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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Falling in 'Love' with Foreign Exchange

by +FE on September 27, 2013 at 4:47 PM · Comments
N.C.-based electronic R&B duo has a brand-new album out.
0922SundayMain1ps.jpg Photo by Paul Stephen

"I never thought in genres and my mom never did. I guess that's where I get it."

So said Nicolay, a native of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and a Wilmington resident for more than five years now. Nicolay is a music producer, solo artist and one half of Grammy-nominated R&B, hip-hop and electronic duo the Foreign Exchange, whose new album, "Love in Flying Colors," was released Tuesday, debuting at No. 2 in R&B/soul on iTunes.

Over coffee recently, Nicolay politely stressed that putting music in a box annoys him.

"I like music that is hard to grasp," he said. "You could call it this (or) you could call it that."

The Foreign Exchange is Nicolay and Raleigh-based vocalist Phonte Coleman, formerly of the critically acclaimed hip-hop trio Little Brother. The two connected via the Internet in 2002, when Nicolay was still in The Netherlands.

Admiring each other's work, they traded music files back and forth for 2004's "Connected," an album made before the two met in person; it became an underground success. Nicolay moved to North Carolina two years later and the Foreign Exchange continued to make music - four studio albums, a live album and a Grammy nomination (a Best Urban/Alternative Performance nod for the track "Daykeeper") in 2009.

Nicolay's fondness for Prince, Neil Young, hip-hop, heavy metal and even Russian classical composers has influenced the Foreign Exchange in ways not always readily apparent, often more in construction and ideology than in sound. "Love in Flying Colors" is a love letter to moving on and finding a better place. It's a beautiful album drenched in romance, positivity and electronic music. String arrangements grace the soaring, Stevie-Wonder-inspired "Listen to the Rain" and the album tiptoes into '80s sensibilities on "Dreams are Made for Two" and with the sultry dance vibes of "If I Knew Then."

It's a celebratory album that follows on the heels of 2010's "Authenticity," a more stripped-down affair that was met with raised eyebrows from FE fans, devoted and fair-weather alike. Hardcore devotees of the Foreign Exchange embraced the album's stark R&B qualities and emotionally fraught themes - Phonte was enduring a divorce at the time - while leisurely fans weren't quite sure what to make of it, perhaps wanting a repeat of the Grammy-nominated "Daykeeper" from 2008's Leave it All Behind," or more of the hip-hop sound the duo started out with.

"A lot of our fans, it took some time to digest. The subject matter was intense," Nicolay said. "When we set out to do ('Love in Flying Colors') we wanted to do something opposite, very up, very euphoric, and with a lighter feel to it."

"Authenticity" still connected with an audience, however, and as the duo toured with a full band behind them they were able to win over even more fans.

"A lot of people came around and appreciated what we're all about," Nicolay said of FE's most recent tour. "We're really fortunate we have fans that we can challenge like that." (The band heads out this week for a month of nationwide dates; the closest one to Wilmington is Oct. 24 in Raleigh at the Lincoln Theater.)

A strength of the Foreign Exchange as a duo is that each album has its own identity; there's an intent to not repeat what they've done before. In preparation for "Love in Flying Colors," for example, Nicolay deliberately listened to certain albums, including early '90s English dance music (Prodigy, Goldie), and focused on electronic music equipment and instruments.

"Those clamoring beats, drum and bass," Nicolay said, "There are songs that are definitely dance floor and some songs are clearly not, but it's undeniably groovy and dancy."

The first song FE made for the new album was the single "Call it Home," a piano- and synth-driven track about getting lost and finding your way back. Nicolay cites it as a song that inadvertently became the template for the entire album. The heavy electronic sound on "Call it Home" was something they had flirted with over the years, but "Love in Flying Colors" fully embraces it.

In some ways, it's the best of both worlds - R&B vocals married to electronic music with a fun, intimate vibe. Phonte's warm, soaring vocals come off like a mix of Lenny Kravitz and Seal. It also finds the singer in a better place emotionally than on "Authenticity."

"The cool thing is, with every album you do you can make a left or right turn afterwards," Nicolay said. "I think our music always reflects where we are in our lives at that moment. It keeps it from being the same thing over and over."

Side projects help keep things fresh, and both Phonte and Nicolay have both made albums outside of the Foreign Exchange. Nicolay collaborated in 2011 with Raleigh combo The Hot at Nights and the jazz trio reinterpreted his 2009 solo album "City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya." An ensuing album led to a tour where the band performed at the Blue Note in New York City.

"When I did the jazz tour with the guys, I brought a lot of that experience back to the Foreign Exchange," Nicolay said. "Our little solo records are ways to try out something until we do a bigger record. It's things we use to keep the marriage spicy."

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