Izo, even though your new album is called ‘How The Mighty Fall’, ‘Resurrection’ could be another fitting title. When your debut album was about to be released, you lost your voice and had to undergo surgery on your vocal chords. It took a long period of rehabilitation before you could speak and sing regularly again. Did you sometimes doubt at that time that there could be a second album?
Hi! It was a very scary time for me. I’d just got back from touring Europe and was excited to head back into the studio again. I was worried my voice would change dramatically after the surgery. It is a frightening thing not knowing if your voice will have the stamina to last a show, luckily after a huge period of rehabilitation, I genuinely think my voice is stronger than ever!
How strongly has this experience influenced your work on the new album?
Having to retrain my voice has meant that I now have a lot more flexibility in my range. I also needed to work on finding some softer tones to my voice, which certainly works on the ballads.
Many of your new songs on ‘How The Mighty Fall’ are about relationships, about break-up, but also about second chances. You yourself have experienced personal crises in the past years. Are your personal relationship experiences an important source of inspiration? And would you consider yourself an autobiographical songwriter?
I am definitely an autobiographical songwriter. I find my best writing comes from deeply personal experiences and when I’m most emotionally heightened. My relationships, and also my relationship with myself – mental health etc. have all played a huge part in my song writing style.
Izo, I have read that besides Soul and R&B you also heard a lot of Yacht Rock around the making of ‘How The Mighty Fall’. Do you think that had an impact on the album too?
100%! I am an enormous fan of Michael McDonald. He is one of my favourite singers, and I spent a lot of my teens listening to the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. I love how those bands manage to perfectly blend jazz, quirky lyrics and soulful vibes. Catchy as hell! I am partial to a catchy hook or two, so you can hear this in ‘Slim Pickings’ and ‘Red Line’ on the album.
How would you describe your own musical development since ‘Skyline’?
Since ‘Skyline’ I have developed as a pianist, and looked a lot more into other musical styles besides gospel and soul, most predominantly, classical, jazz, yacht rock, and disco.
On ‘How The Mighty Fall’ you work with exquisite but also very different producers like Dimitri from Paris, Shawn Lee and Colin Elliott. The result is a versatile album, always rooted in Soul and Gospel, but not afraid to take a detour to the Disco dance floor. Was this variety planned in advance or did it rather happen during the recording process?
I am probably a very difficult artist to work with in that I just write what comes out, and then try and work out where it sits. ‘I Want Magic’ wrote itself, and is my first foray into the disco world. The album has a plethora of different genres but Colin was crucial in bringing them altogether cohesively.
The disco-inflected single ‘I Want Magic’ has developed into a true club anthem over the past year. You recorded the song with the famous French electronica producer, DJ and keeper of the Disco grail Dimitri from Paris. Had you planned the song as a Disco number from the beginning? And how did it finally come to the collaboration with Dimitri?
The first time I played ‘I Want Magic’ was when I was supporting Lee Fields in London. The reaction was really strong so afterwards the label and I discussed how Dimitri would be best to take it to the next level. He was an absolute joy to work with, from the get go he understood the sentiment of the songs and how musically to support that. Cotonete really took it to soaring heights.
‘Slim Pickings’, produced by Shawn Lee, was another favourite single of 2019. What was it like working with the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and ‘Silver Fox’? And how did you meet?
I initially wrote a yacht rock number called ‘Glory Days’, which sadly didn’t make the album cut. When I asked Trevor McNamee at Jalapeno who would be best for yacht rock, he immediately mentioned Shawn. I regret to say I’d never heard Young Gun Silver Fox before but I’m a huge fan. Shawn is phenomenally groovy. He absolutely gets what a track needs to make it extra funky. His studio is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. Filled to the brim with any instrument you could possibly imagine. It was unbelievably fun and quick working with him.
However, most of the album was finally produced with the renowned producer Colin Elliott, who was nominated for the Mercury Prize and has worked with artists Jarvis Cocker and Paul Weller. Please tell us a bit about the collaboration and the recording process of the album.
Colin worked with me and the band from the beginning. We spent weeks arranging and fleshing out the tracks to resemble what you now hear on the album. He is a wonderfully talented producer. Always fairly quiet when we were working out our ideas, and politely honing them into a much bigger sound. We spent a lot of time up in Sheffield at Yellow Arch Studios, getting the sounds exactly right.
You are supported amongst others by the infamous Haggis Horns, whose members have played for artists like Jamiroquai, John Legends and The Roots. How was the collaboration in the studio?
The Haggis Horns are super funky! They bring a really vibrant quality to the record. What makes them stand out is how well they blend together as a section, and how they sit back in the pocket.
Izo, I have read that you are a perfectionist in the studio. Would you confirm that?
Eeek! Yes I think I am. I’m very protective and precious about my projects. Once I have an idea of what the songs should sound like, it’s hard to steer away from that sometimes. Having said that, the band and all the producers were brilliant in helping me be more flexible!
Cooperation seems to have been important to you for a long time. You have refined numerous productions with your voice over the past years – whether of Dr. Rubberfunk or recently the great ‘Sweet Time’ of Kraak & Smaak. What do you appreciate about this creative exchange?
I am very grateful for the collaborations I’ve done over the years. I’ve predominantly always written alone so it’s been a big learning curve working with really successful song writers in different genres and learning about their processes.
Izo, let’s talk a little bit about your musical roots. Even if you growing up in London, your music has a strong Afro-American influence. Did Soul, R&B and Gospel play an important role in your parents’ home?
When I was growing up I listened to a lot of soul. Motown and Stax were always on in the car. I was always most attracted to listening to male soul voices like Bill Withers, Otis Redding, and James Brown, and tried to emulate them as much as possible.
Which artists have particularly influenced you?
I love Janis Joplin. Her style, her emotive performances and that voice! Bill Withers is a huge influence in terms of his songwriting style. He proves you can say a lot with very little.
The great dame of Gospel Mahalia Jackson said once: “When you sing Gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” You have been singing in gospel choirs since you were 19 years old. What fascinates you about this music and what role does the spiritual aspect of gospel music play for you?
I am obsessed with gospel. I will quite happily listen to it every day. It really lifts your spirits, and you can feel the joy in the songs. Whilst I’m not particularly religious, gospel is about singing to something bigger than yourself. It takes you out of the humdrum of every day, and makes you hopeful and grateful. I love the positivity in gospel music.
Is it true that you began your song writing craft with comedy songs?
Yes it is. I started writing and performing dark comedy songs when I lived in Glasgow. I think that’s where I learnt about story telling in general which still forms a huge part of my songwriting. I loved the idea of combining weird, twisted comedy with soul and gospel. It’s a very strange combination! One of the first songs I wrote/covered was changing a gospel song ‘Praise To The Lord’ to a song called ‘Lost All Belief’ about feeders.
What made you decide to leave your comfort zone as part of a gospel choir and perform your own songs as a solo artist?
I wanted to challenge myself vocally when I joined Soul Sanctuary. It’s a very different skill singing complex arrangements with hugely talented other singers. I still struggle sometimes because the other singers are that good! I first started writing serious, emotional songs as a song writer when I moved to New Orleans. I struggled with my mental health and writing provided a way for me to understand what I was going through.
On ‘How the mighty fall’ you worked again with the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir. The support of the choir gives your songs an incredibly strong power. How important is this collaboration for you and your music?
There is nothing better than singing with your friends. They are a phenomenal bunch not just musically but as individuals. The power of voices transcends everything else musically for me, and I will always want vocal harmonies to be a big part of what I do.
Gospel music depends heavily on the interaction of the choir with the community. How important is it for you to perform live and feel the reactions of the audience?
Since touring ‘Skyline’ in 2017, I have been overwhelmed at the emotional reaction to the songs from audiences across Europe. I feel enormously grateful that the songs connect, especially when there is a language barrier. My favourite show to date was in Cangas, Spain where some hard looking male rockers were slightly tearful, and appreciative of the gentler moments in the set.
In March you will play some shows in Europe. What can the audience expect at an Izo FitzRoy concert?
A lot of energy! A lot of good hair, dancing, and rousing vocals. I can’t wait!
Are further tour dates planned for 2020? Can we maybe see you soon in Germany?
There will be a longer German tour in the autumn!
One last question: I heard that you are already writing album number three. Do you have the feeling that you are at a creative peak right now?
I feel very confident in my song writing right now. I’m grabbing on to my creativity while its here. Who knows how long it may last.
Izo, thank you very much for the interview!
Thank you so much!
This interview was published for the first time on March 14, 2020
Photo: Izo Fitzroy