Indie-soul collective Foreign Exchange plays the Cat's Cradle (via The News & Observer)
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.

Phonte and Nicolay remain focused on The Foreign Exchange (via Creative Loafing)
With their fifth studio album, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange has perfected its sophisticated take on R&B, incorporating not only a range of sticky sweet melodies, but also a smattering of nuanced romantic themes like domesticity and compromise. But whatever you do, don't call it ''grown man music.''

The Foreign Exchange Evoke Chaucer on 'Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Exclaim!)
''More than anything else, the biggest crime as an artist is to be boring.'' Phonte Coleman, the primary songwriter, vocalist and animated gif half of the Foreign Exchange, has probably never been at the receiving end of such an accusation. Over the course five albums with partner Nicolay, Phonte has equated love to an excuse, displayed affection through lunchtime chicken wing delivery, and made a gorgeously passive-aggressive ode to the better mate. His songwriting is unparalleled in its combined frankness, humour and relevance in our everyday dalliances.

The Foreign Exchange introduces its own Song of Solomon: 'Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Washington Post)
Phonte Coleman, the rapping, singing half of the hip-hop/R&B duo the Foreign Exchange, has a complicated relationship with religion. When he was growing up, he detested the mandatory trips to his grandmother’s baptist church, so he joined the choir just to make the ordeal more palatable. At least from the choir stand there was an added element of entertainment. Stationed behind the preacher, young Phonte could gaze upon the flock and see who was fanning themselves, who was trying not to fall asleep and who was struggling to stay on beat.

The Foreign Exchange's Nicolay tours to find new inspiration (via IndyWeek)
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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Grammy nominee Nicolay is now in 'Session'

by +FE on January 19, 2012 at 8:15 AM · Comments
The last time the Dutch-born, Wilmington-based producer and musician Nicolay made a public appearance locally was about five years ago. It wasn't even a gig, per se, just a DJing session at the late, great night spot Bella Festa.

Things were a little different back then for Nicolay, who plays a gig on Tuesday at the Soapbox with exploratory jazz group The Hot @ Nights out of Raleigh.

His Grammy nomination, for Best Urban/Alternative track, from his group The Foreign Exchange's song "Daykeeper," had yet to occur. In fact, The Foreign Exchange, the duo Nicolay shares with Raleigh-based vocalist Phonte Coleman, was so obscure they were known to only the hippest of hip-hop heads.

Five years later, however, the Foreign Exchange has parlayed its Grammy nomination into a deeply devoted following that allowed the group to book its biggest-ever tour in 2011, not to mention allowing Nicolay to build up nearly 19,000 Twitter followers. (Phonte, a former vocalist with the hip-hop group Little Brother, has nearly 47,000.)

He's also taken quite the musical journey, from hip-hop to more of a soul/R&B/pop vibe with FE - even covering a James Taylor tune and doing a country version of a Foreign Exchange song on a live album - and expanding on his 2009 solo effort "City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya" on a live album with the Hot @ Nights.

"You couldn't write it or predict it," Nicolay said during a phone interview from the Wilmington home he shares with wife and business partner, Aimee Flint, who does the bulk of FE's promotional work. "The thing I'm most proud of is we did it our way" - that is, independently. "We didn't have to put any water in the wine."

The band has never been on a label, one of the first of such groups to take such a purely independent approach to the Grammy level.

Certainly, his collaboration with the Hot @ Nights - a group of young jazz virtuosos playing instrumental music - is an example of following what's creatively compelling rather than what might have mass commercial appeal, even though FE has managed to find financial success on a small scale.

The Hot @ Nights are made up eight-string guitar player Chris Boerner, who plays guitar with FE's touring band; Matt Douglas (of Justin "Bon Iver" Vernon's indie soul supergroup Gayngs) on sax; and Nick Baglio (of Michael Jackson tribute act Who's Bad) on drums.

"It is jazz and it is very experimental," Nicolay said. "Foreign Exchange has always been kind of the opposite," with more structured, pop-style songs.

Jazz has always been a big influence on Nicolay - he studied jazz and classical music theory during college in The Netherlands - "but I've never really gone there," he said. "I've always wanted to do a project where there was no studio or sequencers, just four guys playing."

For the "Shibuya Session" EP - the EP designation is a bit of misnomer, since one song, "Crossing," is seven and a half minutes, longer than some EPs - rather than weeks or even months of production, like he does with FE, the album was recorded in a day and they left in all the "mistakes." Even so, it's remarkable how clean the sound is, and how closely it follows the formula set down on the original "Shibuya" album, which was inspired by a trip to Japan. Even though the songs are instrumental, they tell stories.

"Shibuya Station" creates a train station vibe with funky drumming, crazy sax and spacey synths, but it has a progression that builds into something like resolution. Rapid drumming evokes a downpour in "Rain in Ueno Park," while "Meiji Shrine" has a more stark, spiritual vibe and is the only song with overtly Asian overtures. "Crossing" is all pulsing rhythms, keys jutting in and out, sax dancing all around - the sound of traffic made into art, with cars going every which way and pedestrians venturing into the fray - and ends with some seriously cool synths matched up with horns. On the album's final song, "Departure," you can almost see the thoughts unfolding in Nicolay's head as a plane takes off in a burst of ether.

"It's a very abstract sort of concept," Nicolay said. "You can do something with basic emotions in music, that part is fairly easy. But to have an arc, that's where I take cues from my classical background."

When he's playing live with the Hot @ Nights, the group follows the pattern established on the EP, usually playing all eight songs in a row ("It's kind of a suite") and throwing in a medley of jazzier FE tracks.

"I'm playing keyboards on stage with three virtuosi, so I'm just trying to keep up," he said with a laugh.

The 13-show tour for "Shibuya Session" starts in Wilmington on Tuesday before heading to Raleigh, Charlotte and other Southern cities before winding up in the big markets of the Northeast - Philly, New York, Boston, D.C., Baltimore.

His time with The Hot @ Nights allows him to do something different than what he does with Foreign Exchange, much like Phonte did last year with a solo album, something Nicolay intentionally kept his musical distance from in order to give his partner, and himself, room to breathe.

"When we come back together at the end of all that, we bring new experiences and ideas to the table," Nicolay said.

After he gets back from tour next month, Nicolay plans to rest and "let the dust settle." Then it's off to work on the next musical chapter in his life - Foreign Exchange album No. 4.

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