7 minutes with bilal + ‘a love surreal’ cd release concert

[photo by kelly connelly]

[photo by kelly connelly]

Between sound check and the Bilal: A Love Surreal CD Release Concert later that evening at Baltimore Soundstage, I sat down for a brief conversation with singer/songwriter Bilal. (Thanks to Gypsy Soul and Soulcial Grind PR.) The Philly-born musician released his debut album in 2001 and is often pegged as a “neo-soul” artist, but as is often the case with categorizing music, the label is way too narrow to encompass the rock, funk, soul, jazz, and other elements in his music. This was all on display during the performance (more on this later) and in the new music.

On a recent review that compared the sound of his new music to Yes and David Bowie:

“I recently started playing guitar for, like, three years. My guitar teacher is the biggest Yes fan ever, so he’s gotten me into Yes heavy. I guess for the last few years, I’ve been writing my songs from guitar, when before, I would write from the keyboard. I think that has been a change in [my] sound.”

On writing on the guitar:

“[Writing on guitar] is just easier,” he says. “It’s easier to find melodies and it’s easier to travel with.”

On learning guitar:

“I felt like I was finding the same kinds of sounds on the piano,” he explains. “I just wanted to stretch my mind a little more.”

On his writing process:

“I usually have a bunch of different sketches in my head, and I just walk around all day and sharpen them up in my mind. And then when they get good enough, I’ll either show them to the band, or I’ll put it down on my little Logic contraption I got on my computer. On this album, I did it that way, and also some stuff just happened through jam sessions, just jamming with the band.”

On recording A Love Surreal:

“This album, everything really went smoothly. On my last album, I learned a lot, so I sort of came in with a certain game plan on how to simplify everything and make it better.”

On his quest to recreate the sound he hears in his head:

“I’ve always been searching for this certain lo-fi sound that I hear in my head. Every album, we get closer and closer.”

“Not there yet?” I ask.

“No, no,” he says.

“Think you’ll get there one day?”

“Yeah, yeah—that’s the whole challenge. We got really close—closer than I’ve ever been.”

On performing live:

“I’ve been singing in front of people [in church] since I was four years old, so I’m used to it.” Through the years, performing professionally, he says his style has gone through changes. “It’s a mixture of everything I’ve kind of experienced in my life. I guess it changes every time I do a record, almost, but still keeps with the old. It’s a progression, sort of.”

On the title of his new album:

Love Surreal is a homage to an album I did that never came out, and I was going to name that A Love for Sale. And now that this album is coming out, it’s kind of surreal. It’s about finding passion and reigniting the fire that once was there and reaffirming love. The surrealism thing, I took from Salvador Dali. I was really trying to make music that you could visualize, as well as listen to.”

On the album cover artwork:

“Initially, we wanted to remake a Salvador Dali—of Dali and the skull. I worked with eOne’s art department and I worked with [photographer] Marc Baptiste, who took the photos.”

As was to be expected from a release event, the show was heavy on new material, all of which was enthusiastically received by the crowd. (Earlier songs were included, as well, though.) Bilal is the type of artist with fans in the truest sense of the word—fanatics who hang on his every note, applaud his every move. On stage, he seemed devoid of any trace of self-consciousness, but some of the more over-the-top vocals and antics that marked performances I had seen by him many years back were replaced with a more refined—but still fully dedicated—presence. Simply put, he is a phenomenal performer.

And the band? The band—keyboardist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, percussionist, and two background singers—was tight, rocking, and having what looked like a lot of fun. Bilal was clearly enjoying himself, as well, getting back on stage for an encore that seemed almost as long as the main show itself.

A Love Surreal will be released on February 26.

Click on photo above or here for a photo gallery from the show. 

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