THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE: The Right (creative) Decisions
Interview By: Melody Charles
Searing and soulful verses served over ethereal, aquatic beats, colored with varying tones and textures that intrigue the ears and expand the mind…these are the trademark characteristics that Nicolay and Phonte Coleman have established musically as members of the duo Foreign Exchange, a phrase that describes the combination of their Dutch and Durham, NC roots and musical influences.
Their 2004 debut, Connected, was a long-distance alliance of beats and rhymes tossed back and forth via the internet, and 2008’s Leave It All Behind, which featured the poignant, Grammy-nominated “Daykeeper,” maintained the momentum and broadened their fan base.
We spoke with them about their latest album Authenticity, Phonte and Nicolay describe their latest masterpiece, how they collaborate in the studio and why they refuse to throw their tracks and raps on just anything with anybody.
MELODY CHARLES – Let’s start out with discussing the process: is producing something that grows easier as time goes on? And how do you both decide on which tracks work and which ones don’t?
NICOLAY– Well, creating the music is something that you have to have a certain talent for, really. At the same time, it’s a skill developed over time with a lot of work and experience. It has taken me about ten years to get where I am today, and you do that by learning, trying new things and working hard, using every opportunity you can and taking it.
PHONTE– It’s all based on feeling, we’re very intuitive in our approach and we’ve learned that if it don’t feel good, it just don’t work, you know what I’m saying? When we first started doing tracks sight unseen early on in our career, it was really the music that was leading us, that universal language. Even without us kicking it together everyday, we were sharing the music and creating together , and that can actually tell you more about a person than sitting in a bar and sharing a beer would. For us, we use the music as our guide: Our saying is that ‘we only bow to one master,’ and that’s the music. If I do a lead and it doesn’t sound right, or if he adds something and it sounds a little busy, we’ll drop it and move on, because we’re all in service of the music, what feels good and what sounds good, and that’s what keeps us on track.
MC–Exactly. Did you have a conscious style in mind when you began creating Authenticity?
Nicolay-It kind of happens automatically. I think that Leave It All Behind was a step forward from our debut, and it wasn’t like we really sat down and decided ‘this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’ We just really follow the inspiration, follow the muse, and when everything is said and done, we kind of make a balance and create the album. The fact that all of the albums come out unique from one another is just a byproduct of our general approach to music.
Phonte-To me, it was about doing records that were kind of more stripped down: when we started making this record, we knew that we really wanted to make something that could be played just on a piano live and the audience would still be able to get the idea…..just something that wouldn’t be as ‘produced’ or ‘polished’-sounding as the last one was. Authenticity is more of a somber record, more bare-bones in its approach. It’s a lot more loose and open.
MC–Let me detour from FE for a minute to ask about outside collaborations: how do you decide who to work with and why?
Phonte– When I get tracks and requests to do stuff, I just don’t do every cameo that I’m asked to. There’s a lot of work that I turn down, stuff that I don’t feel the need (to collaborate on). If I don’t hear a place for myself on it, I’ll be honest and tell the artist ‘look, I don’t think you really need me on this.’ When I worked with Mint Condition on their track, for example (“Somethin,” from their 2008 CD eLife), they sent me the joint and I was like, ‘okay, it feels good and I can hear a rap on this.’ My goal is to serve as another instrument in the song, to just give it another color, but not everything needs a f***ing rap on it. I understand a lot of artists do it for marketing purposes but to me, it just doesn’t feel right if it doesn’t fit the song. No matter how big the name is. It’s like ‘dude, why the f*** did you ever feel the need to do that?’ I never wanted to be that rapper, the one you listen to and think, ‘why the f***is he on that song?’ (laughs)
Nicolay– The format of an album allows for far more deep expression and material, so for me personally, FE is my first priority and I think that as a production team, we are both interested in expanding our brand to include others that might work well with our approach to music. That’s what we are trying to focus on.
MC–I feel you both on that one. As for the new CD, any favorite tracks yet?
Phonte-I really like the first song, “The Last Fall.” With every album, Nicolay and I have what I call an ‘oh sh*t moment’: when this track came along, we were like ‘aah, here we go’ and that was the one song that set a lot of things in motion for the rest of the album, that’s the one that made things and started to make sense and click.
MC–Don’t get me wrong, “Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me” is gorgeous, but I want to know what’s up with “Laughing At Your Plans.” What’s the story behind that song?
Phonte-(cracks up) That song is about something personal in a lot of ways. I don’t want to give away what the song is about, but I hope that it hits listeners in a particular place.
Nicolay-I really think that if people hear Authenticity the way we hear it, hopefully they’ll recognize some very honest expression from the both of us. The cover really shows where we’re taking it, and I’m super-excited, I can’t wait for people to hear it.
MC–We’re anxious to hear it too guys, trust me! Before we wrap it up, just one last question: did the Grammy nomination feel like a gift to you both, or a curse?
Nicolay– We were never really consciously trying to get to that level, I just think we just followed our hearts and our sense of what the right (creative) decisions were, and the nomination was a validation of that. I think that we’re on the right path, because we make decisions based on one thing, and that is doing music that we both love. The nomination just confirmed what we already knew, that we were making greats steps one at a time.
Phonte– I don’t have a problem with the Trey Songz of the world, or with any other artists that are considered to be on the opposite spectrum of what we do. They’re in their lane and I’m in mine. As long as the fans hear the music and appreciate what we’re doing, we have an audience, so I’m good. The stuff that we make is true to us and eventually, we’re going to be found by the people that really get it.