Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Eduardo Donoso
British singer Liam Bailey first caught our attention on “Soon Come,” his 2013 collaboration with U.K. jungle icon Shy FX. Conjuring the ghosts of Dennis Brown and Roy Shirley on the Studio One-inspired track, his arresting performance sent us digging into his discography for other gems like “When Will They Learn.” We got to know Bailey better a year later, when he joined Salaam Remi’s short-lived Flying Buddha label. (Bailey and Remi met through Amy Winehouse, who released Bailey’s first two EPs on her Lioness label). That Spring, LargeUp’s Kieran Meadows caught up with him as he teased his debut album, Definitely Now, with a handful of shows at South by Southwest.
After that, things grew a little cold. While Flying Buddha, a Sony imprint, released Definitely Now in August of 2014, the project received little promotion and the label soon dissolved. Five years went by and, while Bailey wasn’t completely quiet during this time, it wasn’t until last year that he reappeared on our radar with “Champion,” a devastating track produced by New York-based analog wizard Leon Michels (Amy Winehouse, Aloe Blacc). On “Champion,” Bailey — son of a British mother and Jamaican father — channels the gods of ‘80s dancehall over a staccato Juno organ, juxtaposing bashment toasts with a haunting, understated rhythm that recalls the darker side of ‘70s soul. It’s a unique and intoxicating combination.
“Champion” is the lead single from Bailey’s sophomore album Ekundayo, which dropped Friday on Michels’ Big Crown Records. The wholly analog LP is full of stark, intensely personal cuts like “Cold and Clear” and “Don’t Blame NY,” pulling pieces from digi-dancehall, lovers rock, rocksteady, blues, post-punk and soul to create a mood which Bailey intriguingly terms — in our interview, at least — “Winter Reggae.”
Reggae is only one element represented on Ekundayo, an album that dares to defy easy categorization in the age of the algorithm. So we caught up with Bailey over Zoom last month to discuss his inspirations for the project, the circumstances that led to its recording in the woods of Upstate New York; and why summer isn’t the only season that should get to claim reggae.
LargeUp: Hi, Liam. Where are you?
Liam Bailey: I’m in South London. Sorry bruv, just finished my spliff. Jeeeeezz!!! That thing there was a knockback. I’m going [to] Radio 4 later. And then I’m getting the keys to my new flat tomorrow morning. It’s exciting times. This year has been intense. In my personal life, you got people going through a lot. Days like today I’m just giving blessings, feeling thankful that I’m doing what I’m doing.
LU: Are you in an empty flat?
LB: It’s a little AirBNB situation.
LU: It’s always weird on that last day before a move. The mixed emotions of it all.
LB: Crazy weird. I just want to keep it moving. When we move over the weekend, I’m going to put a little signal out to my Mrs: Let’s not do that sitdown, reflection ting. You’re right, it all gets a bit deep. You look at one thing and it can remind you.
LU: What sentiments did you hope to evoke with this album? It’s a mood.
LB: I’m starting to wonder because I’m having to do these interviews. This is the first time I’m starting to get feedback, and it sounds like the subject matter is quite heavy. I might have to do the next one all lighthearted, bruv. [Laughs] I just thought I was making good music, bruv. I thought I was making sick music where I’m speaking my truth in there. I think it’s deep but it’s not dark. I’m hoping people like the tunes and can connect with the sentiment. Maybe it sounds good while you’re cooking your roast chicken. You know what I mean?
LU: I think the instrumentation is where you feel the weightiness. With “Champion,” you’re toasting in an ‘80s dancehall style. A kind of Shabba vibe. And then you have this Juno keyboard, which gives it a darker edge. Musically, it reminds me of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.” That’s a song that just hits you with the weight of the world anytime you hear it. And I think you’re keying into that mood a little with “Champion.”
LB: It was a nice vibe coming up with them kind of lyrics and reaching that vibe. That production started with my bredrin Nick, his drumming is sick. He’s known as a bass player. We had that loop going over and then Leon’s jamming along, I’m playing bass on the keys. That flow has just been in my head for a while.
LU: Had you done a track like that before?
LB: That singjay, toasting thing? The closest is on stage. I’m also known for some big drum and bass music in the UK. There I’ve done a little toasting. My reggae vibes has always been a Dennis Brown vibe. But I’ve always wanted to try and express that [dancehall] side of me. That’s the way you can swag sometimes when you’re walking into those kinds of dancefloors. It feels good to get that side out there.
LU: When you get into the refrain, your vocals get real bluesy. It made me think of how reggae parties in England back in the day were called “blues parties.” And the music from that period, Lovers Rock and all that late ‘70s UK reggae, has a bluesy feel to it.
LB: That is the music that I listen to. I’ve been listening to BB King, Bob Marley, Pat Kelly, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon. You’re going to hear my influences there. But also bruv, when I was doing that song my throat was in that kind of place. You can hear that old-school kind of strain. It kind of feels like I’m at that blues party, like I’ve had a few dark rums. I did the first take like that, freestyling, and then we stuck with it.
LU: You live in London, and Leon in New York. Where did you make this album?
LB: Some of it was made in Long Island City in Queens and some of it was done in Upstate NY, in the Hudson Valley. A spot up there called Rhinebeck, I think. Leon’s got a studio in a big… what we would call a garage. But it’s basically a house. You lot call it a yard or something.
LU: A shed?
LB: You lot say some mad words for English. So, we’ve got the Hudson River there, mountains, all that autumn brown and green. I was feeling like I can feel a native Indian walking past, circa 300 years ago.
LU: That’s a powerful, and specific, image.
LB: You know those guys who were up in them Northern territories in Upstate New York, fishing in the woods? You know them guys.
LU: The Iroquois.
LB: We’re making this sick music on analog tape, I’m burning zoots, smoking hella weed, burning cigars, just chilling, mate. [laughs]
LU: So the sessions were all around autumn?
LB: “Champion” was winter, actually, That was in December. I feel like I make winter reggae, you know. I think that’s a good description. You’ve got “Angel Dust,” “Cold and Clear.” That’s an autumn, winter vibe.
LU: I hear it.
LB: It’s winter reggae, bruv. If you want your summer reggae, maybe you’re gonna play Popcaan and dem guy deh. To rahtid.
LU: Poppy got summer pon lock.
LB: But maybe I’ve got you in the winter or the autumn.
LU: No one equates reggae with winter.
LB: That’s the problem. People try to pigeonhole reggae. Reggae is a riddim, it’s not a box. I don’t like it when people talk about how it’s ‘sunshine vibes.’ Reggae all year round, mate.
LU: Radio used to only add reggae songs in the summertime. Do the seasons dictate what music you listen to?
LB: Naturally you veer to certain vibes. I imagine Pat Kelly comes out a bit more during the summer.
LU: Speaking of labeling things, in the first interview you did with us, you used the term “Duppy Rock” to describe your sound. Is that still the wave, or just something you said in that interview?
LB: Was it in 2014? Around that time, I was living in New York, in Williamsburg. I was listening to CBS-FM in the morning, playing gigs at SOB’s, and the band I had at that time I was calling the Duppy Rockers. I had one bredrin with the dreads. We was all looking kinda slick, I won’t lie. It’s nice to have that comradery when you’re making music and touring, going up and down the East and West Coast, getting up at 3 in the morning. Yeah, Duppy Rock. I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Stooges…
LU: Love The Stooges.
LB: I was listening to them today. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Van Morrison. Rah, I feel like Duppy Rock might be coming back. I feel like we might have to pull up some ah dem riddims. I’m hearing like a Raw Power meets that “Angel Dust” riddim [in my head].
LU: When you say “Duppy Rock,” is that referencing some haunted or ghostly aspects to the sound?
LB: It just sounded cool. The use of duppy was more to highlight the fact that we were of color and from different parts of the African Diaspora. Maybe I was doing a little nod to Black guys doing rock.
LU: The title of the album is a Yoruba term.
LB: It basically means “sorrow turns to joy” in Yoruba. It’s very fitting. I’ve been in a good place, I’m feeling productive. I want more.
LU: What was the inspiration for the song “Don’t Blame NY.”
LB: I broke up with my ex-girlfriend. I had been in New York for about six months, and it wasn’t going well. I didn’t like living in America at that time. On the plane home, I remember feeling that sentence, “Don’t blame New York,” so I wrote it down. I had some very dark moments in New York. It stayed in my psyche. For ages, I kept trying to write it, but I just had the title. Eventually it came, and I feel like I nailed it basically. That whole feeling is in there.
LU: Is that the most literal song on the project?
LB: That’s quite a literal song. Especially: All the things we try and leave behind followed us here, it’s a deep rewind, New York City isn’t mine. [Smiles] Ayyyyy, bars. Jeeeezzzz. Sorry mate, I’m a bit gassed up. All excited. Does it sound a bit too heavy then, this record?
LB: It’s making me feel a bit like when Morrissey gets too maudlin, too moany. Is it like that? It’s not moany, is it?
LU: I wouldn’t say that at all.
LB: Don’t give me a complex out here, bruv. I’m a narcissistic, neurotic artist, bro. Just imagine the label. Bro, you’ll break me. [Laughs]
LU: People are making music for algorithms nowadays. It’s not like the ‘90s when you’d have odd songs that fit no real category just become hits.
LB: That is the ethos I’m coming with when I’m making music with Leon. Did you used to play in bands?
LU: I played drums in bands, yes.
LB: Remember sitting around chatting with your mates, going, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’ You didn’t have the Internet, and you didn’t know if things were [already] around. You had to do it yourself and find out. Me and Leon have that attitude when we make music. We definitely came at this like we want some more roots and culture, but we weren’t out here trying to make an out and out reggae record. One minute it might sound R&B, one minute hip-hop, next minute it might get a bit deep. We were working with what sounded cool. It was a refreshing way to work. I’ve previously worked in a lot of studio session scenarios. “Angel Dust” is weird. That’s going to confuse people down at Spotify when they’re trying to playlist that. That ain’t made for algorithms, that’s made for people like us that remember that shit we’re talking about right now.
LU: A few of the rhythms have a Studio One kind of sound. Are there any samples or are the instrumentals all original recordings?
LB: That’s all me and Leon jamming, then he goes and produces that. Everything was played by ourselves.
LU: What are the differences between working with Salaam Remi, as you did on your first album, and Leon?
LB: With Salaam, it’s a bit more work on things separately. Salaam likes crisper, more polished vibes. I find it easier to express myself when things aren’t in that pop constraint.
LU: What happened with your last deal?
LB: The project didn’t get off the ground. It was well regarded, and I got gigs and everything like that. I moved back to London because I wasn’t feeling it in New York. Management disbanded. I kind of lost my focus. I was out here doing other things, living my life. Me and Salaam stayed in contact, we’ve still worked with each other. Sometimes you’ve just got to work on things you love to work on, and if it goes well, it goes well. If not, you dust off and keep going.
LU: You made “When Will They Learn” with Leon earlier in your career. How did you come to reconnect with him for this project.
LB: Leon produced on my first album that Salaam put out as well. He did “So Down, Cold” and “Black Moon.” I met Leon in 2007, before he knew Aloe Blacc. I decided to join Salaam’s label, but kept working with Leon. The Salaam thing didn’t work out. In some ways it did, in some it didn’t. I did another EP before I started doing the Big Crown stuff where I reached out to different producers. If you listen to that Brand New EP, there’s great songs on there, but the production sounds more like something you might hear on those Spotify playlists. I was listening to Spotify algorithms a little more. Me and Leon were always checking in but this time it was, “What are you saying then? Should I get a flight over?” Thank God it worked out. This record, I really really fuck with it. It’s a serious musical accomplishment. That’s how I feel about it. This kind of music, you’re not just listening to for five minutes. You’re going to revisit some of these tunes.
LU: A song like “Champion” really works as a single.
LB: Spotify put that on a jazz playlist, bruv, and it sounded hard.
LU: You bucked the system, man. You bucked the algorithm.
LB: The riddim on that is kind of jazzy anyway. There’s a lot of white noises on there. It feels like an old factory engine, boxing. [Makes train noises]