Published Feb 27, 2013Bilal's latest album A Love Surreal is a Salvador Dali-inspired outing that juxtaposes soul, funk, and jazz sounds to create an imaginative redefinition of R&B. The Philly-based artist has always existed in the highly respected wing of the R&B pantheon and his fearlessness in feeding his musical muse — commercial considerations be damned — has been a defining characteristic of the artist's career. Although likely a bit too laid-back for the mainstream, A Love Surreal is a breezily solid R&B/soul affair that represents Bilal in fine form.
Your last album was ultimately about shaking off the "neo-soul" label that many aren't fond of, yourself included. So what were you aiming to accomplish with A Love Surreal?
With this album, I was just really trying to take it a step further in terms of my musical journey as a songwriter and producer. The journey is in finding my own sound and niche.
You've been quoted as saying this project is like an "audio art gallery." What do you mean by that?
Salvador Dali was kind of my muse as far as his artwork is concerned. It's almost like three dimensional. It was about being to recreate that in the sound of this album. It's almost like music that you and listen to and see.
What is your artistic process when it comes to creating music?
I don't really have a process. It's a lot of different ways. Sometimes, I'll have a melody for a long time and it can go through phrases in my head for years. And then sometimes I can have some lyrics that I write down and it will happen that way. And sometimes I can create in the studio, with the musicians like a jam session. Lot of different ways.
What do you prefer: performing live or recording in the studio?
They are two different animals. When you are in the studio that's like a completely creative world. It's almost like a laboratory. You get to create, experiment. But on stage, it's go time. It's still a creative environment, but we're creating from something that has already been created.
So putting the "neo-soul" label aside, how would you describe your music?
It's just American music. It's a mix of all kinds of genres. All the genres that I've been exposed to. I grew up in the church, I love the blues, I'm a jazz musician, and all of those things show up in the music. There's classical music, things like that. I have trouble describing my music. I just call it American music.
To terms of creating this album, do you actively check and see what people like Frank Ocean, Miguel or the Weeknd are doing when it comes to R&B?
I just create my own thing. I try not to listen to anything else while I'm creating. I don't want to sound like anybody else so I kind of just draw from my own head. I don't want to do something that's already been said. I think me living in the world is good enough. I don't have to absorb anymore than that when I'm in a creative space. [But when] I'm on tour and on the bus, one of the things that I like to do is buy up a bunch of albums on iTunes and listen to them.
At this stage in your career, what keeps you making music?
I just love to do it. It's something that I have been doing since I was around four years old, singing in front of my family, singing in the choir, writing songs and shit. It's just something that I've been doing. I think maybe being a father and seeing my kid has reminded me of the reasons because it's something that I love to do. I don't really ask why at this point because I have so many ideas.
Do you start thinking about your musical legacy at this point in your career? In terms of your place in the overall American music landscape?
You mean do I wonder if I'm in there?
I don't think I'm going to be so bold to think about stuff like that. You know what I mean? I leave that for the people. My main concern it to just do stuff that I would like to perform for the rest of my life. That I will be able to recreate and play for the rest of my life and love it. I feel like if I accomplish that, everyone else will probably feel the same way.
So what do you define success then, on a personal and professional level?
From creating an album and having it sound like I envisioned it, that's success. To bringing out the album, putting it out on the market and having it make a ton of fucking money. I don't shun any of that. I love it all.
Has your approach to making music actually changed from your first album to today?
No. The thing that changed is just the confidence from album to album. But as far as my initial mission for doing this is the same. I came into the game and I wanted to inject my own voice and vision. I wanted to make music that can be recreated in many different styles, like how Stevie Wonder would write music. He wrote jazz standards in my opinion. You can hand out his sheet music to any style of musician and they will all have their own interpretation of the song. I wanted to make music like that. That's always been my goal.