Primary Colours

In 2014, Toronto-bred, Los Angeles-based quartet MAGIC! scored the song of the summer with their debut single “Rude” — a buoyant reggae-pop tune that held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks, charted in 41 countries, and sold more than 10 million singles, while its video nears a billion VEVO views. It was a juggernaut that launched their debut album, Don’t Kill the Magic, into the Top 10 and introduced MAGIC!’s breezy sound — a catchy fusion of reggae, pop, and R&B — to the world. “When ‘Rude’ got big, my thought was, ‘What do we do with this?’” says the band’s lead vocalist and chief songwriter Nasri. “So we chased it. We used its success to get us around the world a few times and to turn those 350 million streams into a fan base.”

Indeed over the past two years MAGIC! has established itself as a bonafide sensation thanks to its undeniably catchy sound, superlative songwriting, and masterful musicianship. Now the band, which also features guitarist Mark Pelli, drummer Alex Tanas, and bassist Ben Spivak, has released a new single, the Caribbean-tinged “Lay You Down Easy” (featuring Sean Paul), which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Reggae Digital Songs chart and racked up two million Spotify streams and one million VEVO views in its first two weeks. MAGIC! is also gearing up for the July release of its new album, Primary Colours, which finds the band further displaying its reggae influences and pop smarts. “The ultimate goal was to make an album that is groovy and fun,” Nasri says. “We are embracing ourselves now. We’ve actually found our identity and have really gotten to know each other as friends and fellow musicians. We had only known each other a short time when we made our debut album.”

Produced by Nasri and Adam Messinger (who as Grammy-winning production duo the Messengers, have scored hits for Justin Bieber, David Guetta, Shakira, Chris Brown, Pitbull, and Christina Aguilera), and with production assists from Pelli and Tanas, Primary Colours is the sound of a band that has come into its own. “Each of these guys is a phenomenal musician and they all stepped up in various capacities, whether it was writing, playing, or producing,” says Nasri. “Mark is extraordinary and plays everything to the highest degree. He has these amazing colors. Alex really grew as a producer and was stronger about sharing his opinion, and Ben is always open and very melodic, he played all over the record. My bandmates are always shocking me with what they can do musically. Everyone’s contribution is always full-hearted.”

The creative bond that the band members have developed is palpable in the good-natured bounce of the music on Primary Colours, as are the rhythms the four have soaked up through their worldwide travels. Last year they toured as first support for Maroon 5 and performed headlining shows across the U.S., South America, Asia, and Europe. “We definitely had that spiritual connection to the cultures we visited,” Nasri says. “We’re all natives of Canada, but have different heritages. I’m Arabic, Mark’s Italian, Alex is Ukrainian, and Ben is Polish and Jewish. But when we get together, the guitar and the bass come out and we start to go with it. When we were in the studio making Primary Colours, the more rock-oriented songs started to give way to the groovier songs, and we thought, ‘This is us, We are this fusion band.’ It’s like home for me. I’ll make a song and if something doesn’t feel right, I’ll try a reggae melody or beat and it suddenly feels great. It’s like I took reggae on a couple of dates and it went really well and now we’re going steady.”

In the time between making Don’t Kill the Magic and Primary Colours, Nasri also gave himself a musical education, diving into records by reggae stars Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Peter Tosh. He also immersed himself in The Beatles catalog and records by Paul Simon. “Growing up we had no money, so I only listened to the radio,” he explains. “It wasn’t until my ’20s that I started getting into Stevie Wonder and early Police. I didn’t know anything about The Beatles, just the hits. Now I know 70 of their songs. And I’ve realized, ‘Oh, I’m getting all of this from Paul McCartney.’ And I think being in this band with these super-talented guys — Mark and Ben are both jazz musicians — has given me more of an internal license to explore things. I feel like a kid in MAGIC!. It’s very pure.”

On Primary Colours, MAGIC! effortlessly spin out memorable melodies in a variety of styles, like the flirtatious “Lay You Down Easy,” the sultry ’50s-tinged “Red Dress,” the synth-pop tunes “No Sleep” and “Gloria” (the latter with its comical story of a hapless guy and his cheating girlfriend) while never straying too far from their signature reggae sound. Horns make an appearance on several songs, including “Have It All,” which the band wrote in The Philippines. “No Regrets” and “I Need You” are heartfelt ballads that show another dimension to Nasri’s songwriting. The closing track, the swaggy “The Way God Made Me,” features an urban reggae beat and finds Nasri channeling his inner Rastafarian in his vocals.

Then there’s the title track “Primary Colours,” which refers to Nasri’s need to start over not only in his personal life (which is where he draws lyrical inspiration from) but also when it came to making the record. “We were getting really complicated in the studio,” he says. “And I said, ‘Guys, we need to simplify. Our fans are going to be confused. Let’s start with a hook and then build on top of that.’ So we were able to strip everything back to its primary colors and then add layers of musicality. And I had to get in touch with myself and enjoy making pop music again. Luckily the guys can make simple ideas sound soulful and musical.”

Nasri’s goal for Primary Colours is also simple. “I want people to laugh and cry and dance,” he says. “I want people to have fun at our shows. And when it’s a serious song, they’ll get serious with us. But when it’s not, what are they doing? Are they just standing there watching us? Or are they with us? I want people to be with us. I want them to move their bodies and have fun.”

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[April 2016]

 

Don’t Kill The Magic

For Toronto-bred, Los Angeles-based quartet MAGIC!, coming up with a name for their band was a no-brainer. Because everything MAGIC! has achieved so far has felt charmed, from divining their breezy sound, a catchy fusion of reggae, pop, and R&B, to scoring the song of the summer with their debut single “Rude” (a smash hit that hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 and charted in over 35 countries), to releasing their debut album, Don’t Kill the Magic!, which entered the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart at No. 6 and the Digital Albums Chart at No. 2. “We had a vision and it all tied together instantly,” says the band’s singer and lyricist Nasri. “We began recording, and the sound was so locked in on every song. That’s where our name came from. Everything simply worked like magic.”

Fronting a band was a long-held dream for Nasri, a singer and trained dancer who walked into a Toronto radio station at age 19 with a rough demo of songs he had recorded with his friend Adam Messinger. That ultimately led to a deal in Canada and releasing two popular singles as an R&B artist. “I think I got a $3,000 advance,” Nasri recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m rich. I’m going to be rich.’” In 2004, he and Messinger formed The Messengers and helped spur the reunion of New Kids on the Block before becoming a Grammy-winning production team that has scored hits for Justin Bieber, David Guetta, Shakira, Chris Brown, Pitbull, and Christina Aguilera, among others.

“The whole time I was writing songs for other people, I had a concept for a band running through my head,” Nasri says. “I saw it as everyone is a great player, everyone can sing, and everyone has a strong musical identity on their instrument. I love bands like Queen and The Police for that reason. But I never really thought it could happen. I was like, ‘No one is going to be in a band with me. I’m too pushy, I’m too known as a songwriter.’”

Nasri first heard guitarist Mark Pelli play while the latter was performing with Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka. Impressed not only by Pelli’s technique, but also by the emotion and color in his playing, Nasri invited him to visit his studio when Pelli moved to Los Angeles. The two became instant friends. “It was as if we’d known each other forever, which is rare in the music business when you don’t know who to trust,” Nasri says. Within two weeks the two were jamming and had written their first song, “Please Don’t Judge Me,” which was eventually released by Chris Brown. Three months later, they were in the studio when Pelli strummed a reggae-tinged riff, Nasri started singing, and something clicked. “The sound felt natural,” he says. “It was just this freestyle thing that eventually turned into our song ‘Stupid Me.’ Everyone around us was into it grooving. I said to Mark that day, ‘We should start a band.’ He was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Nasri and Pelli recruited Pelli’s friend, drummer Alex Tanas, who had also played with Nozuka, and bassist Ben Spivak, and “all of a sudden, there were three guys standing in a line harmonizing. I was like, ‘That’s MAGIC!. That’s it,’” Nasri says. “Mark is such an exceptional guitar player because he plays with so much emotion. Alex has got a lot of swag as a drummer. He’s got style. And Ben, not only can he harmonize, but he plays with feeling. He came up with the bass line for ‘No Way To Know,’ which triggered the whole shape of the song. You could see that he wanted a voice in the band and started fighting for bass parts. We’re four guys who have egos and opinions. We work together to find a place for all of them.” The four began writing feverishly, going beyond their immediate influences and discovering new ones. “I’m inspired by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Sting, James Taylor, and Bob Marley,” Nasri says. “Listening to Marley changed everything. I’m not a Rastafarian, so I can’t sing about that. All I can translate is love in my life, and that’s what I write about.”

The result is Don’t Kill The Magic, which is filled with relatable songs drawn from Nasri’s personal experiences. The instantly addictive “Rude” tells the story of a young man asking his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her and being harshly rejected. “It was initially about a fight I had with my now ex-girlfriend, who was a little meaner than she had ever been. She was taking it too far and I said, ‘Why do you have to be so rude? Don’t you know I’m human, too?’ I started singing that one day and Mark really liked the hook. I thought it was dark, gloomy, and weird. But I played it for Adam and he said, ‘Why don’t you try it happier?’ and the whole story popped into my head. So there’s an evolution to the song, but it comes from somewhere real. I think that’s why people are feeling it.”

While “Rude” sets the album’s laidback reggae-pop tone, other songs show this talented band’s range and versatility. “Let Your Hair Down” is a sexy song about appreciating someone you love and wanting them to relax and be themselves in the moment. “We have a sensuality to us that we look forward to sharing with people,” Nasri says. “We think it’s very healthy and human.” Then there’s “One Woman One Man,” which Nasri wrote about his frustration in not being able to deliver what his partner wanted. “The guys were iffy about the song because it was super personal, but I asked them to bear with me,” he says. “I said, ‘I want people to know that we’re flawed. I want people to relate and say, ‘I go through that with my partner, or I’ve done that to someone.’”

Don’t Kill The Magic was produced by Nasri’s long-time creative other half Adam Messinger, along with various tracks co-produced by Nasri, Pelli, and Tanas. “Adam is really our fifth member,” says Nasri, who has worked with him since he was 17. “I told the guys, ‘I’m comfortable writing with him. He knows me. He knows the style. And he’s one of the best producers in the world. He wants to do this without taking a dime.’ He dropped every job. I dropped every job and we went for it.”

Their effort has paid off with the success of “Rude” and Don’t Kill The Magic. “We put a lot of work into trying to make a classic pop album, to get the sound and the lyrics to flow right,” Nasri says. “We were excited when ‘Rude’ took off, but now we’re even more excited for people to actually listen to the whole album be like, ‘I get it.’”

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[July 2014]

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