Since releasing two rock influenced albums ‘Universal You’ has undergone a major transformation both in personnel and musical direction. Existing now as a two-piece, the band has finally followed their long held ambition to find a groove on the dance floor and in doing so has allowed their guitar riffs to organically grow and blend with their affection of the current dance and club scenes.
The band have decided to release two 4 track EP’s in 2013. A sexy summertime set for dancing and grooving and then an atmospheric and epic autumn set with lush guitars and strings. MMXIII – I the first of the set, is a 4 track EP that includes two covers and two original tracks.
The headline track is “Love Song” which was originally recorded by Scottish legends Simple Minds way back in 1981. Universal You has combined their own potent and diverse musical DNA to create a throbbing dance track with razor sharp guitar hooks and singer Gulzhan’s sensual vocals, while still retaining the mystic of Simple Minds original with its 80’s European electronic undertones. “Love Song” is already destined for the DJ turntables of Ibiza this summer as re-mixes by House DJ’s Hoxton Whores and Sonny Wharton (Fat Boy Slim Producer of the Year 2012) currently weave their way through the clubs of Europe.
In an exclusive interview the vocalist and female half of Universal You, Gulzhan Ibraveya (the male half being Paul Finnie), gave us some insight into band’s thoughts and doings.
1. How long have you been performing as UNIVERSAL YOU and how did you initially meet up?
UNIVERSAL YOU: The band has been in existence since 2009. Paul and I were in other bands together (Kinky Malinky and Kinky Durakee). We met in Kazakhstan when we both worked on an oil and gas construction project. We met guitarist Mark Grant locally in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, when we had an emergency have losing our guitarist before a series of booked gigs. He was highly recommended to us and he has been our main man on the guitar ever since.
2. Which bands were the major musical influences on your style of music at the beginning, and how did the evolution come about to today’s mix of rock guitar and electro dance?
UNIVERSAL YOU: We have very wide ranging personal influences. Michael Jackson, Pink, Queen, The Cult (“Universal You” is one of their songs), the RHCPs, Simple Minds, Alter Bridge, Daft Punk, Shinedown, Madonna, Texas. Melody is our biggest influence, there has to be melody. I can give you a good example. Listen to Iron Maiden songs strummed on an acoustic guitar with just a vocal. It might sound weird for the songs of a metal band but they all sound great because they all have melody and under it all are great, simple songs. We have just always felt there was a place, and currently not an overly well developed place, in the musical world to have rock guitars and electro music work together and it is really a product of our influences as well as about finding the right balance. I think with this style we keep all parties in the band happy as it we feel the sum of all parts really working well together. We co-wrote and recorded Coming Back For More with Dylan Burns who was in The BodyRockers and he had a massive hit with I Like The Way You Move, which is a club track with a big guitar riff and that probably influenced us a bit. The power of rock and its riffs, with the strong electro club rhythms. Originally our template for the new songs was Madonna’s American Life which has a strong electro idea mixed with acoustic guitar. We evolved a bit from that to keep our electric guitars.
3. Which artists do you listen to today? And is there anybody special you’d like to collaborate with?
UNIVERSAL YOU: We are into Shinedown, Bruno Mars, Halestorm, Calvin Harris, Delilah, Emeli Sande, so it’s still a mix! I would love to collaborate with Nile Rodgers. He has recently come back to the fore with Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams and Get Lucky, but his musical record and longevity is just amazing. The way he manages to weave his funk feel into different styles and artists work without it taking over shows, to me, that he has such a great understanding of a song or artists potential and that a little can go a long way and make such a difference.
To have some of Nile’s ideas and funk grooves rolled in…oh man I would be dancing to dawn!!
4. Is the EP “MMXIII-I”, exactly where you want to be musically today? And is this choice of style purely artistic or also a commercial exploration?
UNIVERSAL YOU: It is close. When you have this sort of hybrid idea to mix genres together sometimes songs are completely balanced like “Love Song” is, and others will lean more to one side. So a lot depends on the song and where we feel it’s best to take it. Not every song needs a guitar solo just like every song doesn’t need dubstep. Pink manages to fill her albums with different tracks and that’s probably a good comparison on how we want to be seen and heard. Not completely one dimensional. Less, “oh it sounds like a UniYou song”, and more, “wow, did you hear what UniYou sound like now!”
That concept has caused us problems before because the industry likes to put you in boxes and because of our mix of styles we have been classed as something we are not and that closes doors. Not indie, not rock enough, not pop enough, too retro. So we would try and change certain aspects in the recording because of who were pitching the music to. But we gave up fighting that recently and I think that has shown in the music. I think we are very comfortable in what we make now, so it’s artistic and internal and given the reaction so far its sounding like a good commercial move too!
5. Could you give us more details of who performed on, engineered and produced your latest EP, “MMXIII-I” ?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Well there’s me gi, the singer and I take pride in telling you I do all the backing vocals and harmonies too. Mark and Paul play guitars. Programming is by Paul and his group of electro buds. The recordings were done at Chamber Studio in Edinburgh, engineered and mixed by Graeme Young. He and Paul were co-producers.
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6. Live gigging or studio work, which do you prefer and why?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Gigging is very, very hard work when you take into all the travelling, organizing, rehearsals and promotion, but the buzz at a show and feeling the reaction of fans is like nothing else. Recording tends to be, for us at least, more organized and more intense. The buzz comes later when a track or release gets a good reaction, but it is never the same high as after a gig.
7. Which one of your original songs do you feel is the absolute “crowd pleaser”, and moreover, do you remember when and why you composed it?
UNIVERSAL YOU: The Answer always gets a good reaction. Basically it’s just a good song; many people have told us that. Big chorus and its hook line “thinking of you” resonate with all of us in one way or another. It was written in a Russian Hotel room in Astrakhan. Paul started it when he was living there on his own and we finished it together. I think that tells you why it was composed.
8. On which one of your original songs do you think you delivered your personal best performance so far, from a technical point of view?
UNIVERSAL YOU: I think my vocals on “Coming Back For More” are pretty much nailed! A lot of pushed notes in there and I can sometimes get a nice throaty sound when I push like that.
9. Which ingredient do you think is most essential in making UNIVERSAL YOU music sound the way it does?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Can I say my voice??! It’s the one consistent part of all our music. Styles and genres and moods and instruments come and go but hopefully my vocals are a recognizable part of what we produce.
10. If you were forced to choose only one, which emotion, more than any other drives you day after day to stay in this tough business. Is it joy, anger, desire, passion or pride and why?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Definitely passion. Without the passion there really is no point. Passion keeps you going through all the ups and downs. Passion actually doesn’t or shouldn’t be part of goals, or achievements or results. It is independent and makes us do what we do, be it for one listener on the radio, or a million, or just ourselves.
11. Which aspects of being an independent artist and the music making processes excites you most and which aspects discourage you most?
UNIVERSAL YOU: I suppose complete artistic control is the best part. Today I will make a dance record, and tomorrow I want a guitar solo! It really does mean that the small group of music makers that this band is, decides how we sound. Okay we are influenced by what people say and advice we receive, but the bottom line is with us. OK, we are control freaks too!
The most discouraging part is probably not having the bigger financial support to really do all that we want to do. We have to plan our budgets on recording, promo, touring where if we were part of a larger label we would probably be able to produce more music, and quicker.
12. Tell us something about your songwriting process, who does what and which usually comes first, the lyrics or the music?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Always the music first. Usually a hook or chord progression on the guitar starts us off. The feel of the music usually dictates which emotional area the lyrics should be in, and then it’s just an idea that is developed by playing over and over and developing it. Paul will have a melody idea in his head and I take it and expand on it, sometimes simplify it too. We are not concerned if a song isn’t 100% when we go to the studio as we always get ideas in there. Some in-progress songs sit for months and can get revisited with a different bpm or rhythm.
13. How involved are you in any of the the recording, producing, mastering and marketing processes of your music. Do you outsource any of these processes?
UNIVERSAL YOU: We usually demo our songs in our home studio and then go into the studio with at least a good framework. Some home recorded parts do make it into the final mixes. Paul likes to call himself the “Executive Producer” and in our last recordings for the MMXIII tracks they were co-produced and mixed by Paul and Graeme Young at Graeme’s Chamber Studio in Edinburgh.
We outsource mastering and a lot of our promo work. Of course you have to take up a lot of the promo yourselves these days with all the social media but we believe you still need specialist PR and pluggers as they should have better access to radio, media contacts etc. Saying that we have had some that have bombed, so it’s all about finding the right companies who fit your product. We highly recommend Stimpy at Concrete Promo who specialize in dance releases. He is doing a great job for us with our dance remixes.
14. The best piece of advice in this business you actually followed so far, and one you didn’t follow, but now know for sure that you should have?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Best; Content and quality. A manager at MIDEM in Cannes told us a few years ago that you must make sure you have plenty content (music, video). No label or even joe public will stay with you that long if you only have one or two tracks to show them. Quality too. Make the best recording you can afford and be realistic, if it sounds like a demo, call it a demo and don’t release it as that just shows you are not ready for the next level.
Should have followed; Also in Cannes I had a conversation with an entrepreneur from Vietnam who was promoting live music in Vietnam. She told me about the options and possibilities out there. I should have packed my case there and then then as I do think it’s a land of opportunity….!!
15. At this point, as an independent artist, which is the one factor you desire most, and feel will undeniably benefit your career?
UNIVERSAL YOU: I’m not sure if it is a desire but I would like someone or group of people to get behind us and support us in what we are doing to be able to better promote us. I suppose that sounds like a label but it doesn’t have to be. I really believe our music can stand on its own feet and it just needs positioning adequately and consistently for people to buy into it. We have built our own small brand which is still made up of mainstream parts so it’s not a massive risk for anyone.
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16. Do you consider Internet and all the social media websites, as fundamental to your career, and indie music in general, or do you think it has only produced a mass of mediocre “copy-and-paste” artists, who flood the web, making it difficult for real talent to emerge?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Well hopefully it’s not fundamental to our career, as I would hope producing good music is the first. But I see of course that it’s very important and we can’t ignore it or take it lightly. Do 1 million hits on YouTube make you an essential artist? Well not necessarily, but probably from a businessman’s perspective they do.
I agree that the market is really, really massive with thousands of artists out there vying for the listeners dollars. Yes there is good, bad and average. I think we still have a lot to do to convince the general public that just because you are not in the Top 40 doesn’t mean you can’t produce great music. That perception still exists. The mass of indie music sites can be a bit overwhelming and I think people often just take the easier and safer route to find their music on the mainstream sites.
17. Strictly from a musical standpoint, is Scotland the place to be for your music, or do you think you’d have better commercial success elsewhere? Moreover if you could choose, where would you like to take your band and music to?
UNIVERSAL YOU: We have often been told that our music is not really UK music and is more European (German, Dutch markets for example). Being an indie to take that on and physically relocating or promoting is not easy when you involve bigger geographical areas and languages etc. If we could, and no place is off limits, I would like to try out Vietnam or Japan. They have really vibrant new and expanding markets for artists and I think our cross-genre style might be cool for those countries. The food is good too!
18. How do you conciliate sentimental affairs, family life, and your music? Do you keep these entities totally apart or are they pretty much lived as one commonly shared experience?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Paul and I are married, we have kids. Of course that comes first. When we hit “the music”, as we call it, we are singer, manager, songwriter, promoter or whatever our alter ego’s require. We do argue in those ego’s and he orders me about sometimes (!!), but it’s for the good of the music and really at the end of the day we go home, feed our kids, put them to bed and dissect the days’events of “the music” and laugh about those alter ego’s. Our band“musical differences” never fester long and it’s easier to talk about them and work them out when you walk around the supermarket or pack a lunch box for the kids.
19. What do you think is the biggest barrier you still have to face and overcome as an indie band, in your quest to achieve your preset goals and true commercial success?
UNIVERSAL YOU: The ability to expose a larger set of people to our music, because we really believe it is worthy of a place on many, many iPods. As you mentioned before the market is so huge that realistically you need a little breakthrough on Tv, or radio to gain that initial momentum. Once we get that…look out!
20. What is the ONE thing you will NEVER be willing or prepared to do, in your quest to achieve a highly successful musical career?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Sing blues or play jazz! I, Seriously, I won’t be prepared to be away from my kids for a long time on tour or whatever. A No.1 record, and Skype with the kids for months on tour? No contest. Your kids are only little once.
21. What should fans be expecting? Tell us about any new projects or ideas you will be working on in the near future?
UNIVERSAL YOU: Well MMXIII-II will be released in October and this is another 4 track EP with two covers and two new tracks. The tracks are a bit more moody and emotional than the summertime MMXIII-I. Just right for Autumn and Winter! Covers of Led Zeppelin and Metallica, but with our electronic groove and some dubstep thrown in there too, alongside the cellos and of course Mark’s wild guitars.
After that it will be back in the studio to work on another bunch of demos we have in-progress. It is an exciting time because we have a lot of new ideas and also feel that we have the right balance all around us. The music feels good with the electro and guitars; the studio set-up is good at Chamber and the people around us are the rights ones to push the band into the right areas of the industry and public. Good times. Now we just need Nile to give us a call!
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