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Bilal discusses his albums, collaborations 

When the stars align

Bilal has shared his brassy croon on dozens of soul and hip-hop hits throughout his 15-year career. The Philadelphia singer has collaborated with chart-topping stars including Beyoncé and Jay Z, award-winning indie MCs including Common and Talib Kweli, and everyone in between. But neo-soul devotees see Bilal as much more than a sideman — the diehards are drawn to his critically lauded, albeit less famous, solo works like the rollicking Airtight's Revenge (2010) and the tenderly intimate A Love Surreal (2013). We recently spoke with Bilal, who will perform with Eric Roberson at Amos' Southend on Feb. 27 and 28, about his next album, how his religious upbringing affects his songwriting and how he approaches singing and music like painting on a canvas.

Creative Loafing: Critics say Airtight's Revenge had more masculine themes than the female-oriented A Love Surreal. Do you agree, and if so was that a conscious decision?

Bilal: Yeah, after Airtight's Revenge I realized I was just speaking about my own life and the things I was going through, things that a lot of men in American now can identify with. So, on my next album, I figured I should be speaking more about women and love.

When you say "a lot of men in American now could identify with" Airtight, what do you mean exactly?

It was socially conscious, I was singing about prejudices in America, government mind control and religious themes.

But Airtight wasn't the first time you sang about the nuances of religion. You were raised by a Christian mother and a Muslim father. How has that upbringing impacted all your lyrics?

My mixed background made me open minded and able to see both sides of things. But when I was younger I felt I always had to pick a side, and as I grew older I saw the similarities in both religions. That's one of the things I sang about on (Airtight's) "All Matter."

I was singing about how we're all the same but we're all so different, and that's divine beauty. We're unique but we all have the same heart, and we can draw from the same universal love.

But that wasn't clear when you were young? What made you want to "pick a side?"

When I wanted to identify with my father more I'd think I had to be a Muslim. But then, in order to identify with my mother more, I'd look into Christianity. But my parents didn't force me to do anything, I put that burden on myself because I just wanted to relate. That's one of the things that everybody is caught up in. You want to relate to the people that you love, and a lot of times you bully yourself in that.

How did religion impact you musically?

My first time singing was in church. I was 4 years old. I was with The Sunbeams choir, a children's choir at my mother's church, and the first solo I sang was "Yes Jesus Loves Me," or something like that. It was one of the first places where I ever felt like "This is what I love, this music." But I attribute my love of jazz to my father. His friend owned blues and jazz clubs in Philadelphia. So I grew up with church and jazz musicians.

Speaking of jazz, you've said that A Love Surreal is an homage to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Absolutely. But I always write in at least a bit of a jazz structure, so that every night when we play it live, it lends itself to improvisation. But I do that a lot more on A Love Surreal. I brought in a live band on this record. On my other albums, I would do songs with other musicians, but a lot of it was overdubbed. Supreme was recorded live, like in the analogue days, and everyone would would play at the same time, which gave it so much more energy.

You've also credited Salvador Dali as a big influence on the album. How does he inspire you?

I love how Dali would take different dimensions and angles, until his paintings were almost 3D. I went to see his work at a museum in Philadelphia a few years ago. They had his old sketch books and notes, and I took the whole day to look at that. I could relate to his concepts in the way I put my music together. I like to mix a lot of genres and sounds — jazz, rock, soul and hip-hop. In that way I was inspired by Dali.

Speaking of Philadelphia, what was it like to come up there with The Roots and other alt hip-hop acts?

I went to a performing arts high school, so I was always around musicians. But I didn't meet (Roots drummer) Ahmir (?uestlove) until I went to college in New York. There were a lot of jam sessions going on, and we'd meet up there. And The Roots would mix media and concepts and genres in the same way I like to. Every time I play with them, I learn something new. Ahmir is one of my favourite people in the world, because he's just a library of information. I could go on and on for days about the things I've learned from them.

Another one of your earliest collaborators was Common on "The 6th Sense." What was he like to work with?

Common really liked my voice and my approach as far as jazz was concerned. He was the first person to take me on tour, so I got to see how things happen on the road. He took me on like his little brother, and I got to be in the studio and watch how he put his words and concepts together. So I learned a lot from him early on.

And how was that different from working with a megastar like Beyonce on her song "Everything I Do"?

She's really cool, a really beautiful spirit, and really down to earth. She actually asked to work with me. So I came in very humble. And she's the same way, she approaches everything from a learning standpoint. I learnt a lot from that, that you're never too big to be open. We'd just basically watch each other, and try to one up each other the whole night (laughs). She would do something and I would go "Whoa! Ok let me try this." It was really inspiring. You could feel her love for music.

You've amassed an impressive list of collaborators. But who do you daydream about working with in the future?

I'd love to work with Thom Yorke. I like to collaborate with people and see their process, how they put things together in the studio. I love Radiohead, so I'd love to see how they get stared.

Tell me more about your own studio process.

A lot of times it's free flow, and I work around an idea. I usually come to the studio with an idea, or if I'm working with a producer they'll have an idea. But on my records, which I produce, I come with the shape on gutar or piano and play it for the cats, then we just play around with sound. I'm really into the way things are recorded — I can spend a day or two to find the right snare drum or where to record the drums in the room. I'm really scientific that way. But that being said, there's no real structure behind it. It's kind of like a painter, I just go for a shape and once I see a shape I just keep developing on it.

Do you have any shapes or ideas in mind for your next album?

The next album is nearly finished. It'll be a joint venture with Adrian Younge, a producer out of L.A., and I'm really excited about his music. It's given me a chance to just go back to writing and not worrying so much about the musical aspect. He'll play me a bunch of ideas, and whichever one I gravitate toward I write for. It gives me a chance to focus on singing and writing, and it excites to me let go of so many other roles.

I interviewed Adrian recently, and he talked a lot about his strictly analogue process.

Yeah, going analogue is inspiring because everything these days is so computerised and digital. So when you meet another person who also thinks scientifically, and they're really into sound, it's just great. The first day Adrian and I got in the studio we recorded two songs, and it was like that almost everyday. When I got started everything was analogue, all tape machines, so working with Adrian kind of reminded me of then. And I think analogue just lends itself better to my voice.

How so?

Because I'm a dirtier singer. I really don't like today's crystal clear, perfect production. I like things that are more organic, with a fuller type of atmosphere. Especially on mics — sometimes I'll start low and go very high with my singing, sometimes in the same sentence. With analogue gear that's great. But in the digital world you feel you have to clean that up, because it doesn't lend itself with that perfected sample and electronic sounds. I don't really know how else to explain it, I just know it sounds better (laughs).

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