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Interview: Lemar opens up about returning to music and celebrating 20 years of his debut album

Lemar first rose to fame when he competed on BBC reality series ‘Fame Academy’ back in 2002 after trying to make it in the music industry for years.

While he didn’t win the show, he went on to sign a record deal with RCA and his debut album ‘Dedicated’, released in 2003, paved the way for him to become one of the biggest UK talents in the industry. Notching up hits such as ‘Dance With U’ and ‘If There’s Any Justice’, Lemar has made his mark thanks to his distinctive soulful voice and his abilities as a songwriter.

Eight years on from the release of his last album ‘The Letter’, Lemar is back with new studio album ‘Page in My Heart’, which will be released this Friday (24th March 2023). I caught up with Lemar to talk about his break from music, find out about the new album and to reflect on the 20th anniversary of his debut album ‘Dedicated’…

Your new album ‘Page in My Heart’ is coming out this week. There’s been quite a gap between this album and your last one. What’s been happening for you during that time?

Between the last album and this, I’ve done quite a bit of stuff of. Family, obviously, I’ve been focusing on that. I’ve been doing a bit of acting as well. I filmed a movie with Sky Cinema last year with Jamelia and some other really talented kids playing family members. It was an adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s book ‘Little Darlings’. I did few other bits as well, some bits on Netflix and the BBC coming out this year, which I’m not allowed to talk about now. (I did) a lot of music writing as well; writing music for other artists and for TV and for film. I thought I’ve got quite a few songs now so let me use some of them and get back to the fans.

The album as a whole has an 80s influence running through it and it’s anchored by two ballads. Tell me about your approach to making this record…

With this one, it was written over the space of quite a few years. It’s been 11 years since I’ve released new material and during that time I was writing quite a bit but it was for other projects. While I was doing that, every so often I stumbled across a song where I thought, ‘do you know what? This is definitely mine’ but I wasn’t necessarily ready to put out an album so I just put it to one side and carried on. After quite a few years of that, I had five or six songs – a few of those ballads that you mentioned – sitting there, and I thought ‘I’d really like to get these out to the people’. Last year, I decided to really knuckle down and try and finish off the rest of the album, and get some songs that I thought would make it a well rounded piece.

Lemar - Page in My Heart
Credit: AMP

It’s interesting that you wrote it over several years because the album is so cohesive and the sequencing feels very intentional. The songs flow so well into one another and then every so often the record takes you in a different direction with a ballad like ‘Take Care’. I feel that song is a real focal point on the record. Tell me a little bit about that one…

Thank you very much. For me, it’s the same. I had that song, for probably three to four years. It’s quite a personal song but when I recorded it I thought it was definitely a keeper. I tried to change it into different formats. I tried different producers on it but the demo basically won out in the end so what’s on the record is the demo that I recorded with Nick Tsang who wrote the song with me. It’s just a very honest song and I think a song that anyone who’s been in any type of longtime relationship will definitely be able to relate to.

‘Future Love’ has been the focus track for this project. Why did you think that was the right song to launch the record?

I just wanted to launch the record with something light-hearted. Everyone’s had a hard couple of years and I wanted to come out a bit light-hearted and upbeat. This year is 20 years since my first album ‘Dedicated’. That album started with ‘Dance With U’ (so I thought) let’s start on the up with this one as well. It’s a bit 80s, a bit Chaka, a bit Luther a bit Michael Jackson… just uplifting and something light-hearted for anyone who’s at the flirtatious stage of love.

It flows so well from ‘Glorious’ on the record, which has a bit of a Bee Gees influence in there. What’s the story behind that song?

Thank you. In my mind, that was a big reference point. I really wanted to stack the harmonies in that way and make it a very playful piece. Originally I did all the vocals on it and I was looking for the right female voice to play the counteracting parts to me. Jessica Agombar, she’s a very big writer who has written for BTS, Shania Twain and I think she did the Olly Murs record, it was just before she had a hit with BTS actually, I got her around to the studio and I said, ‘would you lay a vocal for me?’ She did and obviously things took off for after that. I asked her, ‘can I leave the vocals on it?’ and she was like, ‘definitely Lemar leave it on there’. I like that track.

You mentioned that it’s been 20 years since ‘Dedicated’, which I can’t honestly believe. That album was the start of fantastic things for you. How do you feel about it now?

I’ve got a lot of fond memories attached to that album. It just feels crazy. You get on with life and you just do what you do. You perform and you do normal life stuff, then you blink and time has passed by. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of fond memories of that time, of the album and of that period. It launched a whole series of events for me. I’m just happy that I’m still able to release something that people still appreciate and I’m able to get on stage and celebrate that record as well.

With ‘Dedicated’, and the albums that came after, you really flipped the script for the public’s perception of what an artist looks like that comes from a reality TV show such as ‘Fame Academy’. Your voice is instantly recognisable and you know it’s you the minute you hear it on the radio. How do you feel about your part in that?

Thank you very much. Sometimes, whatever we do in life we don’t realise that we’re, we’re creating memories, and we’re influencing things at the time. I was just literally trying to put my best foot forward trying to straddle the line between what a record label wants and what I wanted to do. Luckily, I had some some cool people around me that guided me in the right way and I just kept on trying to write songs and sing songs that I thought represented me well. Lucky for me, the people that heard it went out and bought it. For me, it was a bit of luck involved but I just tried to make sure that I stayed on top of what I could control, which was my voice and my songwriting, and so far, so good.

Those were the two things that set the album apart. You weren’t handed an album to recorded straight after ‘Fame Academy’, you wrote it yourself and people saw you as an artist. Was that important for you to come off a platform like that and prove yourself?

Oh, definitely. People’s only reference point is when they first see you, but obviously there was a lot going on before that. For eight years, I was trying to get into music and it wasn’t happening so for me (with) that opportunity it really was important for me to try and stamp home that I can sing and I can write. I think maybe that is why over the years, whatever fans are there have been able to stay with me and connect with me because I’ve had some kind of input throughout on every record so maybe there’s a consistency there in that way.

In April you’ve got some live shows to celebrate 20 years of ‘Dedicated’ and I assume we’ll get some new material too. What can fans expect?

Yes, I’ve put in a few new songs but I’m definitely going to be reminiscing on the first album, and subsequent albums and songs. I just want to make sure I bring the right energy. I’m definitely going to be on stage with a full band. We’re not on stage as frequently as we would like so I’m trying to rectify that this year. I’m really, really, really looking forward to it. Manchester O2 Ritz on the 27th fan and Indigo at The O2 on the 28th. I’m really, really happy to be back on stage.

When you have as many hits and songs to choose from as you do, how do you even go about selecting a setlist?

I was speaking to my MD yesterday, because I’m beginning to narrow down some kind of list. When you first start out on the first album, you’re looking to sing maybe the two or three songs that the people know and then hoping that you can entertain them for the rest of the hour. It’s nice to be at a stage where if you just do your hits, you’ve covered most of the time so then it’s really a case of what you take out and what won’t offend the audience if you don’t sing it. I’m going to try and pack it with as many songs as people know and one or two of the new ones as well.

Credit: AMP

We’ve mentioned the 20 year anniversary of ‘Dedicated’ a lot in this conversation and to survive in the music industry for that long is no easy task. It’s not all sunshine and roses like people think. How do you keep things fresh and engaged 20 years on?

Do you know what? The break helps! (laughs) When I was with Sony, then after I did my own label and then I was with BMG… it was fine but it really is back-to-back and full on. Nowadays we have a call like this via Zoom but back in the day there was a lot of traveling going on. A lot of hotels and a lot of TV shows and performances on TV shows. They were like ten a penny, there were loads. It was very exhausting. I think it’s always good to step back a bit sometimes and live life a little because then it gives you more to write about. It makes you more relatable because the more you do everyday day-to-day stuff, everyone else is doing the same, so you write things that are more relatable. I think if you’re on a jet every day, and you’re flying around the world every day, and you start writing about that, there can be a bit of a rift that happens. I think it’s important every so often to step back and just regroup and look at things and appreciate things and go again.

The charts have totally changed during your time in the industry too. One-hit wonders dominate the singles charts and legacy artists are selling albums. How do you define success as an artist now?

It is hugely different. It really is hugely different. For me success is releasing an album, still just doing what I love and getting on stage. Having conversations like this where someone appreciates your music and talking to fans and knowing that someone used a song at their wedding or at someone’s funeral or the birth of their first child. That for me is success because it’s about the art and getting the art out there and hoping that it connects with someone. As long as it connects with someone, to me, that’s a win. Things are just really fast now.  There’s much more content out there, so it’s a little hard to grab people’s attention unless your in their face all the time. There’s an art to it, there’s loads of people winning at it as well but it is definitely a different approach.

As you mentioned you used to be on TV performing all the time but those opportunities don’t seem to be there now. I think that’s really sad…

I feel the same. Things will evolve how they evolve but I do think everyone likes a bit of music, right? It’s such an intrinsic part of everyone’s day, whether we know it or not. Even somewhere in the background, at some point in the day for everyone, there is music playing whether you’re on the bus, whether you’re in a car, on the train or whatever – something’s playing somewhere. On TV, it’s definitely less than it used to be in terms of performances. I don’t have the stats but I guess they have stats (so) they know when people are engaged and when they aren’t. Maybe it seems that way because we’re more on our phones now and maybe there’s a lot more content, a lot more music and what we individually like on the phones so it’s less obvious in a more public way. I guess the radio is still the staple place but on TV lesser.

It can be difficult to discover music now too because we have so much of it at our fingertips…

Before, I think if you heard a song on a radio and then you went to a shop, it’s your choice, it’s your decision as to what you pick up. Whereas nowadays if you hear something or you like something, an algorithm then thinks that’s all you want to like and then sends you a bunch of (similar) stuff. The choice as much as it’s yours, is not really yours in the same way as it used to be.

The radio is still an important place and it’s somewhere that you’ve had a lot of support from over the years…

Yeah, definitely. You’ve got to appreciate the stations and the support, wherever it comes from to be fair, but the support definitely on each record has been there in bundles for me, so I’m very happy about that.

Which song from your career are you proudest of and why?

Oh, wow. There’s a lot of songs (laughs). Which one? I thought I’d been asked every question but this is a new one for me. In my entire career… probably… (thinks) there’s a song on one of my albums, called ‘Your Face’ and it was about my mum. She passed a couple of weeks before my first single was released so she never really got to see the entire thing. There’s obvious ones like ‘If There’s Any Justice’, ‘What About Love?’ and ’50/50′. I do love those tracks a lot but on a personal level, probably ‘Your Face’.

Lemar’s new album ‘Page in My Heart’ is released on Friday 24th March 2023 by AMP. Watch the video for ‘Future Love’ below:

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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