Alexander O’Neal Interview: “The best of me is on stage”

By Mark Johnstone
Fri 24 November, 2017

With two new albums on the way, the soul legend talks to Mark Johnstone about living in Manchester, getting out of his comfort zone and 30 years of his classic album Hearsay.

Alexander O’ Neal is currently celebrating three decades of his watershed record Hearsay with a re-recorded version of it.

Originally produced by former bandmates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it cemented not only O’ Neal’s success, but the reputation of the production team, who were in the middle of a gold streak with the likes of Janet Jackson, The Human League, S.O.S. Band and New Edition.

The original album had loose overtones of a concept album, with interludes suggesting attendees of a house party hosted by O’Neal. Throughout, he shows his affections for one of the attendees and observes the other guests. It all culminates with When The Party’s Over, in which he persuades the object of his affections to spend the night with him.

The album was an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic, and remains a critical darling, especially within R&B circles. The album spawned no less than five Top 40 hits in the UK, including Never Knew Love Like This, and O’ Neal’s signature hit, Criticize.

Now residing in Manchester rather than Minneapolis, he recruited funk band Mamma Freedom and set about making a version of Hearsay that speaks to who Alexander O’Neal is in 2017. It’s a little tighter than the original, utilising less electronic instruments and instead relying on the skills and chemistry of Mamma Freedom.

He is currently touring the album’s anniversary across the UK, before prepping the release of an-all new album in 2018, the blues-tinged Resurrection. In the middle of all this activity, he found time to talk to Planet Slop’s Mark Johnstone.

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Planet Slop: Congratulations on 30 years of Hearsay.

Alexander O’ Neal: Thank you! Thank you so much!

PS: One thing that is great is that you are currently on the road and doing your tour, but what is intriguing is that you originally recorded and released this in Minneapolis, but 30 years later, you’re re-recording, remastering, re-engineering it in Manchester. How was it doing it in a different location?

AON: It was great. We were working with a band out of Manchester called Mamma Freedom, and one of the producers in the band, Alexander Johnson, it was just a great experience working with these guys. 30 years ago it was the younger Alexander O’ Neal. Now with this album we’ve put a different twist on the music and I am very, very pleased with the way it came out.

PS: Since you put a twist in the music, have you changed the lyrics in any of the songs?

AON: We haven’t changed any lyrics at all. The structures of the songs are still the same, it’s just that it’s more mature, more live, a more warmer feeling, you know. It’s different, Mark, when you’re working with producers to when you’re working with a band.

PS: Yeah, absolutely!

AON: In this situation, I worked with a band and with these guys you get that band feeling, and it’s really wonderful. You get that warm feeling, and that’s what I wanted this album to feel like, grown up, you know what I’m saying?

PS: Yeah, of course! How did you meet the band?

AON: We met through our manager. He’s out of Manchester. I have a whole new team of managers out of Manchester. I really enjoy working with them all.

PS: Do you think it has given you a fresh inspiration, in a way?

AON: Well, definitely. Moving to Manchester has been really great, we spent so much time in London, and coming up north has given us a whole new outlook on England. You know, everybody in America knows that I have a very strong passion for England. We have great fans here, so I just enjoy coming here and performing for my fans, and this album has really been a treat. I’m really excited to see how my fans are going to accept this album.

PS: You’re touring at the minute, aren’t you?

AON: Yes, it’s working out well! We’ve had some great shows. And I tell people all the time, Mark – the best of Alexander O’Neal is what I do on stage. I don’t compromise my music. When I put a show together, I’m always thinking about my fans, you know, it’s always with my fans in mind. So, we’re excited to be performing here.

PS: Will we get the album in its entirety on the tour?

AON: Well, you’re gonna get all the classic Alexander O’ Neal stuff, but what you really get on this tour is, you get a nine piece band, you get a whole lot of soul music, and we don’t sample anything so everything is live so it’s the real deal.

PS: And is it Mamma Freedom that you’re playing with?

AON: No, these guys have been with me for years and years. It’s my regular band.

PS: The album is released on 1st December, and I know you have the Resurrected Tour for 2018 too, but do you have any other projects coming up?

AON: We got a brand new album that’s gonna be out in the new year called Resurrection, so it’s gonna be really good. It’ll probably be out around February – March.

PS: When did this album process begin?

AON: Well, I’ve already finished it. I recorded two albums this year. I guess I started it about six months ago.

PS: Did you record it around the same time as Hearsay?

AON: Yes!

PS: That’s great! You’ve got that fresh inspiration and brought a new twist to a classic!

AON: Yeah, it’s gonna be great though!

PS: Are we hearing new inspiration on this album? Now you’re living in Manchester do you have some local influence?

AON: This album here is gonna be different. It’s not going to be my typical Alexander O’ Neal R&B album, it’s gonna be more vintage. It’s gonna have a lot of blues, some soul, some jazz, it’s gonna be full of a lot of different things. It’s me coming out of my comfort zone and doing something a little different, Mark.

PS: And how was it coming out of that comfort zone?

AON: It was good, because it was something that I can do. I don’t wanna be just known as an R&B singer, I’d rather be known as just a great singer. So I do all kinds of music.

PS: We’ve seen you on reality TV shows in the past. Is that something you would do again?

AON: Well, you know, we just do something that they offer to us, and if we think it is good for my career, we do it. But other than that I don’t worry about it. It’s a great experience to do the reality TV stuff, but at the same time I have to take into consideration that what I do is, I’m a singer. I entertain people. That’s what I do. But it’s great to be able to do something different.

PS: And I guess it gives knew fans a glimpse of Alexander O’Neal.

AON: Exactly!

PS: Speaking of new material, we see Criticize 3.0 – a new video, a new twist…

AON: These days you can’t hardly release a new song without a new video. We just wanna get the music out there right now.

PS: What I love about this album is we see reissues all the time. In fact, I think Hearsay was released as a deluxe edition a couple years ago…

AON: The great thing about doing this album is putting some of the things in these songs that I would have 30 years ago. And I wanted to do it just the way that Alex would do it. So it was a great opportunity.

PS: And I guess that means the album can get a new chart status too. The first album came out and it was a big hit, but this is officially coming out as a new album.

AON: It’s basically a new album. In fact, when we completed the album I was so happy with it that I was almost reduced to tears.

PS: What bands or artists are you listening to at the moment?

AON: I’ve been listening to RagNBone Man. I like him. I really like what he brought to the table. And I like people like John Legend. Real R&B guys. I’m enjoying it,

PS: One last question – you’re touring at the moment. Where can people catch you on the last leg of the Hearsay 30 Tour?

AON: You know what, Mark? I really don’t know! I just get in the car and they tell me when the show is gonna be and get dressed and go do it! But all the dates on my Facebook or online. People can find out!

Alexander O’ Neal plays Liverpool’s Eventim Olympia on Friday 12th April 2019.