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The music man behind much of the signature tones that have come to define The Foreign Exchange (+FE) sound continues his alchemist trick of making instrumental electronic music feel organic for laypeople who swear they don’t care for electronic music. Following a tradition initially established in jazz by artists like Miles Davis and in soul by Stevie Wonder’s experimentations in Songs in the Key of Life (peaking in the woefully underrated In A Square Circle), manipulating electronic music to distill the innate robotic coldness of its confines to cultivate something emotional and resonating is a hard row. Most lean into the coldness, creating music that stretches from the industrial and dystopian to the nihilistic and metallic.

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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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