We took a moment to have a chat with Will Robinson, the executive producer and creative force behind the Isan Project. The group have aimed to fuse Western and Thai sounds into a pop format and seems to be working, with their latest single ‘Nana’ shooting to the top of the Thai charts.
Their latest single ‘Nana’ is performed by ex China Black front man Errol Reid (who recently had two dance hits with Axwell from Swedish House Mafia) and Pui Duangpon, who rose to fame on “The Voice” Thailand. It rocketed to the top of the Thai iTunes chart upon release and is currently sitting at # 12 on the Music Weekly Top 30 Singles Chart for Thailand. We have a chat to Will about how the Isan Project came about and what we can expect in the future.
Some our audience won’t be familiar with The Isan project. Can you describe for our readers what it’s all about?
It’s a musical collaboration between the sounds of Isan and Western sounds. We’ve recorded five tracks already, all of which use the phin guitar and other local instruments. These sounds are very close to my heart and I think that the sound could be a whole new vibe within music itself. There’s a whole lot of talent within that region and I decided to take a bit more notice of it and go to Isan and well, this is where we are now.
It’s been over the course of year that you’ve now gotten to this point?
That’s right. I don’t like rushing things. It’s easy if you’re recording covers and you want to go in to the studio and record them. When you’re creating original music and songs, especially in this day and age, they need to be strong and I said from the start, this could take two years. To be four or five tracks in now is probably about right. We’ve got a sixth track on the go now.
How long have you been over in Thailand then?
My son lives over in Australia and my marketing team are based in the Philipphines. I was coming out to the region three or four times a year already. So I started trying to limit the amount of flights back and forth… I love the people over here, I love the weather, I love the country… I can definitely see myself spending the next 12 months here.
What is it about the Isan sound that grabbed you. What made you want to work with musicians from this region?
When I first came to Bangkok I was walking down Sukhumvit road and I heard a phin guitar and I thought ‘What’s That?’ and there was a small group busking. I took my iPhone out and started filming and I sent that back to my co-producer Michael Graves in London, I said “Check this out. I think it’s great” and I said to myself to make sure I paid a bit more interest the next time I came back. The style, the soul that goes into the performance – it really is something special. I thought that these people really told a story with their songs when they sang the lyrics. And that’s quite different… There’s a real buzz to the music and everyone is dancing on the streets, daytime and night time. This is Isan music and there’s a real buzz to it.
There’s something really special about the people of Isan. They’re very proud people. It’s a very poor environment and there’s just farmland everywhere and there isn’t much money there but they’re very proud people and when they go out they like to dress up and they like to perform when they’re dancing.
You’ve established a very international contingent with collaborators from Thailand, England, Singapore and choreographers from the United States. How have you been able to bring all these people together.
Obviously I’ve been fortunate in that I spent so long in the industry and have these contacts. You do need help on a project like this and you do need to have collaborations with other artists and see where the ideas go. It’s not the sort of thing you can pinpoint and go, let’s do a song like this.
I’m really interested in the dance and the fashion and friend of mine over in New York, Jermaine Browne, he’s worked with Justin Timberlake to Jennifer Lopez and I said to him, “what do you think of these styles?” and he saw it straight away. I think we need on the dance side, a song with a real groove. Something to bring it all together and that’s what we’re looking at now.
Given the language barriers, How have you gone about collaborating with local artists?
I think the word is, getting stuck in. We first started with a ballad and so I said let’s try the phin guitar for that. We hadn’t written the lyrics yet so I flew the singer over and we put the lyrics together then got them translated. I was lucky enough to meet P Ford (Sobchai), who is a well known singer over here, had lots of success and I asked him would he get together with another friend of mine and get the Thai lyrics together. We had this song in Thai and in English, and we thought this was a nice way to start.
We worked in a local studio in the north and there’s a very good guy there, a very nice Thai gentleman. His English name was Owen but everyone referred to him as ‘the Master’ and he recorded many of these Thai instruments and he knows them inside and out. We made a real connection with him. Another friend was over at the time, the drummer from the James Brown band, and he assisted me in playing drums for the first couple of songs.
We worked with Owen and he was terrific and he introduced Mariam to us, who’d had a hit back in the day with B5. Well quite a few hits but one song in particular. So we asked her ‘Would you like to sing in this song?” and she agreed, so we recorded it. That was early days and we were still getting ourselves together – now we’re certainly getting better about how we do these things.
How did things go from there?
When I sent the track to England to be mixed, my co producer Michael Graves, Errol Reid heard he song and he said, “You can do a dance version of this, let me have a go.” He worked with another guy called Ted Neillson and before long there was this Forever dance remix and a couple of dance promoter people were saying they can do promo of it out in England. Then it’s in the Music Week dance charts at number 21 and that was exciting, so we thought this phin guitar with EDM kinda works so we asked Errol if he wanted to come across and record a few songs, and he did. We came out with “Strangers” which had a bit more success at number 11 and then we did a song called “Beautiful Heart” which is about the Red Lotus Sea in Isan and then we wrote the song ‘Nana.’
Obviously Nana has been your biggest success to date – What’s the response been like?
We always thought Nana was the one that was going to get us off the ground. To get things moving. I’m not saying it’s a classic hit, but you never know. You have to try these things and see how they develop. I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot more from that song. We have MTV in China requesting the video for it which should be interesting with the Chinese, they play such a big part in Thailand and vice versa. So we’ll see how that develops. My intention is to take the sound of Isan into the West and there’s no rules, no direct route and I think by recording 12 songs, I’m sure, well, I’m more confident than hopeful that we’ll find one that can do that.
When can we expect the album to be released?
In 12 months… We don’t have a title yet but it will be The Isan Project, featuring around 10 or 12 artists.