Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?)
Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?) is available via:
5th March, 2018
The album, 1997, will be available from 27th April, 2018
THERE are few artists…
who have created an album as busy and relevant as Equals. I will look at the themes and ideas that go into 1997 soon but, before then, a look at James Low and Ade Omotayo’s work, progress and dynamics. I wanted to look at artists who influence a record; working your way through the ranks; having guest artists feature on an album; studio meticulousness and putting your all into it; standing aside in a busy city like London – ending with a bit about album themes and what we need to discuss these days. I am writing a piece, later, about London violence and how it is going to impact the lives of musicians there. It is hard, therefore, for any musician who is based in the capital. Naturally, there will be fear and nerves: in the case of Equals; their upcoming album touches on the changes in society and how things are developing. They look at the media and communication; the way the city is altering and harder times for us all. In many cases, London is providing optimism and rushing inspiration. The communities and busy neighbourhoods cannot help compel songwriters eager to put pen to paper and represent something different. It is impossible living in a busy city and not being affected by what is happening around you. Equals do look at passion and connection but, for the most part, they are looking around them and what is happening where they live. I have written pieces recently that compel my mind away from London. There is a lot of musical attention flowing the way of the city – the desire to get people’s minds further north is an ambition of mine. That said; you cannot overlook how impactful and variegated London is. In the case of Low and Omotayo; they live in the East and are creating Electronic Soul music with heart and depth. I will look at artists who have influenced their sound but, right now, a nod to East London and how its people can inspire creation and betterment.
My mind is trained to the northern areas of the U.K. I am looking to move up that way but, inevitably, London is always in my mind. I love East London and how vivacious and varied it is. I live in an area where there are few different races and nationalities: East London is a bustling and multinational area that promises heady scents, trendiness and opportunities. I have been in East London from time to time and always get the same impression: there is a magic and energy you do not get anywhere else. It is understandable the Equals boys would take from the streets and the people; look around them and find some guidance. Even though their album addresses societal changes and the need for betterment; there is a strand of music and production that puts my mind on the streets of East London. I know there is a big Electronic and Soul vibe around those parts. The capital still plays a huge role in modern music. You cannot avoid all the musicians and developments happening in London. I will move on in a bit but I get the sense, when listening to Equals’ music, they are reflecting all the complexities and discussions one might experience. I am excited to see where Equals go and what sort of London gigs they can get this year. When 1997 is out (on 27th April); there will be demand and attention thrown their way. My mind is back in London and with a duo who have created something very much suited to the times we live in – much more inspiring and thought-provoking than any other album I have heard this year (from new musicians). We can never figure London out and assume we have it all nailed. There are so many different sounds and artists playing right now. I hate how it gets all of the attention and few media sources are unable to cast their mind away. What does bring me back in acts like Equals; guys who can create something wonderfully rich and busy.
I will talk about the duo as a whole but, when thinking about Omotayo; he has had quite a productive and impressive rise to prominence. I am interesting in artists who start from humble backgrounds and work their way through the ranks. Although Omotayo did had to start from modest starts; there are few who can claim to have sung backing for Amy Winehouse! Most artists do solo work and perform at open mics. Not many have the chance to perform alongside one of the biggest artists in the world. Even though Winehouse is gone; what she taught Omotayo is priceless. The Equals member was a backing singer for Winehouse through her entire career. That sort of relationship and experience must have been something special! Not only would he have learnt from one of the best Soul voices of our age; the gigs and experience of being on stage go straight into Equals’ work. It would have been amazing being a fly on the wall of Amy Winehouse’s dressing room. Those conversations and pre/post-gig chats; the sort of sensation she projected from the stage – the resonance and reaction from the crowd. The young Omotayo would have been agog at her power and prowess. That is not to say the young backing singer was overshadowed by Winehouse. His contribution was essential and pivotal in regards her success. What interests me is how many other artists he performed alongside. He has featured on records by Mark Ronson, Kindness and Quincy Jones. Recently, he toured with Gorillaz and has been a busy man! Those sorts of experiences have led him to where he is now. That high-profile experience cannot be underestimated at all. You can hear the confidence and sense of exploration in the work of Equals. Low, instead, had a slightly different path through the musical ranks. He has grafted hard and played with bands – including Submotion Orchestra (more on them later). The two members have combined their memories and attributes and, in Equals, crafted something sublime and affecting.
I am interesting charting the progress of artists and how they get to where they are. There is something about the way artists progress and grow that really compels me. In terms of solo artists and duos; the path might be very different to that of bands. If you are lucky enough to tour with other artists and get experience of working with them on the road; that is invaluable education you can bring to your own music. As I say; not many have been lucky enough to tour with someone as big as Amy Winehouse. In any case; you cannot discount the way those touring and performance experiences add to your own music. Looking at Equals and their members have taken what they learnt on the road; they have brought that into their own music and combined it with the artists they grew up around. I will talk about influences and artists one can hear in their sounds but, right now, a little more on working alongside other artists. Many artists, who create their own music, are inspired by their upbringing and music they grew up around. Those sounds can influence what you write and how you come across. I feel collaborating with others can add something special and original to your work. I am not saying artists who do not combine with others lack any difference and depth; those who have the extra layer and luck of performing alongside others are given some different ammunition and direction. Not only that, but there is that element of performance and seeing how an audience reacts. Equals’ members have combined their skills and collected times and added to the music we hear now. Because of that; 1997 is an album that bursts with life, different angles and colours. It is a rich and rewarding work that strikes the mind, heart and body. So much is happening in every line and song. That richness and sense of attraction come from artists and sounds who have influenced the duo.
The boys have said Solange’s A Seat at the Table and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly influenced their own album. Those might seem like lofty names to throw into the pot – the guys work with the bones of those records and create their own version of them. What they mean is both records combine skits/segues with raw and inspiring music. I love both albums but am especially fond of Lamar’s masterpiece. That mixes Jazz and Soul with essential Rap and Hip-Hop power. The album brims with political and social commentary; some superb spits and sublime couplets – all levied and guided by the singer’s incredible voice and command. Solange’s album is a more passionate, but no less raw, collection that reflects the world she lives in and the struggle of women and the black community. Both are albums from U.S. artists, recorded and released into a world where discrimination and discontent are at an all-time high. Here; we do not have the same prolific Soul and Hip-Hop artists as America. We do have masters in other genres but, when it comes to comparisons to Solange and Kendrick Lamar, we are a little bit light on the ground. It is rewarding, therefore, to see Equals emerge and create an album that puts one in mind of those U.S. leaders. The Equals guys concede they are not equal to the merits of those two titanic albums – they are doing themselves down a bit! – but they have confessed the way various styles and genres are united in a record; the fact there are spaces to create little spoken word things and skits; an open and broad canvas where they can explore the world around them – that is what they are talking about. It is fascinating looking at 1997 in the context of, say, To Pimp a Butterfly. I know we have social commentators in music, here, such as Shame and IDLES. They are bands who work more in the Punk realm. I have been looking around for something with the same urgency and impact – that has a more soulful and inventive edge.
Not only were Low and Omotayo worked through music and had a busy time of thing; they have managed to pull together some incredible collaborators and musicians for their album. 1997 has a very distinct set of guide notes – I shall come to in a bit – but the songs are brought richly off the page and into people’s minds. That is, for the most part, because of the duo and what they bring. There is another strands working away: the power and diversity of the guests that appear. Members of Submotion Orchestra and the Bonobo band bring in their sounds; Ghosttown and Loxe (producers) add something different – there are fascinating little diversions and rare sounds that come in when you least expect. It is understandable the guys would look to others to get their album together. The boys worked hard in the studio but, given the themes being explored and the intensity and passion one hears throughout; having other voices and ears in the album elevates the material and helps bring the songs to life. That is not to suggest Equals lose identity and are in the background. They are very much in the forefront and use their collaborators effectively and economically. I love how Equals have come from their different paths and joined together. Now, when creating 1997, they have brought in other artist and taken another big step. The boys are on peak form right now and created an album the modern world needs to experience. I will talk about their latest single and a song that has some very personal relevance to it but, before then; it is worth investigating and exposing the sort of ideas that go into their L.P.
What one notices, first, is that title. 1997 is an album that takes me back to a time when Labour came in and things seemed to be on the way up. I remember Radiohead brought out OK Computer and seemed to reflect that uncertainty of the current age; the hope of a new government and the need for improvement and change. Tony Blair came into government and promised big changes and progress in the country. The people needed it and, looking back, one wonders whether he made good on his promises. Now, in 2018, we are in the grip of a Tory government and a P.M., Theresa May, who seems to absent and ignorant. That shows my political colours (Labour) but she seems to represent the voices of the white middle-class. That is the way politics have developed since 1997. Our leaders are less concerned with the needs of the common citizen and representing everyone. I am not saying Blair’s government were more inclusive but there was not the same ignorance and sense of passiveness we see with the Tory incumbent. There was great hope and the sense of sea change when Blair swept in over twenty years ago. We wanted a seismic shift and a leader who could articulate the needs of the average member of the community. Government should be able to listening to everyone’s voice and fixing big problems we see. Instead, over the past twenty years, we have been in a quagmire and not being listened to. Blair delivered on some of his promises but his impact was not as strong and lasting as we could have hoped. A slew of Tory mistakes and selfish decisions have plunged us deeper into a quandary. Equals claim the scolding and fundamental basis for their album was the writing and teachings from Mark Fisher’s text, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. I am not familiar with it but know there are sage words and eye-opening truths that compelled the guys to create 1997.
The songs on the record, conversely, look at youth and modern energy with the fatigue and repeated blandness one sees on the high-street. Psalm for the Shadows looks at the way identikit streets are happening around us. One could say that is gentrification or the way people are becoming boring and samey. East London has more vibrancy and colour than most parts. We all know the provincial and bland areas of the country where you see the same shops and bars coming into view. There is no identity and sense of purpose and character at all. These demands, one feels, is because of the sort of people who move into these areas. People are becoming more gentrified and middle-class; the working-class population are not getting much of a say and, if anything, the young generation is becoming numb and accepting the boredom around them. Maybe that is the way the Internet and social media have gripped our lives; the fact we are communicating less and not as involved in political change and local development as we should be. There are endless T.V. remakes and cover versions of cover versions – both are reflected by Equals on the album. We are repeating things and getting stuck in this conveyer belt-like way of living. Instead of doing something new and ensuring our streets and cultural experiences are fresh, all-inclusive and interesting; it is a lot easy to toss off something lazy, quick and unambitious. Equals see this carbon copy society but know, ironically, we are never bored because we are always trying to better ourselves and stay active. All we have to show for this is exhaustion and depression. Maybe that is the way social media offers this synthetic reality and chance to ‘connect’ with people. Few of us are getting out into the world and refuting the lure of computers and the Internet. Modern life, more and more, is getting less physical and human.
We are remaking T.V. shows and music but are a youth-obsessed society. Perhaps we listen to older music and remake older T.V. programmes because we are harking back to a different time. Things were a little simpler and seemed less fraught and damaging twenty years ago. The Internet was around then but pre-dated streaming sites and the rise of social media. I look back at older music and prefer listening to it. That is not necessarily down to nostalgia and wanting to live in the past. Ironically, I feel older music sounds fresher and has that durable and incredible sound. We have great artists now but the fact we are remarking and repeating so much, inevitably, brings my (and many) mind back to the past. The guys have created an album that looks at British streets and the need for political change – casting its net to the wider world and changes we all need to see. These hard-hitting and eye-opening themes are wrapped up with quick beats and smooth vocals; some intense moments and interesting fusions. The guys have this studio meticulousness that reminds me of the likes of Steely Dan. I am not sure whether Equals listen to Steely Dan but the same way Walter Becker and Donald Fagen slaved and spent hours on songs make me think of the London duo. Even though the guys have worked tirelessly and spent a lot of time crafting the songs; nothing feels forced, exhausted and too polished. 1997 needs to get under the skin and provoke discussion. It is a record that, like the best of this year, goes beyond the personal and talks about something real and meaningful. I am all for love songs and that sort of thing but they are quite restrictive – it is not always easy to find sympathy with the writer. The guys have crafted something that is based in 2018 but looks back over the past twenty years. How far have we come? Are we are a stronger nation?! What has happened to the promises and sense of hope we were offered back in 1997?!
I mentioned how Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?) holds sway and personal weight for Equals. Low is a vociferous opponent to Brexit and avowedly against the separation from the E.U. Omotayo, with his Nigerian roots, has faced displacement and problems with immigration. One would think, therefore, their latest single attacks those who want us away from Europe. Instead of casting blame and going for the throats; the song is conciliatory and looks at reconciling divisions. The people who voted to leave the E.U. have more in common with the people who voted Remain – we all have more in common than the politicians who initiated the process. That is the heart of the song: the public is more connected and in-tune than those who make our decisions. Can one, therefore, blame the politicians for making an unwise decision; for dividing the nation and propagating lies and false promises?! Equals’ latest cut opens with woozy electronics and a warped and spacey blast. You get that head-spinning sense of what-if and possibility; it is a mix of sensual and physical with a more spiritual spirit. When Omotayo stepping to the microphone; he asks questions about what has happened and where we are heading. Everything we had before – a connection and community; a sense of purpose and future – seems to have been dissipated and crapped on. The frontman says we cannot go back and reclaim what we had. There is that aghast realisation and shock. The beats get heavier and the electronics vibrate. Our man was telling people they’d be okay and the country would be fine – before Brexit and when the result came in. Now, with the vote cast and that exit a year away; we are in a poor space and more fragmented than any time in recent memory. There is a real passion and upset in the lead’s voice; a sense of dizzy and trying to piece things together. Low adds a sonic backdrop that provokes memories of better days and how we have been attuned to this so-called ‘better’ state and stronger Britain.
The song moves on strongly and gets into the grove. That mantra (“What can I say?”) comes through and seems to represent the feelings of many people – shocked at what is happening and unable to get their minds around the concept and reality we have before us. The hero looks at those who have let us down and wondered if they are truly understanding of what we want and how we need to progress as a country. The accusations and anger are levied more at politicians and those who have messed up the transition – rather than the majority who want us to be free of the E.U. Burning eyes are on our man and it seems he is an alien in the community. The smooth tones and passionate delivery hides a sense of fear and isolation. He was once part of the neighbourhood and nation. Now, as a migrant and black man in the country; is his place secure? One gets impressions of Frank Ocean, James Blake and classic Soul voices when you hear Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?). It is a song that has a sense of bliss and sexuality (the vocals) but packs a powerful punch. The messages are stark and urgent; our man is looking around and curious whether he is part of a country he dreamed of living in – whose parents struggled and tried to make a better life for him. Now, this U.K., is not as united and great as it could be. Those people that are “going to let you down”, I guess, are those who make political decisions and the ones we voted for. We are all groping for betterment and a sense of preservation. Rather than living in a nation moving together and working for each other; there is a split that means the future is very unclear and fractured. The hero holds the line and does not want to attack the Leave voters too much – there is a sense of handing an olive branch to them. Those voters and migrants have more in common than they would imagine. The racist attacks we saw following the Brexit result is being highlighted and judged. Through everything is that need to bring people together and work – now we are leaving Europe – for a brighter future. In less than a year; things will change and the nation removes itself from the E.U. The hero wants people to get together and stop attacking one another. The vocals are sublime and potent whilst the compositional support drives the song and inspires visions and immense reaction. It is a wonderful partnership and conspiracy that brings the song to life. Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?) is a fantastic song that is as relevant and timely as it is sumptuous and passionate.
Following the release of the album; Equals are going to be busy touring and getting their music out there. The boys have already played some gigs around the country and have at least one more date before 27th of this month. They are excited about the album’s release and hope 1997 gets into the public psyche. I know they will get a big reaction and a lot of focus. I mentioned earlier how the social and political albums we have heard this year have been crafted by Punk and Rock bands. They bring a certain style and angle to the table. Now, with Equals, there is a new agenda and fresh angle. There is more depth and inventiveness; greater soul and an anger I have not heard in other albums. I think the duo were a little modest when they said the two albums that particularly inspired 1997 – A Seat at the Table and To Pimp a Butterfly – were far superior to their own work. I understand it is hard reaching the same heights as Solange and Kendrick Lamar but, if anything, the guys have created a British equivalent. One finds the same rich inventive spirit and openness we got with those records. 2018 has been hankering for something that speaks about issues and concerns we all have. James Low and Ade Omotayo have managed to do this and, in the process, singled themselves out as one of the finest forces in British music. I cannot wait to see where they go and how far they head. It is only a matter of time before they get U.S. gigs and their music is an international sensation! Lots of respect to the guys for 1997 and its fantastic (second) single, Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?). These are hard times for us all but, with Equals penning an album that provides as many answers as it raised questions; we have leaders who actually…
SPEAK for everyone.