“It’s about liberation, about being freed from musical constraints and perceptions, about pushing the envelope and challenging ourselves and making it edgy,” says Jan Kincaid of MF Robots’ debut album. MF Robots aka Music For Robots is his project with Dawn Joseph. “It’s about not being afraid, just doing it for yourself, and having a really good time doing it and making sure our audience has a really good time too,” says Joseph.
Jan Kincaid, the former drummer, songwriter, producer, and founder of the Brand New Heavies met Dawn Joseph, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, when she started singing for the Heavies in 2013. The pair instantly clicked, and within their first week of working together, they were writing songs. By the end of their first month, they already had far too many for the Heavies to realistically put out. They kept writing together though and after issuing the album, Sweet Freaks, with the Heavies, they left. Now they’ve formed their own band, MF Robots – their name, a subtle dig at how generic today’s music climate has become – based around Joseph’s effusive vocals, mindful of soul’s golden age but no revival, and Kincaid’s killer rhythms. Touchstones for Joseph are Anita Baker, Gladys Knight and Whitney; their classicism viewed here through a modern lens. “The first time I heard Dawn sing, I was gripped,” says Kincaid. “Her voice just pulled me in.”
Dawn Joseph is key. A vibrant personality, both on and off stage, with a rich musical past – she started out playing bass with Phil Collins’ band and has sung with acts as diverse as Kylie Minogue, Michael McDonald and CeeLo Green – she’s a part of that lineage that connects Rick James, Nile Rodgers and Grace Jones. Her attire, which she designs and makes herself, is flamboyant and colourful and she carries herself with a flair and verve; the 14 songs here are testament and very much cast in her image.
See the duo’s first single, the jubilant The Night Is Calling, which sets MF Robot’s manifesto. “We live in miserable times,” says Kincaid. “Artists and musicians have a responsibility to reflect and react to that and that’s probably why we have so many singer-songwriters singing depressing songs at the moment. But someone needs to be providing the pressure valve; the escapism; the much needed party funk so you can step outside for a while, and that’s our role, that’s what we do.”
The Night Is Calling encapsulates the thrill and excitement of getting ready to go out nightclubbing in its triumphant mood; it’s a rallying cry for Parliament’s Party People to get dressed up like the cat’s meow and dance the night away.
“It was the second song we wrote,” says Kincaid, “and it took us by surprise just how easily it came together. Sometimes when you write with people, you have to explain where you’re coming from, you have to explain points of reference and get to know one another. With Dawn, we got each other immediately, the songs just came naturally, the sound, the production, the flow of ideas was amazing, there was chemistry.”
Recorded on a shoe-string budget, songs came quick. Most were written in a day, sketched out on a computer in Kincaid’s London home studio, then Dawn’s vocals were captured as she sat on her bed in her Hertfordshire home. With the first two songs, the aforesaid The Night Is Calling and their second single, Come On With The Good Thing, the pair fully scored and arranged them, then invited musician friends to the studio to overdub some parts live.
Kincaids’ brother Per played bass on several of the tracks, and other musicians included Naz Adamson (bass), Mark Beaney (guitar) and the horn section is made up of Graeme flowers (trumpet) and Andy Ross (sax).
The remainder of the album, meanwhile, was constructed in the studio. “It was very organic,” says Joseph, “just going back and forth, throwing out ideas, trying them, trying different versions of them, always striving to make the best record possible. There was never a point when we said, ‘That’ll do.’”
Whatcha Sayin’, the album’s opener, is a future classic in the making, about saying goodbye and moving on, and the message is both powerful and positive as Dawn sings, “I’ve seen the future, it’s the perfect one” over a slab of stand tall funk with blaring horns and a funky drummer beat.
Woo is a fiery ball of energy, built on a 60s R&B styled stomp of a backing track, the kind you’d find Junior Walker blowing his sax over. “It’s about blowing the lid off, you know, being overcome with the excitement of everything, just going woo…” says Kincaid. Believe in love, is, says Dawn, “our Stevie Wonder moment”. It’s seven minutes of luminescence with seraphic harmonies, thudding bass, reaching-for-the-heavens horns and melodic throbbing synth and atop that sits Dawn’s “I believe” churchy cry. Show Me The Love summons a similar radiance, it’s emancipatory and freeing. “A bit cheeky too,” says Kincaid, “you know, show me your love, show me what you can do!”
Talk and OTM [One Thing Missing] were written by Dawn on guitar. Both are brilliant textures throbbing with emotion and feeling and wrapped in lush, sensitive production. “I wanted to write a modern RnB song,” she says of the first. OTM, meanwhile, was written about the pair’s blossoming romantic relationship, fanfared on Greatest (Me And You), a beautiful soulful ballad with shared vocals, sung straight from the heart. “And another thing, it’s just getting better,” they enthuse. The rich blend of both voices which features throughout this album is particularly evident on this track. Elsewhere, Sweet Harmony is thrilling electronic funk, all synth riffs and loops, think Pharrell and Neptunes, with a big, bold jazz sax solo in the middle.
For all the sunshine though, there is shade. Love To Last’s effusive chorus is juxtaposed with a dark, moody verse. Give It Up, meanwhile, is a tough, strident groove with a hip hop vibe. It’s a no nonsense break up song. “Got to give it up to someone new,” Dawn declares. Later she adds, “Ready or not, I’m moving on.”
Other highpoints include Skeletons and Scary Monsters. Both were inspired by dysfunctional relationships – personal and professional ones. The first deals with self awareness, or the lack of it, with people not being truthful about who or what they are. “It’s a kind of, I’ve got your number mate,” says Kincaid. “You can spend every day with someone and never have an honest conversation.” The second is about not being afraid to take steps that push you and take you out of your comfort zone. “Saying fuck it and just going for it,” says Kincaid.
Which is what Dawn Joseph and Jan Kincaid did on this album. “We’re about authenticity, integrity, personality and heart,” says Joseph. “About bringing fun to people because there is nothing wrong and everything right with feeling good.”
“The benchmark are those classic 70s soul and funk songs,” says Kincaid. “Excellent vocals, excellent songwriting, excellent execution. But we’re not making a record that sounds like it was created in the 70s. We’re making a record that speaks to now, and one which needs to be heard.”