Q&A: Idris Elba Talks ‘Mi Mandela’ And Collaborating With James Blake, Mumford & Sons
The actor/singer discusses a possible album based on his signature character from 'The Wire'
Golden Globe-winning actor Idris Elba (The Wire, Thor, Pacific Rim) releases his first full-length album, Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela, next week. The LP is a guest-packed collection of South African music inspired by his starring role last year in the Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Elba’s already somewhat well-known as a musician, DJing as Big Driis the Londoner and guesting on Macy Gray’s cover of Colbie Cailat’s “Bubbly.” But for his proper debut, he’s recruited Maverick Sabre, Cody ChesnuTT, Mumford & Sons, James Blake, the Mahotella Queens and various others to bring this European-mbaqanga fusion together, the first in a supposed series of albums he plans to release based on his most well-known portrayals. SPIN talked to the 42-year-old Hackney resident by phone about his upcoming effort, and what he has in store for a proposed Stringer Bell album and a hypothetical one for his Office character, Charles Miner.
When were you first introduced to South African music?
Probably in the ’80s like everyone else, around Graceland, hearing that sound coming through. I think that was the first time I heard South African music. Then when I got back to make the film, I got reintroduced to it.
What kind of research was involved in finding more about Mandela’s personal taste in music?
I didn’t get to speak to many people from around that time period. I’m talking about the time when Soweto was a hub politically, musically. The Mahotella Queens are actually a group from that time period with very popular sounds. In Mandela’s book, there’s quite a bit of reference to music in freedom, listening to that time period, the backdrop musically. I do a general scope of the time period of what was being played.
Was there anyone you wanted to get on this album whose schedule didn’t work out?
I didn’t have a wishlist, because I had this idea that I was going to show up with my musicians and a house band and just ask people as they came. Spoek Mathambo was very influential in helping me get people on board, but I didn’t have a wishlist of any particular acts, I just had a sound that I wanted to do. And that sound was a hybrid of South African melody with what I was swapping in from the U.K. — R&B and gospel, just mixing and infusing the two. We were really lucky to get the people who we got. They just came through when Spoek had called and came by the studio and just listened to what was going on.
How did Mumford & Sons end up getting involved?
Mumford and I worked on a video for one of their songs, “Lover of the Light,” and I got to know them from doing that. At the same time, I was in love with their song “Home” from hearing it on the Internet, it wasn’t on any albums and it was a beautiful song and I really wanted to remake it. So I asked them, and they said, “We don’t know what we’re gonna do with that song, we might use it. But why don’t you go ahead, do what you think you want to do with it, and then play it to us.” Eventually they loved it so much that they ended up playing on the record. But at first, they were like, “Look man that’s one of our favorite songs, too. We don’t really know what we’re gonna do with it even though it’s been on the Internet for a long time we might replay it, redo it.” Long story short is that they love it and we have it.
And how did James Blake fit in?
I was directing a video for an artist D’Banj, he’s a Nigerian rapper. I was in Brixton shooting that, having lunch at this place, and this kid came up and sat next to me and he goes, “Idris, I’m James.” And I’m, “Hello, man. I didn’t recognize you, you’re James Blake.” We know mutual friends. We sat there talking, and I told him what I was doing and he goes, “Oh man, I’d love to hear it.” So I sent him a couple of jams when I was mixing songs. He came down to studio to mess around with one of these tracks and the one he ended up on he came into the studio and plugged in the Rhodes and started playing. He didn’t want to sing, he just wanted to get on it.
Which of the tracks has the most interesting story behind it?
Each one of those tracks came up by having a jam session and chatting, but “Tree,” the song that’s written towards my dad… That version has seen a few incarnations. But the first version of it was me singing. It’s a very personal song, but I didn’t want to sing the song, it was too close to me, and at the time it was a bit weird. A friend of mine, Tina had a cousin, who happened to be a published singer, Tasha, who is a proper rockstar, very “been there, done that.” She cracked open the beers immediately and we were just in the studio, chillin’.
I was talking to Tina in a dark room, saying, “I wanted to sing this song but I can’t. It’s all about dads, it’s all about loss…” And Tasha just stood up and she goes, “Listen, I can sing it. I sing a little bit.” Then she laid down the vocal, it’s beautiful. We took it away, didn’t want to use Tasha on the song — even though it was beautiful I wanted to see if I could get someone else to give it another spin. Then Audra Mae, who sounds exactly like Tasha, came on board and she sang it, but at the same time Cody ChestnuTT came to the studio with me in London, and he sang it. What eventually happened is that I loved both their versions, and I stuck them together. They didn’t sing that song together, one was in New York and one was in London. They didn’t even know they were going to be on the same song together, but they ended up doing a duet.
How much of a say did you have in the music for The Wire or films you’ve worked on?
I’ve never had a say, to be honest. I’ve always kept what I do musically away from my film and television. There’s a massive stigma — I can hear it with journalists — attached to it so I always kept my music away from the film. In the last two, three years, I told myself, “I love music, I love doing it, and I have a perfect medium to launch new music in a different way.” Hence, the character album, my take on my character Mandela. With The Wire, I had only a say with placeholder type music.
I think what I would like to do in the future is that all the films that I do have a perspective musically. I might not do it for every character, but certain characters are just begging me to do music — not a soundtrack, but a character album, from the perspective of that character.
Whose version of [Wire theme] “Way Down in the Hole” was your favorite?
The original, Tom [Waits]’ version.
Going back to what you just mentioned: Are there characters that you’ve played in the past that you think you want to go back and do an album for or based on?
I want to do Luther [from the eponymous BBC crime series], and I really want to do Stringer [Bell, his character from The Wire].
What artists would you have in mind for a proposed Stringer album?
Not so much artists, but sounds. A Stringer album, because he’s so complex… For me, I would like an album that embodies Stringer’s claim, from season one to three, that he’s the man that’s on the rise and wants to get out and go legit, but he has ambition, he wants do things. For some reason, that album would be more jazz-inspired. Jazz came from a similar backdrop. Thelonious Monk was playing jazz in New York clubs, it was the only place to play that music, it was an uprising type of sound. It sat in between cracks like Stringer did, living in the street world but wanting to be in the corporate world. Not that I would make a jazz album, but the influences of the music would come from jazz, that hybrid.
A lot of fans have loads to say about a character album for Stringer, they’d be like, “No, man, he would be listening to hip-hop! No, he would be listening to reggae!” From my perspective, I would be going through what I assume the journey is for his character. Luther, for example, would be completely different. In my head, it would be more abstract, more Bowie, have a rock spine to it, a folky spine to Luther’s music. Although a character album for Luther would be a lot more open, there would be songs with words explaining where he is and what he is about.
What would a Charles Miner [his character from The Office] album sound like?
[Laughs.] Would be fucking hard techno, more industrial.
Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela is in stores November 27th. You can pre-order it here.