The Foreign Exchange: Electrified Soul

On August 27, 2011, hundreds of music lovers will descend upon Atlanta’s Piedmont Park for the second annual ONE Music Fest.  For this special edition of SoulTrain.com’s Artist to Artist series, we are spotlighting some of the artists slated to perform at the festival.

We caught up with Phonte and Nicolay, the masterminds behind the Grammy-nominated The Foreign Exchange—a musical collective that also boasts brilliant artists such as Zo!, Sy Smith, Median, and YahZarah as major collaborators.  Born out of a series of international music swaps between Phonte (in North Carolina) and Nicolay (in the Netherlands) via the internet, the two solidified their partnership and began releasing tunes as The Foreign Exchange in 2004 with their debut offering, Connected. The follow-up, 2008’s Leave it All Behind, scored The Foreign Exchange a Grammy nod for the single “Daykeeper” (featuring Muhsinah), and in 2010 the group released Authenticity. Their latest collection, Dear Friends: An Evening with The Foreign Exchange, is an acoustic presentation recorded during a private performance in early 2011.  In addition to his work with The Foreign Exchange, Nicolay has produced four solo projects, and Phonte will treat FE fans to his debut solo album this September.

ST: Yours is hands-down one of the most fascinating stories of how two artists came to be creative partners, with Phonte based in the states and Nicolay based in Europe.  What were some of the challenges you faced while working on those early collaborations, and how has your working relationship changed now that you’re in somewhat closer geographical proximity?

Phonte: Our relationship really hasn’t changed in terms of how we make the music.  We still pretty much record our songs through email.  We still have yet to record a song in the studio together and I don’t think we ever will.  We pretty much have a system that works for us, and we just enjoy working that way.   We have that trust to where Nic can go to his corner and do what he does, and I go to my corner and do what I do, and then we just meet in the middle.  It works for us, so we keep it where it is.

ST: One of the hallmarks of your “brand”—if you will—is that you frequently bring guest vocalists and producers in to perform on your projects.  When you’re in the process of writing new material, do you typically have in mind whom you’d like to feature?  How do you decide what artists fit best with which songs?

 

Phonte: When Nic sends me music, if I hear someone on {the song} then I’ll try to reach out to that person.  I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we say, “Hey, we want to work with Artist X”, and then we try to make something for Artist X.   It’s a little more organic than that.  We do what we do and when it’s done we say, “Hey, I think so and so would sound good playing guitar on this” or “we can reach out to this person for some background vocals or this person for some strings”.   It starts with us, then we branch out.

ST: As independent artists, without a major label to support and promote your projects and without the significant mainstream presence other artists may benefit from, you’ve made a phenomenal impression in the industry and you’ve built an incredibly loyal following.  Phonte, you recently shared some of your thoughts about label support versus independent artist status on Twitter.   What advice would you and Nicolay offer emerging artists who may be debating whether or not to pursue relationships with major labels?

Nicolay: I personally don’t have any major label experience—Phonte would be able to shed more light on that.  But I think it’s pretty clear that no matter what label is on the horizon for you, it’s very important to be realistic about what will happen and what will not.  For a lot of people—especially coming out of the music industry of the 70s, 80s, and 90s—there’s still the idea that being signed to a label is the end solution.  But nowadays we see it as kind of the opposite.  So artists have to decide what they want the labels to do for them, and whether it’s something they can actually do for themselves a lot better.

Phonte: For me, being that I’ve been on major label and done the independent thing, it’s really all about freedom and the ability to make your own moves.  Of course, with freedom comes a lot of responsibility and there’s an incredible amount of work that goes into running your own operation.  It’s absolutely exhausting.  There’s no way to sugarcoat it, there’s no way to cushion the blow.   It is a lot of work!  But the tradeoff is that you get to present your music the way you see fit.  So for artists looking to make a career in music, I would tell them straight up: If you’re looking to go with a major label, then you’ve pretty much got to look at that as a cash out.  One of the most profound pieces of advice I’ve ever heard was from my man LP, who ran the Definitive Jux label out of New York for awhile and is a member of the group Company Flow.   He was one of the first guys to pop independently on the hip hop scene in the late 90s.  One of the things he told me that always stuck with me is, there’s nothing wrong with selling out.  If you’re gonna sell out, that’s fine.  But make sure that when you sell out, you sell out so good you never have to sell out again.  If you’re going to sign to major label, pray that you make so much money that you won’t ever have to make art again (laughs).  Crazy as it sounds, it has to be that stupid, because otherwise you’re at the mercy of someone else.  That’s the hard reality.

ST: We’re celebrating 40 years of Soul Train.  What are some of your favorite Soul Train memories?

Nicolay: I don’t think we got Soul Train when it was originally aired, so like a lot of American culture we got it much later on.  I started watching some of the classic Soul Train performances as I was getting more into music.

Phonte: Every Saturday morning, we got up and watched it and it was one of those things that’s an institution in Black households—like, Soul Train on Saturday mornings is just a given.  I always thought it was funny when Barry White was on there, because Barry White and Don Cornelius would have this “bass off”.  They would be trying to out-bass each other, they sounded like two Darth Vaders talking to each other!  Like, bass for your face with Don Cornelius and Barry White (laughs)!

And any Al Green performance was always hot.  And he performed live, not to a backing track.

Visit The Foreign Exchange’s official website for information on upcoming tour dates, to get the latest news on The FE’s projects, and to have your own private FE concert with the awesome +FE radio player!  You can also follow them on Twitter at @FEOfficial.  Phonte’s Twitter handle is @Phontigallo and Nicolay’s is@Nicolaymusic.  You can also visit The Foreign Exchange on Facebook!

–Rhonda Nicole

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Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter from Dallas, TX whose EP “Nuda Veritas” is available on CDBaby and iTunes.  Follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/rhondanicolemusic and on Twitter, @wildhoneyrock.

 



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