Can an MC from North Carolina and a producer from The Netherlands find common ground in Prince, Stevie Wonder and Coldplay? Absolutely. Can said MC sing for an entire CD without autotune? You betcha! In this very informative interview Phonte and Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange shared the method behind the “moodness” on their latest CD, Leave It All Behind.
TUD: What is story behind the album cover? Is this is a wedding that is about to happen or one that got called off?
We kind of wanted [there] to be a duality in it. In technicality it is about to happen [the wedding] but the meaning of it just as much refers to a wedding that wouldn’t happen…some people saw a funeral element in it. We felt that it really told the story of the music without depicting something concrete. The chairs are all there, the nature element, but there’s all these things sort of missing. We leave the rest up to the imagination of the listener.
It can be either way. It is a wedding but that’s all I’ll say. I just want to leave more mystery to it. When I was writing this album I wasn’t necessarily trying to tell a story but it did end up having a loose narrative, it’s basically about the ups and downs of a relationship and trying to make it work. I wrote it at a time when I had just gotten married and was going through a lot of those changes so a lot of the lyrics are drawn from life experiences. I like writing love songs but I like writing songs that deal with all parts of love. Sometimes love can be a pain in the ass and I wanted the lyrics to reflect the good and bad and everything in between.
Nicolay: I think why it’s the first song is because it sums up the album in the length of one song. It’s a track that can represent the progression that we’ve made musically. I had done the track after we came back from Japan in November of ’06. It hit me there that I shouldn’t censor myself musically. I should do what I feel like doing as long as it’s great. It was the first track where we both realized what he had in terms of a possibility. It was the third track we recorded and you could hear the potential. It was horrible to mix because there are so many vocal parts to drive you crazy but it came out really good.
Phonte: Me and Nic just felt this was the best tone-setter for the album and where we were with the record. We knew we weren’t making a Connected part 2 so we thought the best way to draw the line in the sand was to kick the album off with something that was totally to the left of Connected. I met Muhsinah through my homeboy Cousin B and he put me onto her Myspace page and she had a song on there called “Millions.” We were on tour with Little Brother and Darien Brockington was my roommate and we must have played that song non-stop for three hours. I know she got a good 700 plays out of us alone. I reached out to her and she emailed me some of her music and we stayed in contact. From that first day I told her ‘you’re gonna be on the next Foreign Exchange album.
Nicolay: I had done this sometime in the summer of ’06 after I moved to the states. It was kind of in a batch of stuff and I played it for Phonte and he really liked it. We got to do a lot of things for our listening pleasure, like the trumpet solo. It’s a friend of Phonte’s, Stan Graham, he’s really good. He does have the Roy Hargrove sound to it, that muffled trumpet.
Phonte: “Come Around” was a really big record on Connected and I knew that me and Nick were going way to the left on LIAB, so I wanted to give something that was a little bit of a bridge back to the first album, an olive branch to the people who were missing the Connected sound. So this is like “Come Around” on steroids.
3.All or Nothing
Nicolay: This is one of my favorites because from a beat perspective it’s kind of my nod to Prince and his brand of 80s pop. The vocals are really nice on this one.
Phonte: This was very personal to me. A lot of times you find yourself in relationships and you get into your little arguments and you feel like it’s the end. You like “I hate this motherfucker.” But once the problem passes you realize it really wasn’t nothing. The point was that love doesn” have to be all or nothing. It’s not gonna be good all the time, but when there is a problem it doesn’t mean you run for cover.
4. I Wanna Know
Nicolay: This was the first track we recorded for the album. It was a song where I just did the beat and he sent me the vocals and I built the beat around his shooby-doops. It’s one of the first slow jams that we’ve done as Foreign exchange. The slowest we’ve ever done. I like it because it feels like an Al Green Song.
Phonte: This was shortly after I did the “Paper Chaser” hook for Playaz Circle and Nick sent me the track. I really didn’t think much on it. I didn’t occur to me that I’d sung a full ballad. I’m really pleased with it. I was still trying to find my voice completely as a singer but I was going for it.
5. House of Cards f/Muhsinah
Nicolay: Phonte had come across her and was struck with her talent. She became his muse for this album the way Yazarah was for the first. Her voice definitely influenced the three tracks she’s on. She adds to the psychedelic element. Her style is really raw and direct. It’s not a Mariah Carey approach but really spontaneous way of doing lead vocals. The backing vocals she does are crazy. She adds to the edge of the record.
Phonte: It’s just really a rollercoaster ride and it’s evident in this middle part of the album, a roller coaster of emotions. It goes from one mood to another and that’s how relationships can be.
6. Sweeter Than You
Nicolay: I really like the drums on that one. Te had written it to a Musinah track originally but it wasn’t available anymore. So he asked me if I could do something with it. It was one of the few songs we’ve done where the vocals came first. The challenge was for me to do something really different. It turned out to be a real New Jazz type track and became the climax of firs half of the album.
Phonte: Bilal and John Legend are two of my favorite singers but for this particular track I took my vocal cues from Chris Martin from Coldplay, a song called “Parachutes.” It was just an interlude on the album, only 45 seconds but it sounded like a confessional. I just wanted to write something that sounded like you may have stumbled upon it and you weren’t supposed to hear it. You went through Phonte’s drawer and found this old practice tape. So it sounds raw and desperate. It’s 5 am and I’m on the couch with a bottle of Jack Daniels pouring my heart out.
Nicolay: I’d done the beat as a sketch really and he had done the vocals and tied it in with some lyrics from the “Day Keeper” song. Originally we were going to have the Daykeeper reprieve at that point in the album and instead we put it underneath the first webisode we leaked over the summer. What I basically did was I took some of the parts of “Daykeeper” and some of the chords and put it at the end and reprieved it that way. It’s the gap that divides the first and second half of the album. It’s kind of an interlude almost that separates the darker material from the lighter material.
8. If She Breaks Your Heart f/ Yahzarah
Nicolay: That’s our Stevie Wonder cover and tribute. Te just loved that track. I’ve always been a fan of the Jungle Fever soundtrack but most people don’t list it in their top three Stevie albums. Songwriting wise it’s a really nice record but the production was very early 90s Stevie doing New Jack Swing. But Phonte really wanted to do that song. Zoe did the production on most of this track; the drums, the bass and the Rhodes. I added some piano and strings and Mark Mac of 4Hero got his actual string players to do an arrangement. It’s a true collaboration in that it’s Me, Zoe, Marc Mac, Yahzarah, Phonte, Matt on the flute at the end..it’s one of the bigger songs on the album because of the work that went into it. ?uestlove jokingly said it beat the original, which for me wasn’t the purpose. I just like the chords under the hook and the melody. It’s the perfect song for Yahzarah to do her thing. She couldn’t be missing from this album. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the lack of raps but I’ve not heard anybody complain about Darien or Yahzarah being back, which to me is just as important to the soul that FE has been known for. I don’t understand how more people aren’t up on her stuff. She’s the full package; she looks and sounds amazing and writes great songs.
Phonte: Me and Yahzarah have done so many songs over the years and we have a chemistry that is so strong. I never have to second guess her choices.
9. If This is Love
Nicolay: This is much more me getting my nerd out on the electro stuff. I maybe wouldn’t have put that on the record two years ago but it shows the variety of stuff that we like. It’s very fast paced but still incredibly laid back. It’s one of the more European sounding tracks, maybe. Very electronic.
10. Something to Behold
Phonte: The vocal idea I got was from “1999” by Prince, to have three different singers passing the baton, Muhsihan starting it off, me doing the bridge, D-Brock doing the chorus. Kind of like a relay race. It was amazing for me to write stuff and hear the vocalists sing it and give it new meaning. The part where I said “12 piece fried heart,” that’s love. Some people say I wanna bring you roses and corny shit. To me those are cliché’d versions of love. For you to bring your woman some wings on her lunch break, that shits special. You bring me wings from Yungs on my lunchbreak we gonna be in love forever. I write from a real perspective.
Nicolay: That one came together the old fashioned way with me just finding a record from these two pianists. They would do dueling piano virtuoso stuff in the 50s. The sample is a chop of some of their stuff. It’s more along the lines of how I worked on connected. The cool thing is it has three different vocal features and a real playful feel, worry free. It talks about falling in love again after a bad situation. The feeling of a new beginning.
11. Leave It All Behind
Phonte: It’s not about me leaving behind rapping. It’s probably the most straight ahead record on the album. It was inspired by the Sean Bell verdict. It was the last song we wrote for the album. The verdict came as a shock to me, maybe it shouldn’t have, but when it went down it fucked me up real bad. And seeing that I have two young boys it had me depressed thinking about the world they’re going to grow up in. Just thinking about that culminated in that song. Essentially I wrote it as a lullaby to help them go to sleep at night, something positive to let them know there is always a way to survive in the world. There’s a lot of craziness going on but as much as possible you gotta leave your fears behind. That was the message and meaning of that song.
Nicolay: There are a lot of levels to the title but one of those levels is that we wanted to be free to do something that we felt right. It’s ironic that I was reading about Kanye’s album release the other day and he said more or less the same thing. That he wanted to be free. Tells you something about the era we’re in.
The Foreign Exchange’s Leave It All Behind is in stores now!