MAGIC! Frontman Nasri Atweh Breaks Down Their Expansive Third Album ‘Expectations’

Canadian pop group MAGIC! made a name for themselves with their 2013 debut single “Rude,” and have been a steady fixture ever since. The band’s music is heavily informed by reggae, but a few levels removed from full dreadlocked Rastafarian fare. MAGIC! captures the spirit and energy of that music, and funnels it into a sound all of their own, one that is decidedly contemporary as well as richly varied in its influences.

Their third and latest release, “Expectations,” drifts further from the pop reggae template that has characterized the group’s previous work, still retaining that essence, but taking more stylistic liberties and expanding their signature sound. Along with this aesthetic progression, the new record finds the band taking an unprecedentedly personal and conceptual turn, with songs that each explore a particular aspect of a relationship. 

Singer Nasri Atweh met with Entertainment Voice for an in-depth conversation. Among other topics, Nasri opened up to us about the nature of the band’s sound, their new musical direction, and the stories behind a handful of their new songs.

You have a distinctive style, often described as “reggae pop,” and it’s been written that you originally set out to make a “modern-day Police” sound. Your new album does sound very modern, with its pulse right on contemporary music. If you had to pinpoint a couple things, what are some elements that update the “Police sound” for the present day, especially those that have particularly flavored the sound of your latest album, “Expectations.”

With this one, there’s only a couple songs in which you hear the Police-ey vibe. On this album, we took a departure into some of our own personal style. I think what modernizes it though, generally, is the drums and my singing phrases that allow it to sound more modern. In the last album, you could hear a ton more reggae. On this album, there’s probably only two or three songs, maybe four, one especially, called “Appreciate You,” which is very much a reggae song. The rest is just a pop album, really. It’s an expressive and emotional album. I didn’t really pay attention to the genre when I was making it. Where with the other albums, I had my, kind of, box that I was living in, I didn’t have a box with this album. I was just saying what I felt, and putting it down, whether it was a kind of Beatles-esque thing, with “The Things You Say” or “Appreciate You,” straight Wailers reggae. Whatever it is, I just, kind of, went with the emotion.  

What else sets the new record apart from your previous work, both lyrically and sonically?

This album is more of a concept album. Every song is about one situation, which is the relationship that I’m in, and really, kind of, getting in there — everything from a song like “Kiss Me” that covers contemplation to “Appreciate You,” that covers appreciation. You have “Expectations” that covers that. “The Things You Say” covers communication. But it’s all about that. I did quite a bit of therapy (laughs) during the songwriting of this album.  

The title track, “Expectations” talks about freeing yourself from the possible disappointment from expectations by living in the moment. Your song “Core” has the refrain, “I feel it in my core.” All this emphasis on the present moment and intuition sounds a lot like the idea behind meditation. Do you meditate? And what led you to tackle these subjects on the record?

I don’t meditate like traditional meditation. I just kind of close my eyes. My meditation is more of “athletic meditation.” I play a lot of basketball. The whole album came out of nowhere, really, because when you’re in a band, you make music based on the musical arrangement more than your emotions, traditionally. With this band, it’s different, kind of like a Coldplay, where the frontman does his thing, and then you build it around that. And with this album, we took that approach, where I just had so much to say, and I had a real vision, and everyone was, kind of, just supporting me emotionally. It was very therapeutic.

Your single “Darts In the Dark” has a killer instrumental section after the titular line and the drop. There’s some major groove in the rhythm there, a bit disorienting, but exhilarating. How did that bit come about, and how has it been going down with crowds.

Oh man! We’ve been playing that song because it’s been out now for almost a year. They love it! It was the same thing when we made it. We were like, “What is going on with this arrangement?!” Because there’s something addicting about it. I know, it’s such a weird arrangement, but it came together just as scattered as it sounds because, you know, how do you take something synthetic and blend it into a band, and not lose the essence of the band? And I feel like we accomplished that.

Your song “More Of You,” stands apart from the rest on the record, as it lacks the usual vaguely Caribbean stylings in most of your music. By comparison, it’s a bit like a ballad, with a chorus of almost ‘80s-level emotional bleating. Where did this song come from?

That was one of the first songs written because I was asked to write for “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” I did a song with Halsey on it, and then they asked for a ballad, and I’d written “More Of You, “ and I had just started the MAGIC! Album. So we got it in to them, and they loved it, but at the last second, Taylor Swift put a song on there, and in ways, I was kind of relieved because I wanted it to be a MAGIC! Song, but I also didn’t want to pass up a movie opportunity. It ended up being this unexpected ballad that’s going to be our next single, and could show people that we’re pretty diverse.  

What’s a song or two that you’re especially pleased with from the new record, and why?

They all have different purposes. The one song I’m super proud of with songwriting and recording and rhythm and everything is “Kiss Me.” It’s so difficult, on a songwriting level, to have something be catchy, but hip and kind of throwback, but new age, and mean something, and have all the pieces in one song. I’m so excited to play that song live. We played it now at three or four different shows, and it goes so well that by the end of the song, everyone is singing it, and they’re dancing and grooving. And I’m super proud of the video. It’s kind of slick and cool, and it’s got almost 18 million views on it, so people seem to like it.

There isn’t a song that I’m not super proud of. This is one of those albums where I just really was in tune with myself. And you’re not always. Sometimes, you’re caught up in what everyone else is feeling when you’re making music, like, “Oh, does he like this bass part?” With this album, I was like, “Listen guys, I really need to make what I’m feeling right now, and I need everybody to roll with me,” and everybody was like, “Yeah, we support you,” and we made this kind of eclectic pop album.

Many artist associated with reggae-influenced styles affect their best Jamaican accents, take Sublime’s Bradley Nowell for example. You do this only occasionally and slightly, which arguably makes the music seem more authentic, less calculated. What do you think about singers that imitate accents? And what led you to go a different route?

Listen, if that’s what they’re feeling that day go for it. I mean, Lionel Richie did it in “All Night Long,” you know? And that was a big hit, so it depends. For me, I don’t feel comfortable diving in. I like my singing voice and singing style, so I try to stay true to myself. I understand it. I got lucky, to be honest, that when I sing naturally over reggae, it still sounds like reggae. Not everybody has that, so then, when they’re going to sing over the reggae it’s not connected. So I’m guessing they probably tried that at first, and they end up getting a little more into character in the studio to drive it. I feel very lucky that there’s a connection between my voice and reggae grooves, and that I don’t really need to be something else.

And I kind of do it. Whenever I do do it, I do it on more rhythmic things. I do it the way Sting used to do it, basically. I just, kind of, throw it in here and there, only for levels of entertainment. But if you listen to “More Of You,” that’s when you hear my real singing voice, which has always been more of a pop voice. And people are going to hear me for the first time with that song, so I’m really excited about that. They’re used to hearing this kind of rhythmic thing going on, and now they’re going to hear something a little more balladic and at a different pace.    

You broke through with your hit single “Rude,” which topped charts in not only your home country of Canada, but also the US and UK, as well as Scandinavia and down under. What aspects of your music do you think make it so universally relatable?

I’m a songwriter, so we have a belief in the songwriting world that it’s all about the melody. Any big songwriter will tell you. I could have said a bunch of different lyrics in that song. It’s really the melodies. In most countries, they don’t even know what I’m saying. People just know the melodies, and really, the bottom line is it’s all about the melody and how you make a melody sound harmonically.

I think in America, there was a lyrical angle, and probably people hadn’t heard reggae that catchy in a long time, so that kind of hooks people. But there are tons of reggae songs released all the time that don’t become hits. And I think the one thing that makes it a hit is the melody.  People play that song at their wedding, which makes no sense, lyrically. You know, go ahead and play it. On this album, I really poured my heart out into the lyrics, while still trying to give you the melodies that I hope you’re going to love.

How do the new songs translate to a live setting? Are you generally faithful to the recordings, or do you play around a bit?

We stay about eighty percent. We do a lot of extensions. We like to add, and make things a little longer, maybe a little guitar solo, whatever we feel when we rehearse. We started rehearsing this week, so we’ve already been going over the songs. So far we’ve been able to stay true. “Darts In the Dark” was a tricky one, but we figured out that that melody could be played on guitar. We have a synth on stage too, if we want to use a synth. We generally can take any of our ideas, even if they’re synthetic, and make them sound like an authentic band, and people enjoy it. And my bandmates are really talented. They’re kind of savant, so it’s really easy with them, and they can make everything sound good. For next year, I have high hopes to add some horn players to the band, adding some extra levels to it. We’ll see if we find some good matches out there, some talented musicians that we click with. But yeah, we’re always expanding and trying to continue to entertain people.

Expectations” is available Sept. 7 on Apple Music.