As a celebration of their over three decades of music-making, Sony Music UK has just released "Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination," a collection of the pop/soul group's biggest hits along with two brand new tracks. Lead singer and co-songwriter Leee John shares with Paula Hartley of Digital Rebel (on behalf of SoulMusic.com) about the project, a hectic touring schedule and more...
Paula: Okay. So, Lee, this is for SoulMusic.com. The first question is how do you feel about having been involved in the music industry for over four decades? Is that right?
Leee: Is it four decades? 1981 to 1992 to 2000…
Paula: Someone’s math’s not working there.
Leee: No, yes, exactly, three decades. Yes, exactly. God. We’re nearly through this one. It’s amazing because it’s gone so fast, so quickly and everything’s changed drastically. We were very much in an analogue, very organic state and now everything’s digital and it’s just like going through times. It’s like something you’d see in the Jetsons cartoon, from being the Flintstones to the Jetsons. It’s just amazing. Even in the ‘80s, things were changing, even when we were recording and using equipment and stuff. Things were just like, every year, every month there’s something new coming about. So, it’s just amazing and what’s interesting is that people still love the music, even up ‘til now.
Paula: Fantastic. So, other than the two new tracks, all of the tracks on the compilation have been available before. So, what’s the reasoning behind doing this, the ‘Very Best’ package now?
Leee: Well, THE VERY BEST OF IMAGINATION, it’s over 30 years, it’s about bloody time. And, I’m doing the tour, which starts October the 20th in the UK. The dates are all online, so everybody can go online and check them out, www.Leeejohn.com or they can go on my Facebook page or on the Imagination page, which Sony has kindly put up with all the dates. And I do so much work in Europe and all over the place that everybody, all my friends, all the fans here were kind of starved with it and I was doing the music festivals, actually as a matter of fact, I was doing festivals every month the last year, all summer. So, it was great and I think the timing is right.
I think since, for example, with Nile Rodgers and Daft Punk, that’s kind of built up quite a bit, people are going back to that sound and I think the Imagination sound, which is so special and it contributed a great deal and it was UK-based. So, I think it’s important. Plus, because I’m doing this film, which I’m producing, Flashback, a documentary, a history of UK black music, I think everything, as I say, is apt.
Paula: Okay. Fantastic. So, tell us about the two new tracks, when they were recorded, and what they are?
Leee: The first one’s called “The Truth” and “The Truth” I’ve been doing for quite a long time. I wrote it many, many years ago. It’s quite a serious track. It’s kind of biographical. I think people identify with the lyrics because it’s about going through the hardship and seeing the light, in a sense, and also wanting people to see that ‘it’s you I need.’
… It kind of goes into a gospel kind of outro and I spent time recording it last year. I did it through a few different ways. I recorded it acoustically, which is available actually in a free download. Also, I did it in a studio where we filmed the making of it with some live musicians. That didn’t work out so good because the way it was recorded, and then I had to do it again. So, it was like, ‘wow, this truth is becoming like non-truth!’ So, by the time I finished that, I wanted to do something a little bit saucier. Going back to the old style, going back to the kind of’ 80s kind of retro feel.
That’s how [the second new track] “Krash” came up. It wasn’t until February of this year that we really decided, ‘let’s put it on the greatest hits’ because everybody listened to it and thought, ‘wow, this is crazy. You’ve got to put this on the album.’
It was out of my hands. It was like, ‘wow, we want “Krash”. So, and “Krash” is fun. ‘“Krash” is a combination of the heyday of Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris and Rome, all my homes.
Paula: Do you have a home in each city?
Leee: No, no, no, no. I’ve got places in St. Lucia and in Spain and London, but it was kind of a reflection of what you see in the MTV Videos and a compilation of the fun we all have and you just want to Krash. It doesn’t mean Krash out, Krash up and Krash and enjoy yourself.
Paula: So, it’s very upbeat? Very sort of vibrant sound?
Leee: Oh definitely. Definitely.
Paula: Fantastic. So, Imagination’s hits still remain memorable as part of the’ 80s music scene. Why do you think this is? Why has it always been?
Leee: Someone asked me the same question actually. Yesterday, I was doing another interview and I said, when we were writing them, we weren’t writing them like normal pop songs. We were writing them [and] they were quite youthful experiences. I was a kid when we were doing them. So, “Body Talk” was like, I was going through all my young anxieties.
Paula: How old were you at the time?
Leee: I don’t do age, only champagne! No, I was in my late teens. With “Body Talk”, it was a very important and pivotal point in my life because, obviously, it was a first hit single and, as we gravitated and by the end of that year, we’d written “Flashback”, which was also a hit and “In and Out of Love”, which was also a hit.
It was kind of biographical in the way we were writing them because, there’s a content in each track that we can identify with. It was a personal thing. With the classic-ness, that goes down to a combination of the vocals, the arrangements, the lyrics and also the bass. We had a very familiar sounding bass, and just how it was all recorded. It was very organically done and I think that gave it its originality, but there were a lot of other artists in the ‘80s that were also original. I think when we first did Top of the Pops, every artist on there was different. So, I think that kind of kept our legacy going, plus the fact of our outrageous costumes in the early days and stuff.
Paula: Yes, it was very flamboyant.
Leee: Flamboyant all the way! We need that.
Paula: Yeah, it’s exciting and fun.
Leee: Exactly. It’s kind of lax today.
Paula: Yeah, I think so. Okay, so basically your hits are considered classics. Did you have any idea that they would endure?
Leee: No. That was another question I was asked yesterday. Somebody asked me, there was a joke actually. Rick Astley said to me, ‘ did you write them because you thought, yeah, okay, that will be really great?’ Because basically, “Body Talk” has been used on a load of films. “Illusion” was used on the recent Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor film and FX and “Flashback” is used for sport, when they’re going back on stuff, they use it a lot. “Body Talk” for exercise, and magicians use “Illusion” a lot for their acts. So, he said, ‘you wrote it because you think, oh that would be great, magicians can use this and all that?’ No way, no one would even know, that was the farthest thing. It’s amazing that such innocence of what we did has become something that has become classic.
Paula: Yeah, that’s amazing isn’t it? So, you’ve had your own solo career. What have the other two been doing since? Errol and Ashley?
Leee: Errol is, I think he’s still doing certain shows. I don’t see him as much, but Ashley has done a wonderful thing. He has a music school in Canada. He’s basically educating. He’s educating the kids in music and he’s kept it that way, he found his forte in that.
Paula: Wow, giving it back.
Leee: He is, which is important.
Paula: Yeah, nurturing talent. That’s really important, yeah. So, are you in regular contact with them?
Leee: Not as much, no. You never know. I spoke to Ashley the beginning of this year and he was in good stead. He just had a little baby girl. So, he was quite happy.
Paula: Aw. That’s nice, isn’t it? So, you continue to perform globally?
Leee: Yes I do. I’m performing all the time.
Paula: All over the world? Obviously, globally.
Leee: Yes. For example, I just came back from Spain, and then I had to go from Spain to France. I had a brief holiday, you know, if you can call it that, because there were so many people ringing about this and the other, it was fun, and then I went to France and Italy and it’s great because what I tend to do when I’m doing shows, I try to go a little bit early so I can get an idea of the atmosphere of the people that I’m going to perform for and also what they actually think about the music. So, you can then kind of communicate in their own language. I went to Brazil and we were there a few days. So, I can feel and relax as part of that. Years ago, we would just rush in and rush out. I say to the promoters, ‘I don’t mind paying for my hotel for one night because then I can actually see the country’ and so many artists miss out – they say ‘oh, I went here, I went there…’
Paula: They never saw it or experienced it.
Leee: They didn’t experience it. For me, as we’re getting older, I’m thinking, I want to be able to embrace and understand and I do that with SOS Children, and it’s a worldwide children’s village for orphans around the world. So, when I’m doing shows, I kind of tap in and say, ‘look, if I’m in South Africa, if I’m in Zambia or something like that, let me visit an SOS village.’ Even in France, in south of France, they have an SOS village. So, it’s worldwide orphans. In Haiti they had some. So, it kind of works out, you’re giving something back while you’re actually also performing. I was talking to Rick Astley about that because we did South Africa together. That was one of the things.
Paula: Okay. So, tell us more about the SOS charity stuff.
Leee: Many moons ago, well, I think every artist is dedicated to different charities and stuff like that. I do stuff for Terrence Higgins Trust and for breast cancer and for SOS children, I’ve been involved with it the longest because years ago I was part of another charity and I found out they were like fraudulent because I went to find out more about what they did, and I’d been paying my money every month to this charity and it just went to a bank account. So, I really was put off with all charities and I went to this event and I asked the people at SOS, ‘I’d like to go to one of your villages and see what you do, where the money goes, how it helps.’ They said ‘yes. If you can raise the money and get a sponsor to go, we can, anywhere around the world, we can let you know where the villages are and you can go for yourself.’ So, I did that. I’d been to South Africa before and I had some great experience there. And I went to Langa and Thornton in South Africa and I met the mothers of all the villages. Each house, like they’ve got ten houses with orphaned kids and each has a mother, and I went and visited them. I saw the work that they do. Each house has about ten or twelve children. They’ve got schools there. Kids from outside the villages, kids outside the village can sometimes go to that school if they can’t afford to go to regular school.
So, I saw the work they do outside the village as well as inside the village and also in the shantytowns and stuff because the AIDS pandemic in Africa is huge. They’re involved quite strongly in that area. So, it was something that all of a sudden I just gravitated to and it became a very important part of my life. So, I absorb a lot more. I get very involved in what I’m doing. I think I get that from my mother because she’s involved in a lot of community stuff. So, even in my career, I’m not your average artist. I’m kind of like hands in different pies. If I’m going to do something, I know, when people get me involved, I’m very involved. So, because we want to make it the best, and with SOS, it was one of those challenges that I needed to see how people are living in other areas and where the money does go. SOS does a wonderful job. I’ve seen the effect of it and they’re building villages. When I went to Zambia for the documentary for that, which is now in a few film festivals. So, we’re just bringing more awareness. I do my little bit.
Paula: That’s really nice. So, going back to performing in different countries. Which countries give you the biggest response or what kind of different responses do you get?
Leee: Well, you know what, I always say I look at every audience as a different audience. So, if I’ve got to sing the same songs every night, I can change things up. I try and keep it so that I’m giving something special each night to each performance or each territory. I must admit, the French territory has been amazing because it’s led me to Switzerland, Belgium, the Caribbean - like Martinique and Guadeloupe, Africa. I did the X Factor, which was in Cote d’Ivoire last year, which was quite impressive. It’s brought me to quite a few different places, Monaco, and so it’s interesting. I’m overwhelmed by sometimes the response, also in Italy. I have huge Italian fans. They think I’m Mick Jagger sometimes the way they treat me. Over here, it’s a little bit different because I haven’t been as profiled and I think these days everybody wants you to be on a reality show or that’s the kind of thing they want to see you doing. It’s a completely different mandate, I would say, different to how it was when I was doing stuff consistently in the UK.
Paula: Would you go on any reality shows if they offered you?
Leee: They’re trying to get me on a reality show. I’m not sure about doing The Jungle and I wouldn’t do Big Brother. I love the cooking programs, maybe Strictly Come Dancing.
Paula: The Big British Bake Off ?
Leee: Maybe something like that. Maybe something that’s fun. Something that’s fun and you know, I’d feel relaxed in doing it, but you know, I speak to people all the time and say, ‘what do you think of Celebrity Get Out Of Here? What do you think of Big Brother?’ And they say, ‘well it’s okay for the period that they’re in it, but then afterwards what happens? Will it work, will it not work?’ I think sometimes, ‘do you want people to see you that way?’ Because I think sometimes you need to separate a little bit of you, so people can still fantasize. They can still say ‘wow!’
Paula: That’s an important part of it, the mystique?
Leee: Yes, years ago the old stars, your Elizabeth Taylors, Betty Davises and all those kinds of people, divas, Sophia Loren, people I think are just gorgeous. You didn’t know that much about them. It was only toward the end of their lives, kids started writing books or all that kind of thing, but by that time, who cares? Because they’ve given you such a beautiful body of work and that is what you leave with, a beautiful body of work that you can fall in love with over and over again. You see Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart and wow, this is fantastic, though she left America because she had an affair with a married man and had twins in that time period. Nowadays, you wouldn’t think nothing about it, but it was, there was something special about it, even the artists. Some of the great people. I’ve met a lot of people that I’ve admired, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, people like that. So, you don’t know a lot about them still. They try and keep it on that level, separate, which I think is important.
Paula: Absolutely. So, let’s talk about America. You’ve had some success in the US, but you weren’t able to break through consistently.
Leee: It wasn’t a consistent thing. What we did to, we did have a lot of R&B Top10’s. They were different to here, we had “So Good, So Right”, that was big, we had a number one, “Instinctual”, as a solo artists, I had a big record, number two, “The Mighty Power of Love” in 1995, which is like a classic dance record. And three or four years ago, I’d done a jazz album in 2005, or 2006 called FEEL MY SOUL, and I didn’t want anything mixed from it. It was done in France and we filmed the video, a making of, and I ended up, there’s a DJ called Sammy G, J, and he did a mix of a track called “Sensuality” and that got Top 10 I think on the dance chart on Billboard and that was three years ago. So, there’s always been a DJ affinity with me and right now there’s a track called “Spiritual”, which is with ‘The Collective,’ and The Collective is myself, Don E, Omar, Junior Giscombe, Carl McIntosh from Loose Ends, Rick Clarke, who’s an R&B singer from before and there’s one more, Noel McKoy. And we’ve done this one track and we’re doing a whole album together called The Collective with different tracks with each one of us and that’s been like number one on the R&B charts for the last three weeks.
Paula: So, there’s always that connection with the U.S., it’s always been there?
Leee: Yeah. I mean, that track is here, but it’s getting play over there. So, and we had another actually R&B track called “The Last Time”, which was a big track and on the DJ side, each for example, Larry Levan, who was a big New York DJ, he remixed “Changes”, one of our tracks and that made it massive over there and we’ve had people like Mariah Carey recording our records and Destiny’s Child on their first album did “Illusion” as well as Mariah. The Pharcyde, the rap group, did “Illusion”. Jay Z does a mash up of something. There’s quite a few records.
Paula: That’s a tremendous acknowledgement of your work, isn’t it?
Leee: Well, LA Reid is the one who asked Mariah, ‘you’ve got to do this track,’ and they redid it. So, I’m not complaining, I got a platinum disc for it.
Paula: Wow, fantastic still. Cool. So, next question. Other than Sade and Incognito, no British black artist or group has been able to sustain a career in music in the US. What’s your thoughts on that?
Leee: It is very, very hard. I think had I stayed there in the US… I lived in the US as a kid for five years, and so I know America well, New York especially and I have loads of family there. I think if I’d just worked in America a lot more, then I think possibly. I’m intending to probably next year spend more time in the States and work it on the musical level. For example, I did a tour in February/March in Germany, which is very successful and that was with Kool & The Gang, Sister Sledge, Earth Wind & Fire, and what was the other one? I was the last act before Kool & The Gang, the only British black act, and so they all thought that Imagination was American. So, you had Nile Rodgers dancing to “Musical LIghts. “I’m thinking, ‘wow, this is fantastic!’
Paula: It’s like a dream, isn’t it?
Leee: Yes, and we met him years ago in the ’80s, and he thought we were an American group. So, most of them think Imagination are American. So, they’ve accepted us in that way and then they found out no, I’m from North London. It’s really – just around the corner from Arsenal!
Paula: Are they fascinated by your accent?
Leee: Yeah, I think, but I think now, ours are always pseudo, I’m kind of like Black European, I have a tinge of American, tinge of English, tinge of Caribbean. It’s all mixed up.
Paula: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, back to the UK then. There were a number of British black artists who enjoyed success in the 80s, Junior, Central Line, Dacid Grant, but found it challenging to continue with sustained careers in the UK. Why do you think that is?
Leee: I think there is a scenario with a lot of British black artists, and as I’m dong this documentary film called Flashback, I almost said Flatback!
Leee: Flapjack! It’s very hard to sustain because the trends change so quickly and I think you end up dancing to the beat of the management and the agents as opposed to what you originally started doing. It becomes more about the business and less about what the music and the content and at that time, we finished the ‘80s in 1989 with a Top 5 album, which was a remix album, but it was not easy because the trends change so quickly and to sustain it and get that support and you have the influx of American artists. I was saying today to the A&R people, I was saying, ‘if you have an American artist here, you’re giving him 25 and I’m getting 2 and that’s always been the problem’ and in the documentary, you’ll find lots of the black artists in the UK say exactly the same thing. When it comes to the budgets, they were always getting the smallest bit and that’s the truth.
Paula: What do you think could be done about that?
Leee: You have to be independent and do your own thing. I’m aligning with Sony to do this still. So, therefore, I have got a certain amount of control. There’s certain areas where you have to let them do their own thing, of course, but at the same time, I know my image. I know my look. I know what the music is all about. It’s different for me because we’ve been very established.
Paula: Okay. So, next question. There are still UK black artists, such as Mica Paris, Omar, Beverley Knight, who have been around for a while and Emeli Sande is the best example of someone who has broken through recently. Is there still a bias in the music industry again homegrown UK black music artists versus - I guess you’ve just answered the question, in fact – US black musical artists?
Leee: Yeah, I mean Emeli Sande has been very lucky. She’s got a versatile album. She’s like where Sade was in a sense, in that her style is very different. Mica, she’s had the hits but the last hits were mainly late ‘80s early ‘90s. Omar had “Nothing Like This”. He’s doing shows and stuff and things like that and they are recording, but to get the whole national side of stuff is still very hard. Though, using the internet, I’m seeing a lot of Omar more than I would. I think Mica Paris is due to come.
Paula: Right, okay, with Emeli Sande of course you’ve got the Olympics, which was a massive event.
Leee: Yeah, she got worldwide exposure straight away. That’s what I’d hope I’d like to have.
Paula: That was a gift, really.
Paula: So, you branched out a few years ago and you did a jazz-oriented album, FEEL MY SOUL. Was it easy to be accepted for doing music that was different from Imagination?
Leee: Doing FEEL MY SOUL the jazz album was interesting because I’d always listened to it and after each show or warming up to my shows I’d be listening to jazz music, all different sorts of jazz, jazz funk, jazz fusion, from Ella Fitzgerald to Chet Baker to Billie Holliday. I listened to a lot of the traditional stuff. So, it wasn’t hard to fall into that. About 10 years previous to that, or even a little bit longer, I had attempted to do a jazz album or started and then I listened back to how I was sounding and I felt my voice hadn’t developed yet for it. It was still developing, there’s certain, all my life hadn’t brought me, it wasn’t coming through the voice enough.
Paula: Do you think you needed a certain amount of life experience to channel that?
Leee: What I wanted to do, yes, what I wanted to do was like an opera singer. I needed to have that amount of experience to be the right time and then I was offered this deal in France that whatever I wanted to do, even now they want me to do part two. It was a friend of mine who was a film producer who also said, ‘look, you know what, film this. This is the making of your life. It’s changing and it will never be the same once you’ve done this album.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, okay.’ So, his name was Stefan Peyrolo, we went down to Rochefort, wonderful studio, which was an old cinema and it was a place where they filmed this film called La Dame Madmoiselle de Rochefort with Catherine Deneuve and her sister and it was one of the very last films Gene Kelly was in. It was in this small town called Rochefort. It looks like, the whole town looks like a film set. There’s water fountains, it looks very MGM. The studio we were in was an old cinema.
It was a very organic, pure organic scenario because it was very, very live. We were using modern technology to tape it, but at the same time, it was lovely just to excel and on the musical side I really indulged in what I wanted to do. I’d do three takes of one track, but each version was different. I wanted to show a lot of different dexterity to what my voice could do and being an instrument as opposed to just the voice and also, I was gravitating to a different direction than being in Imagination. I actually didn’t look at MTV or anything like that. I just completely focused, which is important.
Paula: Yeah. Fantastic. So what’s your current plans in terms of promoting the new CD?
Leee: I’m promoting the new CD, THE VERY BEST OF IMAGINATION, with interviews and TVs and online and viral promotion and magazines and everything and a new video for the single “Krash”. We’re promoting “Krash”, which has just had 40,000 views on MuseTV.
Paula: That’s pretty impressive.
Leee: Yeah, for the last ten days. So, I’m very, very pleased about that.
Paula: Fantastic. Thanks, Leee!
Leee: You’re welcome and thanks to SoulMusic.com!