Foreign Exchange Being the Best Self

Foreign ExchangeBeing the Best Self
Photo: Chris Charles
By now, the backstory of how R&B/electronica/hip hop duo the Foreign Exchange came to be is a prime example of the collaborative power of the internet age: virtually meet on the OkayPlayer hip-hop message board, collaborate by sending digital music files (Netherlands meets North Carolina) and create a hot album without ever physically having met (debut album Connected). Well, 2004 feels like a lifetime ago and even though Phonte Coleman and Nicolay (real name Matthijs Rook) now live in the same country, five albums deep the process still hasn't changed — they still create music the same way, only now it's an interstate exchange (Phonte in Raleigh and Nicolay in Wilmington, NC). The biggest thing about the band's popularity is the devoted fan base and how they interpret the purposefully way each album puts a different spin on the soul and hip-hop elements — Connected was decidedly hip-hop heavy while 2008's Leave It All Behind was arguably more soul-influenced.

While last album, 2010's Authenticity, took a decidedly stark and stripped-down musical turn, new effort Love In Flying Colors is intentionally brighter, expressed as an sonic exploration of the complex emotion, and represents a solidly consistent album for the duo; Phonte (ex of hip-hop crew Little Brother) has grown tremendously as a vocalist, perfectly complemented by Nicolay's ever-evolving yet signature "electro-soul" sound.

The Grammy-nominated duo state that they hate being put in a box — as independent artists (and as founders of indie label FE+ Music) mainstream award recognition or underground fan base expectations are noted, but don't ultimately influence how they want the music to sound. It's about making music their way, drawing from hip-hop, R&B, and all points in between.

What did you consciously want to do different with this album?
Phonte: I think that this is something that's a lot brighter. This record is just a complete 180 from the last record, Authenticity. It's just a lot more colourful, a lot brighter. That's all I will say about it.

Does attracting Grammy nomination attention change how you approach the music?
Nicolay: I don't really feel it did change anything outside of the immediate moment. For our immediate family and friends, it was about validation in terms of the work that we've put in all of these years. That was really something we enjoyed. But in terms of our basic approach, we really didn't change anything because our philosophy is really doesn't include the Grammys. We were very proud to be included, because of the music itself. I think going forward it would have to happen the same way. I think we've always put the music centrally and make the music we want to make and want to hear. After that we start thinking about what people might think of it but it really starts with us and what we like.

People have different expectations with Foreign Exchange, so how do you address that?
Phonte: For me, I'm just happy that people are engaged. I mean, it's like arguing what's your favourite Star Wars. If you're George Lucas, what fucking difference does it make? All these shits are mine, so fuck it. But for me, I know, I see that — people say they want Connected, or they say they want Leave It All Behind — but that's something you really can't get into as an artist. You really just got you make your music and just let it land where it lands. But I'm just glad people are engaged and listening. And if nothing else, they give us a chance, if just to see where we're going to go next. That's important to me: keeping people interested, compared to keeping people happy.

That said, so how do you define your sound? Do you even think along those lines?
Nicolay: I really don't, to be very honest. I haven't for the last ten years. If you're in the game and want to be part of the music industry, it comes with the territory: people want to know what box to put you in. For us, we're a group that lets our influences steep through our own music. I think as a result you'll see a lot of different flavours, a lot of different styles. You can call us electronic at this point or you can call us organic. You can call us soul, a little bit of jazz, some hip-hop. Ultimately every label that you put on it will fall short. We kind of stopping trying to explain and hope that the music does the talking. Whatever people want to call it, we're fine with it pretty much.

What's the collaborative process like these days? How has it changed from back when you guys were in different countries sending music back and forth?
Phonte: It honestly hasn't changed at all. The only difference now is that we have phone conversations about stuff, just because we are both in the States. At the time, when we made Connected, this was before Skype and Google Voice and whatever. You made a long distances phone call, that shit was expensive. Everything is the same: Nic records his tracks and sends them to me and I just work on them here. Some of the songs on this record I worked on a little bit at a time, one day do a verse, tighten it up, the other day do a hook. Stuff like that. I'm working out of my own studio now. The process is the exact same. The bulk of it was probably done in three months, something like that. I know the first song we recorded for the album was "When I Feel Love," the last song on the album. That had to be late 2012.

Phonte, do you have a different creative process when you're singing versus rapping?
Phonte: To me, they're both exercises but they're working different muscles. With rhyming, I might spend like an hour writing a rhyme but I could just spit it in one take and it's done. But you can come up with a verse in ten minutes but then spend like an hour recording because there are so many different ways you want to try it — from the harmonies, or how I want to arrange it. So I don't think one is necessarily harder than the other but I thinking that singing is scarier than rhyming.

It's almost like if you watch cartoons and Wile E. Coyote is always running off the edge of the cliff and shit. He would be running off the edge of the cliff and walking and almost make it to the other side and then look down to realize he was walking in the fucking air. It's like that. If you really think about how many things can go wrong in the process of doing it, it will scare you. That shit is very fucking rough. So for me the main difference, I think that this is my best vocal record, where I gain full confidence in my voice. With Leave It All Behind and to some degree Authenticity, I think that was still me trying to find myself and grow more confidence in myself as a singer. But with this record, I know that I left everything on the line. I don't care what nobody says, critics or otherwise, I sang my motherfucking face off on this record. Not John Legend's face, not Jamie Foxx's face, mine. I did the best me. That's what I'm proud of myself for on this record.

Ha ha nice. And Nic, how had your approach to producing and making music evolved over the years, in terms of the sounds and influences that you draw from?
Nicolay: I think for me and for Phonte, we're always trying to get better. I think that when you release an album, it's a good picture of everything that you can do but so a good picture of everything that what you can't or couldn't do. So I always take stuff that I hear after the fact to get better at the next go around so I can get better and there's that consistent quality. I think with this record, because Authenticity was a little bit stripped down and had a little bit more acoustic elements and bare sound, with this record we opened a little bit back up on this front. We both really wanted to do something that was a lot more upbeat and bright. I think that sound-wise, just like how Phonte said he was able to do the best him, for me I think that sonically that this is our best-sounding record. When I put this CD in the car and I listen, it sounds exactly how I want it to sound. And you rarely have that sensation, or at least I don't because I'm such a perfectionist. To hear it and know that it's exactly how I want it to sound is an awesome sensation. I'm really proud it not only the songs but in how they sound.