If you’ll forgive some self-promotion, Labi Siffre’s 50th anniversary box set, My Song, drops today. I wrote the liner notes.
Let me back up a moment: I first discovered Labi’s music — actually, just one song at the time, “I Got The” — circa 2000 when it was sampled on both Eminem’s “My Name Is” and Jay-Z’s “Streets is Watching.” And for quite a number of years, I just thought “someone with a memorable name made a pretty good funk track.” That’s as far as things went.
Then, in 2008, Charles Aaron gave a wonderful paper about Labi at that year’s Pop Conference and for the first time, I realized there was so much more to him than just a single song. This is one of those rare cases where I can precisely pinpoint a lightbulb moment of realizing “I want to learn more about this artist.” It truly did begin with Charles’s paper.
I quickly discovered “damn, it’s really hard to find Labi’s albums in the U.S.” because none of his “˜70s LPs were ever distributed here. Hell, the CDs didn’t appear until the late “˜90s. I ponied up for int’l shipping costs from the UK and one by one, began to bring in his LPs. All of them are awesome in their own right but his 1972 LP, Crying Laughing Lying Loving absolutely floored me. As I wrote here, it was like I had been waiting my whole life to discover Labi. I was that moved by his genius.
A few years later, I wrote about Labi and his music in a lengthy post here.
It was a modest attempt to articulate part of what I found so magical about his music. As it turns out, he read it and when it came time to find someone to help pen the liners for his box set, he and his manager approached me. To say I was honored would be a massive understatement. (On a side note, even if blogging feels very “mid 2000s” now, creating Soul Sides has been extraordinary good to me over the years).
It was an interesting process. For one, it was originally slated to be 2000-3000 words which seemed sufficient at the time. But then I realized the paucity of writing about Labi out there. It was shockingly little, all said. And so, in my desire to try to tell a story that hadn’t been told before, I began asking for more and more details. I blew past 3000 words with ease and sheepishly went back to ask “uh, so how much longer can I make this?” The reply, which was heartening, was: “as long as it needs to be.” They ended up being a bit over 7000.
Also: I’ve written my fair share of liner notes but never in such close collaboration with the artist. He preferred to conduct everything by email and so each new piece of correspondence brought forward all manners of personal details, a few corrections, the occasional poem. By the end, he had taken to copy-editing the notes. (He felt I used too many commas. Guilty as charged).
All in all, I’m very proud of the final product. This says more about how scarce extant writing about Labi is but I believe the liners for My Song comprise the most comprehensive set of biographical and discographical background about Labi ever written though I very much hope others go further and do more; he deserves it.