Nicolay’s new album “Soweto” grew from the experience of playing in South Africa
(extended version of an article published in Star News, with additional Q&A below)
By Brian Tucker
It was around 3 a.m. when Nicolay and his band The Foreign Exchange crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired, having played a sold out show only hours before for fans they didn’t know existed. The image of the lit up, multi-colored bridge remained in Nicolay’s mind while recording City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto.
“The moment I saw it I knew I wanted that to be the cover,” Nicolay said shortly before the album’s release June 9th. “We were staying outside of town and crossed that in the middle of the night. That was one of the things, an image that I kept thinking back about.”
Throughout the Soweto album’s artwork he wanted to incorporate the sense of dancing. Photography (shot by South African photographers) in the booklet reflects the nightlife and club life in Johannesburg.
“When we were working on the art I knew that was something I wanted to come back to. I really wanted to have the sense of people dancing. It’s been images and memories like that,” he said of the culture reflected in the music. “Once there, you’re immediately touched by it. We got someone locally to photograph the bridge. We reached out months after the album was done to friends we made there, gave some pointers about what to shoot. I wanted actual photographers do the work and especially by someone from over there I felt was only right.”
City Lights releases are an itch Nicolay scratches to be more experimental, more “out there” than records by his main project The Foreign Exchange that began a decade ago with Nicolay and Phonte Williams (Little Brother). The pair collaborated via the internet, emailing tracks back and forth to make songs, he in Netherlands and Williams in Raleigh.
Their process remains. For Soweto Nicolay composed music locally and Williams handled vocals in Raleigh.
“My own records are always smaller projects, test tubes for ideas we execute later.”
That should have FE fans curious about their next album. Soweto feels like sunshine giving way to night, beginning with the excitable “Tomorrow” and its 80’s synth heavy personality. The album doesn’t sound like South Africa, the influence is subtle, something Nicolay wanted. It’s more spiritual than literal, owing to the experience there and that sold out show.
“We’d never seen that kind of pandemonium, before or after. It was wild, Beatles-esque in that we couldn’t hear the entire two hours. The reception was as warm as you could imagine and it definitely played a part in doing a record. These people knew all of our music and we had no idea.”
Soweto began after FE’s Love in Flying Colors was done in 2013. South Africa helped puzzle pieces fall into place, especially given City Lights albums are inspired by a locale, a city or country.
“All of a sudden I realized that feel and intensity of the people there, and overall ambiance of South Africa. That was a moment where I thought, this is the influence I’m looking for. I’ve never really done literal reinterpretation of music. It’s not an album of me playing djimbe. This definitely has an upbeat feel, the very sunny feel I got from being there.”
There are no South African musicians on Soweto, only a friend from South Africa partially narrating the album, though the pulse of the culture persists. Ultimately, Soweto is Nicolay’s expression of his experiences and bringing them home. It’s not world music. It’s a danceable love letter to it all.
“I would never call myself a jazz musician. However, I take a lot from jazz, soak that up and spit it out in my way. With this music it’s very similar,” Nicolay said. “There was music there I listened to but very careful to not to take anything of that. Rather than me taking anything, it was much more a desire to give them something, how I looked at South Africa, Johannesburg, and Soweto specifically.”
He says the real dream would be returning and playing the album live.
“It may be a pipe dream. That’s the ultimate goal. I’ve given myself a year to pull it off, to go back there to show the people what they did to us.”
Did you just finish a mini tour?
Nicolay: We’ve been doing spot dates, mainly festivals. We did a lot of our heavy touring last year. This year we’re focusing on spot dates and festivals and opening up for bigger artists, to change the scenery, if you will. It’s The Foreign Exchange but we’re doing stuff off the new (Nicolay) album (City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto).
FE is in a lot of ways is the mothership and that there’s bunch of little satellites under it (other FE acts). We try to play one or two new songs that are from any project we have out. Last week we played a festival in Atlanta and got to play some of my new album. It’s a good way to cross promote and keep the set list fresh, which is pretty much fresh material every season.
Do you approach the set list differently for a festival versus club shows?
Nicolay: Oh yeah. It’s day and night. For one, a lot of the festivals you’re dealing with a time constraint. A lot of festival sets don’t allow you to get in more than 45 minutes to an hour. It really is, versus a club set where we go as far as two hours, it condenses into a ready-made package.
You may be inclined to play your hits quote unquote. You’re playing in front of an audience that’s not necessarily already aware of you. It depends. Sometimes you’re a headliner in front of fans and sometimes its festivals where you’re there to win new souls. We just want to present the catalog in the best way possible for those that may not have heard it.
How many people do you take out on tour?
Nicolay: It depends. Right now we’re seven on stage then there’s crew involved. We’re normally a traveling party of ten people or so, which is a really bad idea in every way shape or form. That’s one thing in the states, pretty efficient, but going overseas you’re starting with ten times a plane ticket. Europe, Japan, or Africa, then all of a sudden it’s a different ball game.
We’ve decided to do that regardless. Earlier in our career people used to try to convince us to leave people home or do a show from a tape. We’ve done that here and there coming up, and giving into pressure, but it’s always bitten us in the ass. So, we vowed early on that no matter what we’re at least going to look good. We may not make a bunch of money but look and sound the way we need to.
How soon did you start Vol. 3 after finishing the last Foreign Exchange album?
Nicolay: I started pretty much right after. It’s always a very grey area because some things overlap here and there. I had some of the foundation of it starting while we were on the road (last year) and I’ve been playing around with ideas for it. It wasn’t until we made the trip to Africa that a lot of the puzzle pieces fell into place and I knew what I wanted to do.
(City Lights), it’s a series of albums that to whatever degree are inspired by a locale, whether a city or country. I really didn’t know where I was going to go with it and I’ve always left it up to chance. For this album I didn’t know where to take it and then we went to Africa. It was another one of those moments where all of a sudden I realized that kind of feel and the intensity of the people there and the overall ambiance of South Africa. It was my first time there. It hit me in a way that I was more than aware of.
That was really a moment where I thought, this is the influence I’m looking for. Not literally, because I’ve never really done literal reinterpretation of music. It’s not like an album of me playing djimbe, it’s always been much more subtle. This definitely has an up beat feel, the very sunny feel, I got from being there that I wanted to feel the record.
There are songs where you feel cultural impact underneath.
Nicolay: That’s exactly what I was going for, something not very obvious but present, I think more than anything it’s the drums in which I think you hear the influence. For me, I took that as a challenge almost to do a lot with drums and percussion specifically. I think for this album I spent a lot of time on the feel of drums and overall drum sound.
It’s something that I always, especially when I did the second City Lights album (Vol. 2: Shibuya), that I took such a specific location and tried to write music specifically for that. This time I think I’ve gotten a little better in the sense that I know better how to take the influences and pull them into what I do.
It’s not a literal interpretation of that culture, it’s your interpretation.
Nicolay: There was a lot of music over there that I listened to and was into, but very careful to not to want to take anything of that, more than anything. Just come out of there, and have a mentality of what is great about that and making it mine. To me, its was much more, rather than me taking anything it was much more a desire to give them something which I guess is how I looked at South Africa, Johannesburg and Soweto specifically. If anything, it’s a love letter.
It feels like a love letter, it’s not like you went there to make Graceland. And no offense intended to that album.
Nicolay: (Laughs) It’s funny you say that. Phonte, my partner, kept saying as long as you don’t do Graceland….I mean, I love the record Graceland. I wouldn’t want to cite that as an example of somebody that was culturally appropriating something. I remember at the time, because my mom was a big fan, but there was a lot of controversy about it. I think as an idea it was a great idea.
I think what we know now in 2015, with apartheid behind us and just the changes we have seen, (Paul Simon) wasn’t looking through those lenses. We can, so its interesting visiting south Africa and realize just how much its different than when I was hearing about it as a kid, the height of apartheid and Mandela in prison.
What do you remember about them reacting to you playing your music?
Nicolay: It was absolutely insane. We were not ready for it. The short story is, we knew we had a fan base in South Africa, we had always been told that, but you take it with a grain of salt. I thought my thoughts about that and when the actual possibly came up about going over there, which was a huge undertaking, you’re talking about two grand per ticket. Before we’re doing anything that’s twenty grand being spent. It’s very difficult, but we kept getting all these signals that this was going to work.
When we did the first show at Johannesburg it was 1200 people there, sold out. The reception was as warm you could imagine it and it definitely played a part in doing a record. These people knew all of our music and we had no idea. Even when they do know us, playing in the States it’s so easy, every thing we do is a cultural reference, a very American thing, especially with Phonte our vocalist, he’s part Richard Pryor and he’s a very American artist.
Sometimes when we go overseas a lot of that goes over their head. For instance we’ll play in France and they’ll love the music but not understand a word of what you’re saying. It’s a weird experience playing because it’s like yelling in the wind. The same was in South Africa. Even though a lot of them know English they didn’t understand stage banter but hear a song and explode. Playing internationally it’s always a different set if circumstances.
When did FE play in Soweto?
Nicolay: We were there May 31, 2014 for the Johannesburg show and two days later we played Cape Town. I think I started pretty much right after. We stayed out on the road for most of last year. I’ve been working on it off and on but it’s been more or less a year that I’ve been working on it. We did the most that we’d ever done and we felt it too.
We tried to push as much as we could last year. The live element has become for us important if not the most important part of our operation, because people can still not download going to a show. So our live show has become our bread and butter for sure.
Did you capture anything there for the album?
Nicolay: No, we did not. But there is a narrator that you’ll hear on the album, which is a friend of ours. The way people speak in South Africa is very specific, very pronounced, the way they speak English. It’s a very interesting and charming accent and we knew we wanted somebody to narrate here and there throughout the album. That’s how we brought that real element to it, not through field recordings but someone in Johannesburg kind of walking around talking and being recorded.
Did you record most of the instruments in Raleigh or ILM?
Nicolay: I did most of the music here. The vocals were all done in Raleigh, some I’m there for, some I’m not. Phonte, he really takes care of the bulk of the vocal sessions. At this point it’s an enterprise where I’m doing my part when he’s doing his part, almost at the same time to be as efficient a possible. We’re almost a machine at this point.
Just like the old days emailing?
Nicolay: Yeah, yeah, yeah. At this point we’re using WeTransfer, where you send bigger files that way. We still do it that way. I think we are one of those acts where we are the generation of bedroom producers and I think in a lot of ways have wanted to stay that way even when opportunities grow beyond that. We made that choice to stay grounded as a home studio, the bedroom producer world because ultimately that’s what we belong to.
Do City Lights albums offer you a chance to breathe between FE albums?
Nicolay: It very much is. In the sense that it’s not something that we’re always super deliberate about. However, on a very basic level it’s just the effect of me having to do all the music. We’re always trying each project its own space and not flood the marketplace. The City Lights releases are really the itch that I scratch to be more experimental, more out there than on a FE record.
It’s something I come back to very now and then just to do my own thing. Once I’ve gotten rid of those wild hairs I come back to the group. My own records are always smaller projects, test tubes for ideas that we execute later for The Foreign Exchange. For the last FE album the Shibuya was kind of a starting point for its sound.
Will you tour behind City Lights on your own?
Nicolay: I know at some point I’ll want to tour on it, probably something again with my friends in the Hot at Nights. They’re my go-to experimental buddies when it comes to music. I really think the music would be great performed live. My ultimate dream is to go back to South Africa, which may be a pipe dream. That’s the ultimate goal and I’ve given myself a year to pull it off, to go back there to show people what they did to us.
Soweto full playlist:
Shibuya full playlist: