The Foreign Exchange is a duo that challenges themselves artistically, but also continues to push sonic boundaries with every album they release. Refusing to compromise their sound or take the predictable route, Phonte and Nicolay trust their musical instincts and each other, adding to a stellar discography that fans and critics have no choice but to appreciate. Through the years, the +FE name has become synonymous with quality music, great attention to artistic detail and creative autonomy. And having released one live project and three remarkable studio albums, the Grammy nominated duo, who have also built on their legacy with a thriving musical imprint, are back with their fourth studio album Love In Flying Colors.
SoulTrain.com had the opportunity to speak with Phonte and Nicolay about the new album, running the +FE imprint, their musical evolution, and why Nicolay would be the rap equivalent to Gucci Mane.
SoulTrain.com: What was the creative process and approach to Love In Flying Colors?
Phonte: The creative approach and process wasn’t really different than any of our other records. That pretty much stayed the same. The only thing that was different based on the last record was we kind of knew this time around that we wanted a brighter sound and just an overall kind of more upbeat and jovial feel. In terms of the process, it’s pretty much been the same since the first record. Nic does the tracks, he sends them to me, I record them here and I email them back. That’s a part of the formula that hasn’t changed.
SoulTrain.com: You guys still do that? I thought since Nic was in North Carolina now you all were actually meeting up in a studio.
Phonte: Yeah, he is. He’s two hours from me. He’s around but it’s still the same thing. If it ain’t broke, you know what I’m saying?
SoulTrain.com: That’s pretty dope. Now with Leave It All Behind, it was a much moodier album; Authenticity was also moody but it seemed like it started to get a little bit lighter. Love In Flying Colors is definitely in a lighter space and a lot more easy going. What made you all infuse that sound into the project? Are you all in a lighter space personally?
Nicolay: I think so. It’s funny that you say what you just said because most of our fans think the exact opposite. They think Authenticity is the darkest one of them all and I think I concur with that, just based off the general feel of the album. I think that for us, it’s always important to never repeat ourselves and always have our music be a snapshot of our lives. That’s the very reason that in 2013, we were not really doing the stuff that we were doing in 2004. We are building onto it. We were continuing that but our music reflects where we are. After Authenticity, we were dealing with a lot of things subject wise as well as sound wise. I think we were both ready for Love In Flying Colors to be something that was much more upbeat and optimistic.
Phonte: Definitely more upbeat and optimistic. The thing about Authenticity was for me…that was kind of a divorce record in a lot of ways. Authenticity and Charity Starts At Home, my solo album, those were like bookends of my divorce and a lot of what I wrote had to do with that. So having that time out of that to just kind of rebuild and heal and re-shift my perspective and come out on the other side of that and find my happiness again…that’s what Love In Flying Colors was about. It definitely reflected that lyrically.
SoulTrain.com: One of our SoulTrain.com writers, Chuck Nunley, who reviewed Love In Flying Colors, had this theory that I thought was very interesting. He felt that all of the albums that you have done have been documenting a relationship. He said Connected was when Phonte met the woman or the subject of all these albums, Leave It All Behind was when you solidified the commitment, Authenticity was the downfall and heartbreak, and Love In Flying Colors is the aftermath of moving beyond that. He put a lot of thought into that thesis so I’m curious to know was he spot on?
Phonte: I remember that. It was very thoughtful. I agree. All of those albums weren’t just about one woman, but that’s definitely one way to look at it. I thought that was a pretty astute commentary. Each record represents a different phase of a relationship, even though it was different women. Connected was the sunny, carefree, innocence and then Leave It All Behind was like, “Okay, shi*t got real.” And then Authenticity was like, “Okay, sh*t just got super real!” And then Love In Flying Colors is like we are back in the good again so who knows what the next record will be.
SoulTrain.com: I’ve interviewed you for every album except Connected and usually, Phonte, you mention to me your muse for each record. Did you have one for this album?
Phonte: Ah man I don’t think I did. I think for this record…for every record, there has been a creative muse. For this album, they just kind of came in different spaces. If I had to name one that was maybe a guide in a lot of ways, Gwen Bunn was definitely one of them. She’s the singer on “Can’t Turn Around” and “Count To Five.” When I first started working with her, she was someone that just really represented that youthful kind of innocence in a lot of ways. The stuff I wrote for her, I wanted it to be kind of bright and sunny and she in a lot of ways just in terms of feel was kind of one of the guiding forces for me. When we did “Count To Five,” I was like yeah, I want to do a record like that. I want an +FE album that’s bright, sunny and positive, so I kept that in mind. So when we did “Can’t Turn Around” and I wrote that part for her, I really wanted it to be her representing the sun peaking through the clouds. Like if you won’t stop, then I won’t stop. We’ll stay in it together so if I had to name one it would be her but all the ladies who contributed to the album did a fantastic job. Gwen, Sy Smith is always just killer, and Jean Jolly who just hung “When I Feel Love.”
SoulTrain.com: “When I Feel Love” with Jean is incredible.
Phonte: Thank you so much. That was the first song me and Nic wrote and recorded for the album. We did that one and I guess I don’t know if it was just any one this go ‘round, but all the ladies. Carmen Rodgers as well…can’t forget her. They all contributed in some way to stack that bright and sunny positivity.
SoulTrain.com: I agree. Shana Tucker on “Better” was another one. She was so subtle on the recording but she killed that record.
Phonte: There is an interesting story behind that. When we cut that record, she was singing it kind of teasy-like with an attitude. She was just putting all this on it and I was like nah, it’s not like that. It’s very matter of fact. Very calm and very matter of fact. No attitude, no emotion, she’s just better. And she got it and she killed it. It was a great time.
SoulTrain.com: It sounds like you all had a lot of fun recording this record. Another thing I noticed, which I guess speaks to you not having one muse, is that there are a lot more female singers on this album. Usually, there is one or two, maybe three at the most, but this one was much more spread out; it gave it different elements and made it more full. But that Jeanne Jolly on “When I Feel Loved,” that woman killed that song!
Phonte: Jeanne is incredibly dope. But yeah, a lot of the women on this album, I heard them as different instruments. With the exception of Erro on “Better,” I knew this would be the record where I would handle all the male vocals but I wanted the women around to give me that color and different element, so thank you.
SoulTrain.com: Te’, you definitely sound stronger vocally on this album. I also noticed that besides Eric on “Better,” there aren’t any other male singers on this album. So did you work on your voice over time?
Phonte: With each record, you try to–and Nic can offer his opinion, but with every record you get better. And the thing about it, the more and more you do this…I was just explaining this to someone the other day and they were like, does it get easier the more you do it? And I was like no, it never gets easier because the more you learn and the better you get the less your error of margin is. If I was on my first record and I was singing at a seven, okay, so then I hone that. I get to an eight, I hone that. Then I go to a nine…I can’t go back to that seven again because they’ve seen me hit a nine. The people that are just incredible at what they do–incredible singers, artists, painters, rappers, whatever–you’ll ask them what do you think of yourself and they are like, ‘I think I’m good at what I do,’ but they always can name one person that they think is even more incredible than they. That’s how it never gets easier, because the more you learn the more you want to do better. Nic and I were just talking about parts of Leave It All Behind that both of us kind of cringe at and parts of Connected.
Phonte: Aw man. When you just hear it you are like, ‘Oh I know I can do that better.’ It’s stuff that the fans would be none the wiser. And the thing is, I would never point that out because I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for ya’ll. I don’t want ya’ll to be listening to it hating it like we do [laughs]! I don’t want to steal your joy but with the singing, this was the first record for me where I think I just really found my voice and just embraced it. Just because, at least for me, I never saw this going the way it was going to go. My singing was something that I always kind of did as a tool to get my ideas across but I never took myself seriously as a singer. I really just wanted to write songs but I couldn’t really get none of my songs placed, so I was like f**k it, I guess I have to sing it then. I sang it and hopefully they’ll want to mess with my songwriting, but yeah, if I could sell songs without having to sing them, ya’ll would never see me. It would be nothing. I’d still do albums with Nic–I just love doing it and that’s my brother and we’ll always do music. But if I hit a lick for real, like if I ever wrote “Macarena” or a pop song that went up, ya’ll would never see me. Like see me out somewhere? I have to leave my house and go somewhere else to sing for people? What? It’s nothing. I’m with my family and we are on the beach somewhere or traveling. My life would be like Maxwell’s Instagram. People ask me what’s my goal? My goal is to live in life like Maxwell’s Instagram. Maxwell is living his life! You go to his Instagram and it’s just him and pretty h**s and it’s just beautiful scenery. No recording equipment nowhere. No mic, a mic chord, you don’t see sh*t. It’s just him living his life, B. I love that sh*t. That’s my goal. If I get to a point where I can just live life and take pictures and document my life, oh my God! Come on, man! It’s over. I’m telling ya’ll now. Don’t let me get my lick. I’m breading my peoples off like, “Nic, I just wrote ‘Macarena’ and I’m about to give you $20 million cause I can!’
Nicolay: We’ll be living on the Riviera in the south of France and we’ll be neighbors, but there will be two miles between us. That’s how long the yard will be [laughs].
SoulTrain.com: Te’, you didn’t go to church in the literal sense, but you went to church on “Listen To The Rain.” You really owned that and you can definitely hear the growth there. So what do you say to that, Nic, about Te’s voice?
Nicolay: I agree. “Listen To The Rain” is a really good example. I feel even just the recording of that, there is a warmth in the vocal. “On A Day Like Today” is another one where Te’ really sang his face off. But I’ve always been a fan of his, even when–real talk–people were still giving him sh*t. I was already on board with it because I think for me, I’ve always truly been a fan of Te’s voice. I’ve always been a fan of the songwriting, so I don’t really see the two separate. It’s just the total package. It’s a guy singing his face off on a song that he wrote and it’s every bit sincere. For me, it’s never been a discussion. I think that even like Te’ said, neither one of us knew how it would develop over time and that it would develop over time and that it would go as far as it did. Neither one of us was prepared for that but looking back, I’m really proud of the path we’ve chosen because it definitely wasn’t the easiest way to go. At the same time, the rewards have been much sweeter because of that.
SoulTrain.com: I think that you all are one of the best in terms of preparing and transitioning your fans, so I’m still shocked that people are even still asking about Connected part two. I ask them where the hell have they been.
Nicolay: People don’t understand. They project and this is a minority at this point. And let me be very clear. I think the majority of our fans know what the deal is. There is a minority of people who don’t realize that what they are projecting on us is something that we cannot give them, which is to go back in time ten years ago when they were in college enjoying life or when things were easier, and Connected was playing on the stereo. I get it. It’s not just the music or even the record. It’s the experience they had with the record.
Phonte: At the time.
Nicolay: Yeah, so it’d be foolishness to even try to recapture any of that. It’s very much similar to me going to a great restaurant. You know what you like over there, but every time you go back you order that and you enjoy it, but what are you missing? What is it about this other dish that might be better, but you’ve never tried it?
SoulTrain.com: On this album, I hear more of that broken beat/nu-jazz sound. Kind of reminds me of Bugz In The Attic or 4-Hero, but the album is still very much The Foreign Exchange. I’ve even heard it on some of your solo work, Nic, like City Lights. What inspired you to dabble more into that genre?
Nicolay: This came up in a conversation a little while back, but I think with +FE, we have always been people that listen to a wide variety of music and as we go over time, we are letting in more and more of those influences. We’re allowing for more of those influences to take place in our music. With Connected, it was very much an album that was based on a certain style and a certain sound and I think as we developed, we’ve been adding more and more other stuff to that and allowing more influences to take place in our music. This is just a reflection of both Phonte and myself being very big fans of groups like 4-Hero, Bugz In the Attic, Jazzanova and even stuff like The Beauty Room and the whole Sonar Kollectiv stuff. It’s really just another sort of flavor we are adding to the stew and kind of playing with. I think it’s just the same as when Te was talking about the vocals, and how you keep progressing. For us musically, it is the same thing where as we go, we take on more and more complex or challenging stuff, like the live strings on this record or some of the more housey, broken beat stuff. It’s just something that as we go we are able to capture more and more of what we hear in our minds really.
SoulTrain.com: It’s been an incredible journey to see where you all have started to where you are now with the full +FE music brand and label. So how are the two of you able to maintain that balance between being artists but also label heads and even friends with some of your artists like someone like Zo!?
Phonte: I can’t stand Zo! [laughs]. I’m about to write a “Control” verse about Zo!. I’m about to diss all them neo-soul [artists]. I’m dissing Zo!, Erro, Lalah, I’m dissing everybody.
SoulTrain.com: Now see, if this was another journalist, they would take that and run with it and be on Twitter right now repeating this and starting sh*t, but I know Zo! so I know it’s nothing.
Phonte: Oh yeah, right now! Totally! The way we are able to keep that balance is, you really have to have people that think like you and that understand it. I’ll never forget, I read an article years ago and Chuck D was talking about his label SLAMjamz. This was in the nineties, and he was saying the artists I sign, I tell them to keep your day job because it’s important to have one foot in the real world and one foot in the rap world. And at the time I was 16 and I’m like, why would you do that? If I get a deal, I’m never going to work. As a 16 year old, I couldn’t understand that, but 30 year old me certainly gets it now more than ever. What I think he was trying to say, and the way I understand it now just from the work Nic and I have done, is that you have to have people who have a very realistic vision of what this is and what +FE music is in particular. We are not the label that’s going to “make you a star.” We are not the label that’s going to give you a check, now go buy some jewelry, and we are just going to make you a star. We are not that label. We are that label that’s going to lead from the front, so if you see me and Nic working and if you see me and Nic putting out The Reworks and turn around and put out Love In Flying Colors, then I did Charity…, Nic did City Lights and he’s doing this remix, I’m hopping on this record. So if you see us still grinding, what the f**k makes you think you gon’ be able to stop grinding? This isn’t to say particularly to Zo! but with any artists, if you see the flagship artist of the label, if they are still going to get it, then you know you gon’ have to go get it. So the thing that makes it work so well with Zo! and Jeanne Jolly is that they are just two incredibly talented and beautiful people who just understand you gon’ have to work. With Man Made, Zo! was booking his own shows; he was going to get it. Before then, he was working as a teacher and doing shows. He was touring with +FE and was like alright, I have class in the morning so he kept his foot in both worlds and then once his school closed down, he was able to make that transition into being a full-time artist and he realized how much of a privilege it was. Now he’s never trying to let that go. It’s a privilege to make a living off your art–it’s not a right. And with a lot of artists, they feel like they are entitled to that and so that’s what has made it work for us. Jean is the same way. She will perform in places [where] I’m like, are there any black people? Have they ever seen a black person before? She will be in Idaho–states I’ve just driven through before but I’m like, are there places in Idaho where you hear music? She’ll be in Montana…
She was jamming and emailing us from the road like, “Yeah guys, I’m in Montana and we’re killing it out here and were selling merch!” And I’m like, I didn’t even know there was music in Montana. I didn’t even know that sh*t existed. I know French Montana, but that’s it. I think what keeps us is how we are able to balance it as business partners and friends and musicians; we all work to make each other better. We all go hunting and come back to the dinner table with something. There is no party that sits and says, okay I’m ready to eat so ya’ll need to go hunt for me. We are all hunting so when everyone hunts, everyone respects everybody as a hunter. And that keeps sh*t cool. We are all going to eat.
SoulTrain.com: How do you deal with a situation where you may be on two different pages creatively? Or has that ever happened
Nicolay: Not really. The thing about it, if we ever have differences of opinion, it’s about details that we’ve always been able to compromise on. It’s never really been you are about to do this and I’m not feeling it and you shouldn’t do it. It’s never been like that because we know at this point what the deal is basically, and what we want to achieve and what we want to do musically. I think we are both always trying to work at the top of our abilities, so it hasn’t ever really happened that we really had a creative difference of opinion where it came to any type of situation at all. It’s been very on the contrary–it’s always been surprisingly easy with mixes or putting albums together. We always read about artists damn near killing each other making records–which I realize people are normally held up in room with five sweaty guys so I get, that but for us, it’s always been kind of second nature.
Phonte: If there are differences, it’s very slight differences. I say a color is greenish blue, he might say it’s blueish green. It’s never, I say it’s red and he says black. It’s never that vast of a difference.
SoulTrain.com: Te’, what’s something that fans would be shocked to know about Nic?
Phonte: People would be shocked and surprised to know–which is shocking to me–that Nic is a cold-blooded m*********. He’s really like Dutch Schultz for real. He’s really cold-blooded. He’s the most calm and cool dude, just chilling and really gentle, but when he goes in, he goes all the way in and it ain’t over the top. It’s just two to the head with a silencer and it’s just over. It’s a wrap. People are surprised from the outside, because I’m the most outspoken one or the front man so I have to be outspoken hell I sing. So they think he’s just the calm gentle dude and I’m all over the place. But he gotta be crazy to f*** with me. We’ve been making records for ten years. Don’t let that fool you. He’s crazy. He speaks with his hands. He makes the tracks but if Nic rapped he’d probably be Gucci Mane or something.
SoulTrain.com: Nic, what’s something shocking that fans don’t know about Phonte?
Nicolay: I think about Te in a very similar way. They look at him and see someone that keeps it real, but he can be a real sensitive person. He can be a very caring and gentle person. I guess if you listen to the +FE albums, it may not be a surprise either, but there is a parallel between Lennon and McCartney. People always looked at Lennon like the out there dude–or that was the reputation he had; but then you start reading about it and you find out that McCartney was the guy that really pushed for the musical experiments and John Lennon didn’t really care much about that. It’s interesting how people can have an opinion about you, or you can have an air about yourself that may not always tell the full story. And I think over time, we’ve really gotten to know each other and when it comes to music, music is one thing but a business. Running a business is one of the ultimate levels of trust. When you share and run a business together and money comes into the picture, that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We’ve really built something up over the years and you can sum it up in one word, and it’s trust.
SoulTrain.com. My last question, and I always ask you guys this. What are the colors of this album? Leave It All Behind was black and white and Authenticity was fall colors, so what are these?
Phonte: This album is blue. The album cover was very much blue–it represents clarity. And the line in “On A Day Like Today”– “my grey skies turn to blue…” That would sum up the album for me. Sunny and optimistic and not optimistic to the point where it’s corny; not painfully optimistic, but you can see something brighter ahead of yourself versus beforehand, you could only see the light at the end of the tunnel as a train. Now I can kind of see there is sunshine ahead. That’s blue for me.
Arasia Magnetic is a true hip-hop fanatic and the former Executive Editor of KevinNottingham.com, now a contributing writer. She also contributes to Hip Hop DX, Potholes In My Blog and Hip Hop Site. She has interviewed Bob James, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Common and a host of others. Catch her debating and fighting hip-hop crime on Twitter at @arasiamagnetic.