Lemar: 'Ever since I was a teenager I’ve been told I’m an old soul in the way I view things'

It’s now more than 21 years since Lemar Obika, a young bank worker from Tottenham, north London, impressed Motown legend Lionel Richie while duetting with him in the final of the BBC talent show Fame Academy.

The contest itself might have been short-lived, eclipsed by ITV’s more glitzy rival Pop Idol, but Lemar himself went on to considerable success, selling more than two million albums and scoring seven top 10 singles, as well as winning Brit Awards and three MOBOs.

Last year he embarked on a string of concerts to celebrate his two decades in music and found he enjoyed the intimacy of playing in theatres so much that he’s added new dates this spring. “I’m looking forward to it,” says the singer songwriter who turns 46 two days before he plays at Leeds City Varieties this Saturday. “I’m trying to get up close and personal with the fans, but also a bit more intimate with my story as well. So apart from good music, the fans will get to know me on a slightly different level.”

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He admits to feeling tentative when the intial run of shows was announced, but selling out venues revived his confidence and each night proved an “amazing” experience, he says. “I thought, ‘Do you know what, what’s better than one birthday? A birthday week’, so I thought let’s try to extend it.”

Playing in smaller, relaxed settings should afford him chance for some reminscing, Lemar hopes. “That’s the joy of this part of my career,” he says. “When you start off you hope for a song or maybe two songs that people know. The nice thing about having seven or eight albums (worth of material) is there are many moments and many memories that can be recalled for the fans that do know me. I released an album (last year), Page of My Heart, so people who are just getting introduced to me there’s a bit of that as well. There will definitely be a lot of reminscing.”

Lesser performed songs such as Lullaby, Weight of the World and If She Knew “went down a storm” on the last tour, he recalls. “I made me remember that on albums there’s the songs that were in the top 10 but there are hidden gems that show that people have listened to the albums and attached deeper meanings. The amount of times that people have come up to me and said ‘I buried my father to this’ or ‘I gave birth to this song and I’ve played it every year since to my kid and they know you through that’ and they’re not usually the singles, they’re usually one or two songs that are hidden away on the albums.”

There are, he says, personal attachments to every song he’s recorded. “I’m very fortunate that over the years I’ve played an instrumental part in the writing of my albums, probably the current album even more so because during Covid I wasn’t really interacting with people so I did nearly all the writing on the album,” he says. “It’s funny if I watch a video now you’re taken back to when you made it or when you hear one of your own songs like If There’s Any Justice or 50/50 or Dance With You or Your Face – I wrote that one for my mother when she passed – so there’s always something that transports you to the moment when you were writing that song and the emotion that you had at the time. As a writer and as a performer that’s a nice part of the job, so to speak.”

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Lemar is self-effacing about the long gap between his 2015 covers album The Letter and Page in My Heart, saying: “I thought I only went to put the bins out and it turned out it was eight years… (but) I counted it on my fingers and apparently it is.” Back in the day, he’d be releasing an album a year. “That gap does allow a bit of nerves and a bit of hesitation to come in,” he says. “So I wouldn’t say I was jumping at the chance to release the album, I did want people to hear the music, but definitely there were more nerves involved with this process this time round.”

Singer Lemar is celebrating more than 20 years in music.Singer Lemar is celebrating more than 20 years in music.
Singer Lemar is celebrating more than 20 years in music.

Having two young children made him want to take a break from the cycle of albums and tours, he says. He also wanted to take stock.

“Doing an album every year it’s not necessarily easy, you’re extremely busy because when you’re not performing or promoting you’re writing the album, which is 60 or 70 songs, you’re out of the country and then you come back and you’re on the promo wagon again. It is very easy to get burnt out creatively,” he says. “Like anything in life, even relationships, it’s good to step back sometimes and take stock, be happy with what you’ve done and also just take a breather to rejuvenate yourself, so that’s what I did.

“During that time I was still working. I was writings songs, I set up a company that does music for TV and film, I dabbled in a bit of tech as well, so there was a a number of thinsg I was doing, and I was writing for other artists as well, but I just thought for me as the product, let me just step back a bit and try to step into the family role a little bit. But it’s always at the back of your mind, you love the stage, the stage is like the completion of the circle. You write a song and it’s lovely but it’s never going to be quite as lovely as when you then get in front of people and get that exchange. I think that’s the most honest exchange in the music industry: getting on the stage, performing and they receive it immediately, that exchange is untouchable.”

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He says he found writing songs for others “more liberating than doing it for yourself”, adding: “They say you have your whole life to write your first album and then you have about six months for everything after that, so the freedom with which you write your first album is unmatchable because you’re just writing, you don’t know whether people are going to like it, there’s no point of reference for you or for other people, but once there is a point of reference – for me it was Dance With You or Justice – then you’re for ever making sure that you meet up to that standard and you fall into the category that people like you for.

“When you write for other people you’re just writing again and if they like it they like it, and if they don’t maybe someone else will like it, so there is a nice freedom that comes with that. Also when they like it enough to release it that’s an amazing thing as well. The first one that got out I think was New Kids on the Block, they took one of my songs, Remix (I Like The), I wrote that with Deekay (the Danish production team), who I’ve written with before. It’s nice to stand back and see it happen from a distance, then they made a video and it was released as a single.”

The contemporary sound of Page of My Heart reflect’s Lemar’s belief in the need to keep abreast of current musical trends. “The challenge that any artist has is spanning time,” he says. “When you’re 17, 18, 19, 20 and you’re out every night it’s very easy to be in the moment because (that’s how) you’re living life. As you get a bit older you’re a bit more reflective, you’re a bit more forward-thinking, you’re a bit more wholesome with your thoughts and your views, you’re less in the moment in the same way, so it is a bit more of a challenge to embrace what you do like and then not sound like you missed the mark.

“With me, I really did want to try to make it contemporary enough for the new listener today to say, ‘Do you know what, that voice is enough and I like that writing but it’s in a package that I can relate to’ and also still speak to the me that likes a bit of soul and a bit of meaning in the lyrics. That was the challenge, but thankfully I was just equal to it.”

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The album focuses on relationships, both in Lemar’s own life and with his fans. It’s something he says he has been reflecting on in his mid-forties. “Ever since I was a young teenager I’ve been told I’m an old soul in the way I view things and see things,” he explains. “I’ve always been into people’s minds, why people do things and why they behave a certain way and what they’re going through, and I think that lends itself to me as a writer. Definitely during the process of this album I dug a bit deeper into what I’ve been through, but also I think because of social media, which is a massive change from when I first started, you do have a slightly closer connection with fans as well.

“Over the years the fans who’ve been there from day one to message on Instagram or Twitter and you can respond, you do have more of an interaction, so you know what’s going on in their lives as well and you start drawing parallels. You start to see everyone is roughly going through the same thing just at different moments in time – a bit of heartbreak, a bit of happiness, a bit of loneliness. Everyone wants similar things and is going through similar things, it’s just the timing’s off. So you put that into your writing and you draw parallels. You might get a little bit of your story, a little bit of their story and hopefully they can all relate to it.”

Lemar plays at Leeds City Varieties on Saturday April 6. https://www.lemar-online.com/

He will also be special guest of JLS at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on Thursday July 11. https://www.scarboroughopenairtheatre.com/jls