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It seems like only yesterday Phonte Coleman was just a North Carolina rapper/singer, one-third of the up-and-coming hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back then, Coleman was also exchanging music files with an Internet help desk employee and aspiring producer in the Netherlands (Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook), hoping the two could make music together.

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The Foreign Exchange introduces its own Song of Solomon: 'Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Washington Post)
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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.

We Be Spirits interviews Nicolay
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.

Nicolay wraps his experiences abroad into a jazzy album (via Star-News)
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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Nu-Soul Magazine's +FE Music Interview Series Part 4: The Foreign Exchange (Phonte + Nicolay)

by +FE on November 24, 2010 at 8:28 AM · Comments
Fall is a beautiful season. It's that time of the year when all that was transitions into what will be. Lovers reintroduce themselves as the leaves decorate the pavement through a cluster of colors. And while all that surrounds us settles into its proper place, The Foreign Exchange reemerges with their third album that captures this transition perfectly. Drenched in love, clarity, anguish, and everything in between, Phonte and Nicolay bring forth an experience that is just as their album says--authentic.

Nu-Soul had the opportunity to catch up with The Foreign Exchange and speak to them about their new album Authenticity, how they maintain their creative autonomy, and the greatest lesson that they've learned from each other.

Nu-Soul: Tell me about the new album, Authenticity. Also, I know there is always something deeper with your covers and album titles, so tell me about that as well.
Phonte: The name Authenticity just kind of refers to...well, there are a lot of ways you can read into it as all of our titles have been. I guess for us, it refers to the search to find that, which is uniquely yours. With the title and cover, we were just trying to find something that represented authenticity in nature so the leaves were just a metaphor. You know how no two leaves have the same vein pattern--every leaf has its own vein pattern that is unique to itself and there are millions of leaves but no two are alike. So that's kind of the same way for this life in general--there are millions of people but life is essentially about that search for authenticity-- just trying to find that one thing within yourself that is unique so that's just kind of where it came from.

Nu-Soul: There are not as many guest appearances from the extended +FE family on this album as Darien is only on one song as well as Yahzarah. Was that intentional?
Phonte: I don't think it was intentional. It was just the way it kind of fell out. Most of the time, when I make decisions to put people on records, it's because it may feel right or its like, "Yo, I think this will work." But with these songs--they just kind of came naturally with me so we just kept them that way.

Nu-Soul: Phonte--you mentioned that Muhsinah was your muse for Leave It All Behind the last time we spoke. And with Connected, it was Yahzarah. Who was it this time around?
Phonte: I can say Chante kind of was. She was a muse for me in a lot of ways. I first heard her voice back in 2008 or 2009, and I just knew I had to have her on the next The Foreign Exchange album so we ended up doing the record for the +FE album and we also did the record for Zo!'s album, Sunstorm. So she was in some ways my muse in that way.

Nu-Soul: I had never heard of her until Zo!'s album but her voice is absolutely beautiful.
Nicolay: Yeah, she's incredible on both albums. I think she is absolutely perfect for the songs that she is on. I think on both "All Is Well With Love" as well as "Laughing At Your Plans," she is perfect. And that's something that I always like about working with Te' is that in a situation like that, he will always shape the material around somebody that he is intending it for and you can definitely hear that.

Nu-Soul: Yeah, you can. And her voice is almost childlike--very innocent and fitting.
Nicolay: Yes, it's very airy. Very beautiful.

Nu-Soul: Nic--what are some of the different production elements that you brought to this album as opposed to the first two albums?
Nicolay: For me personally, from the production side, I wanted to on one hand, keep it very basic and very much in service of the song and vocal performance. And I think Phonte and I, in a number of places on the album, kept it simple even though it is kind of deceiving, because if you listen to it a couple of times on headphones, you will start hearing that there is a lot going on. But we definitely tried to keep it basic and very much in service of the song because ultimately, we'd like to be able perform a song with an instrument and know that it still stands.

Nu-Soul: You all have created a distinctive sound that is associated with The Foreign Exchange brand. How do you maintain that sound without becoming monotonous?
Phonte: The best way to keep that sound is to always surround yourself with people that have more expertise than you in some ways. The sure way to ensure your demise (Laughing) is to just assume that you know it all and have it all figured out. For me, I always make a point to surround myself with people who are playing at my level or playing higher than my level. I prefer to play with people that are higher than my level because that keeps me sharp and keeps me going. The way I look at +FE music is just a brand or as a collective of artists--it's like if we are all fighters, there are certain elements that are Nic's style or Zo!'s--there is no style that is better than the next style--it just depends on how good that person is in that style. And if I'm one type of fighter and this person is that type of fighter, once we jump into the ring, there are going to be things that I can pick up on from his style that I can incorporate into my style and vice versa and that's how we keep each other sharp. There are some things that Zo! excels at that he has on Nic and there are things that Nic has on Zo!. There are things that I am good at but D. Brock may not be but Yahzarah may be. It's really just like that. Just like a group of fighters all with a different style and they all just take from each other.

Nu-Soul: I've seen you all perform several times and it seems like you all genuinely enjoy working together. How are you able to keep that going?
Nicolay: We have a very simple rule--none of us are bigger than the other. There isn't any room for any egos or diva stuff. To be a part of this, you need to have your sleeves rolled up and you need to be ready to work. And you need to put your talent behind the people that are in your family similar to how your family will get behind you for your album. And I think because of that, everybody always comes together for one thing and that is the enjoyment of music and when we are on stage, we are just genuinely and sincerely doing what we love to do and that's playing music that we love because it's essentially our records that we are performing live.

Nu-Soul: Nic--the first ten seconds of this album have some of the same elements from the first two albums. Is that something you do intentionally--almost like a branding kind of thing?
Nicolay: Yes, it's on all three albums. LIAB was actually the first kind of flip of the original of the Connected opening sound. I think once we had done it with LIAB, it almost became a given that we would bring it back but flip it again because it's very similar to how other parts of our branding are recurring. We always and continuously evolve but there are certain elements that keep coming back like for instance the plus. We always use the plus in our artwork and this is another thing but just on an audio layer to where it's kind of our sound logo. But every record that we drop will be slightly different because it fits the mood for that particular record.

Nu-Soul: LIAB was such a colossal record and so many people were extremely attached and emotionally invested in it. In knowing this, was there any pressure to try to live up to that album or did you all remove that altogether when approaching Authenticity?
Phonte: I think you have to always kind of remove it. You just have to approach it fresh as if the last record didn't happen. Even if LIAB wasn't a success and it just flopped like hell, you can't go into the studio like, "I'm gone show these muthafuckas this time and I'm going to do this..." That kind of clouds your judgment in a lot of ways. So when approaching Authenticity, we knew what we didn't want to do--we knew we didn't want to make LIAB again so we were like, lets just see what happens and that was it.

Nicolay: You know in 08, people were attached to Connected and we were in a very similar situation looking at it from a different angle but it's all relative. I think every time you release something that makes a connection with people, they are ultimately going to be drawn to that again and again and again...like Prince--he can't do a show without playing "Purple Rain." That's just inherent to what were doing. We are eight years after Connected or at least after we started working on it so you can almost anticipate that we will grow more and more.

Nu-Soul: What song are you both most proud of in The Foreign Exchange catalog?
Phonte: (Laughing) I'd say we have to write it but there have been several little moments where I've said, "Damn, I can't believe that we did this." That's happened a lot but as far as naming one particular one--that's like asking me to pick kids.

Nicolay: That's a very difficult question. We can make a top ten and say what would be in the top ten. A record like "Daykeeper" is in that top ten obviously because it was a bold move to come out with that as the first single at a time when Connected was our last record so I think from a songwriting standpoint, that was a very successful song. "House Of Cards" is another one. On the new record, I think there are several tracks even from a song writing perspective--it's some of the best work we've ever done.

Phonte: I'd say "Laughing At Your Plans" is one of them.

Nicolay: Absolutely.

Phonte: That was my first time playing in another lane. It was more of a country/folky kind of lane and they take lyrics very seriously and you can't walk in there on some..."Baby you're on my mind I think about you all the time." They will laugh you out the got damn studio. The guy that played guitar on that is this guy named Alan Love. He's been in Nashville for like 25 years-he's a session guy. He tours a lot and he is really embedded in that country, western, and bluegrass scene. And he loved the song and said he had been singing it all day. He loved the song so for me to get that compliment from him was probably one of the biggest compliments I've got throughout my whole career. Just because people like that really pay attention so if you can step in someone else's lane and get props from them, that's a sign that you did it right.

Nu-Soul: And I'm sure that was very humbling also.
Phonte: Very much so.

Nu-Soul: Phonte--what is the greatest lesson that you've learned from Nicolay?
Phonte: Greatest lesson I've learned is just really to take a more measured approach with things. You know that I am the more intense of the two to put it nicely, (Laughing), my language is a lot more colorful, I put a little more attitude to my everyday speech, and the volume of my voice tends to get raised a little bit. Nic takes a more Zen like approach to life. I really try to rub off from that cause I get wound up about shit cause muthafuckas be getting on my nerves and I just be right there, ready to push the fucking button like, "Yo, I'm nuking muthafuckas!" Nuclear war is my first shit and Nic is like, "No lets sit down at the table and lets try to talk." He is the peace treaty guy and I learn a lot from that. He will at least try to have a meeting with you first before he blows your country up. I'm just ready to push the button. I'm George Bush. I can't front. I'm like, "WHAT, that muthafucka said what, aw naw, we nuking em' fuck that! Aint nothing to talk about." (Laughing) So that's what I've learned.

Nu-Soul: And what about you Nicolay?
Nicolay: There have been many real talk. I think a lot of the things I've learned just in general like being able to find your way in the industry. I really was able to pick up via him just because he was experiencing a lot of stuff early on with Little Brother. But the biggest thing that I've learned from Phonte is to just to always and continuously work hard. I'm never not looking for any opportunity to do the next thing whatever the next thing is, and I'm talking purely musical but to just always go hard which you know can sometimes be too hard. So you also have to know when to sometimes stop yourself from working. But I think our work ethic of making sure we always put in 110% is something that I've picked up from Te' as we are now like a unit in general. Just our combined work ethic is something that I'm very proud of and it means a lot to me.

Nu-Soul: So when will you hit the road?
Phonte: We will hit it hard next year. We are just kind of laying low for the rest of year to just kind of rest up cause 2010 was a muthafucka man. (Laughing.)

Nu-Soul: What makes you say that?
Phonte: Dude, it was! It was just a lot.

Nicolay: Yeah.

Phonte: I think me and Nic tested our limits as artists and with running a company--just how far you could go with that shit. But I found my limit. I will say that. That was the good thing about it. I feel like you have to cross the line before you find out where the line is and I definitely crossed the line this year so yeah G, I gotta slow the fuck down.

Nu-Soul: Sometimes that's hard to accept because you love your work so much and you are passionate about it but there has to come a point where you do mellow out a bit.
Nicolay: Yeah, there is more to life. As funny as it sounds, you really have to make sure that you keep that in mind. Otherwise you will be doing this 24-hours a day.

Nu Soul: The last time I spoke to you guys, I asked you to describe LIAB through color and you said it was black and white. What are the colors for Authenticity?
Phonte: I would say the colors that are on the album really. Pale blues, faded brown, worn colors... subdued, very worn. Travel weary, I guess. Imagine if you bought a dark brown jacket in North Carolina and you walk from North Carolina to California. By the time you get to California, that shit will be another shade of brown. (Laughing.) So it's that kind of brown.

Nu-Soul: Describe The Foreign Exchange experience in word.
Nicolay: Whoa! One word...you don't make it easy huh?

Nu-Soul: (Laughing) Nope!
Nicolay: One word...well, I'd say for me.... it would be independent.

Phonte: One word--unpredictable. Never a dull fucking moment dude. Always something...

Nu-Soul: I'm sure it's all worth it.
Phonte: It's totally worth it.

Nu-Soul: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It is always a pleasure.
Phonte: Thank you. Have a good night.

Nicolay: Thank you so much. We appreciate your time.
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