Grammy nominated singer/songwriter, Bilal, has just released his fourth studio album, A Love Surreal. After several years of working mainly in collaborations and after a devastating album leaking, leading to the failed release of his 2006 work, Bilal is back with some surrealist sounds and some awesome new ink as well.
INKED: Over the years, your music has been qualified as a lot of different genres such as neo-soul, funk, R&B, hip-hop, and more. How would you personally describe your sound?
BILAL: I just do music, you know? I leave it up to the listener to categorize it. The only thing I won’t allow the listener to categorize me as is “neo” [soul]. I try to think about it as something with all different genres in it. So I don’t really give it one name.
You come from a very well versed musical background from jazz and opera and of course your time at the New School . How has that helped you to get where you are today?
Well that definitely got me a good foundation on knowledge, theory and just music, how to write music and stuff like that.
So A Love Surreal was released today. Can you tell us about that?
I’m just really excited about it. It’s a pretty solid effort. I feel like I came a lot closer to my goals as far as production and sound. I’m pretty excited. I’m happy with the album.
A couple of years ago you had an issue with your sophomore album Love For Sale; it was leaked and never released. How has that experience affected your work on newer tracks as with A Love Surreal?
You know it just made me kind of shelter the music so it won’t be bootlegged. That whole experience has made me a lot more protective of the music. But other than that, this album pretty much ran smoothly. It reminds me a lot of Love For Sale because you kind of got back to live instrumentation a lot more on this record. That was heavy locked.
The leaking of Love For Sale has also been used to your benefit because a lot of people have now been exposed to it. And now you have released The Retrospectation Mix Tape for free. How did that compare to Love For Sale?
Well, I don’t know, ever since Love For Sale I’ve gotten a little bit more savvy with what happens on the internet. So I just gave the mix tape out for free. So that people would listen to it, you know? I’ve just learned to go with the times and how everything is being marketed. It’s not just radio anymore. It’s pretty cool.
A Love Surreal has a really interesting title. That’s a Salvador Dali reference, right?
Yeah, definitely. The album, as far as the photos and what I wanted to landscape, and the theme, I wanted to kind of have a surreal kind of tapestry. I wanted to make music that almost felt three dimensional and that’s what I get from Salvador Dali’s work. Like if you stand in front of his paintings, it’s almost like you can jump inside of it. It’s like a three dimensional kind of vibe when you’re looking at it. When I saw it [Dali's work], I was like I wonder if I can make music, that kind of sound, that sounds like you can swim in it.
Clearly, art has a big influence on you.
Yeah, definitely. I wouldn’t say that I’m a big art connoisseur or know many artists, but from living in New York I have had a lot of painter friends and it’s cool to trade concepts. One of my good friends is a painter and he sees himself as a musician because he plays guitar. So while he’s painting, he’s thinking of it as a musical composition, so that got me into thinking about music in a different way as well.
And you have your own art collection in a way. You have a lot of tattoos. What are some of the pieces you’ve gained over the years?
Yeah, I started getting tattoos in high school. Around 2002 I started getting tattooed by a lady named Denise [De La Cerda] in Jersey City and she moved her spot over into Brooklyn. She pretty much has done most of my tattoos. My other tattoos I started getting out in L.A. and I did some of them at random. But they all just have a certain meaning as far as my journey in life. I try to put things on me that would make me remember certain things but I don’t like writing. I like pictures. [Denise] is my main artist, but she moved away to Indonesia, so I have to find a new one.
What are some of the pieces she’s done?
Well, she did my whole right arm. We started off with a scarab. She also did a tiger pushing fire down with cool stuff in the fire like naked ladies and a Buddha and other things. But I just like her. We got to a certain place where I would let her just draw whatever she wanted to towards the end. I’d let her just have fun and do art. I really trusted her a lot.
Do you have a favorite piece?
Yeah. My new favorite piece is on my left arm. I got it out in L.A. by this guy named Dr. Wu [of the Shamrock Social Club], but it’s a Chinese watercolor painting of a bird looking at a waterfall in the distance. But I like it. It’s right on the inside of my arm. I look at it and it kind of gives me serenity, you know? It’s just peaceful scenery. [laughs] It’s like when things get a little hectic for me, it’s my little place of peace on my arm.
Do you have a general style for your tattoos?
I just get whatever I feel. I’ve gotten a liking into Chinese style, but there’s no real style. My main theme right now, well my old theme used to be just ferocious and fire. But on this other arm it’s just peace and balance and Zen. That’s pretty much my whole arm right there.
Aside from working with just tattoo artists, you’ve also worked with a lot of other artists from Beyonce to J Dilla to The Roots. Is there anyone you are currently looking to work with or anything we’re going to see in the near future?
I’m not sure. There are some things in the works. I’m doing a new record with a jazz pianist named Robert Glasper in March and things come in randomly.
You worked with Robert Glasper on A Love Surreal. How was that?
Easy. You know I’ve known Rob since college. We were like college friends and we both went to the same school, so we’ve known each other for about ten years. So it was a no-brainer.
Back in the summer of 2011 you had The Little One Tour to raise support and awareness for Autism. Do you see yourself doing anything like that in the future?
For sure. I love to raise awareness for Autism. It’s something I probably will be doing for the rest of my life. My oldest son has Autism. One of the main things that I’ve been doing is just getting involved and trying to find alternative ways to get it out there. Through his Autism, I have found that my son is just an incredible drummer. We jam all the time. Just me on guitar and him on the drums. He’s pretty ferocious.
And “Little One” was a song written about your son correct? It must have felt great when that song was nominated for a Grammy.
That was surreal. [laughs] It was really cool. I did not expect it, so I was very happy.
Any last comments?
Just that my only hope is that people enjoy the record and stay tuned for what’s to come to a town near you.