We caught up with French producer Onra ahead of his new album, Fundamentals, and to accompany the interview we’ve got an exclusive stream of album cut ‘So Long’ featuring Chuck Inglish.
Time flies when you’re having fun. And time goes by equally fast when you’re busy working. Viewed from the outside, via the filter of Instagram photos and Twitter updates, the life of a touring artist today may appear to be all fun and games. Peek behind the curtains, however, and you’ll see a different tale unfold: long hours, constant travelling and the pressure to facilitate the crowd’s release from their own daily routine and constraints.
We’re often told today that live music is the saviour of independent musicians, allowing them to earn a living wage. Most of these conversations miss an important point: if you’re playing live and touring, you likely have no time to write new material. And therein lies the catch 22 of the modern independent musician.
French producer Onra, born Arnaud Bernard, has been touring and playing shows more or less non stop for the past three years, splitting the rest of his time between his home in Paris and temporary residence in Thailand. Next month he returns with his fifth solo album, Fundamentals, released via the Irish label All City, his home since 2010. Inspiration isn’t something most artists can simply turn on, and so while three years may be a long time to stay out of the release cycle, for Bernard it was a necessity.
“I knew I didn’t need to explain to anyone how to rap on those beats”
“I was juggling doing shows and seeking something that could inspire me,” Bernard explains from his Paris home. “I finally found it by returning to my fundamentals: rap and r&b. I listen to so much music that it’s sometimes hard to find those feelings you had when you were a teenager, when you could listen to one track and be stuck on it for what seemed like forever. I just started listening to things I listened to when I was younger and it gave me the idea to write an album coloured by these feelings. I was looking for an aesthetic.”
On Fundamentals Bernard puts himself in the traditional hip-hop role of the producer as conductor, providing the music to a diverse cast of rappers and vocalists that span two decades and various styles. There’s the new breed exemplified by Harlem MC Perrion, the OGs such as Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger and Chicago cult indies Do Or Die, and then there are the members of Bernard’s own generation, singers Suzi Analogue and Olivier Daysoul and Detroit’s own Black Milk.
Upon announcing the release, All City coined it “an homage to the 1990s” which leaves Bernard somewhat uncomfortable. “It’s not really an homage. I think the album sounds very modern, it’s not a throwback thing, even if there a couple of joints, the track with Melodee and the one with Do Or Die, that are a nod to the old days.” From its drum sounds to the melodies and sequencing, Fundamentals steers clear of the restrictive mentality to “keep it real” that still afflicts portions of the rap underground. “It was more about colour. I wanted to reproduce a sort of colour, a sentiment that I had when I was a teenager listening to this music.”
Bernard first emerged amid the MySpace revolution in the mid-2000s, hustling self-releases like his much loved Chinoiseries beat tape that flipped obscure Vietnamese and Chinese records into chunky hip-hop beats. In 2008 he passed through the Red Bull Music Academy and debuted on All City with 2010’s Long Distance, followed by the 2012’s Deep In The Night EP for A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold. Those releases cemented him as a hip-hop connoisseur with a penchant for the sultrier sounds that informed modern r&b and swing.
It’s this sweet spot between snapping rap joints and smooth r&b ballads from the 1990s that also informed his Throw Em Up project with Montreal’s Lexis. For the past few years the pair have been digging for old classics and forgotten gems from the mid-90s, serving them up to hungry audiences via online mixes and DJ sets. “I’ve discovered old tracks through doing Throw Em Up that I love today just as much as if I’d found them in 1995. Coming across such tracks today changes nothing in a way, it’s timeless music.”
Fundamentals was written in a relatively short period once Bernard had seized upon the idea and made time for it by clearing his live schedule. “Some of the tracks are five years old, some more recent, but I never thought anything of them. That changed overnight, once I decided to take a break from touring. It hit me. I had months ahead of me with no shows and I began to work on the album and it all came together.”
As has become the norm, the vocalists for the album were recorded remotely with Bernard orchestrating from his Paris studio. Trusting in his choice of vocalists, Bernard took a break from convention and opted to send the music with hardly any briefs, and often with no other choices: “I knew I didn’t need to explain to anyone how to rap on those beats, I knew it would come naturally to them.” Producer- or rapper-led albums can often result in an inconsistent mess, the music an excuse for the co-sign of 10 different artists in the hope of propping up sales or hype. Fundamentals sidesteps this entirely. It’s a coherent piece of work, a rap album tinted with the emotional colours Bernard sought. It lets each vocalist shine, your attention balancing evenly between the music and the raps.
Since his debut in 2006, Bernard has worked exclusively with hip-hop’s trusted workhorse, the MPC. Akai’s sampler gave much of hip-hop’s output in the 1990s its distinct sonics, from DJ Premier’s work on Gang Starr to DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking debut for Mo’Wax. While the music world, hip-hop included, has largely moved on to software-centric workflows, Bernard still hammers at the pads in his studio. “It’s the only thing I know to use,” he tells me with a sly laugh. He wanted Fundamentals to be the last album done on the MPC before he attempts to move with the times.
“I tried to make it sound cleaner, more professional,” he admits before pausing and asking if I thought it sounded good. The truth is that until I was made aware of it, I hadn’t realised the album was entirely written, sequenced and output on the machine. Bernard’s doubts are understandable, but the results speak loud and clear. “I don’t want to be put into the same bag as other producers who work in a computer,” he explains before affirming that even if it’s not the best way to work, it’s something he wants people to know. “Like when Quasimoto came out,” he says, excitedly pointing to Madlib’s debut solo album. “We know now that it was all done on the SP-303. And for me that adds to the charm. I’m like ‘this guy is crazy, how do you do this with a 303?’”
Fundamentals is released May 15 via All City. Pre-order it on iTunes.