FiL Straughan

“If you are over the age of say twenty-five or thirty, who do you listen to? Who do you go back to when you want to listen to Soul music? And not even Soul music, just real singing real music. You’re listening to Bill Withers; you’re listening to Luther (Vandross), you’re listening to George Benson, you’re listening to Lionel (Richie), so you’re going back! There is no one presenting that now.” FiL Straughan

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The name FiL Straughan was first brought to the consciousness of the masses by Michael J Edwards and UK Vibe back in 2011. Increasingly praised by many for his stunning “Spirit of Luther Vandross” and personal album showcase performances across the globe, most notably at Shaka Zulu (one of London’s premier live venues and restaurants) , Mr Straughan has earned his stripes and is now on the cusp of transitioning to the premiership of music recording artists. Having met and conversed with two of Soul and Jazz music’s biggest entities, Aloe Blacc and Gregory Porter prior to the inevitable spotlight shining on their vocal and writing talents, Michael “The Dood” Edwards predicts “BIG THINGS” for FiL Straughan, the missing link in the “Real Emotive Soul Music” genre since the premature demise of Luther Vandross.

The Dood caught up with an effervescent, ebullient and sharply attired Mr Straughan to talk details on his current double album release, ”Conversations with Myself – Monologue & Dialogue” and chew the fat on exactly why the ‘time is now’ for the his music and his message.

The Dood: Mr FiL Straughan, It’s great to meet up with you again. You must still be buzzing after your recent album showcase at your favourite haunt, Shaka Zulu?

FiL Straughan: It was awesome, it was absolutely awesome. You were missed (laughs)

The Dood: Did you enjoy it?

FiL Straughan: I had a great time. We actually ran overtime, we did about three and a half hours of performing, and people stayed until the end. So it was well received, and it was a good night.

The Dood: And you road tested the new material of course. First off, congratulations, I believe are in order as I understand you are in talks with a major record label in America?

FiL Straughan: I haven’t been signed yet! Were working out the whole structure of the puzzle; the wheels are in motion.

The Dood: Do you feel as if your star is in the ascendancy at last?

FiL Straughan: I’ll say yes.

The Dood: Let’s start with one of your recent projects, “Conversations with Myself – Monologue and Dialogue.” And it is indeed a project. It consists of thirty-two tracks yes?

FiL Straughan: Correct.

The Dood: Prince would be proud; you had a lot to say. The highest compliment I can give this body of work is that it is the kind of album I hoped Luther Vandross would still be recording if he were alive. You seem to write with that same spirit?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

FiL Straughan: That’s very kind of you, that’s very nice of you to say. The biggest thing that I’ve taken away from Luther is the fact that he lived the lyric, he wasn’t singing just to sing. He was actually expressing himself through every word, every utterance that he made. And he lived the lyric, and that’s what I’ve taken away from him if anything.

The Dood: Why monologue and dialogue?

FiL Straughan: Monologue because in putting this project together; we had over one hundred and twenty songs and they all came very rapidly. I was having a lot of inner conversations with myself! (Laughs) We have to step back one level – The whole concept of the album is getting to a point in life or having an event in life that gives one the chance to reflect – past, present and future – The past being where we’ve been and what we’ve done with our time, the present being where we are and in relation to our peers and where we want to be, and then also the future, our bucket list of where we want to be and what we want to achieve with the time that we have left.

So that’s the whole concept of this album. Some people call it midnight crisis, some people call it the midlife crisis, some people call it a reckoning, and some people call it third eye opening. There are certain things in life that happen to us all that allow us to have that moment. So the songs are grouped into monologue and dialogue; the monologue being the more introspective – those conversations that are just with myself – and that dialogue those that can invite and involve others.

The Dood: That segues smoothly into my next question. There is a strong theme of introspection and reflection and self-discovery with tracks such as TLC, Fight, Please Myself, Discovery, Soul-Searching, Get My Happy Back, Love Me More – it’s as if you taking the journey into you. I believe “Journey into Me” is also a track from the monologue set, were you tempted to use that as the album title?

FiL Straughan: Yes, I was tempted to use that as the album title. Pretty much all of the instrumentation on the album is live, and that was one of the first ones we did with an upright bass. It gives the tracks a more jazzy, Big-Band feel, which is really cool – and then other conversations came along (laughs), and it was like, “Okay, today I’m feeling this!” you know.

The Dood: The other theme on this set seems to be one of hope and aspiration evident in such stress such as Who Are You, Carry on, Sunshine After The Rain, Best I Can Be, Time Heals All, Good Mood, Sweeter Every Day, Closure and Younger Me. Would you concur?

FiL Straughan: I would definitely concur!

The Dood: I the love Jazzy vibe and live instrumentation that permeates the set, “Sweeter Every Day” being a sublime example with its subtle muted trumpet. Where was the album recorded?

FiL Straughan: Some of it was done in New York; the bulk of it was done in London, South-East London.

The Dood: Any particular studio?

FiL Straughan: Asha Elfeniben’s studio, who plays keys also throughout the album – So most of it was recorded in his house; and then I built the studio in my home as well in the process of it all. So we did some of it in my house, and a lot of it in Asha’s and then some in New York.

The Dood: Given the Soul and Jazz scene today, where would you position your sound and style?

FiL Straughan: I would position my sound and my style, if I may be so bold, I would position myself somewhere between Aloe Blacc and someone like Gregory Porter. We’re talking pure, real, aesthetic, vintage, throwback, real sound, real singing. It is not necessarily auto tuned to make it sound like a voice, but actually bringing to the table a real soulful voice. There is I believe a triumvirate – there are three voices who are hitting the market now; one being Aloe (Blacc) and one being Gregory (Porter). He (Porter) caters to the more mature, the jazz, and the more refined. Aloe caters to the younger and then there’s me in the middle.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

One of the conversations that we had when we were out at the Label, which was absolutely amazing – was about the big big void. If you are over the age of say twenty-five or thirty, who do you listen to? Who do you go back to when you want to listen to good Soul music? And not even Soul music, just real singing real music. You’re listening to Bill Withers; you’re listening to Luther (Vandross), you’re listening to George Benson, you’re listening to Lionel (Richie), so you’re going back! There is no one presenting that now. I was told “This is music my mother could listen to… You are giving exactly what my mum would listen to.”

The Dood: The mums and the aunties?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

FiL Straughan: Yes, the mums, the aunties – those who run the world. It used to be that when you hit forty you were put out to pasture; that’s not the case anymore. So people are going out at forty, people are going out at fifty, people are going out at sixty – people are still listening to music, they’re viable.

The Dood: And they have disposable income?

FiL Straughan: Exactly! The kids are gone, they’ve got their own income, they purchase albums, they go to concerts and they support an artist; they don’t just download a song. So it’s a very different, different, different niche that is left there, and it’s wide open. Hence someone like me coming in, and doesn’t need that auto-tune to make me sound like I can sing…to actually fill that void. So that’s where I position myself, in that I adult/contemporary market.

The Dood: Many groups from the eighties are making a comeback now, such as Central Line and Beggar and Co; they’re all touring now. Moreover, the sound of Luther, they can still get that via the music of FiL Straughan.

FiL Straughan: One of the interesting things that has been said is that me and my music could be the love child of Seal and Luther – which is kind of cool, because when you think about it, Seal is coming from a more rock guitar UK base; and Luther was more R&B and came from a Soul/American R&B/gospel base. So I guess I’m a fusion of the two.

The Dood: The first single release from this album is “Carry On” which was inspired by your mother. I can hear my own mother’s voice encouraging me. Did your mother play a pivotal role in your career path?

FiL Straughan: Yes. Not only did she give birth to me (Laughs), but the lyrics of that song are very personal. I went to the Cornell University for architecture. I was one of only a handful of black students in my Ivy League university. I wanted to do more of music and I remember her saying, “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to commit and do it. I don’t want you to go and fail, I don’t want you to fall, I don’t want you to go and try, I want you to go and achieve.”

The Dood: So deep down music has always been your definite chief aim in life?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

FiL Straughan: From when I was two apparently I used to sing in front of the TV and entertain everyone in the house – that’s what I’m told I did when we used to go and visit people. My mum used to sing and she was like operatically trained and very very good. But when you’re a kid and you hear someone in church and it’s loud, you get really embarrassed and you don’t recognise the quality of it. She was a soprano and she was very good… So she was always encouraging, always leading and always guiding.

The Dood: Did any of your siblings follow you into the same industry?

FiL Straughan: Yes, my older brother plays drums, among other things. He actually has most recently been touring with Lester Clayton, opening up for Ed Sheeran.

The Dood: His name?

FiL Straughan: Steve Straughan. He played drums for Benjamin Zephaniah and he was with a group called Candidate with Phil Fearon before Phil left to become Phil Fearon and Galaxy. And then my other brother was a DJ for a period of time. The sisters dabbled in music also.

The Dood: What was the last track recorded for this project?

FiL Straughan: 3/24

The Dood: Was that the title for recording purposes?

FiL Straughan: That was the date it was recorded, March 24th and it turned into “Five Things”. So, “Five Things” was the last one.

The Dood: Over what period were the tracks written?

FiL Straughan: The bulk of it was done between May of last year (2013) and March of this year. As I said earlier there were over one hundred and twenty songs or more.

The Dood: Do songs come easily to you?

FiL Straughan: Yes!

The Dood: Is it the lyrics that come to you first or do you hear the melody in your head as well at the same time?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

FiL Straughan: I’ll take C) all of the above (laughs). I’m constantly writing titles… And then other things come, either a melody or a lyric. The phone helps, otherwise I will lose it or I will forget it.

The Dood: Which of the songs on this album are really personal and meaningful to you?

FiL Straughan: “I Take Control” is one “Who Are You Meant To Be” are very very special to me. “Love Me More” is very special to me, as is “TLC”. But I also love “Sweeter Every Day”.

The Dood: Did you use musicians from your previous albums on this album?

FiL Straughan: Yes, although I did use some different musicians, like Smiley, the drummer. The process was absolutely amazing! I would go into the studio and set with Asha, who plays with and for me a lot. We have a residency at the Park Plaza Hotel in Westminster Bridge, so we work together a lot. He is like a super genius! He is seriously a super genius! He used to work with PWL and do stuff like Sybil and Kylie (Minogue). We’d come up with ideas for a song while still working on the previous one. For example with, “The Zone” we were working on “Sweeter Every Day” and I was walking to the bathroom humming a melody. I came back exclaiming that we’ve got to get this down. So we put it down and it became “The Zone”.

We’d put down some chords, and then I’d send it off to Smiley, the drummer. He did nineteen songs on the first day! He sat there and recorded nineteen songs in one day and sent them back to us. We did the same thing with the guitarist and then did the same thing with the bass player. So none of them were in the actual studio with us, they were all off-site. But the most amazing thing was, I would send them the track and what they came back with was perfect for the track – It’s like it was so organic! It just spoke to everyone; I feel so humble.

The Dood: What are FiL Straughan’s short-term, medium-term and long-term goals?

FiL Straughan: Long-term, I intend to have a long-lasting career; and the big plan for my life is to make a difference through music, to bring joy through music. To have good health and long life, to able to inspire, to be able to touch – it would be nice to have a relationship there along with it all. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s bad, because you lose a relationship and you end up with a song like, “Closure”. That song was very deep to me. It works on so many different levels, from losing my mother to losing other family members, to relationships ending; it just cut through everything. And it cut through so much, that when Karen came to put the horns down on it, she was brought to tears, because it touched a nerve in her. You can feel when she plays.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: She plays the trumpet doesn’t she?

FiL Straughan: Yes, and it just came out (her emotions) and she was like, “I didn’t mean it!” And that’s what I mean, everyone felt the tracks.

The Dood: And your medium-term goals?

FiL Straughan: Medium-term goals tie into the long-term clearly as does the short-term; there is the ability to ascend, to be part of the upper echelon. That would be opening and working alongside people like Jill Scott, opening and working alongside people like Adele, opening and working alongside people like Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson. It’s not celebrity that I’m after, i’m after longevity. Yes there has to be money that comes as a by-product, but it allows for survival and preservation.

The Dood: If you provide a product or service that people need and/or want, you will always make money?

FiL Straughan: We hope so, because I’ve got to be able to preserve myself as well. I’m getting older and I’m going to the gym now because I have to! (Laughs) It costs money, I have to have a place to live – it costs money. I love singing at weddings, I love singing at private intimate events, I love making a difference for the bride and groom or at a bar mitzvah, or even at a funeral or wherever! It’s intimate, it’s real, and I don’t ever want to give up.

The Dood: It keeps you grounded?

FiL Straughan: It keeps me grounded and it’s what it’s all about. I did a wedding a few weeks ago in a small room and there was about forty or fifty people. I had no mic and sang the song and brought tears to mums eyes. And it wasn’t me, it was the moment, it was the song and the space. I feel very humbled and blessed to be able to share that. And I look at that and I say thank you – I DON’T want to give that up, it keeps it real.

The Dood: Short-term?

FiL Straughan: Short-term I want to write for people as well; write and collaborate with other artists. Because I don’t want to stop learning, I don’t want to stop growing. I’m one of those restless souls; I need to keep producing, I need to keep creating.

The Dood: Your advice for aspiring singer/songwriter with a dream?

FiL Straughan: One) be clear on what your dream is; what it is that you want. Two) be even clearer about why you want it. Three) be honest to that – and by that I mean if you want the celebrity, then that’s what you’re going to go after. That’s going to have a very, very different sincerity in the writing. That’s going to have a very, very different sincerity in the performance. Four) surround yourself with good people, people who see your dream and your vision, which means, going back to point One, you’ve got to have a dream and a vision. And Five) be willing to do whatever you have to do to achieve it.

The Dood: Within reason?

FiL Straughan: If you have to move halfway across the world, then that’s what you need to do!

The Dood: Pay your dues like the Jazz, Soul & Blues stalwarts of yesteryear – travelling through the night on a minibus from gig to gig, such as the Stax and Motown reviews.

FiL Straughan: Yep, Marvin Gaye and all of the Motown crew.

The Dood: What’s next on the horizon?

FiL Straughan: We have another project we’re working on called “Throwback”. It should be coming out in the summer. And the name “Throwback” simply says it all – The throwback album!

The Dood: As I said at the beginning, it’s good to see your star is now in the ascendancy, because I was there to witness your struggle and appreciate the road work you’ve put in to date. To quote a Luther Vandross song title, now is your time to “Shine!”

FiL Straughan: And you will continue to be there. You’re going to write the book!

Michael J Edwards

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Essential Albums: Conversations with myself – Monologue & Dialogue (CD 2014 – Out Now)
Throwback (CD – June 2014); FiL the Power (2012); FiL the SouL (2011); My Music Pt 1 (2008)

Essential Websites:
http://www.filstraughan.com/
http://www.shaka-zulu.com/

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

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