Lorenzo Ferguson, or Zo!, as he’s known to fans, released his new album ManMade — a rakish collection of house and ghettotech-tinged slow jams — back in May. It’s another idiosyncratic and uncompromising release from Foreign Exchange Music, fueled by intense collaborations between Zo! and the Foreign Exchange’s Phonte Coleman (credited as writer and producer). The second single, “Count to Five” featuring Gwen Bunn and Phonte, is propulsive soul-pop about real-life concerns like anxiety and transition. And don’t miss the charming video, which pays homage to the ’70s era of Sesame Street when the kid’s show was almost activist in its embrace of multiculturalism and positive vibes. We spoke over the phone about the new album, being doggedly independent while the music industry crumbles, “jheri curl music,” and even afforded some music nerd trivia about ’80s softies Mr. Mister. Zo! is celebrating the release of ManMade at the Casbah in Durham tonight along with the exploratory jazz trio the Hot at Nights.
INDY WEEK: Can you just explain the meaning behind the title a little bit? It’s striking as a declaration that also has some modesty to it. In contrast to, say, more obnoxious declarations like “self-made.”
ZO!: ManMade is actually the first album I’ve done as a full-time musician. I was teaching in the Washington, D.C., school system for five years. I taught music to Special Education high school kids. And when the school shut down, which was right after … just visiting three was released, I became a full time musician tossed into the fire. I had planned on doing that already but, you know, it was a little bit earlier than I expected. So, ManMade is based around the grind of the independent musician. It’s definitely not a 9-to-5. It is a 24/7 job and you’re doing all your own business. It’s very, very difficult.
The cover looks like you’re headed to a factory job, which also suggest this indie musician grind.
Definitely. On the album cover, it looks like I am walking to work, but work is this broken-down building that represents the music industry as we know it today. You know, the music industry now is trying to adjust to everything that’s going on with the Internet and digitally, and you know it’s almost seeming a little outdated and going through some struggles. The cover is me, the indie musician, going to work and walking into this dilapidated building and bringing my shine to it.
In my opinion, a crucial element to the artistic success of your music and the whole Foreign Exchange crew’s music is a certain old-fashioned sense of collaboration. In sharp contrast to the way a lot of music now is less about collaboration and more about different people stitching different things together. ManMade just sounds like people in a room working closely together.
I always give the example of, say, Earth, Wind & Fire “After the Love Is Gone.” In the beginning of that song, the tempo is a lot slower than what it ends up being at the end. Simply because they’re playing those instruments and they’re playing them like it was live. And when you start playing, certain energies and emotions increase, and when you start vamping out, the tempo has climbed from five to seven beats-per-minute. By the end of it, those guys are really going in and that’s part of recording. Recording is about capturing different feelings and emotions, musically. The more feeling that you’re able to capture, the more you can connect with listeners.
Is part of it too, then, about embracing what would be seen as accidents or mistakes?
You have to keep the mistakes. I was reading something by Rick James and he was talking about how when you’re recording, it’s good to keep a lot of those mistakes, simply because when you’re playing live, you’re going to have mistakes. It’s not going to be perfect and polished. And I totally agree with that. It’s funny because Phonte and I laughed about this last week. There’s a song on SunStorm [Zo!’s 2010 release], where there is a mistake. I won’t even point it out but if anybody can catch it, hats off to you.
What was the mistake?
It was some vocals coming out of the headphones and they ended up bleeding onto the vocal track. When I sent the final copy to Phonte, I took that part out. And he hit me back he said, “Yo man, where’s my part at?” And it was like, “I didn’t even know! I didn’t even think about it. It’s bleeding, let me take that out.” We had been listening to the song with that mistake in there for so long that it started to sound good. Good mistakes add character to your music.
There’s a more apparent dance element on ManMade. How did that come about?
I’m from Detroit, and that’s house music central. I’m sure my Chicago counterparts would argue with me there, but in Detroit, we grew up off of house music and ghettotech. That’s what’s behind songs like “The Train” on ManMade. I also grew up listening to a lot of champagne soul or jheri curl music, which is what I like to call it. Listening to producers like Leon Sylvers III of the Sylvers family, who ended up producing for folks like Shalamar, the Whispers, and cats like that, influenced songs like “We Are on the Move.” I just came to realize one day I didn’t have a lot of dance joints. And going out on the road with Sy Smith kind of put me onto that. When she released Fast and Curious we did joints from that, they would be winners live. I wanted to do more uptempo stuff, but I wanted to pull from stuff I grew up on.
You seem to be particularly focused on ’80s music: house, quiet storm, synth-pop. Are you interested in teaching your listeners? The …just visiting series, where you carefully curate covers, feel like a syllabus almost. Are you trying to educate listeners?
It’s not even necessarily ’80s music, especially with the …just visiting series. It’s more like moving more towards album cuts in general. For example, “Let It Go” by Pages. I heard that maybe about a year or two prior and I couldn’t stop playing it. And then I found out that two of the same cats that were in Mr. Mister, who sang like “Broken Wings” and all that kind of stuff, they were in the group Pages. So, it’s definitely an educational process because I’ve had numerous people tweet me or just tell me they’ve never heard a certain song until we remade them. People don’t know or just don’t remember it. With Zo! & Tigallo Love the 80’s in particular, it was about music that gets lost in that ’80s sound because sometimes it was overdone or sometime it’s kind of corny. But once you strip it down to the songwriting it’s like, “Wow, this is a nicely written song.”
Another element of that ’80s stuff, especially the jheri curl music, as you said, is that the people making it feel more down-to-earth in some ways. They felt like regular people. Are you trying to continue that tradition of regular-person R&B?
I think it’s just how it comes out. It’s not anything that we’re planning on doing, like, you know, even when we do videos it’s interesting what people notice. For example, in the “Greater Than the Sun” video, people are like, “Oh man, Zo’s driving a Kia! He appeals to the regular people.” And you know, it’s crazy because that car was in the video because that’s what I rented to drive around in Atlanta that time around. It happened to land in the video. We’re basically talking about what we’ve living. And you know, we don’t consider ourselves as superstars and we’re not flying everywhere first-class and we’re not popping all kinds of bottles or whatever. We’re living in homes. We’re your next-door neighbors. This is the music we know how to make. We’re not trying to reach and grab this big barrel of superstardom. We’re just writing from our experiences and we’re just creating from our souls, man. And that’s what’s in there.
The Art of Cool Project hosts Zo! Thursday, July 25, 8 p.m. at Casbah. The Hot at Nights open. Tickets are $20, or $30 including ManMade.