Entertainment & Arts

Lion Babe: Working with Pharrell 'expands your mind'

Lion Babe Image copyright Polydor Records
Image caption Lion Babe's videos are visually striking, thanks in part to singer Jillian Hervey's dance training

It's a rule of animation that every successful cartoon character should be recognisable by silhouette alone.

If the same rule applies to pop stars, then Lion Babe have their future guaranteed.

Frontwoman Jillian Hervey cuts an imposing image with her cascading leonine locks; and the band's music is equally fierce.

They first came to attention in 2012 with Treat Me Like Fire, a slinky, shapeshifting song that hits the sweet spot between pop, jazz and R&B.

It brought Hervey and her co-writer Lucas Goodman to the attention of record labels and fellow musicians alike, and the past 18 months has seen the band work with the likes of Mark Ronson, Childish Gambino and Pharrell Williams, who produced their new single Wonder Woman.

Speaking to the BBC during a recent trip to London, the duo discussed growing up with famous parents and what it's like inside Pharrell's studio.

Image copyright Polydor Records
Image caption Hervey trained at New York's New School, while Lucas studied music at Boston's Northeastern University

Hello! How are you?

Jillian: We're great, thank you! We're in the car between photo shoots.

Is that as glamorous as it sounds?

Jillian: Yeah, why not? It's definitely a lot of fun. Good to have the photos for later on in life!

Do you get to take the clothes home?

Lucas: No!

Jillian: I'm working on that. Actually, the shoes I have on right now were part of a shoot. I kept talking about them and eventually they worked it out so I got to take them home with me. Hopefully down the line we'll get some more freebies!

Does being a dancer help you in front of the camera?

Jillian: I definitely think I'm more aware of how to hold my body. But Lucas isn't a dancer and he's doing just fine.

Lucas: She's been showing me some moves. I'm learning.

Image copyright Polydor Records
Image caption The band will be playing US festival Lollapalooza on Lucas's birthday. "I'm not very bummed about that," he laughs

How long have you been Lion Babe?

Jillian: It's been two years since we've been working as Lion Babe every day - but our friendship started six years ago.

I met Lucas at a party where, just by chance, I heard his music. So I introduced myself and told him I liked it. We didn't really stayed connected, but I followed his MySpace. And then I ended up in New York for college. I had to do a piece for school with original music - and Lucas was the only producer I knew.

We did that and it went very well. A very easy collaboration. Eventually I mentioned I was interested in singing and he came over to my apartment. He was making beats up right on the spot and our first attempt at making a real song was actually Treat Me Like Fire, which was our first single.

That song got you a lot of attention. When did you realise it had taken on a life of its own?

Jillian: When we first got a response from the UK, that was definitely surprising. It was maybe two weeks after the song came out, and we were like: "Woah! How did people in the UK find this?"

Then we started getting emails from UK labels. It all happened very fast but we knew the door was open, so we wanted to take it seriously.

Image copyright Polydor Records
Image caption "In a perfect world, I wish I could live in the jungle," says Hervey

Growing up in a showbusiness family (Hervey's mother is actress and singer Vanessa Williams), was it always in the back of your mind that you'd pursue music?

Jillian: Actually, growing up, I didn't want to go into acting and singing because that was my mum's thing. It was too much pressure. But dancing gave me more confidence to try other things.

Treat Me Life Fire sampled Eunice Collins, and your next single sampled Nina Simone. It's very brave to draw that comparison. I guess you're very confident in your voice?

Jillian: I wouldn't say that! That's the beauty of working with a great producer. If he had the guts to make the beat I had to have the guts to sing it.

I knew I didn't want to sound like all these people on the radio, so having these unique, rich voices was a challenge. If Nina Simone's on the track, I'd better step my game up!

You practically disappeared for 18 months after Treat Me Like Fire. What was happening?

Lucas: We had to write more songs! A lot of people thought we were more established that we actually were. In the end we only had one song.

What's it like working with Pharrell and Mark Ronson? Is there a danger they'll dilute what made you special in the first place?

Lucas: We're not really worried about watering anything down. In the end, the main thing is "do we feel it or not?" If we don't, we should just move on.

But as fans of music, the experience of working with these people is amazing. I learned so much in our session. Not so much from the things he said but from watching him work. All of that cycles in your head for the next week. It expands your mind.

Image caption Lion Babe composed their hit single Wonder Woman over two days in Pharrell's Miami studio

So what's Pharrell like in the studio?

Lucas: We had two days with him in Miami. He's a really busy guy, so he was working on other things at the same time.

We'd go into the studio and get started. Then he'd come in and vibe out for a minute, and he'd make some parts right there and then - like a bass line or a little guitar riff. Then he'd be like, "OK, I gotta go. I'll be back in a couple of hours".

So we'd take the parts and start writing and re-arranging. Then he'd come back and we'd show him what we'd got. He'd be like, 'OK that's cool" and maybe lay down another line on top.

Since you've been in the UK, you've performed covers of Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up and Janis Joplin's Piece of my Heart. Is that the kind of music you're trying to emulate?

Jillian: Not necessarily. When it came to doing these sessions, we really wanted to think of an American artist who'd come over the UK with a raw funky flavour, and who was really embraced. So if it wasn't a Janis song, it would have been Jimi Hendrix.

Our parents introduced us to funk and soul, so it's a natural place for us to go - but we also love The Strokes and Grace Jones and Lee Scratch Perry.

Often the songs we reference when we're writing are completely different from the ones we end up making!

What are you obsessing over at the moment?

Lucas: This guy called D.R.A.M. - he's got this song called Cha Cha, which has this great melody with this mariachi, almost cheesy, trumpet sound. It's so good.

Trumpets seem to be back in fashion at the minute.

Jillian: I like it. I used to play trumpet so why not? My trumpet's actually red. Fun fact.

Is that coming out on the tour?

Jillian: Not telling!

Wonder Woman is out now on Outsiders/Universal. Lion Babe's debut album follows later this year.

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