Jamie Lidell may be a solo artist, but he’s no one-man show. The Englishman’s last two albums—2005’s Multiply and 2008’s Jim—were collaboratively made with the Saskatchewan-born, Berlin-based singer-producer Mocky, whose résumé boasts songwriting credits for Feist and Nikki Costa. As a techno artist making his leap into the role of soul-singing frontman, Lidell relied heavily on Mocky’s guidance—so heavily, in fact, that he eventually got to wondering what he’d sound like without his friend’s help.
“Mocky was brilliant to work with,” says the New York–based singer, reached on vacation in the Canary Islands. “But there was this danger of making records with someone who was so focused and creative. I was curious to find out if I could actually make a record without him.”
That record is this year’s Compass, which finds Lidell playing bandleader for an all-star cast of supporting players—from Feist to Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor to Beck Hansen, who provides a model of sorts for Lidell’s funky-white-boy-ism. It was Beck, in fact, who instigated the Compass sessions, hosting Lidell for a week’s worth of recording in his home studio and introducing him to James Gadson, a legendary R&B drummer who’s responsible for much of the album’s thrust and swing.
Where Multiply and Jim meticulously re-created the sound of late ’60s Stax soul—with some occasional digital embellishments—Compass is inimitably personal, flitting impatiently from the dimly lit barroom blues of “The Ring” to the rubberized digital funk of “I Wanna Be Your Telephone” to the title track’s hymnlike introductory passage. Throughout, the singer peppers his tracks with references both veiled and explicit to his private life, which has undergone some profound changes since Jim.
“It’s been a bit of a triple whammy that’s affected my business life, my emotional life, and my geographical life,” he offers. “I changed management abruptly, which was a bit of a shocker, and that was related to my relationship breakup in some obscure way, which led to the geographical uproot. Moving from Berlin to New York has been like pulling a plant out and transplanting it into a bigger pot and hoping it survives.”
Compass is a suitable reflection of that turbulence, the singer clothing himself in a bunch of different styles without ever seeming to feel completely himself. Here a folkie, there a soul man, the New Yorker displays on this album the same kind of restless appetite for musical genres as his collaborator Beck does. While it’s not as consistently great as something like Odelay, the disc suggests Lidell may one day have that kind of masterpiece in him.
“It’s hard to figure out how Beck influenced the record, but having him being there while I was sketching out ideas—it was certainly inspiring,” he says. “Men are funny; there’s a competitive vibe that creeps into the mix in those situations. It’s a combination of having a rival and an ally. Sometimes you need to have someone to measure up against. And sometimes you just need someone to carry the baton when you get knackered in the race.”
Jamie Lidell plays Venue on Monday (June 14).