Multi award winning British soul group Imagination have released hit after hit, over the past 30 years, such as Body Talk, Just An illusion, Flashback, Music and Lights, and Changes to name a few. This helped secure Imagination’s dominance over the charts in the 1980’s with their genre defying music not only in the UK but across the world with sales in excess of over 30 million albums.
LEEE JOHN was at the forefront of this group and in his own right has established himself as a leader in the entertainment industry; as singer, songwriter, performer, actor…
Imagination featuring LEEE JOHN “Retropia”, a new release, delivers a distinctive combination of soul, funk , jazz with a classic contemporary retro sound.
LEEE JOHN has written and co-written all the songs on the album except 3 classic cover songs.
30 YEARS – Do you remember the first moment you decided you would enter this crazy industry?
“I remember I was living in America, I was very young. My parents had split up. I auditioned for a company called World Wide Records and they signed me when I was about 11/12 years old. My father wasn’t the encouraging type and thought I should stay in school, but I recorded a few songs – I don’t know where they are to this day. It was a theatrical company where you also did drama and there was a record company involved. However, that was short lived and I came back to the UK with my mother and I still had this desire to be a musician. Myself and a friend formed a group and we got signed to EMI when we were 15 years old. So it was something that was destined. Even though we recorded a record that was a flop, we were treated like big stars with no hit record. But I felt I needed to learn more and learn my craft. I did sessions, started gigging, I needed to learn the trade. I wanted to be as big as the Motown acts. I loved going to live shows. That was one of the things that pushed me there.”
Over this time, you have written in and performed various genres; soul and funk being the obvious, then you moved to the jazz – which genre is you?
“I can’t really choose. I’m comfortable with Jazz, but I love Gospel… I can’t really say. Motown, funk, pop.. I can’t choose one. On a daily basis I listen to so much and am inspired by so much. I also embellish what ever makes my body and brain react. I wouldn’t say there is one blank canvas.”
You did some acting – if you had to choose, what would it be – music or acting?
“It would have to be the music, because I actually like to be behind the scenes. I’ve done my thought documentary; I’m on the Flashback documentary. I like the investigating, the research and infact if I wasn’t going to be a performer, I would be a journalist. I think with the music, it stays forever.”
So many hits – the industry has changed. How do you keep current but still maintain your style of music – how do you balance that?
“You check what is going out on the street – you know what’s going on in a sense, but you can’t be too predictable because by the time you’ve written it, things have changed. It evolves very quickly. You also have to follow your gut. A song is a song – if it is going to work it is going to work. With the ‘Do It Right Now’ song, I wanted to talk about going back, in the day. We also needed this positive message. We have to do it right now and stop putting things off. I used elements of today’s music to update it, but I didn’t record Retropia with any intention of it sounding like anything. I had just lost three important people in my life, and then had to go straight into studio. So it was quite devastating. I thought what would these people, who were close to me, be into. It was those grooves, the melodies… I had also spoken to so many people who were complaining about the industry and that there was nothing like it. Speaking to people gave me that idea.”
“I have collaborated with so many incredible musicians on this album; well known and lesser known. I wanted to show their abilities and that is what makes the harmonies beautiful, because it has elements of different musicians in it. That is what made Motown so incredible. We have to go back to basics, back to the origins.”
How have you adapted to the change in the industry – you can’t make money from record sales anymore?
“It is all about the Live performance. I keep performing all the time, in between all the projects. That is what has sustained me. I have performed in so many different countries and with so many different acts. In doing that, you are on the pulse. I am unique because I do so much.”
Are there any new artists who have caught your attention?
“There are. There is a guy in London called Labyrinth. He has gone to the States now. Lady Gaga is great. There are very few and far between. I base artists on their live show act.”
Anyone in SA?
“Nomfusi – she supported Lionel Richie. She played Miriam Makeba in the Mandela film. I have written a few songs for her. I am seeing a lot of new artists on TV, but they look like all the rappers in the States. I judge people on their originality. There is a lot of 80s and 90s imagery that is influencing everyone now. There is a tribal sound going on here.”
“I started doing the album and there were songs I started writing years ago, even in the mid 80s and I felt that it was time for them to breathe.”
“I wrote a lot of them with keyboard player Toby Baker and he kept asking when will they be on an album, and I kept thinking that it wasn’t the right time. We went to BMG and we took the same song, and recorded CLOSER, but didn’t use the song. We had a number 1 with ‘Instinctual’, and the track ‘Make Your Mind Up’ was still not used. I was making a solo album, my manager died in a car accident, and we were supposed to be signed as Imagination to Motown and that didn’t happen. I signed this album in the mid 90s, but this track was left off. I was then offered to do any album I wanted, so I did the Jazz album called ‘Feel my Soul’ and it was the biggest stepping stone in my life and it changed everything for me, because I developed a completely different audience. I ended up doing Imagination gigs and Jazz gigs, and there was a different appreciation, because I went back to the fundamentals of music.”
“So when I did this album now, I decided to take my time. I thought when it is ready, it will be ready. I was also nervous about it, because it was just me, and I was involved in everything. You have to rely on the business as well, not only to ride on the success of the product. Things are also evolving all the time. It is a different world digitally.”
What are you showing people now?
“The fans would know the songs, but couldn’t get them, so I decided now was the time for them to be on an album. Fantastic was a track I bootlegged years ago. But I never had it as an official track on any album at all. So when we did it again I got Rob Mullarkey, a heavy bass player, to play on many of the tracks – his bass is incredible.”
“On this album you are feeling the music – it is not just programmed. You are hearing the performance.”
“I call ‘Brighter Day’, my Michael Jackson track, because when my sister passed away, I was in the studio in Munich writing the song when I got the news that she was initially in hospital and we were hopeful she would get better. So I wrote the lyrics to inspire the mood of that day, that she was going to come through this and that we were all going to get through it. So brighter day has such a strong reference to my sister and what I went through. And I had it on the computer in a folder, after she passed and I kept it there and I wouldn’t look at it.”
“The original was much faster, but when I eventually did look at it, I felt the meaning of the lyrics needed to be slowed down. I wasn’t feeling what I had written. So it was a very musical album. I had just buried everyone and went into the studio and isolated myself. It was great therapy, so I used the album as a away to work through loss and hopefully it is an inspiration for those who have gone through loss or are going through loss.”
“I could sit back and remember those who passed without being distracted and the music helped me and gave me inspiration. Like on Hello/Goodbye and Brighter Day, there were these younger musicians, this quartet who I asked to play strings on those songs. Those things were important. It has given me more energy now. Now I can give advice and help people.”
“I have fallen back in love with the music, because I feel I am carrying this mantel, and there are a whole lot of people behind me, bringing this force back that needs to come back to the industry; music, melody.. we are bringing back music and entertainment.”
Find out more about Leee John on: http://www.leeejohn.com/