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Nicolay wraps his experiences abroad into a jazzy album (via Star-News)

by +FE on June 10, 2015 at 7:55 AM · Comments
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.

"We'd never seen that kind of pandemonium, before or after," he said. "It was wild, Beatles-esque in that we couldn't hear (for) the entire two hours. The reception was as warm you could imagine ... These people knew all of our music and we had no idea."

The image of the multi-colored bridge remained in Nicolay's mind when he was recording "City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto," his third solo album, scheduled for release on June 9.

"The moment I saw it I knew I wanted that to be the cover," said Nicolay, who wanted the album's visuals, shot by Soweto photographers, to reflect nightlife and club life there.

"Once there, you're immediately touched by it," he said of the culture reflected in the music.

The "City Lights" releases are an itch that Nicolay - whose band was nominated for a Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy for the song "Daykeeper" in 2010 - scratches to be more experimental, more "out there" than a record by the Foreign Exchange. The band is a decade-long collaboration between Dutch-born Nicolay and Raleigh-based vocalist Phonte Coleman, formerly of the hip-hop act Little Brother, that began with them emailing tracks back and forth across the ocean, hence the band's name.

That process remains, even though they now live dozens rather than thousands of miles apart. For "Soweto," Nicolay composed music locally while Coleman handled vocals in Raleigh.

"My own records are always smaller projects, test tubes for ideas we execute later," Nicolay said.

That should have FE fans curious about the band's follow-up to 2013's "Love in Flying Colors." "Soweto" feels like sunshine giving way to night, beginning with the excitable "Tomorrow" and its '80s-style synths. The album doesn't sound like South Africa, necessarily. The influence is subtle, more spiritual than literal. South Africa helped the puzzle pieces fall into place, especially given that "City Lights" albums are inspired by a city or country.

"That feel and (the) intensity of the people there, and overall ambience of South Africa, (there) was a moment where I thought, 'This is the influence I'm looking for,'" Nicolay said. "I've never really done literal reinterpretation of music. It's not an album of me playing djembe. This definitely has an upbeat feel, the very sunny feel I got from being there."

There are no South African musicians on "Soweto," only a South African friend who narrates part of the album. It's not world music, though, more like a danceable love letter. "I would never call myself a jazz musician, however, I take a lot from jazz, soak that up and spit it out in my way," Nicolay said. "There was music there I listened to but (I was) very careful not to take anything of that. Rather than me taking anything, it was much more a desire to give them something."

He said the ultimate dream would be to return to Soweto and play the album live.

"It may be a pipe dream," he said. "I've given myself a year to pull it off, to go back there to show the people what they did to us."
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