Who exactly is Envoy? Is he the modern day techno soul man, the singer who pours out his heart on tracks like Emotional? Or is he the king of strings, the musical genius who makes club symphonies like Dark Manoeuvres? Perhaps hes a sexy, Chicago house legend with a penchant for carnal classics like Sex Drive or a robotic machine funker with little regard for humanity? Maybe Envoy is really the fly in pop musics ointment, the vocalist who looks to shatter the manufactured boy band stranglehold with his soulful, spiritual intonations on the soon to be huge Move On?
The reality though, is that Envoy, real name Hope Grant, is all of these things and much more, an enigmatic electronic music character, as complex and unpredictable as his multi-faceted work. His new album Shoulder 2 Shoulder is released on Soma Records May 2004.
Fabric, London, 21st Feb 2004. Its a full house and the atmosphere in the venue is bristling with anticipation as Envoy prepares to take to the stage. If you could bottle and sell the mood in the crammed venue, youd never need to work again. This is Envoys first live performance in two years since he was the lead vocalist on a year-long world tour to promote Slams Alien Radio album, but now hes ready to take the UK capital in style. As the intro to Into the Arena seeps through the speakers, a familiar voice from the back of the venue introduces himself. Even before the initial applause has subsided, Envoy is centre stage, working the crowd into a second wave of frenzied acclaim.
Stamping the mike stand in time to the beats and flicking his dreadlock mane up and down and from side to side, Envoy is radically different to his softly-spoken off stage persona. Hes the front man, a role hes visibly comfortable with. Hands outstretched and with a mile wide toothy grin, like a techno evangelist, he points to the sky and urges the sweaty throng to come into the light and let yourselves go.
At other times during the performance, his voice is moody and ominous, like a deranged preacher announcing the coming of the apocalypse. Centre stage throughout, Envoy also uses his vocal talent to deep effect and, on other occasions, his singing is sleazier, twisted and darker, a different sound to the utopian feel of classic Envoy material like Emotional.
Envoys live shows, as well as his imminent second album Shoulder 2 Shoulder, will serve to confuse anyone who had Hope Grant as just a producer who merely tried to spice up his tracks with the odd vocal. He has been signed to Scottish label Soma since 1995 and, unsurprisingly, originally comes from a singer-songwriter background.
When I was young, I was hugely into Prince and wanted to write songs. Im still just as comfortable playing Elton John songs on my piano at home, he laughs. I used to hate acid house because it didnt have a chorus, but then I started going to clubs and buying tunes and it began to make sense, he recalls. I had an affinity with Detroit techno - although I didnt know what it was called at the time - and put song writing on hold.
However, before he began creating his own techno symphonies, bizarrely, Envoy enjoyed a stint in rave combo Bizarre Inc who now work as Chicken Lips.
They wanted to turn into a jazz-funk band and wanted me as the singer, he explains. But I was only in the band for six months. The major label wanted them to churn out loads more versions of Playing With Knives and werent interested in them progressing. The experience left me with a sour taste in my mouth towards major labels and drove me towards independent labels.
When Hope started releasing dance music, his first outlets were respected underground imprints Peacefrog and Plink Plonk - where he released as St Vitus Dance and Urban Groove Alliance respectively. Then, in 1995, Hope met Slam and his first demos became his debut EPs for the label, Solitary Mission and Heart Of The Soul.
Envoys name became a byword for soulful techno, but Hope says that when Carl Cox used the dramatic string groove of Dark Manoeuvres from the Coalition EP for his FACT mix CD, things started to take off. Hope also believes that being signed to Soma made his ascent a smoother ride. But when Soma released their Soma 50 compilation, Hope felt it was time for a change.
It was a real turning point, I could sense a shift in the label, he explains. It seemed like the standard went up. Once I heard that album, I knew that I needed to do something to set me apart. I thought there were people who did instrumental stuff better, so I decided to start singing.
He may hail from a musical background, but Hope says that he never received any formal training for his soaring vocals. Hopes high pitched vocal on Emotional, the taster single for his 1998 debut album, Wheres There Life, was characterised by a soulful tinge. But it was his sleazy, nocturnal narrative on Sex Drive also taken from his debut long player and released as a single in 2002 that cast him as a darker, figure. Set to a dirty Chicago house backing, it hinted at the multitude of possibilities Hope is set to unleash on his second long player.
I started doing that style live and thats how it all started. Its my sleazy side and went unnoticed on the album. It was something new for me and also something I want to do more of, as much as the melodic stuff he maintains.
However, the main musical theme on Envoys debut album was still the lush and emotive techno soul that he hinted at on his initial EPs. Its a style that Hope believes still sounds fresh. I will always be into that Detroit sound. Whenever I think that its dead or dated, along comes a new great record in that vein that blows me away, he says.
However, before Envoy could plan his second album, he embarked on a promotional tour for his debut that turned into an eighteen month global trek and then joined Slam on their year-long tour to promote Alien Radio.
In between touring continuously for nearly three years, Envoy managed to record his second long player, due for release in May 2004. Shoulder 2 Shoulder is a more diverse work than its predecessor and casts Envoy as an enigmatic, unpredictable character. Compare and contrast the lush, string-led Detroit techno of Is This with the dark drums of Into The Arena and the driving bass of U Can Go, where an eerie sounding Envoy spurns a lover. Like an android, Hopes detached tones open up a more sinister side to his complex personality.
However, it would be inaccurate to consign Envoy to the realms of technoid androgyny. Theres a hip-grinding feel to the sexy tech of the 303-flecked Red Mist, the mid-tempo Intervals oozes futuristic seduction - and Envoys resuscitation of the Ricksters classic acid house number, Night Moves, takes it back to the old skool for a version that bristles with unbridled passion. Title track Shoulder 2 Shoulder is one the true album highlights, an outstanding example of stirring vocals combined with hi-tech funk which also features live sax.
Its not all just corporeal thrills though: new tracks like Stargazer rekindle Hopes love of lush techno and sensuous vocals, with Grant pointing to the cosmos for fulfilment for the soul. The theme of spirituality appears elsewhere on the album, especially on the emotive musicality of Move On, where Envoy plays popstar in waiting. If Hope is destined to enjoy mainstream success, then it will be with a track like this. Co-produced with Soma label-mate Ewan Pearson its mellow and deep yet catchy enough to crossover, Grants soft, sexy vocals will woo even the most cynical listener.
Its the best thing I have ever done and is a real departure from what Ive made before, he says.
The strings on this production have been supplied by a twenty-nine piece orchestra and the arrangement is by classical/film composer Craig Armstrong. Craig who won a Golden Globe in 2002 for his score of Moulin Rouge has added a magical, melancholic slant to this extraordinary song.
Irrespective of the fickle whims of the commercial market and the music industry, Shoulder 2 Shoulder is one of the finest electronic works of recent years. It sees the enigma that is Envoy lay bare his soul and that makes for a masterpiece of epic proportions.