Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire talks collaborating with Cee Lo, electronic music and new video
Kanye West likes to think of himself as unique, and I'd never hate on the hip-hop art star for that. 'Ye's 15-round wrestling match with his own ego makes him prolific and ambitious, resulting in work like the long-form music film (we used to call them videos) for "Runaway" -- a beautiful and provocative effort that builds on the legacy of such audiovisual geniuses as Michael Jackson and Madonna.
It's always good to remember, though, that forward-thinking artists operate on all levels of the pop game: the mainstream, where Kanye lives; the underground; and even in corners where you might not think to look. Consider Philip Bailey. As the angelic falsetto in Earth, Wind & Fire, Bailey co-created some of the funkiest, most innovative and beautiful sounds of soul fusion's golden era. He had a hot '80s moment dueting with Phil Collins on "Easy Lover." Since those days, like many veteran stars, Bailey has continued to move forward with music loved by his core fan base, while bringing home the bacon by touring with Earth, Wind & Fire on the revival circuit.
What connects Bailey to Kanye right now is that the elder star has also made an artistic music film to expand upon themes within his recent music. Unlike West, Bailey didn't direct the film; he enlisted the young multi-talent Tishaun Dawson to follow him on tour in Europe and film segments in three cities: Venice, Paris and London. The film, "Love Is Real," is viewable on Bailey's website. Starring the model and UC Santa Barbara film studies graduate Sherina Manning as a contemporary Dorothy moving through a fashionable Oz, it's a lovely counterpart to Bailey's new music, which is unexpectedly adventurous.
"I’ve been working on my own project, which was very electronic-inspired, and one of the artists I was inspired by was Cee Lo, espeically in Gnarls Barkley," he said during a morning phone call from his Los Angeles home, where he was preparing a healthful breakfast of steel-cut oats. "So when I got the phone call and was asked if I’d be interested, I was very excited, most definitely."
Bailey's new material is atmospheric and lush, highlighting that still-miraculous falsetto. Inspired by the likes of Imogen Heap and Björk, he's shaping new ways to match the eclecticism of his earlier work.
"I think that the electronic -– for lack of a better term -– genre offers more freedom than any of the other quote-unquote genres, because it can represent all the musical beds, from hip-hop to classical," said Bailey. "If it’s 'black' music, you have to outstreet the next person. If it’s pop, you gotta play up to that. But in this genre, there was everything from A to Z."
The five tracks on the downloadable "Love Is Real" EP live up to Bailey's promise of diversity, with jazz, dance and world music elements combining in a smooth blend. Bailey has made the music available on his website and for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. Financing the project himself, he said, has allowed him the freedom for which he's always wished.
"I take that quote from Napoleon: 'Every adversity has in it the seed of its equal or greater benefit,' " he said. "What I’ve gained from the state we’re in now, not really knowing where record companies are, and not having the support of a major label, it's an opportunity for me to just do what ... I wanna do. And to work my project as long as I want to work it and not be determined on the life of some executive."
Bailey's new work is worth checking out for the sheer pleasure of it -- and also to remind us that veteran artists can also travel in new and exciting directions. Kanye has earned his place on the top of today's hype heap. But Bailey, who's been there too, still deserves some of our attention.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Still from Philip Bailey's video for "Love Is Real."