"If Howlin' Wolf doesn't move you, that's pretty much the end of the conversation," says British-born, New York-based electro-soul performer Jamie Lidell.
Really, late Mississippi blues singer Howlin' Wolf is the beginning of the conversation when it comes to Lidell, whose own sonic journey touches on a childhood love of Prince, early forays into techno, solo shows enhanced by his live-looping prowess (he performed to a small crowd — "a lackluster affair," he calls it — at the Orange Peel in 2006), soul-rich recordings like 2008's Jim and, most recently, Compass a scratchy-aggressive, lounge-meets-Thunderdome raw-soul project produced by Beck.
"It's not that I don't have a style, it's that I have a huge love of music, all sorts," says Lidell. He's shopping with his girlfriend on the Lower East Side while talking to Xpress. "That's something that Beck's known for — a manipulator of image, a chameleon always on the move, looking for new things to inspire him. I was really flattered that he was into helping produce. It seems like such a match made in heaven."
Lidell opened for Beck's 2006 tour, after which Lidell was invited to some of Beck's studio sessions. "It's cold to walk into a studio with a bunch of great musicians and try to lay it down," the singer recalls. "But at the end of the day I love making stuff, and once I let my hair down I think we all realized this was going to work out."
Beck's influence can be felt strongly on tracks like "I Wanna Be Your Telephone," with its samples, static and industrial clanks. But there's also Lidell's remarkable voice, all exuberance, lithe falsettos, fluid timing and crude power. "Enough's Enough" is a roughed-up version the ‘70s funk Jim fans crave (Jackson Five drummer James Gadson plays on the album); "The Ring," on the other hand, is nasty-thick with primal rhythms, hand claps and grungy beat-boxing.
"There are some new directions," says Lidell. "The second half of the album is where it goes into a little bit less of the familiar." Though some critics panned the singer's voice on Compass, he says, "It felt like a whole language I understood. It represented a lot of really strong interests I have in music." (Worth noting: Feist, Gonzales, Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear and Pat Sansone of Wilco all have album credits.)
Lidell credits Beck for inspiring other changes: "When I was writing the album, I was riffing with guitar more. It was almost like I knew he was going to be listening to the sketches and it influenced the way I was writing. In a good way." He adds, "I guess I do get my indie on a little more."
That's probably the biggest departure for an artist who admits that, as a child, "I was the soul kid in a school of indie fans. Which was not a cool place to be." Drawn to the likes of "Prince and all the things that made him who he was — your George Clinton, your Sly Stone, Little Richard and Hendrix and shit," Lidell says. "It was such a rich world to draw from. They always stood out for me. They were the songs that were really magic … That music somehow became mine. Of course it could never be mine because I'm not black, I didn't grow up in America. But at the same time, I definitely felt it in an undeniable way."
But Lidell — who returns to Asheville this week with a full sound and a band of six — didn't translate his love of R&B into a tribute act. Yes, Compass is not without its baby-making slow jams, but it's also a Petri dish of sound theory. "I'm a bit of a soul scientist," says the musician. "My apartment is surrounded by synthesizers and technological machines. I program computers. I built my own looper. I'm a nerd, I'm a science kid. I don't want to be Prince, I don't want to be James Brown — I do want to find something that really moves me."
— Listen to a podcast with Jamie Lidell at mountainx.com.
who: Jamie Lidell (Twin Shadow opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, Sept. 21 (9 p.m., $15 advance/$17 doors. theorangepeel.net.)