How Australian indie duo Lime Cordiale made a record with Hollywood royalty Idris Elba

How the unlikely collaborators pushed each other into fresh creative territory and made the mini-album ‘Cordi Elba’

Lime Cordiale only knew they wanted to do something different. The duo were considering reworking ‘Unnecessary Things’, a haunted, stripped-back track from the expanded ‘relapse’ version of their 2020 album ‘14 Steps To A Better You’ – but didn’t really know what direction to take the track in or who they wanted to collaborate with.

“We just wanted to do something that would be unexpected for us,” vocalist Louis Leimbach tells NME. “As an indie band, I think people would just expect us to find another group from Australia and do it that way.”

Lime Cordiale definitely didn’t think Hollywood royalty Idris Elba would get involved with the song, nor were they expecting the collaboration to turn into an entire project. The six-track ‘Cordi Elba’, out this Friday (January 14), is a unique chapter in both Lime and Elba’s creative lives – one marked by freedom and a nonchalance about what was right and typical.

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“Music is my happy place,” Elba tells NME. On this album, “I’m singing off key but I’m singing my heart out.” He likens the studio process to a jigsaw puzzle: “It just fits together and if it doesn’t, you just switch the piece around.”

“I like a lot of different music but I’ve always kept an ear out for Australian acts” – Idris Elba

The ‘Cordi Elba’ story began with a mutual friend told Lime Cordiale that Elba, like so many other A-listers, was in Australia filming an upcoming blockbuster, and would be keen to jump on ‘Unnecessary Things’. “I figured we could make time for that,” grins Louis’ older brother Oli.

Unlike a lot of management-orchestrated collaborations, Elba and Lime Cordiale developed a genuine friendship while they were in the studio together. When NME joins the Zoom for this interview, the trio are already chatting like old friends, with Elba congratulating the band on their win for Best Live Act at the ARIA Awards 2021 before asking why he didn’t get a shout out during the speech. “It was on my drafts but I was told to throw it out,” replies Oli.

Moments later, Elba admits that he was told the band were “gagging” for him to work with them on ‘Unnecessary Things’. “I hope that’s not true, because that would be incredibly awkward,” starts Oli as Elba starts cackling with laughter. Really, Elba wanted to work with Lime Cordiale because he thought their music was “fire.”

“I like a lot of different music but I’ve always kept an ear out for Australian acts,” he adds. “Lime Cordiale jumped on my radar and honestly, I just love the music.”

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So the trio got in the studio alongside Lime Cordiale’s producer David K Haddad and turned ‘Unnecessary Things’ from serene to snotty, with Elba adding backing vocals and his own rapped verse. Once they’d finished that track, though, the actor opened up his laptop and started showing the room some of the demos he’d written while on various Hollywood sets.

“I’d written this riff and even though it was really different for me, stylistically, I played it to them. I wanted to know if they thought there was anything to it, ‘cos they’re these beautiful musicians.” That demo turned into recent single ‘What’s Not To Like’, a snarling garage punk number. Inspired by Arctic Monkeys and Madness, the track also features an infectious chorus that’s heavy on the “la-la-las”.

“There was a moment where all three of us were around the mic, chanting this chorus like we were soccer hooligans in London,” says Louis before correcting himself: “Sorry, football. That moment broke any of the initial tension you get between strangers in the studio. From that moment on, we were just mates who knew what each other was about. We could just be ourselves.”

“All of us going at it, screaming around that mic was definitely a bonding moment,” Elba agrees. “It’s been noted that you said soccer, though.”

“I need to say sorry to director George Miller because we really pulled him away from Three Thousand Years of Longing” – Louis Leimbach

‘What’s Not To Like’ was inspired by a person Elba had met at a party the night before: someone who was constantly looking over his shoulder, keeping an eye out for someone more important to talk to. But when they realised who Elba was their whole demeanour changed. As the barbed song goes: “Heavy is the heart that wants to be a famous face / Sucking all the air out of the room.”

But the song also basks in the freedom Elba found in this blossoming creative friendship. “As an actor that does music, there was a real liberation from being in a room with Lime,” he says, “and that liberation came out. I always second-guess what people are going to think about my music but as they told me, ‘what’s not to like?’”

That liberation extends to Elba singing on record, a career first that Lime Cordiale had to trick him into. “Idris was putting down vocals, thinking we’d replace them later.” He’d apparently say: ‘I’m not really a singer, I’ll let you guys do it properly.’ Elba was surprised when the boys told him they wanted to keep them in, but he trusted them.

Over the next six weeks, the trio worked in between Elba’s shooting commitments to create ‘Cordi Elba’. Desperate to squeeze as much as possible from their time in the studio, Elba even spent his last night in Sydney working with Lime Cordiale. “I’m surprised we managed to scrape so much time out of him,” says Louis. “I need to say sorry to George Miller” – the director of Three Thousand Years of Longing, the epic fantasy romance Elba was in Australia to shoot – “because we really pulled him away from that film.”

Away from Hollywood, Elba has made a name for himself as a DJ (he’s played Glastonbury, Coachella and supported Madonna) and a rapper (working with Jay-Z, Skepta, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis). He’s released two albums, 2014’s ‘mi Mandela’ (which was inspired by his experience playing Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom) and 2015’s ‘Murdah Loves John’, a gritty character-driven record influenced by his time playing the titular detective of Luther.

‘Cordi Elba’ marks a left-turn in his musical journey, he says. “This whole album was me getting rid of the boxes I put myself in. It ended up being an expression of the individuals in the room. Sure, there’s some psychedelic shit on there with us getting deep into metaphors but at the same time, it’s just about having a fucking laugh with it.”

Likewise, Lime Cordiale have dabbled in indie, pop, rock, folk and psychedelia across their 12-year career but everything they’ve done has been guitar-driven. “With this record, we were able to explore new territories because we didn’t have to be just an indie band. It was our excuse to try new things,” explains Louis.

“If it’s an album by Lime Cordiale and Idris Elba, well – what is that?” he asks rhetorically. “What does that sound like? It meant we could just explore completely new sounds and it allowed us to finally move into the worlds of hip-hop and dance. There’s a bit of everything across the full record.”

Lime Cordiale new album with Idris Elba Cordielba
Credit: Tim Swallow

Both parties have learnt something from the experience. Inspired by Elba’s ability to lose himself in the music, Louis is experimenting with more theatrical vocals as the band get to work on Lime Cordiale’s third album. Inspired by Lime’s free-flowing attitude to creating, Elba’s taking a less rigid approach to his latest music. Rumour has it he’s even recorded a few new songs where he sings all the way through.

This collaboration is set to continue past the imminent release of ‘Cordi Elba’ as well. The trio want to brew a beer (called Cordi Ale-Ba) and as soon as the band make it to London, Elba wants to join them onstage. He performed ‘Unnecessary Things’ with the duo last March at their headline show at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre and now he’s hooked. “It was just a surreal experience but one that I’m sort of addicted to now. I’d love to do it again,” he says.

“We’ve also still sitting on two tracks that aren’t on this album,” Louis adds. One’s a potential film/music thing that he doesn’t “want to say too much about”, while the other is a track they didn’t quite get around to finishing. “Maybe it’ll be on Idris’ next project or maybe ours,” he says. “There’ll definitely be more music-making though.”

But right now, the trio are just looking forward to showing off their new, surprising creation. “It’s exciting being able to release something that’s completely different for us,” says Oli. “People think they know the types of music I make,” adds Elba. “I imagine this record will be a real ‘wait, what?!’ moment. I’m excited to reveal the surprise.”

‘Cordi Elba’ is out January 14 via Chugg Music/7Wallace Music

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