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The Anti-Pop Blog interviews Nicolay

by +FE on September 9, 2009 at 2:03 PM · Comments
When used correctly, the Internet proves to be an amazing place. It is, after all, the birthplace of musical gem The Foreign Exchange, a hip-hop/R&B group comprised of American rapper/singer Phontè (of Little Brother) and Dutch-imported producer Nicolay. In an interview with Nicolay last Friday, I got some insight on who this mastermind really is - what inspires his music, what's next for The Foreign Exchange, and, more immediately, what to expect from his latest project, City Lights Vol 2: Shibuya. The self-proclaimed "regular dude", whose stage name is actually the third of 3 first names (charge that to being European), is excited about the September 15th physical release (the digital version is already available) of Shibuya, a collection of 15 tracks inspired by a brief but fruitful trip to Japan.

"I had a very lucky opportunity to visit Japan, specifically an area in Tokyo called Shibuya, which, it's kind of like Manhattan in New York - it's the busiest, trendiest neighborhood in Tokyo and it's like always moving...I was there for about 5 days - I was there for a show - but we just really tried to take everything in and see as much as we could in those 5 days." His biggest takeaway was the reminder to remain true to himself as a musician. "That whole trip really just opened my eyes in a lot of ways to just be more open-minded...I kind of really started thinking that, you know, for myself, I sometimes had been too preoccupied with what the listener would sometimes think of what I do that I sometimes forget about, you know, just letting whatever kind of idea through me, just letting whatever kind of music comes - just letting that out instead of trying to censor yourself, or thinking like "well a fan of The Foreign exchange will most likely listen to this, and this and that." So really if anything it just really inspired me, or kind of really helped me to open up my mind a little bit more about, you know, other options, other possibilities, other forms of music. It was really good that that sort of came out."

Good it was. To his delight, the album sampler (available here) generated a lot of positive feedback, and many have been raving about the full album after purchasing it digitally today. The record is available wherever music is sold, including at Amazon, Nicolay's website, eMusic, Rhapsody, and iTunes (though it's not advised that you get it from iTunes - more on that here).

The most obvious characteristic of Nicolay's sound is its versatility. Using both live music and samples, he effectively (and effortlessly) produces sound that transcends the limitations of a particular genre. This is no small feat, and a rather esoteric skill amongst producers. How then, does he pull it off so well?

"Sometimes people will ask me to describe my sound, and I be like uhhhh. (laughs) It's not very easy to put in words. I'm usually just the type of person to say "you know what, let the music just speak for itself" but um, I don't know, I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff and I think that really shaped me to do a lot of different things. When I was a kid my mom really used to play everything from classical music, to Stevie Wonder to Neil Young to Bob Dylan to whatever, so I've always just grown up to, you know, just liking a lot of really different stuff - very eclectic music taste. I always try to make albums the way that I would like an album to sound, the way that I would want to hear it."

I was curious to know what a super producer listens to. What's in heavy rotation for him right now?

"Well right now I'm listening a lot to Vikter Duplaix's new album [Electric Love]. I've been listening to the Fleet Foxes [Fleet Foxes] for a long time - that was really an album that really kind of touched me a lot, and I've listened to the music that comes out of the camp that I'm affiliated with so, Phontè's stuff or Carlitta's stuff or Zo!'s stuff. We listen to a lot of our own stuff, just kind of rotate it to see, you know, to see about feedback and what people think."

One my favorite parts of the interview was when I asked him to pick five must-have albums if he was stranded on an airplane and had access to just those on his mp3 player. His picks: Prince's Parade, one of the two Coldplay records (he couldn't decide which one), Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, The Beatles' Abbey Road, and Common's Like Water for Chocolate. Eclectic indeed. On his choices, he said, "I think the nice thing about variety is that it balances everything."

Though the story of The Foreign Exchange's meeting through the OkayPlayer website has already been told, I was intrigued by how organically he and Phontè came to create what is now an increasingly popular duo, particularly among the "underground" music circuit. Nicolay explains, "It's really been interesting in the sense that we never really had any of those moments of really sitting down and evaluating or even kind of planning next steps. For us it's always been just, we started something and we just never really looked back. And even in the beginning, you know, it was very simple - I put some tracks online and he had heard them and really liked them and he asked if he could do something over them and he did...we just never really stopped. We never even really talked about what we were doing, we just had a good time and eventually we just had enough to release the first album...It's always kind of remained that way - we're really almost kind of matter of fact about it. We just really started and never really quit until this day. It's been about 7 years now that we have worked together...it's led to the first album and the second album and I'm sure at some point the third one."

Even the switch from the hip-hop heavy debut album Connected (2004) to the R&B vibe of their latest record, Leave It All Behind (2008), was unplanned. "He [Phontè] would probably tell you that for him, he just felt - even that wasn't really a conscious decision or something that we deliberately changed - but he just felt upon hearing the tracks that I was kind of working with at the time, he just felt the way to do them justice really was by singing instead of rapping...I want to say, [he] also found his comfortable spot and his talent in terms of singing. We both have just really kind of embraced doing other stuff outside of what we were already used to doing."

So what's up next for Nicolay and The Foreign Exchange? The camp is scheduled to release another video for the single I Wanna Know, due out within the fourth quarter the year. Of the video, Nicolay says, "[it's] a really, really fun video - kind of different, once again, but that one is coming out really nicely." Albums to come after Shibuya include projects by Carlitta Durand and Zo!, two artists under The Foreign Exchange Music imprint. Of Carlitta Durand, he says, "She has a very, very nice voice - it's very shiny, it's got a lot of glitter on it...it's very, very slick and very beautiful." She makes her debut on Shibuya, which was an easy choice, as "she sounds really good over the music that's a little bit more inspired by some of the Tokyo sounds and some of the more electronic stuff." The Foreign Exchange has introduced amazing vocal talent through their work, including the likes of Muhsinah, Yahzarah, and Darien Brockington. What's the secret? "Well, I mean, we got the sweat shop, and it's like, you know, 20 people waiting for their shot, one by one we let 'em out. (laughs) I mean for us, we are so lucky - if for anything, we're just incredibly lucky with the incredible amount of vocal talent that is just around us. I cannot really say it in any other way."

On the surface, his is a tale of luck and happenstance. But don't let his humility fool you - behind it is a non-stop worker with a magical ability to impact people through music who deserves every piece of the glory that is coming to him and his camp. Humility, though, is always a good thing. Currently on tour, The Foreign Exchange's popularity has soared now that their audience can see them in action, allowing the music to come to life before their eyes. "It's a very exciting thing and just knowing that, you know, we can kind of make their day a little more bright, for like 2 hours. It's just another one of those things, like you can't be mad at that...how many people have jobs where they can say...you get to touch people's lives everyday? We get to do that and that's something that I'm very thankful for."

I'll be at the New York City concert at BB King's on Friday October 23rd (ticket info here) and tried to get some insider information, but Nicolay honors the beauty of surprises. He did clue me in that Bobby Brown will be performing before them - how's that for a special guest?! Check out the FE website for more information on upcoming shows in your city, and don't forget to pick up Shibuya - it's AntiPop approved!
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