Everybody loves a comeback story. Everyone loves the underdog, everyone loves an undiscovered gem, and everyone loves a story of second chances. When it comes to Frankie Oliver, you get all those Oscar-worthy beats in one healthy package. A kind-hearted everyman back from the shadows, ready to play the old-time music he loves.
Oliver’s story begins back in the 90s, when he was signed as a reggae singer to Island Records. Doing what most could never do, Oliver chose his family over his fledgling music career, and took a steady job as a London black cab driver instead. And that’s where he’s been ever since, driving folks around London with reggae and soul records on the stereo. That is, until now.
Now two decades later, the planets have aligned. Oliver is back, with aptly named new album ‘Here I Am’. Soaring soul lead single ‘Tell Me’ has been playlisted at BBC Radio 2, and things are looking promising for Oliver’s return to the stage.
We caught up with Frankie to discuss his return to the music sphere, along with the unusual path that has led him to this moment, the process of recording his new album, and picked his mind over the world of reggae and soul.
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So it’s been an interesting road that’s led us to this new album. Not many have the courage to walk away from music the way you did. What was the reasoning behind it?
The main reason was I was having a very difficult time at home. My wife was left to bring up our children on her own because I was never there. Unfortunately, we both lost our parents so there wasn’t much help and I needed to be able to support my family financially. So that was the reason I took on the job as a black cab driver. The intention was to carry on writing songs, but not necessarily going out to perform them. More for other artists. But that never really happened.
And now you’re back in the swing, so to speak. What was it brought you back to recording music after so long away?
It was probably an impulse purchase of a guitar that I saw in the window of a shop in Denmark Street. I couldn’t put it down, and I suppose subconsciously melodies were coming to my head. Then one night I woke up in the early hours of the morning with a melody so strong I had to get it recorded. That song was ‘My Kinda Woman’.
You’re clearly a man who knows his stuff when it comes to classic soul and reggae. When it comes to your own musical sound, who would you say are your biggest idols? The artists you take the most cues from?
Without question Bob Marley is my biggest idol. He was very clever with his lyrics. I try to leave innuendos in some of my songs, but I can’t tell you which ones they are!
D’you think your musical interests have changed and/or developed in the time since your last record?
Yes definitely. I started listening to blues and soul a lot more after watching the film Cadillac Records, which blew me away.
A lot of songs on ‘Here I Am’ feel really well-developed and lavish. It feels like the album has a history. Are the songs all pieces you’ve been musing on for years, or was the whole album process an explosion of creativity?
I would say more the latter. Lyrically may have been the process of the last 20 years, but the music all seem to come at once, and when I began writing for this album I just couldn’t stop.
‘Man At My Window’ has to be one of the album highlights. It touches on those Sam Cooke gospel-tinged elements that the lots of modern soul artists are gravitating toward right now. Is that something you’re listening to a lot?
Yes I suppose you could say that. Listening to all those old classic soul artists from back in the day you can’t help but be influenced! ‘Man At My Window’ is one of my favourites on the album, it’s a song that only I know what it’s really about.
How do you feel about the state of soul and reggae music in the world today? Compared to the ‘glory days’ of the 60s and 70s?
I feel it still in a good place. Obviously it’s changed in terms of development. That’s why when we were recording the album the producers and I consciously made the decision to make sure everything was played live.
And how do you feel about the other artists like yourself, continuing to play soul and reggae? Do you have any you’re particularly fond of?
From the reggae scene I really like what Chronyx is bringing to the table, and I also love James Morrison. I was recently introduced to Michael Kiwanuka too, who I think is an amazing artist.
After the record comes out, are we likely to see a Frankie Oliver tour? And maybe another album down the line?
Well I will be performing at the 100 Club on 7th June. But there is definitely going to be another Frankie Oliver album down the line! I’m back to stay!
New album ‘Here I Am’ is out on June 9th. As Frankie says, he’s playing a one night only show at The 100 Club on June 7th – his first London show since supporting Ziggy Marley in 1996. As a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of reggae and soul records, he’s also recently done a countdown of his top ten singles of all time.