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Phonte Coleman and Matthijs 'Nicolay' Rook keep their distance. Together, they've made several albums, toured the world, been nominated for a Grammy and built a little independent empire under the name The Foreign Exchange. But Coleman raps and sings from Raleigh, while the Dutch-born Nicolay lives in Wilmington. The space between them must be fertile, as they both pursue separate artistic offshoots. Coleman has his hip-hop and TV endeavors, while Nicolay has just released his expansive fourth solo album, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto, in which he offers up a Euro-soul take on South Africa's native rhythms.

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Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the 'exchange' of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.

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It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.

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The Foreign Exchange: No Rearview (via Rubyhornet)

by +FE on November 3, 2008 at 6:02 AM · Comments
The new Foreign Exchange album existed mainly as an idea, or topic of discussion for Hip Hop fans. Nestled somewhere next to that new Reflection Eternal disc, between Detox and Blackstar was a new LP that Phonte and Nicolay both said they were working on. Fans held their collective breathes, hoping that the new album would actually come to fruition. Writers tried to sneak in questions pertaining to the new disc while conducting interviews about The Minstrel Show or Getback, Hear or Time:Line. The new record is now in stores, and the interviews focus on Leave It All Behind, rather than rumors and hopes of what it could be.

"I think in the past we were reluctant to talk about it cause we didn't want to ruin the surprise of it. We were still trying to find our way in terms of what we were going to do, or, if and when we were gonna do another Foreign Exchange record," Phonte told us just a couple days after the release of the LP. "Now that it's finally here it feels good to finally have it out for the world to hear."

The world maybe a strong possibility, given the very formation of a group that includes an American emcee and a Dutch producer. Their storied meeting and cross continental collaboration is one for the history books. But rather than revel in their first album's success, Phonte and Nicolay kept progressing, turning a sophomore disc that Nicolay believes to represent the groups natural evolution. "To me, it's very much the next logical step of what we'd do after we did Connected. Phonte always said that one of the things that really stands out is that there's not really anything on this album that you couldn't have seen coming if you were a Connected fan. It's just a maybe a little bit of a bolder step than Connected was. He also believe it to be his best work, "Simply put, it's the best thing I've been involved in, just because of the maturity of it, the level of the deepness I think the album has."

We dig into the new album, Phonte's goodbye to Percy Miracles, and much more in this exclusive RubyHornet interview with Nicolay and Phonte: The Foreign Exchange.

RubyHornet: Today we're here just to talk about Foreign Exchange. I'm just curious to know, what's it like to be on the phone together doing an interview in which the Foreign Exchange is the main topic?

Phonte: It's a good thing, man. It's just hard to believe that it's finally here. Me and Nic worked on this record for so long, and so much time passed in between, it's kind of hard for me at times. I think in the past we were reluctant to talk about it cause we didn't want to ruin the surprise of it. We were still trying to find our way in terms of what we were going to do, or, if and when we were gonna do another Foreign Exchange record. Now that it's finally here it feels good to finally have it out for the world to hear.

RubyHornet: As far as the making of this album? Now that Nic is living in N.C., were you able to have some face to face sessions, or did you keep the formula the same as the previous album.

Nicolay: It was pretty much the exact same with the exception that we've gotten better at what we do. For us it was a matter of, we don't need to fix anything that's not broken. We use the tools that are the most comfortable to us. It was pretty much the same old method, with the same process behind us.

RubyHornet: There's not a lot of rapping on the album. Did that naturally happen, or did you go in thinking that you wanted to do more singing, like, 'I'm kind of tired of rapping'?

Phonte: It wasn't anything that was a conscious decision. I just did what I felt best served the tracks that Nic did. A lot of the tracks on the record aren't really made for rapping. Some of the stuff is not 4/4 time. It's kind of in a weird time sync. So some of the songs weren't made for rapping from the beat standpoint. I just did what I felt would best serve the tracks. That's just what felt the most natural.

RubyHornet: I would like you to talk a little bit about your singing and growth as a vocalist. In the past we've heard you sing through the Percy Miracles character, and a lot of that was done in more of a comedic way. Lately it appears that you've grown more serious in the singing. Was it always in you to sing like this, or have you also grown more comfortable creating in this fashion?

Phonte: I would say it's a little bit of both. It's definitely me growing more comfortable as a singer. I also think that it's always been in me, but I just never took it seriously. I think in a lot of ways, me doing the Percy Miracles character was me just wyling out, in a way, not really owning my singing talents. It's always cool to sing and you can hide behind, 'oh, I was just joking.' But once you really own it, and just decide, 'f**k it, I'm going to just go for broke,' you lose the comic element. So, that's why I don't really do the Percy character anymore. In a lot of ways it was an emotional fortress for me to protect myself from the singing. Now it's just, 'f**k it. I sing. It is what it is.' I didn't really start taking it seriously until people I respected and other artists that I liked, other signers that I really liked, told me how much they liked my singing so I was like, 'damn, if they're saying it then maybe they're right.' That's when I decided to give it a shot and keep it real.

RubyHornet: Nic, what was it like to see Phonte's singing and where we was taking the music?

Nicolay: For me personally, and I'm very much not representative of listeners, but to me, there's almost not a lot of difference between a track that has rhyming or singing. Obviously there's a lot of differences, but for me, at the end of the day it is a coming together of music and vocals. I've never really had a moment of 'yo, this whole record's going to be singing,' and getting all nervous. Not at all. To me, it's very much the next logical step of what we'd do after we did Connected. Phonte always said that one of the things that really stands out is that there's not really anything on this album that you couldn't have seen coming if you were a Connected fan. It's just a maybe a little bit of a bolder step than Connected was. For me, the whole 'debate' is kind of pointless. It's an album. It's got A-Z content. Just listen to it with an open mind and without any limitations. That's when people find it's remarkable.

RubyHornet: The songs on the album almost seem to play out like a conversation or series of events in which a couple falls in and out of love, or kind of is in a really good place, then has a fight, makes up, has a fight? Are we to take the album as a story in that way?

Phonte: It wasn't intended to be. It wasn't planned. I guess there is a loose narrative being that a lot of the lyrics are very personal. They represent what I was going through during the time of recording. There is somewhat of a story line there, I guess I would want people to find it for themselves. A lot of what you're saying is true though, there is a lot of stuff about love and about relationships. I just wanted to write it from a real perspective. Love is not always pretty, and it's not always just, 'oh baby, I love you so much.' Sometimes you hate the motherf**ker. They get on your nerves that g**damn much, but it's still love. The love is still there. In writing songs for this record, I wanted to do something that ran the whole gambit of emotions of what everyone's ever felt being in a relationship. Everything from the love, the hate, the indifference, and everything in between. From a lyrical standpoint, that's where I was coming from with it.

RubyHornet: Someone may see the title and read Leave It All Behind to mean 'leave this relationship behind.' When I was listening, I kind of got the idea of the meaning being, 'leave that ideal picture of love behind, or leave your preconceptions behind and live in the relationship and go as it goes.' I'm wondering if I'm anywhere on base?

Phonte: I think that's a good observation. I think that's a good analysis of it. That's pretty on point. That's pretty much it.

RubyHornet: You talked about drawing from your own experiences, for you, being a touring musician, it throws different wrenches into a relationship, as opposed to the majority of people that aren't away for so long...Are any your relationship problems magnified by being on tour, what is that wrench like? What do you find underlying that is the same, that is a universal relationship issue?

Phonte: I think for me, when writing songs, I don't write on the road. I almost make a pointed attempt to just stop on the road. Pretty much when you're on the road, you're just taking in all the things that come around you. The only people that can really relate to that is other musicians, and that s**t ain't no fun. For the person that works a 40 hour work week at a regular job it's like, 'I don't want to hear about that s**t you do on the road.' Pretty much, man, I just write all my stuff when I'm away from the road, cause the road is not really real life. Waking up in a different city everyday, living out of hotels, you got people catering to you, that s**t ain't real life. Being at home, being around your family, watching TV or going to the grocery store, that's how regular people live. I just always write songs from that perspective. Being in a relationship as a musician is very trying. It is kind of compounded when you do travel a whole lot, but as with everything else, it has it's good and it's bad. There are times like, 'damn, I hate that I got to go on the road. I'm going to miss my kids and my wife.' Then there are times like, 's**t, I can't wait to get up out this motherf**ker. God...' Me and my wife be going at it like, 'man, I can't wait for you to leave.' Then you'll be gone for like two weeks, and you'll miss each other again. It'll be like that. I just try to take all those things into account when writing songs for the album. Just to try to write from the most realistic place that I know, and the most human place that I know, and hopefully my story will resonate with other people.

RubyHornet: Nicolay, the last time I spoke to you was in the spring and in relation to the Time:Line album. You talked about the way in which that album was made, and your own kind of journey back through music of earlier eras. Did the process of making that album bleed into this one? If fans picked up both of those albums, would they be able to see where your musical journey through the Time:Line process leads to production on Leave It All Behind?

Nicolay: I think you can definitely see some fore warnings if you will. There's a red thread definitely, just because I'm always trying to make my music the same way that Tay creates his vocals, which is to do something that is a signature sound almost. As much as I don't want to limit myself, I like thinking about a "signature sound" that you develop that becomes sort of your audio business card. I think that this album is the nucleus, or the highest I've gotten to realizing some dreams and goals in music. Simply put, it's the best thing I've been involved in, just because of the maturity of it, the level of the deepness I think the album has. I just feel sort of like this is something I've given the better part of a lot of time to make and I don't know, I think that to some degree, it tells me that the sky is the limit. As long as it's great music. We've tried really hard not to be self-indulgent. Especially Tay, he'll be somebody that always keeps me in check when it comes to that, to make sure that even though we're going on new territory that it never becomes self-indulgent. This album really is where it all comes to together, where all the stuff that I've learned up to this point just really has an opportunity to shine.

RubyHornet: Do you guys keep up with each other's other music such as Little Brother, or Nicolay & Kay? And if so, does that play a factor in when you come back together?

Phonte: Yeah, yeah definitely. Aside from Nic just being a friend and a brother to me, I'm a fan first and foremost. Every time he puts out some new s**t, I buy it just because I support good music. I'm a fan of the music first. Me being a fan led me to want to work with him in the first place. Anytime he puts out new music, I buy it just to support. From the Hear record, the Nicolay and Kay album, I buy it. From that, a lot of times he'll send me his ideas like, 'let me get your ear on this. Let me see what you think of this.' A lot of the tracks for the Nicolay and Kay album, and a few of the tracks on the Hear album, those are tracks that I heard in the demo form, but I was still geeked at the end of the process, and geeked at how they all came out. So, sometimes there will be a track that he's done and may have slipped by me like, 'damn!' "Dance With The Stars" was one for me on the Time:Line album. 'Damn, that s**t's crazy. I wish I got my hands on that s**t.' I wish I could have been a part of that one cause I like that track a whole lot. But I definitely follow it, I'm definitely a fan. I buy it and I support it.

Nicolay: Hell yeah. I was actually talking to my wife about this...What I really like is that Zo and Tigallo album, and you'll find Get Back in my car or in my changer. As Tay said earlier, we support each other just by buying it. I'm just a huge fan mainly, so I'm just trying to get my hands on everything he does. I just got the Jazzanova record. I'm a big Jazzanova fan, but especially since my man's got two joints on there. That's just really exciting to me.

RubyHornet: Little Brother tours pretty heavy, and you're finishing up a tour right now. Are there any plans to tour for this album? And if so, what do you think a Foreign Exchange tour would look like in comparison to a Little Brother show? How would you prepare, and what do you expect your interaction to be with fans?

Phonte: I think on a Little Brother tour the main thing is energy. It's just Hip Hop. It's straight ahead balls to the walls volume up to 10 energy. With Foreign Exchange, I look at it more as a journey. A Little Brother show is, me and my homeboys are going to the show we're going to wild out. A Foreign Exchange show is more of a date night. You can take your girl out, put out some nice clothes and just chill. Ideally we kind of have things together now. We're putting the band together. We're just trying to make sure that it all makes sense financially and we're able to pull it off. It looks like we'll be cool.

Nicolay: I think it's going to be different for everyone involved for the simple fact that when you say A, you got to say B. Not only is the album real different, but that means at the live show that you got to really adjust. I think that's going to be a really cool challenge of exploring the more musical side and seeing how we can translate that to a live show. I think that the material is perfect for something like that. I think that if we get an opportunity to really do our thing, and do it the way we want to, I think we have the potential win the hearts of a lot of people. For what the music is, and I think all of our music has always had some sort of accessibility where a lot of people can potentially like it.

RubyHornet: If I'm not mistaken, and correct me if I am, I believe you guys started working on the Connected record in the early 2000's like 2003 or so. At that time, doing music that way, via Myspace and email and sending tracks back and forth was kind of a new thing. I remember when you would tell people you were doing that album, some of their reactions would be, 'oh word? Really, I can't believe that you've connected with someone across the world.' Now, that thing is not really uncommon with the way the internet's come in and the way music has changed. Did doing that album give you any premonition that using that method could become wider? Did you see the power of the internet taking shape at all?

Phonte: I had no idea. I didn't think of it as anything that was particularly groundbreaking, or think of it as anything that's crazy. We were just doing the best with what we had. We were really making the best use of what we had to do during a time when he was overseas and I was in the states. It wasn't like we could spend a whole lot of long distance minutes talking on the phone and s**t. The cheapest alternative was, 'f**k it, let's do it on the internet.' At the time I didn't really think what we were doing was groundbreaking. We were just doing it out of necessity. But, had I known where it was going? I can honestly say I didn't see it coming, and everything moving online as it is now with Myspace, the social networking the stuff like that. It's almost just the norm now for cats to be doing stuff online and just emailing each other verses. I would bet money, I would bet hard cash that over 70% of the collabs that you hear now between rappers, I would bet hard cash that at least 70% of them s**ts is done over email. I'd bet that in a heartbeat. With cats touring and doing different stuff, email is the one thing that links us all.

Nicolay: I think that's pretty much it. The funny thing is, obviously it was a big deal when the album came out and people got wind of that fact. For us, it was never a big thing. We just went with the flow, and I think we never really stopped. I don't know if it helped anything, but it seems that nowadays a lot of people are able to work with each other, especially in other continents even. I think that's a great thing, man.

RubyHornet: What does success look like for you guys in terms of Leave It All Behind? Obviously it's not going to sell millions of records, but it does have a core fan base of people wanting it a long time. You both have said in this interview that it's some of the music that you're most proud of. What does success look like for this project?

Phonte: I think success would be if we're still getting interviews about this a year from now. If a year from now we're still getting cats hollering at us about the record, if people are still discovering it, as well as re-discovering it. That to me is where success lies. We've been doing this for a little while now, and I've always found out that my success always comes later. The albums that I'm a part of, they don't seem to really catch on at first. It's at least a year before people are like, 'oh yeah...' And it's been like that since the first Little Brother album. We put that album out in 2003, and we were still touring on it in 2005. It took that long for it to make the rounds and for people to see where we were going with it. I don't see things being that different with this record either. To me, that's what the success would lie in. Judging from the early sales reports that we've been getting, it's been selling well. I think even more so than the sales, if people are still interested and we are generating a new audience a year from now, if we do that it'll be great. Normally, the "average" urban release gets three months and then it's f**king over.

RubyHornet: Before you go, I want to switch to a more comedic topic real quick. The promo for the album had some instant message stuff that left us hanging. Instant Messenger can be a good thing, but sometimes people get a lot more bold on IM and say some things they may not normally say in real life. You can get into a late night IM and disaster can strike. I'm just wondering if you have any conversations on IM that you definitely would not have said in real life?

Phonte: Pretty much anything I'd say on IM, I'd say in real life. I know when I was younger I might have said some foul s**t as a way of testing the waters just to see how far I could take it. You know if you're talking to a girl and you say something crazy then you wait to see her response, it's like, 'oh s**t...' I did that when I was young, but now I don't say anything online that I wouldn't say to somebody's face. I've pretty much always been that way, but I've seen IM conversations go wrong, and I've heard tales of them from some of my friends that can get really funny. I've seen IM messages go wrong, and I've seen Myspace messages go wrong too. Those are really funny, cause you have your name on there, and you can't deny that it's you. That s**t is funny.

RubyHornet: Do you guys have any piece of work from each other that kind of sticks out or is your go to piece? Like that's your joint?

Phonte: My favorite Nicolay work is probably the theme that he composed for the Hear album. That was another one where I was like, 'f**k! Where was I when he did that s**t?' Also this other track that he did, it's on my iPod. It's probably from like eight years ago and he did a chop of this Ahmad Jamal record for this OkayPlayer contest. The other chops were dope, but he took it and did in a way where nobody saw it coming. To this day I still run that track. Those are the two that come immediately to mind. "Dancing With The Stars" is another one off Time:Line. Again, I'm a fan first and foremost. There were times when I'd just be online like, 'I need to get up with Nic cause I just need some s**t to listen to! I need some music for me.' I'm definitely a fan.

Nicolay: My favorite is the Human League cover. I just play that a lot cause I really liked that song, but I've always kind of felt sort of wrong listening to it. It's one of those things where the song is really great, but looking back you realize that sound of it is very dated. What I love about it is that it catches those chords and leads everything into now. Something that I go back to a whole lot is the stuff on The Listening, that already kind of shows what he's doing now. A track like "Home". A lot of people always talk about The Listening as a Hip Hop classic, which I think undeniably it is, but my favorite tracks are kind of showcasing some of the stuff I guess that we're doing now. "The Way You Do" that's probably my favorite joint of that era just because it's got that instant melancholy to it..."Look What You're Doing To Me" the Jazzanova track, that's probably one of the top 5 songs he's ever done.
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