Bilal Oliver

A conversation with singer Bilal Oliver AKA Bilal is both entertaining and profound. For his latest album In Another Life, produced by Adrian Younge, he looks at the world through multiple perspectives. We caught up with Bilal to hear more about his creative process

“It was about getting out of writing the same song over and over again,” says Bilal Sayeed Oliver AKA Bilal on his latest album In Another Life. “I had to get out of my own life and my own perspective; to try and view the world from a broader angle.”

The album, produced by Adrian Younge, is a ubiquitous look at the world today – done so through multiple perspectives. For instance ‘Lunatic’, in which Bilal gets inside the mind of a crazed killer, is inspired by the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting by James Holmes – who just received 12 life sentences and 3,318 years imprisonment on 26 August.

Spirituality is something that is embedded
in us as inquisitive human beings

Another is ‘Satellites’, where Bilal imagines visiting Planet Earth for the first time. “Watching the world watch people as they do what they do to people”, sings Bilal. In the end of the music video for the track, two policemen kill Bilal’s character – a nod to recent incidents of police brutality in America.

“One of the major things that I try and do with my music is to help somebody out,” he says, “enlighten someone to my philosophies or things that I've come across.”

You mention philosophies; I heard that you've been reading about zen?
Well I wouldn't say it was the concept behind the whole album but maybe it turned on a light in my head on how to conceptualise everything.

Maybe it just shows up in a lot of my thinking. But it's nothing that I'm trying to do or trying to put out there. It's just something that I came across and it opened up some doors in my head.

The songs have different characters. Could you speak about how you came about creating these perspectives in the album?
'Lunatic' came about from the news. Things can come like that or through a conversation with friends – or in the studio with Adrian [Younge, producer]. They also come from things that I think about on my own. I keep a journal.

With this album I would spend a lot of the early part of the day at the beach with just my guitar and notepad.

It's like if you stare into the imperfections
on the wall and a face pops out

Then I would get to the studio and Adrian would be well into a melody or a drum track and I'd close my eyes and all that stuff that I was thinking comes out through osmosis.

The album has a strong emphasis on the writing side.
Yeah, I mean Adrian's music is very cinematic. It really lends itself to telling stories.

Could you speak about some of the songwriting techniques you used? You spoke about this technique created by Steely Dan.
Yeah like a picture book. You take a bunch of books that you like to read and cut up the pages. Then you paste them all back together again how you like them. I would do that and see what pops out. I write a lot of my songs like that.

It's good because you never know what's going to happen. It's like if you stare into the imperfections on the wall and a face pops out.

Do you feel you're someone who thinks a lot?
I would say maybe. I'm kind of introverted. I don't really go out much. Maybe I am a lot in my head, so I guess I'm a contemplative type of person.

How long have you been keeping a journal?
Maybe off and on since I moved to New York. I moved there in 1997 to go to college. It was just a different city and a different place. Being away from home for the first time, I just started to write my thoughts down. It's something that I've been doing off and on.

Everything goes through waves and phases;
you can't be super productive all the time

I wouldn't say it's something that I do every day, but I go through years where I'm keeping a journal and then maybe I'll stop. Then I'll go through more years.

It's a hard thing to maintain.
Haha, yeah.

There’s also the risk that you could write something and realise you’re quite boring.
Yeah, one thing I notice from my early journals is that I used to try and write and see how profound it was and shit. Now my journals are like, going to the bathroom. Some of the dumbest shit ever but afterwards I feel really good. Like I just released a lot of bullshit out of my head.

You can find a purpose for documenting your daily life. It seemed to make you write a lot?
Maybe for the last two years. My last two albums I wrote very quickly – Love Surreal and this new record In Another Life. There were songs that were written right away. In Another Life really took us like one to two days to do each song.

I don't look at it like, shit I'm doing a lot of stuff right now. Everything goes through waves and phases; you can't be super productive all the time. Especially with art, you have to live a little and take in life so that you can translate it in a certain way.

I'm sure songwriting is a very egocentric process. Was there something that made you want to look outwards with this album?
I don't know. I like to write from a lot of different perspectives. So that it's not dull. I like everything I do to have a new vigour to it. I went through a certain phase where everything I wrote was like a love song. I love R&B and what it's known for is that it’s what you put on when you're with your lady.

People need a freedom song, a song that
unites people of likeminded thought

I want to make music like that and music that's for regular things you're doing in life – or things that can move you forward.

There's a lot of troubling stuff in the news at the moment.
For me, this is nothing new. There's always turbulence in the world and injustice going on. It's always there. It's just something about the media that sometimes, maybe the right people don't see it.

All my albums that I've ever put out try to raise awareness and speak about this stuff. That was the major thing with Bob Marley or these people that I really liked. Jimi Hendrix, 'Hey Joe'. He's talking about the riots going on and those things are going on now. It's crazy how shit ain't changed.

Sometimes it’s about the way you raise awareness. A song can be more effective than a piece of news.
People need a freedom song, a song that unites people of likeminded thought. That's why music brings people together and starts friendships. Music can even start a war if someone's playing something you don't want to hear.

Social awareness is not a new channel for you then?
No it's always been there. I've just never been only socially aware. I make music about the human experience and how I translate that in my head.

There is some sort of moral compass
in all of us; just as there is creativity

Sometimes as a person with many emotions, there's many levels that can be touched upon.

You grew up with a Christian mother and a Muslim father. Did you have a spiritual upbringing?
You could say it was spiritual but it was definitely a religious upbringing. Spirituality is something that is embedded in us as inquisitive human beings. We find our own spirituality through the questioning of our own life.

There is some sort of moral compass in all of us; just as there is creativity. It's the thing that separates us from creatures. That's something that is embedded inside of us.

Growing up with a mum that is a Christian and a dad that is a Muslim can just be something like going to church. But it made me think about spirituality and religion a little bit deeper because these are two different religions but so similar.

All the religions that speak the same monotheistic, Abrahamic language don't get along. It's funny because us humans have so much in common. You go all over the world and look at different groups of people and you see that there are more similarities than differences.

That's the hardest thing to do in
this day and age; just sit down

One of the things that opened my head up was seeing my parents go through a zillion debates.

Sometimes it's the act of involvement with religion that cultivates spirituality and awareness. Such as with zen.
Yeah. One of the major things of zen is sitting and realising that there is no real way. In having a way you're realising that there is no way. No way is actually the way.

Religion is like government. And Government, if you break it down in the Latin base that we all derive our language from, means the governing of thought.

That's why I like zen because it's not really religion, it's a way of thinking and a way of life. You're not trying to convert anyone to think the way you do. It's just an understanding that you come across yourself. Just by sitting and trying to connect with everyone else and everything else.

It's also radical to go against rationality.
Yeah, and it's so hard to just sit down and not move. That's the hardest thing to do in this day and age; just sit down.