FOCUS: Liam Bailey

Weaving the best of his Jamaican roots alongside the influences of a Nottingham-based upbringing, Liam Bailey represents an exciting presence in the local soul scene. Ahead of the release of his debut album, Ekundayo, Joe Hughes caught up with Bailey to explore his vast body of inspiration, as well as how recent social volatilities may shape the direction of his music.

Speaking with an infectious verve, Nottingham-born reggae artist Liam Bailey discusses his new album, Ekundayo, due for release on November 13th. A beguiling and intense persona, his positivity and spirituality are rare attributes when mixed with an astonishing humility, especially given his immense national success of late.

Stemming from a desire not to become a “pigeon-holed artist,” Ekundayo is striking in its genre-hopping variety. Mature reggae overtones show Bailey warming to his stylistic theme with flair, but the album makes a number of successful forays into R&B, soul and a dizzying tour of electronica. The first single release of the album, Champion, elevates old-school Jamaican dub intonations to new heights with a thundering bass and unrelenting drum beat, to create a distinctly modern twist on a dancehall vibe.

After a spell of rhythmic warmth early in the chronology of the album, Vixit is conspicuous for its rawness; the audible clarity in every vocal inflection enhances the tenderness of evidently heartfelt lyrics and a lone acoustic guitar accompaniment lends the track an endearing folk quality. Elaborating on the album’s tonal diversity, Liam clarifies that this is not a conscious artistic effort to push musical boundaries, or a bitter attempt to overcome label restraints, but merely the result of an “organic” process that reflects his shifting frame of mind; simply put, “that was just what we made in the studio.”

Aptly, this organic operation mirrors the very natural setting in which the album was recorded, deep in the vast woodland of the Hudson Valley, New York. Cut on cassette tape, the analogue technique simultaneously gives the recording a stripped-back aura, but also contributes to a rich and authentic sound - best exemplified on the final tracks Young in Love, Where Do I Start? and Paper Tiger. The relaxed atmosphere of rural, upstate New York and the mellow denouement of the album evoke a very different vision to the chilling harshness of Don’t Blame NY a song about tribulations in the city. Superficial sharpness and drama mask lyrics which are affectionately self-aware and the track as a whole embodies the titular ‘sorrow-becomes-joy’ spirit.

Bailey admits that the album is creatively, if not practically ten years in the making.

Typical of Bailey’s reflective disposition, he recalls how the album title which translates from Yoruba to mean ‘sorrow becomes joy’ emerged from his sub-conscious during lockdown. His first encounter with the word, he enthusiastically reminisces, came whilst living in Nottingham some eighteen years ago, from a community television project which told the story of a young boy, Ekundayo, named in recognition of his embodiment of the new life his family would enjoy following the great hardship they had endured on their journey to this country. The timing of the album’s release gives the title an obvious contemporary resonance, but is also emblematic of what the artist, given recent personal renewal and the prospect of commercial success, describes as a “joyful” period in his own life.

Liam’s characterisation of his own childhood as “formed by compromise” stands in stark contrast to an album composed very much to his directive. He makes no apology for taking ownership of his craft, nor for the fact that it’s a demanding and deeply personal responsibility, to collate musical inspiration by “storing up” ideas and sounds, and then to mould them into coherent songs. Bailey admits that the album is creatively, if not practically ten years in the making. It is therefore the “document” to showcase a decade’s worth of sonic absorption.

He is remarkably frank in describing the spontaneity of his creative process, preferring to “mine [his] sub-conscious” for lyrics, piece together phrases in the moment and to treat them as individual, and often conflicting, vocal threads, weaved between steady melodies. This ostensibly sporadic technique is emulated in what Liam describes as his “shamanic, minute-to-minute,” heart-on-his-sleeve lifestyle. Acknowledging its pitfalls to which he is not naïve he is cautious of over-expression.

This translates into a genuinely palpable sincerity in much of the album’s catalogue, most notably on two very involved tracks in the middle of the album, the reliable reggae fodder of Cold and Clear and Angel Dust. An album that puts great stock in the delicate balance between heart-wrenching vulnerability, and personal positivity, leaves the listener with a picture of a grounded artist grateful to be riding “a good wave.” Liam credits this in part to his working relationship with producer Leon Michel at Big Crown Records - at the centre of the retro-soul renaissance and Michel’s influence is audible in the soulful ambience that peppers the album.

He speaks candidly about not seeking a reputation as someone who glibly “writes bait little reggae songs about the system.”

Ever rooted in the present, Bailey echoes the sentiments of many artists as he laments the evaporation of his emotional “outlet” which came with the temporary collapse of the live music industry earlier this year. He expresses a devastating frustration at missing out on the “physicality of performance”; it’s clear that he views music as a truly narcotic medium which he needs “just to get through the day”. Nottingham’s premier reggae rebel is still in touch with his native scene and cites hip-hop acts Juga-Naut and Local Healers, as well as Jungle drum and bass Kumarachi, as local collaborators.

Hinting at what fans can expect next, Liam points to his mixed-race heritage and being “divisive by very nature of being alive” as a potential source of musical inspiration he may tap in the future. With the enthusiasm and evident talent to articulate in song some of the “nuances [of social issues] that would be nice to catch,” but wary of becoming boxed-in or attracting the label of a ‘political’ artist, he suggests that he has more to express through his song-writing without overstepping the line and becoming “preachy.”

Undoubtedly, Liam has much of value to say about race, masculinity and the narrowing of the political discourse, but he speaks candidly about not actively seeking a reputation as someone who glibly “writes bait little reggae songs about ‘the system.’” As his teenage ambitions become realised and he receives wider, well-deserved recognition, and as he embraces a new, enchanting authenticity, Liam Bailey remains a musical tour-de-force of whom this city can be proud.

Written by: Joe Hughes

Edited by: Louise Dugan