Liam Bailey, Song and Dance Man

Published August 19, 2014

ABOVE: LIAM BAILEY. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHANE MCCAULEY

Liam Bailey is onto something big. Putting a modern spin on yesteryear’s classic riffs, the soulful Brit has fused a genre all his own. It’s in full force for his full-length debut, Definitely Now (out today). Given his throwback stylings, it’s no surprise he has a history working with the late Amy Winehouse—he released two EPs, 2 am Rough Tracks and So Down, Cold, through her Lioness Records with Salaam Remi (Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Nas) in 2010. Just like Back To Black, Definitely Now plays more as an innate extension of Bailey’s character than as an ornament. It’s intimate, moody, authentic, and simply excellent. 

Bailey has been stuck in a bit of musical purgatory since his 2010 EPs, particularly when Polydor unexpectedly pulled his slated debut, Out Of The Shadows, in 2011. But the years have given Bailey time to brew some real magic for his true debut, which confidently pays homage to greats Sam Cooke, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and most notably Paul Weller of The Jam, a musician that Bailey notes as a particular hero of his. Listeners with a more modern ear can’t help but hear notes of Jack White and Lenny Kravitz.

The Nottingham, England native just moved to Williamsburg, gigging in Brooklyn and preparing to tour. We caught up with him to chat about his career’s rollercoaster trajectory, relationship with Amy Winehouse, and his past life of excess.

BENJAMIN LINDSAY: I figured we could just start from the beginning. When did you first feel the calling to be a musician? When did you first pick up a guitar?

LIAM BAILEY: I first picked up a guitar when I was 14, but I wouldn’t say I called myself a musician until I left school, so I would’ve been 17—16 or 17. I might have called myself a musician then, but I stopped calling myself a musician since then; I am now a certified song-and-dance man.

LINDSAY: Song and dance man, I like that! So much better than “musician”—there’s some whimsy in there. What did you find yourself listening to growing up?

BAILEY: Well, I was brought up on the classic soul—classic ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s records. That was kind of the main staple, and then by the time I got to 14, I was listening to the Britpop explosion, which happened in Britain in the early ’90s, mid-’90s. So by the time I got to school, Oasis had released Definitely Maybe, and I believe Blur had released Parklife or Modern Life Is Rubbish. Anyway, I was listening to a lot of Britpop, which then led me to listening to a lot of rock-‘n’-roll from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, and the heavier side of The Beatles made sense to me all of a sudden.

LINDSAY: It’s funny that you mention Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Is Definitely Now at all meant to pay homage title-wise?

BAILEY: One of my favorite albums is Definitely Maybe; it’s the reason that I picked up a guitar. Before that, I would’ve just been singing and probably might’ve been an R&B singer. Oasis is really good at making you think you could do it, as well, and so I decided I was going to learn to play guitar because I wanted to learn Oasis songs. But also, there were a few titles going through my head, and they were all relating to the fact that this album has been a long time coming. I just thought Definitely Now is quite fitting, because for years people were saying, “Liam, when’s your album dropping? When’s your album dropping?” And now I can say, “It’s definitely dropping now!”

LINDSAY: That’s perfect.

BAILEY: It was a win-win.

LINDSAY: With Definitely Now‘s first two singles, “On My Mind” and “Villain,” it seems like they’re kind of written with someone in mind. Is there a story there?

BAILEY: Yeah. I mean, “On My Mind,” there was someone… in mind. It wasn’t a lover or anything like that. It was a person that was just burdening me with negative energy. So I went and wrote a song about it. And then “Villain” is a song—you know what it’s like. You know when you find yourself being bitchy—somebody’s pissing you off, so you act like a dickhead.

LINDSAY: Yeah, yeah. And sometimes the best way of ridding yourself of that negative energy is by putting it into song, I’m sure.

BAILEY: Exactly. So, you know, that was that.

LINDSAY: Now tell me a little bit more about after your two EPs on Amy Winehouse’s Lioness Records, Out Of The Shadows. What was that like and how did you kind of re-find your footing?

BAILEY: I was already working with Salaam [Remi], and that’s how I met Amy and how me and Amy got to become friends. The album, well, me and my management just decided we had to pull the album and take it away from the hands of the people it was in, because they didn’t know what to do with me or with it. And also, the album had been run into the ground by various compromises and pressure that I felt I was under, and instead of dealing with it in the right way, I just—you know when you’re in debt, and the bills are coming through the letterbox, and you just let them pile up and pretend like they don’t exist? Well, that was the vibe. I was just going on pretending that it didn’t exist until it got to a point where it needed to be pulled. And once that happened, I think I was numb for a while, but I just decided to keep on. I was walking a fine line there between positive and negative, I suppose. It was quite a frantic time—there was a lot of excesses and a lot of escapism, but at the same time, there was always enough focus to keep me on my feet.

LINDSAY: Speaking of Amy Winehouse, you say that you two were more than just colleagues—you were friends. What was it like to experience her death? What do you think her legacy is?

BAILEY: It was just devastating; it was more than enough. It was a lot to take onboard. I just didn’t want to believe it at first; it was surreal. It was quite a deeply shocking thing because of the way that we both were at the time and where we should have been the day she died. The day after, we were supposed to be going to a wedding. It was just too deep. We both just went on doing things we shouldn’t have been doing, and when I got that news, I just felt just weird.

LINDSAY: Not to pry into the things that you “shouldn’t have been doing,” but was it at all a wakeup call for you?

BAILEY: Well, the wakeup call probably happened a week or two later, because when something like that happens, it takes awhile to sink in; and my condition and where I was at that time meant that the only way I was going to deal with that was numbness. But after, say, a week or two weeks, it really put things into perspective, and I started to remember certain things that she said and certain things I had said and that was part of the reason why I didn’t want to sign to a major or anything like that. I just knew that I needed to start really focusing and protecting not only my youth, but my neck. Once I felt in the right position to do that, then that was the time to move forward with music. With that said, I think that Amy’s legacy—unfortunately, some people tend to take away from what I perceive as the negative elements of Amy’s life and glorify it. I don’t think she’d want that at all. I think her legacy should be what it truly was, and that is simply one of the few greatest talents to come out of Britain over the last 50 years and one of the rarest individuals you will ever have in music.

LINDSAY: What do you think she would think of Definitely Now?

BAILEY: I think she’d like “Crazy Situation.” She’d like “Battle Hymn Of Central London.” But she wouldn’t like “On My Mind,” I know that! She might like “Summer Rain,” but she used to say to me, “Liam, I don’t like that folk shit you do. I don’t like that folk shit, Liam! You should do the fuckin’ soul—do the fuckin’ soul!” But, you know what? Amy [was] the biggest advocate of, “Do what you want—make sure it’s lovely.” She would be very happy now. I wish she was here, but I just maintain a positive smile when I think of her.

LINDSAY: Of course. At least as a big fan of hers, it seemed that she was always one to put musicianship and her music first.

BAILEY: Always.

LINDSAY: I’m sure that she’s glad that that’s something that you’re doing with Definitely Now. Now, it seems like New York has been treating you well so far; how long have you lived here?

BAILEY: I’ve been here for about five weeks.

LINDSAY: Wow, pretty fresh, then!

BAILEY: Yeah, exactly. But I’ve been coming here every year for the last six years at least once or twice a year to record and stuff like that. But yeah, living here is just different because for the first time, I’m not in a hotel and I get to soak it in, and it’s been cool, man. I like Brooklyn, I really do.

DEFINITELY NOW IS OUT TODAY VIA SALAAM REMI’S FLYING BUDDHA. CATCH HIM PERFORM ON CBS SATURDAY MORNING AUGUST 23. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HIS  FACEBOOK PAGE