"More than anything else, the biggest crime as an artist is to be boring."
Phonte Coleman, the primary songwriter, vocalist and animated gif half of the Foreign Exchange, has probably never been at the receiving end of such an accusation. Over the course five albums with partner Nicolay, Phonte has equated love to an excuse, displayed affection through lunchtime chicken wing delivery, and made a gorgeously passive-aggressive ode to the better mate. His songwriting is unparalleled in its combined frankness, humour and relevance in our everyday dalliances. "As a writer, you got to believe that even though a sentiment has been expressed a million times, this one time is about to be special," he tells Exclaim!
For Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey (out now on their own indie label), specialness is sought through perspectives that deviate from Phonte's usual worldview. "The title is a nod to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, where you have all these different characters telling a different story and getting their own voice and dialect. While previous records have been personally driven, this for me was more character-driven."
Thankfully, that 14th century influence does not carry over to the sonic aesthetic of Milk and Honey. Musically the album marries R&B, crossover jazz, '80s funk, piano ballads and more in a way we've actually come to expect from the group. "We went in wanting to do a bit more with house influences, and more with uptempo styles," reveals composer and producer Nicolay. "It's a short record too. It's 37 minutes and it's over before you even know it. At the same time, it doesn't feel like anything is missing. I guess it's just another attempt for us to make a perfect record as we always try."
Phonte adds, "It was really kind of fast and kind of loose and a lot of fun. It made for something that is a lot more immediate. I think this is maybe our most digestible album. The music [is] very much a kind of Chic-meets-Fleetwood Mac kind of vibe."
They do wish to clarify a few things. Despite Milk and Honey's collaborator and touring band-highlighting artwork, the Foreign Exchange are still a duo. Also, Connected was so 2004 — a return to that sound (and more rapping) is not going to happen. "I think it's really become part of our fabric to push ourselves and our listeners," Nicolay says. "If Phonte and I sat down today and tried to do a followup to Connected it would be an unmitigated disaster. It would be checking none of the boxes that people are looking for."
Phonte jokes, "I think a lot of our other records were made with a chip on [my] shoulder, like 'I'mma show these motherfuckers!' I spent so much of my early 20s and young adulthood just fighting and trying to find my place. Now in my 30s, I've settled in to who I am, I'm more comfortable being me than I've ever been. I don't got to fight no more, I am who I am."
That attitude is almost painfully laid out in the self-aware ballad, "Face in the Reflection," a self-aware coming-to-terms realization of adult identity that Phonte himself wasn't sold on until the album's very late stages. "You have this idea in your head of who you think you should be, or what society has told you you should be, and then there's the reality of who you really are. I think a lot of time, your life is based on trying to reconcile those two parts."
Prior to releasing the lead single "Asking for a Friend," Nicolay tweeted to the effect of it making or breaking them as a group. The made-for-the-memes video features a three-piece suit and faux-British-accent-toting Phonte carrying on in an small office and aerobics space. "There's always a risk with doing that," Nicolay states obviously. "Ultimately it shows what Foreign Exchange at its core is about, which is a sense of adventure. I think it worked out. It kind of always does. One day it may not."