I get to tell my mum I’ve got a record deal.”
Liam has spent some time working in New York and LA. I ask how receptive he reckons the US would be to his music.
“You know what? I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t know how it’s going to go down in America for me because let’s face it; from the evidence of American music culture I’d say that raw s**t is a rarity. Really bad R&B and Hip Hop is on every station. You’d think that the amount they had out there, there’d be more diversity.”
Liam believes his strong East Midland intonations could be a challenge for US audiences too… “I don’t sing with an American accent; most singers from this country that do soul or blues music sing with one. I have wondered how my voice is going to be seen. They’ve never had a Nottingham accent before.”
I remind Liam that both Corinne Bailey Rae and Sade managed to crack the US market singing in a very British way, so there’s hope. Besides, the recent transatlantic success of UK acts such as Rae, Coldplay, Adele and Amy Winehouse suggests the Yanks might be craving something different after all.
Next year looks set to be a significant one for Bailey. “2011 is going to be busy. I think it’ll make or break the future,” he predicts.
Despite the fact Liam has been known to hang out at The Libertines gigs with the likes of Winehouse – a friend to whom Bailey is fiercely loyal – he’s not especially interested in the Red Carpet lifestyle. “I don’t want to be famous,” he says and one gets the impression he genuinely means it.
I can only wish that he’ll stay as uncomplicated and down-to-earth as this when the plaudits inevitably start pouring in. But truly, his aversion to celebrity should come as no shock considering what some of his friends undergo as a result of fame.
Don’t be mistaken, however; Liam still has a few ambitions, albeit somewhat more modest than world domination.
“I want to have a pint with Liam Gallagher; that’s what I’d really like to do,” he says grinning widely. “I just want to keep living my life like I am doing. In five years time, if it goes well, I’m going to have a yard in Jamaica and a flat in Nottingham… and one in London.”
Liam is set to release his second EP So Down, Cold on November 29th through Amy Winehouse’s Lioness Records. This will be available to download from November 28th.
Photography by Steve Rutherford