Lemar, an English singer, songwriter and record producer, chats with Kevin Cooper about appearing on BBC’s Fame Academy, singing a duet with Lionel Richie, driving around London with James May and touring the UK with The Soul Legends.

Lemar is an English singer, songwriter and record producer. He rose to fame after finishing in third place on BBC’s Fame Academy in 2002; a combination of a talent quest and reality television show. He made the finals with his acclaimed version of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and singing a duet with Lionel Richie on Easy. Whilst appearing on the show he caught the attention of British soul singer Beverley Knight, who invited him to sing a duet with her during her concert at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Since then, Lemar has had seven top ten UK singles and has sold over two million albums. He is seen as one of the most successful artists to come out of a reality TV show. He has also won two Brit Awards and three MOBO Awards.

His first album Dedicated was released late in 2003 and following its success he commenced his first headlining tour of the UK. Another four albums followed before he released The Letter in 2015 which included Someday We’ll Be Together, a duet with Joss Stone.

Having now joined the Soul Legends on their tour, Lemar chatted with Kevin Cooper between shows and this is what he had to say.

Lemar good morning how are you today?

I’m good thanks Kevin how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Oh no, thank you for giving up your time, it is very much appreciated.

And just how is life treating you today?

I have to say so far so good. Everything is going okay at the moment so I really can’t complain. I have just spent a few days trying to clear out the studio so that I can get back to making music but I have to say that the clear out has opened a Pandora’s Box (laughter). There is a load of stuff in there that I had no idea even existed which really just has to go down to the tip. So a job that I thought would take a couple of days has actually taken me a couple of weeks (laughter). But other than that everything is okay.

I have to tell you that I last saw you perform on Thursday 26th November 2015 when you opened for Will Young here at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham.

Oh yes, wow I did. Was it really 2015 (laughter). Time really does fly doesn’t it, that’s three years ago. Wow that really is crazy.

I loved your set but I have to ask you how was it for you, did you enjoy the tour?

Yes I did, it was really cool. I didn’t have much going on and both Will and I were managed by the same management company at that time and they asked me if I would jump on board and I thought ‘why not’ (laughter). As you will remember I did an acoustic set and it was great for me to be able to sit and watch Will doing his thing as I had never seen him performing live before. So yes, all in all I had a great time on the tour.

Well if you saw the whole tour you may be able to explain to me, just what were Will’s big baggy trousers all about (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) oh yes, Will’s big baggy trousers (laughter). I think that we should just put it down to artist’s discretion and leave it there (laughter). You would have to enter the mind of the artist to get the full and correct information (laughter).

You mention that you played an acoustic set, and if my memory serves me correctly you had Angelo Starr playing guitar for you. How do you and Angelo know one another?

Well what can I say, Angelo has been a member of my band that I have had since my very first album. Don’t get me wrong there have been a couple of minor changes to the band but Angelo has been there with me since the very first day. Angelo has always played guitar for me; he always does the acoustic sets with me. He also plays private shows with me and when I am out on my own with the full band he is always a part of that. As you know Angelo is the brother of the late great Edwin Starr who was both super famous and super accomplished. Just the knowledge that he brings and the peace that he brings into the camp is absolutely amazing. Angelo is the kind of person that I like to have around.

I recently interviewed Angelo and some of the stories that he was telling me were the stuff of legends.

That’s right, I know exactly what you mean. Angelo tells me stories about being in a room at home and Stevie (Wonder) was staying over with Edwin. I said to him that at the time that he was meeting these people and playing with these legends he didn’t realise that he was making history. He was in the presence of greatness, in the presence of people of that calibre. He told me that it was normal, that he didn’t know anything different to that. He would be making music with Edwin and all of the other Motown legends that just so happened to be in the house at that time. However, it is only later on when he tells you the stories that it sounds like things of legends. It’s brilliant.

Was it always going to be a career in music for you?

No not at all, I really wanted to be a doctor. Later on I decided that I would like to be a pharmacist and I got a place at Cardiff University to study pharmacy. And then suddenly I got the opportunity to do music. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved music, and I would always have chosen music but I just genuinely did not know a single way of getting into the music industry. So it really was never on my radar.

And your route into the music business was, let’s say, a little less orthodox than most. Would you agree with that?

(Laughter) yes it was, you are perfectly correct in saying that. I was lying on the sofa in the living room watching the music videos on the TV and singing at the top of my voice. I didn’t know that at that time there was a sound engineer who was working in a studio in West London, sitting in his car outside my house. He had heard me singing so he knocked on my door and asked me if I was the person singing. I told him that I was and he said “god your voice is amazing. Why don’t you come down to the studio in West London and I will introduce you to some guys” (laughter). So I went down there and to cut a long story short, that is how my journey in music actually began. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been involved in music at all.

So it was the BBC’s Fame Academy that led you down the wrong road was it (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s right, they certainly did lead me down the wrong road (laughter). I spent eight years with those guys, who were called Best Kept Secret, but my career never really got going, so I took a chance on Fame Academy before I went back to university to finish off my degree. And I have to say that fortunately it all took off for me from there.

Would you say that entering Fame Academy is the best decision that you have ever made?

Yes it is, most definitely. We all have our plans in life, but none of us really know just what destiny has planned for us. I always say that in life you never know what is going to happen unless you are prepared to take a risk and jump. You might fly, you might fall. However, I would rather get to fifty and be able to say “you know what, I gave it a try but it didn’t work out so now I am working nine to five, I am having fun with my family, and I am happy”. Or I could say “I have still got all of that but I took a chance and I have got a few stories to tell as well”.

Talking of having stories to tell, just what was it like for a twenty-four year old guy from Tottenham, North London suddenly finding himself singing a duet with a certain Lionel Richie?

What can I say, that really was amazing. I think that because TV shows at that time, the whole reality side of things, wasn’t really as well-known as it is now. Nowadays everyone knows exactly what they are trying to do and how they want to play it. Back then I just thought ‘oh well this is an opportunity to show people that I can sing’ and that was it. So when I did Fame Academy I started meeting people such as Shania Twain, Maria Carey, and then Lionel Richie walked into the room and said “by the way you are going to be singing with me” and it was at that point that I thought ‘oh my god just what have I got myself into’ (laughter). Having said that I have to be honest with you and say that I really did feel out of my depth but Lionel is such a nice man; he gave me such good advice and made me feel so comfortable that I was able to put out a solid performance. Meeting Lionel really was inspiring.

On the subject of duets, Joss Stone, JLS, Beverly Knight, George Benson to name but a few, who have you enjoyed singing with the most?

Wow, that’s a hard one (laughter). They always say that the first cut is the deepest so even after all of this time I would have to say Lionel Richie. A lot of that is because my parents used to love Lionel. I would listen to him as a kid, and even when they told me to sing with him I was like ‘okay that’s fine’ (laughter). However, when I finally found myself on the other side of the stage to Lionel, I had the microphone in my hand, and we were rehearsing, I actually forgot the words to the song (laughter). It was nice to perform with George Benson, he is such a great guy. There really have been so many along the way. I think that the first cut is the deepest simply because you don’t expect it so I am going to go with Lionel.

I hate him because I first saw him with The Commodores back in 1979 at the Bingley Hall in Birmingham and then I saw him again in 2015 here in Nottingham and he hasn’t aged a day (laughter).

I know what you mean, I really do know what you are saying. Perhaps that is what having two hundred million dollars in the bank does for you (laughter). Or have you ever thought that perhaps Lionel gets a different type of massage (laughter). I have to be honest and say that he really is such a nice guy. Whenever you meet him off camera, he really is such a nice guy.

You have spoken briefly about TV, so let me take you back to The Brits 2007 when you were nominated for the British Male Solo Artist Award. Was it artistic licence or were you really pissed off with your transport for the evening that was driven by James May?

(Laughter) of all the things that I have done, I have released albums, I have met and worked with some wonderful people, and the one thing that most people ask me about, and this is testimony to just how popular Top Gear was, is were you really angry when you saw your limo for the night (laughter). You know what, perhaps I should go into acting because I spent the whole day being driven around London by James May in the most ridiculous car, and I stayed totally calm throughout the whole day. The crew said to me at the end of the shoot “we have tried all day to wind you up and it really has been a lot of fun but would you just do a scene where you get angry with James and storm off out of the car”. So that very last bit that you see of me getting angry really is a just bit of fun. In all honesty I never get angry it doesn’t really happen. By the way thanks for mentioning the award, as you will no doubt know, I lost out to bloody James Morrison (laughter).

Last year you replaced Monty Panesar on Dancing on Ice. Did you enjoy the challenge?

Yes I did, I really did. I wasn’t doing anything last January so I thought that it would be really cool to do it. My manager called me and said “do you know how to ice skate” and I said “no I have never skated in my life” (laughter). He replied with “well would you like to learn” and I said “why not, it will be a bit of fun”. So I did the show and I loved every minute of it. Since then I have been skating with my family; the kids are really happy that dad can skate. I have to say that it was much harder than I had first anticipated and I hadn’t realised that it would be so intense. I soon picked up a few injuries to tend with but overall it was a fun experience. I got a frozen bottom, I got sore knees, and it made me realise that I am not as young as I used to be (laughter).

Before we speak about the possibility of a new studio album, I have to say that I love your 2015 album The Letter. Were you happy with it?

Thank you so much for saying that, it really does mean a lot, thank you. It really was great for me to be working with producer Larry Klein on that album. He is brilliant at getting the sound correct and exactly as you would like it. I was very pleased with the album so thank you very much for saying that you liked it too. That really does mean a lot.

Who picked the tracks that made it onto the album?

That was a joint effort between my manager Tim, myself and Larry Klein. When we first thought about recording the album we had around ninety songs to choose from (laughter). So we all sat down and went through them, and started to trim the list down as best we could. Then I went over to Los Angeles and met up with Larry once again, and we whittled the list down even more. We managed to get it down to fourteen tracks and then we lost another two which left us with the twelve tracks that appear on the finished album. Believe it or not the hardest part of the whole process was selecting the final two tracks that wouldn’t make it onto the album.

Coming right up to date, Soul Legends featuring Lemar which you will be performing here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall on Thursday 21st February 2019, tell me about the show and what we can expect?

Soul Legends is a tour that has been going around for a while. They do their thing every year. The show covers old soul classics which everyone is going to recognise and love. It is going to be a massive fun night out. They were experimenting with the idea of getting a bit of a name to join them on the tour and sing a few songs and I thought ‘why not’. My most recent album The Letter is all about me celebrating soul music and it would fit nicely into the show. Usually as you well know I would be on stage with my own band, but this time it is their band, it is their show. I am just guesting in and doing a thirty minute set during the show.

I have to say that I have done one of them already and it went down really well. As you can expect from any soul night, everyone knows all of the songs. They are all classics, and the audiences are all clapping along to the music and generally having a great night. So for me to be a part of it and be able to perform some of my original songs from my previous albums and also be in a position to celebrate my most recent album I have to say that it went down really well. People were singing along for the whole evening, and they were dancing in the aisles. It really is a proper good soul night.

Were you allowed to choose what songs you were going to perform?

Of course, yes I was. Whilst it is not my show it is most definitely my set. It is the same set that I would play if I were doing one of my own shows. However, for me to bring my band in and then move everything for their band would simply take far too long. So their band have already learnt some of my songs and obviously the classics which I did on my previous album, The Letter, they now know those as well. So I am going to slot in and do my bit.

Are you looking forward to the tour?

I am definitely looking forward to it. If the rest of the tour goes as well as the one show that I have already done, then I think that the show is going to go down really well.

Is there any sign of a new studio album?

Yes there is and yes there will be more music this year (laughter). Yes most definitely. To be honest with you I have had an album ready to go for a while now. However, you have to look into the strategy of releasing it. My management have been sorting out a few things; there are a few more songs that I am currently finishing off, there are a few collaborations that I have been trying to get off the ground, but as of the end of last year we all agreed that new music would be out there for the people sometime in 2019.

What can you tell me about the forthcoming album; what can we look forward to?

Well for a starter the new album is going to be all originals. It will be more in line with all of my previous albums with the exception of my most recent one which was purely covers. There is going to be some soul on there together with a little R&B and a tinge of pop. It will be the Lemar that people know and recognise. That is what the new album is all about. Obviously I am a little more mature now so the subject matter will be sung about in a certain way. I really want to get the soulful element of my voice out there once again.

Does being a dad affect your choice of songs?

Yes it does, I really do think that it does. It certainly affects the way that I write songs. However, I don’t know if that is down specifically to having a family, or it is down to the added life experiences that come with having a family. Whereas my views may have been one way pre-children, we all edit ourselves as we go along. I am very conscious of making music that speaks about where I am at the moment, and music that my whole family would be happy listening to as well as the fans.

What was the first record that you bought?

The first record that I bought was SWV (Sisters With Voices) Right Here, the Human Nature Radio Mix which as you know featured Michael Jackson.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

I was over in America and I was sixteen years old and I saw Kele Le Roc performing live. She was literally the very first person that I ever saw performing live. However, having said that, for me the most memorable one was seeing the late James Brown playing live.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Wow, I actually can’t remember ever crying over a song. That’s weird. That really is a hard one man. I really don’t know (laughter). My mind has gone totally blank. Oh man I’ve just gone blank.

I have been told that you recently interviewed a certain Otis Williams. I spoke to him last year and found him to be a fountain of knowledge. How was that for you?

That’s right, I am on Magic Soul and Otis came onto my show and I got to interview him. The stories that he tells are just amazing. I can’t imagine being out on the road at that time as a performer being surrounded by so many legends. It must have been such an amazing time to have been a performer.

I recently interviewed Ralph Tavares and just to show how divorced they are from reality, he had never heard of Take That or who they were, and as you know they covered It Only Takes A Minute (laughter).

No way (laughter). That’s crazy. I bet you that his bank account has heard of Take That (laughter).

Moving away from music, I understand that you are a massive Tottenham Hotspurs fan. Have you been down to take a look around the new ground yet?

Oh yes, my dad lives a street away (laughter). It is unbelievably massive. Because I grew up in that area I can remember just how the area was before they started to build the new ground. It really is unbelievable.

On that note Lemar let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been absolutely fantastic. Take care and I hope to see you here in Nottingham.

Thanks Kevin it’s totally been my pleasure. You take care and I will see you soon.