On September 4th, pop/R&B superstar Billy Ocean will release One World, his first album of original material in more than a decade, and the advance buzz around it is extremely positive. “It’s nice when people acknowledge your efforts, especially as a creative person,” Ocean says, seeming genuinely touched as he calls from England. “It is a lovely feeling.”
Ocean created One World with producer/songwriter Barry Eastmond, who worked with Ocean on many of his biggest hits, including and “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” (1985) and “There’ll Be Sad Songs” (1986). They also worked together on his last release, Here You Are: The Best of Billy Ocean (2016), a double album compiling many of Ocean’s hits for one half, and cover songs of the artists who inspired him for the other half. After that project, Ocean says, “The only other natural thing to do was to write some new songs and get back into the creative part of my music. It was time.”
Ocean wrote One World with an overarching theme of unity in mind: “One world, we’ve got to find love all over the world, the balance,” he says. Given all the turmoil around the globe as he releases this album, he hopes these new songs will bring some light to his listeners, as well. “I like to think my music is always uplifting. We need something to cheer us up, for God’s sake!” he says with a laugh.
Ocean’s optimistic outlook even extends to the current COVID-19 pandemic, in which he is able to find a silver lining in “the time it’s giving you to reconnect with yourself and reconnect with other people, and reconnect with life – look around you and see what’s happening, because we go at such a rate that we miss things,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, the Lord is stopping the world, saying, ‘Hold on a minute, this is getting out of hand, this is getting too fast.’
“When you analyze the whole thing, almost every week there’s a new car, there’s a new phone,” Ocean continues. “There’s something that has an appetite for consuming things, consuming our energy, consuming our thoughts. It’s too much. It’s like the Lord stopped the world to give us a chance to breathe, to take in some air before the next phase.”
Ocean has lived by this advice to take a hiatus before: after his 1993 album Time to Move On, he didn’t release another album until 2009’s Because I Love You. This was a remarkable move for an artist who had become an international star thanks to hits like “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run” (1984) and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (1988), among many others. (“Caribbean Queen” earned Ocean a Grammy award for “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance,” as well.)
But Ocean doesn’t regret walking away from his career, for a time. “After you’ve had your dream come true, basically, where do you go from there?” he says. “And there were so many changes going on around me. I thought, ‘Look, let me spend some time with my kids.’”
Ocean’s own childhood in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad showed him how important a parent’s influence can be: “My father was a musician – he used to play the guitar and write calypso,” Ocean says, “so I was listening to somebody making musical sounds before I even knew how to speak.”
Ocean’s mother was also crucial to his development as a singer: “My mother was a domestic worker and sometimes she used to take the clothes home and work, and while she was washing and ironing, she used to say, ‘Son, sing me a song.’” He says she encouraged him to sing the songs that he heard on the radio.
Others contributed to Ocean’s musical education at this time, as well. “My mother’s friend bought me a blue ukulele. I was young, maybe six, seven [years old],” Ocean says. “A blind man taught me how to play this ukulele. Three chords he taught me: G, D7, E minor. The rest, I’m self-taught.” In the following years, Ocean also taught himself to play the drums, the bass, and piano – but he always continued to sing.
When Ocean was ten years old, his family immigrated to England, settling in London. There, for the first time, Ocean heard bands such as “The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who – it was a musical explosion,” he says. He also recalls being captivated by Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding. “I grew up in a great musical time.”
Being exposed to such musical diversity during his formative years is apparent in Ocean’s own open-minded songwriting style, which has encompassed everything from pop, R&B, calypso, and soca (a genre of music that originated in Trinidad). “When I approach music, I don’t put myself in a box writing a particular kind of song,” he says. “I like ballads, I like up-tempo, I like reggae, I like soca – I love everything. When I make music, I tackle different rhythms, I tackle different lyrical ideas.”
The one thing Ocean does keep consistent across all of his songs, though, is that “I want to keep it happy, keep it uplifting.” He says he feels like he’s succeeded in this, especially when he plays shows and sees the joy that his work brings to his fans, especially when he sings his many hits. “I still enjoy singing those old songs,” he says, adding that it is gratifying for him to see how his work has stood the test of time: “A lot of work and effort went into that. A lot of good times went into that. A lot of happy memories go into that.”
Now, with One World, Ocean hopes to add to his string of successes – though he realizes he’s set the bar very high for himself. “You start out and you do what you’re doing in honesty and innocence, and suddenly, you’re lucky enough to have something successful. That’s really when the hard work starts because now you’re competing. Not only are you competing with other people, you’re competing with yourself, because the song that you wrote yesterday that was a hit, you’ve got to keep up a certain standard,” he says.
Still, Ocean is confident that the songs on One World are on par with his previous material – and he’s grateful for this opportunity to continue his career. “Music is all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “I was blessed with that gift from the Lord. I grasped it with both hands – and I still enjoy writing and recording and touring. That’s how it is. That’s my life.”
‘One World’ released September 4th, available to pre-order now