Leee John Wylam Brewery
| |

Leee John on His Upcoming Show at Wylam Brewery

Flashback Greatest Hits Tour, new album and Imagination. Caroline Dask chats with the king of soul, Leee John about his career journey and his love for Newcastle…

‘Raise your hand if you know ‘Imagination’?’

Quite a few hands in the office shoot up high and the first thing I notice is that they all have one thing in common. They’ve all been around when the three-piece soul music band Imagination was formed.

As someone who was not yet born in the 80s, I had to familiarise myself with the discography of Imagination and after a quick Spotify browse, I find myself nodding my head to some of their greatest hits.

‘Body Talk’, ‘In and Out of Loce’, ‘Flashback’ and ‘Just an Illusion’ are just some of the band’s greatest musical numbers, having gained a global audience with over 30 million in record sales.

An integral part of the soul, jazz and funk music scene, Leee John is bringing back the sound of the 80s to Newcastle Wylam Brewery with his 12-day ‘Flashback Greatest Hits Tour” taking place on 9 May.

Finding some time in his busy schedule of tour preparations, Leee talks Wylam Brewery, all things inspiration, the creative process and the evolution of music…

Leee John Wylam Brewery

Taking you back to the very beginning. What inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Wow, there are so many things that inspired me! I grew up in North London, but then I lived in New York for five years, so the American music scene as a child really pushed me in that direction.

I was assigned to a label when I was very young, but I didn’t pursue it because my father wanted me to stay in education, but the yearning to be in the entertainment business still was in my blood. Then, around the age of 16 I got signed to EMI Records as part of a duo and we recorded some songs but nothing really happened.

I was keen to learn more about my trade and my abilities. So I did extensive training, I was always writing, singing and being creative. I worked with a few bands and this gave me a great training ground to the point where even when we were on the road, I’d be having to mix the band. So I became a sound engineer helping with the speakers, monitors and so on.

Finally, due to certain different circumstances, I bumped into a producer at the record company who wanted to sign me. This is around the same time when I wrote the lyrics of ‘Body Talk’, and the rest is history.

Yes, let’s talk about ‘Body Talk’!

Oh, it was a huge club classic! It was a DJ favourite because of the tempo and because of its unique sound. At that time, we were in that period of new wave, punk and riff funk and everybody had unique looks. Headbands, leg warmers and whatnot!

We embraced that and we had the whole 80s package, which a lot of groups weren’t doing at the time. But we wanted to be the very first and give people something different and unique.

Reflecting on your journey since the release of your debut single ‘Body Talk’ in 1981, what do you feel has been the most rewarding aspect of your musical career?

There are so many!

Doing my jazz album in France in 2005. I was in Rochefort, and that was a ground-making moment for me, creatively, because I left everything behind to record this album. I wanted to do something completely different. We also made a documentary ‘making of’ and I was able to see myself from a different perspective.

I’ve also done a lot of directing and producing documentaries. I got to go to places like Zambia, Tunisia, and South Africa on behalf of SOS Children, and then film the work that’s done to help the kids in these villages. This experience also showed me how music can help and bring positivity to people.

What can fans expect from the Flashback Greatest Hits 2024 Tour, especially in the Newcastle show?

Leee John Wylam Brewery

I was in Newcastle recently and it’s a fantastic city. I was there for a charity event and it got me familiar with how everybody is up there. People in Newcastle are so warm and receptive, and Wylam Brewery is a wonderful building. It looks like it comes from the Grecian Athena, it’s just such a unique building.

So, I’m looking forward to coming and with our show, we’re going to give the audience all the hits and more. I’m a very much audience kind of person, so I change things for each show. I think it makes it a little bit more special.

What inspired you to embark on this UK tour in 2024, revisiting your greatest hits with Imagination and showcasing tracks from your solo career?

I’ve been doing so many different things, I recently did a small tour with the Gorillaz. When we played the O2, there were around 20,000 to 50,000 people in the audience. They were asking me then, ‘When are you going to go out and tour in the UK?’ and I’ve been doing festivals and film projects, and I just thought now is the right time.

I did a track with Rob Scott and now ‘Take Me Back’ is doing really well, it’s getting a lot of radio time. I feel that the sound of the 80s is making a comeback, and I have all these songs, so why not go out there and give people what they want?

With over 30 million albums sold worldwide and numerous chart-topping hits, how do you perceive the evolution of your music and its impact on future generations in the music industry?

I think everything comes back around. Be it fashion, music etc. But the difference is we work in a digital age and, so things are hands-on, but sometimes the depth of how you produce music gets lost.

I was in the studio in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and there were great guys, but there were certain things that they do which is very technical and very digital. But if they used it with an analogue sense about it, it would sound even better.

And we worked together and it was such a great collaboration. So, there are things that I can teach some of the younger musicians and there are things in the new age of the 21 century that they can teach me.

I’m always forever learning. I think life is an education. I never stop learning and I always want to improve on what I’ve done, whether it’s a show, whether it’s dressing, whether it’s writing. You can always improve on yourself.

Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with various artists and producers. Is there a collaboration or project that stands out to you as particularly memorable or impactful?

It would have to be Gorillaz, for sure. The music video was a very high-end production, I was supposed to be this monster from the sea, and the make-up and costume people worked on James Bond and Harry Potter before. They did such a brilliant job. Also working with Damon and his team was great.

Who have been some of your biggest musical influences throughout your career?

I would have to go with Motown, The Temptations, Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, who I still listen to a lot now, all the vocal groups that were around, the funk groups.

I have such a diverse range of people that influence me. Natalie Cole, a fantastic singer, I admire her the most because she sang jazz, blues, funk, soul, pop, and rock, she could also gospel and I saw her live so many times. I’m so lucky to have seen her live.

As a singer, songwriter, live performer, producer, and director, you wear many hats in the music industry. How do you balance these different roles, and do you have a favourite aspect of your creative process?

The industry has changed so widely, but my favourite thing to do is just go out there to perform. I’ve got teams of people that work with me, and everyone does their bit and brings their expertise and the result is just brilliant.

As a person, I’m very proactive. If I see a gap, I’ll fill it in. We were just talking about doing some merchandise, so I went online, and found a company that does it, as opposed to getting my assistant to do it. And I think working within these different roles in the music industry you need to be like that, you need to know how to sustain.

In addition to your past successes, you continue to release new music. Can you tell us about any upcoming projects or releases that your fans can look forward to?

My new album ‘Intimate Glow’ is coming out on 23 February, and it’s a really special album. It’s been done during the lockdown in three weeks. I started it nearly 20 years ago, and together with Bill Sharpe we finished it, and it just shows that anything can be fulfilled.

The album has soul, it has blues, it has jazz, and it’s very laid back. It’s music that you listen to after work and it’s very personal and intimate. There are some love songs on there, some nice instruments and it’s just music that eases your pain.

Leee John’s ‘Flashback Greatest Hits 2024’ tour will visit Wylam Brewery on 9 May. Grab your tickets here.