A true legend, he's been there and done it. Born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, he learned trumpet from an early age and wound up in the orchestra of the musical King Kong, the country's first blockbuster theatrical success, which ended up in London's West End. Following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, friends such as Trevor Huddlestone and Yehudi Menuhin got him admitted to London's Guildhall School of Music. He then studied music in New York, got married to long time sweetheart Miriam Makeba, played on The Byrds 'So You Want To Be Rock'n'Roll Star', enjoyed pop hits in the late 60s, featured in the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, enjoyed further hits with a more dance orientated sound in the 80s, had another hit single in 1987 called 'Bring Him Back Home', which became an anthem for the release of Nelson Mandela, toured with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour and became a leading advocate for education for Africans. He is a living legend and a musician and artist who continues to care deeply, as well as celebrating the human spirit.
How's it going?
I'm a little chilly. I normally go out for a walk and do my exercises, but it was freezing today, so I decided to stay indoors where I am very cosy.
Where are you actually based these days?
Hotels, airports… I live in LA and Johannesburg. I am here in London doing a fund-raiser, for a South African education fund, which has for the last five years educated a whole lot of kids from the eastern cape in South Africa, many of them orphans from HIV parents, very very poor kids. Then I go to Germany to do two concerts with Larry Willis (the pianist, who I have been touring regularly with the last few years), and then back to The Barbican for a show. I'm doing concerts and festivals all over Europe until end of July. After that I go back home, to LA. I'm part of a theatre production company, a television production company, and I'm slowly segueing into stage and theatre productions and television.
You mentioned Larry Willis…
We made an album in 2012 called Friends, a four CD package. It's mostly just with him, except the live CD which also features a drummer and double bassist. I've been touring the world the last three years with him.
What will the set up be at Love Supreme?
That will be with the regular band I play with; piano, bass, percussion, drums, guitar, and myself. The regular crew I have been playing with the last umpteen years.
You're still touring and travelling the world. I'm guessing you enjoy it?
What else would I do? I've been doing this since I was a child. Most artists do this until they die.
How about the recording process, do you enjoy that?
You have to do it from time to time, but it's an industry that has shrunk by almost 90% percent. The other day I went to the Nigerian ambassadors house – he is an old friend – he was playing me all kinds of recordings that I had never heard from concerts. I said, 'where did you get all this stuff'? 'Off Youtube', he said. Most people of my age have been doing this since the 60s, they rely on concert earnings.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I listen to a lot of music, I am always listening to a lot of music. Sometimes I'll have a Johann Sebastian Bach week, or a BIllie Holiday week. I mostly listen to old records, when there were still tunes and melodies, and some kind of artistic prowess. I don't really buy new records, there aren't any record stores…
Is there a much of a music scene in South Africa?
No, not really. There are a few festivals. There used to be a lot of clubs… We were full of police in the old days, and they were there of course to make sure Apartheid was perpetuated, but they also provided a safe environment. After 1994, one of the things the government wanted to show was that we weren't a police state any more. There used to be 'influx controls', people couldn't just go anywhere (Influx control was the name given to measures used to regulate the inflow of black Africans into South Africa's urban areas during the pre-Apartheid and Apartheid eras). Places like Johannesburg were overrun by South Africans from the hinterland but also from countries that were having a rough time all over Africa, and Eastern European countries as well as people from Asian countries. Wherever there was strife.
Many of the cubs were in what you might call low rent neighbourhoods, and these places became overrun… they became like Mad Max (laughs). It was where a musician could play, and hone their skills, but many of these places became no-go areas at night. I had a club in the 90s, but I had to close it because they were hijacking my customers. I would advertise in the London Times magazine and the NY Time magazine and in Paris… We had a lot of tourists in those days. But people were being hijacked and I had to close it down… You want have a successful entertainment environment without security… So unfortunately, for any burgeoning musician there is only the one club now.
We are a country in flux. The poor are poorer, it's less safe than before. It's not going forward.
How do you see things in America and Europe, post-financial crash?
In America, Obama seems to bring out the worst in prejudice against minorities. The right wing has become very fundamentalist. The same thing has happened all over Europe. When there was a boom they imported cheap labour from all over the world and xenophobia became pronounced. What's sad is that many of those people came from countries that were colonised by the countries they now live in. The human race is in pretty bad shape right now.
We are probably the worst species ever put together in the universe and the most destructive…
Do you think artists and musicians still have a positive place in the world?
As an artist I've just wanted to be good at my skill, improving it all the time. I travel everywhere, I play to sold out houses but it doesn't improve the world. I don't know if it helps. Business and governments are paranoid about the arts. Support has been cut down all over the world and expenditure for destruction has been quadrupled.
Tell me about the help you received when you were a child.
Trevor Huddlestone got me my first trumpet. He was the chaplain of my school. He helped loads of people. He helped me to leave South Africa to come to England to study music, and Miriam (Makeba, who he grew up with and eventually married) and Harry Belafonte brought me to the states and I was able to study there.
Help is always there and the talent is always there. But you cannot make it on talent and help alone. You also have to be aggressive, have to improve your skills, be a good business person. I'm helping quite a few kids and adults.
Even as a child I was always restless, As I grew up I had less and less respect for borders and nationalism and fortunately in the music world you can sometimes follow the sound or the people you admire. You know the big speaker funnel on the gramophone? That gave me the idea that people were living in there! It is a wonderful world to be in, your mind is devoid of borders…
I only found recently that it is your trumpet on The Byrds 'So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star'!
David Crosby became one of my first friends when I came to LA. He and Stephen Stills and Peter Fonda introduced me to the rock'n'roll world. They were part of a very big anti-Vietnam war movement. I also played Monterey Pop Festival (check out the film, kids. It's brilliant). I opened for almost everyone at Motown, my independent production company was the first one that Motown distributed. I met Stevie Wonder when he was 16, I opened for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, The Four Tops, Glayds Knights and the Pips. Miriam and Harry met a lot of folk musicians, Dylan and Joan Baez, that whole community, which I got into. And then I was helped to get into the (New York) school by Dizzy Gillespie and a few other jazz people. By 1968 I was headlining the Newport Jazz Festival. I was very fortunate, I was never categorised, I was allowed into the world of total music.
What's the plan?
I'm very happy with what I am doing. I am mostly steeped in traditional African music. I am more interested in heritage, heritage restoration and eduction. I'm very keen for Africans to know their history and to have pride in their heritage.
GoGo Penguin… Named after seeing a paper mache of a penguin (it was actually a magpie) in their dressing room… As the band name suggests, their music is kinda hard to categorise. There's jazz, of course, but there is also some hip hop, trip hop, Ninja Tune style modern grooves, electronica influences, too. And it's voiceless. But, man, they make a beautiful noise together. So much so, that they bagged a prestigious Mercury Music Prize nomination for their last album, v.20. Double bassist Nick Blacka gives us the low-down….
I saw you guys last year, 1pm in the afternoon, as part of Brighton Festival. I think it was your first time here… and you seemed surprised at the full house. Now you're back, at a bigger venue! (and which I believe has also sold out…) How does that feel?
I think we were a little surprised last time. It was our first ever gig in Brighton and it was also in the afternoon so I don’t think we were expecting it to sell out. We really enjoyed that gig so it’s nice to be back this year and to sell out another even larger venue. You only really get a sense of how well it’s going when you get out on the road and suddenly realise that all of these people know about us and know the music. It's pretty amazing.
Winning a Mercury nomination for the v.20 album has certainly helped. Was that a surprise, and how did you hear of being nominated?
We forgot all about when the shortlist gets announced so it did come as a genuine surprise when we found out. We heard the day after we’d got back from doing a festival in Croatia so we were just sort of having a day off and our manager got the news and sent us all an email.
Did you celebrate, and how!?
We didn’t celebrate straight away. In fact we had to keep it under wraps to most people until the official announcement. We did have quite a few drinks on the official announcement night in London though and obviously on the awards night itself.
Tell me how you got started as GoGoPenguin. A little potted history if you will?
Well firstly, I should say that I wasn’t on the first album but I’ve been around on the periphery since the band’s inception so I know the full story. GoGo Penguin started with the simple intention of getting together to write music that the band wanted to hear. No other agenda. There wasn’t even an initial plan to go out and do any gigs at first, simply to make music. In the end they started doing local gigs around Manchester and came to the attention of trumpeter Matthew Halsall, who runs Gondwana Records, performing at a night called Norvun Devolution at The Roadhouse in Manchester. He signed the band and shortly afterwards the debut album Fanfares came out. For the second album v2.0 I joined on bass in place of Grant Russell along with Joe Reiser our live sound engineer who also recorded and co-produced the last album. In the two years since then we’ve been gigging material from the last album and starting work on new material.
As a bassist, what is your musical background?
I first started out playing in indie type bands on bass guitar when I was very young and then as I progressed I got more interested in hip hop, funk and eventually jazz and subsequently took up the double bass. I studied for my degree at Leeds College of Music. Since then I’ve been involved in lots of different projects from jazz, folk, hop hop etc. After a while I met Rob (Turner, drums) and then Chris (Illingworth, piano) on the scene in Manchester. That’s the very short version.
Tell me about the band's influences.
We’re three individuals so we don’t all share the exact same influences but we do tend to find the most common ground in electronic music. Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Radiohead and Thom Yorke are big influences, but we tend to go through phases like most people. We still listen to Jon Hopkins a lot and Arvo Pärt was definitely another big influence around the time we were writing v2.0 amongst many others.
I loved watching the drummer last year, extremely inventive. Can you tell me a little about him? And the pianist?
Funnily enough you’re not the first person to say that about Rob! It may sound strange but I personally almost don’t think of Rob as a drummer, more as a great musician who happens to play the drums. We’ve played together in countless bands for the past 10 years now and we’ve done more gigs together than we have with any other musician so working together just feels easy. Needless to say that people like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher have really influenced his drumming style. He’s my closest friend, a great drummer and fully deserves all of the accolades he gets.
As for Chris, I haven’t known him for quite as long as Rob but he’s an exceptional pianist. He has what I like to call a good taste filter. He manages to eradicate the superfluous notes and somehow keep the good stuff. It’s quite a rare thing. Chris doesn’t let his ego get in the way of a good tune either. He’s a classically trained pianist so he’s obviously very technically capable but he’s also happy to play a very simple passage with the right care and attention every time if that’s what the music requires. I think that’s quite a rare quality and what musicality is all about.
They both studied at the RNCM in Manchester for four years whereas I went to Leeds College of Music as I mentioned earlier.
Why did you call yourselves GoGoPenguin?
Shortly after starting out the band were offered a last minute gig by a friend who runs a night in Manchester. Another band had pulled out and we didn’t have a name. In the rehearsal space there was a paper mache penguin, which was actually supposed to be a magpie but looked more like a penguin hanging from the ceiling. Someone said ‘how about penguin’ then ‘go penguin’ and finally GoGo Penguin.
I see you've signed recently to Blue Note? THE Blue Note? How does that feel?
When I was about 19 years old I was really into the Blue Note thing, obviously the recordings themselves, but also the whole package, the artwork, photography etc. It’s such an iconic label so it feels pretty surreal, so many years on, to be signed to them now! We must be the first band from Manchester to sign with them I would have thought. We’re signed to Blue Note France so we’ve been enjoying the opportunity to do more gigs over there recently. We really like the whole team and I think everyone is now just looking forward to working towards the next release.
You are known, for better or worse, as a jazz band. Are you striving to cross boundaries, to shake off that tag, for instance by performing at non-jazz festivals? Love Supreme, for instance…
We’re just striving to make good music. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. The mild frustration with being called one thing or another is that you then have to adhere to a prescribed set of rules. We can see why it gets called jazz because there’s a piano, double bass and drums, which is the classic jazz trio lineup. There’s also improvisation in the music so again it fits into the jazz thing but there’s also an awful lot that has nothing to do with jazz. Our main concern is that it’s misleading for people who then expect a certain thing or formula from us. That said, we don’t personally have an issue with it, and at the end of the day it’s really up to the listener to decide what they think it is.
Any plans for the rest of the year and when can we expect to hear some new recordings?
We’re currently writing material for our next album which will be our first on Blue Note. We’re recording it very soon but it won’t be released until early next year. For the rest of the year we’ve got plenty of gigs in the diary and we’ll be going to America and Canada for the first time in June which is very exciting.
Submotion Orchestra, a band that have been a little under the radar but who have stealthily developed a considerable fan-base for their mesmerising, eclectic and fresh amalgamation of sounds and styles, including soul, electronica, dustup, dance and dub. Formed in Leeds in 2009, they've released three album,s the latest, Alium, recorded in Brighton itself. A solidly democratic unit of seven people, keys player Taz Modi was nominated to do the business…
What's the plan? In the studio? What are you working on?
Yeah, we’re writing and recording new stuff at the moment. There’s a rough plan to release an EP or two before we drop an album early next year, but it’s all still early days so everything’s subject to change. We’re also writing in a slightly different way for this project. We used to get together all our material by playing together and working the tunes for a live band but we’re not doing that at the moment; rather we’re working up stuff on computers and recording at home. Then swapping material and adding parts individually. We fancied a bit of a change to how we approached the writing and after doing three albums and a couple of EPs by developing all the stuff together by playing in a room, this is quite a refreshing and different way to get things together.
Your last album – Allum – is gorgeous – does it refer to this? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium? If not, what?
It has a kind of double meaning, if you want to read any kind of meaning into it. Obviously the first is a reference to the flower (with a slightly different spelling) which has sort of been our logo since the first album. The second is a reference to the Latin text of Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium" which translates as "hope in any other" or "hope in anything else". In this way our "Alium" tries to represent the "other". For some people that can be off-putting and unfamiliar, but for others and ourselves I guess it is a kind of re-assuring scope for variance from the norm.
I understand it was recorded in Brighton. Where and why?
Well, it really started at this cottage in Wales which we’ve been renting once a year for a couple of weeks. We go to write and develop material, and also to go on long walks in the country. So all of the tunes on Alium had come from those trips. But once we’d developed them and put demos down, we went to Mike Pelanconi's – better known as Prince Fatty – studio, which was a great place. Awesome sound, great desk, lots of lovely and weird instruments and effects lying around waiting to get used. We also wanted a nice uniform sound considering the range of material, which was pretty wide. Also, his studio is right in the Lanes, so there was a lot of opportunity to wander around having great coffee and browsing record stores. You’ve got to recharge the batteries when you’re in the studio for a month.
Do you have any Brighton connections?
Yeah, we’ve been playing there since we started, and now regularly do Concorde 2 when we tour, which is a great venue. We’re also big fans of Bankers fish and chips, who are very kind to us when we go there every time we’re in town. Ultimately those are the most important connections, surely…
How do you think Alium different from your previous work?
I think it's a continuation of our progression as a band. We tried to learn from our previous work and improve on it, as well as continue to explore new ideas and ways of working.
Tell me how you got together as a band, and some of your previous? Were you always this size?
We began jamming instrumental dubstep/jazz improv at a bar in Leeds but we have always been the same seven-piece since our first release on Ranking records. From there we have tried to have a diplomatic and organic way of working as much as possible, growing together as a unit and exploring new territory together.
You cross over all sorts of musical boundaries, can you pinpoint any recent artists (or indeed older ones) that have helped shape your sound/attitude?
Well, part of the reason for that is because we all have massively different musical tastes and influences. There’s a lot of crossover: reggae, classic soul/funk/afrobeat, (electronic?!) and jazz of course. But individually our tastes go from Brazilian percussion music to 70s German music to contemporary choral music and so on. I guess the artists who are most important for us are the ones who either mix genres seamlessly to get their own sound, or those acts who take predominately electronic music and make it live; Nils Frahm, Portico and Cinematic Orchestra are three acts doing that amazingly and inspirationally.
Love Supreme is on the agenda in July, do you know much about this festival? Anybody on the bill that takes your fancy?
Well I personally played there last year with Matthew Halsall, which was a great experience. This is the sort of festival that will have full and appreciative crowds for every act in all of the stages, no matter what time you’re playing. The vibe and size of the festival is perfect too. We’re all planning to make a weekend of it. This year the new artists we’re excited about seeing are GoGo Penguin, Shiver and Bill Laurance, three acts we love and are fortunate to consider good friends too. And, of course, Chaka and Larry Graham are going to be a heavy Saturday night.
What are the plans for the rest of the year and beyond?
It’s a busy summer of festivals as usual, some in the UK, but most in Europe. Then it’ll be recording and producing the album to hopefully release and tour in the early part of next year.
What more is to say about Van the Man? Purportedly the 'grumpiest man in rock' there is no denying the incredible affect that he has had on music in general, and countless artists in particular. From his time with R&B legends Them in the mid-60s, to the sublime Astral Weeks (1968, still considered by many to be one of the all-time great albums) through Moondance (1970), St. Dominic's Preview (1972), No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986), and Born To Sing (2012), his ability to traverse the idioms of folk, jazz, blues, and soul, whilst often transcending formalism, has placed him alongside some of the masters of modern 'rock'n'roll'. His most recent album explores many of his lesser known gems from his back catalogue, a series of duets with the likes of Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples, Mark Knopfler, Joss Stone Gregory Porter, Clare Teal, PJ Proby Mick Hucknall, Taj Mahal, Natalie Cole, and Steve Winwood. So, whether or not you know him as a musician and singer, his set will surely be one of the highlights of Love Supreme.
Where did you get the idea from for this project (Duets album)?
The idea has been around for years, it’s what you call a side project. I’ve done duets before, several with John Lee Hooker, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Bobby Bland, Lonnie Donagan, Georgie Fame…
How did you choose the guests?
With great difficultly. I had to leave a lot of people out because of the time factor and it was going to run into a double or triple album. I just had to get people who were available. It started back in October 2013. I wanted Bobby Womack, he had been one of the first people on my list for many years. So Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples and Natalie Cole were playing the Blues Festival in London and so was I. That made sense to get them during that. Those three kind of kicked it off for me. Then it was much harder to get the rest of it because of calendars.
You have always been a fairly fast worker, you like to go into the studio and not linger for too long.
No, I’m from the John Lee Hooker school of, ‘you get in, you get out’, kind of thing.
What was it like making a short list of your songs, it must have been incredibly difficult?
Yeah, it was very difficult. Some of them picked their own songs or I made suggestions and they said, 'that was fine'. Like Bobby Womack, I sent him that track, he said: 'Yeah, I like the song. I can do that'. Other ones had songs in mind like Mick Hucknall, wanted to do Streets of Arklow; he specifically picked that song. Mark Knopfler picked his song.
Bobby Womack, that’s a great way to start the album…
Yeah, I am lucky I caught him in time really. He looked pretty good at the time. You wouldn’t have known he was very ill, not visibly anyway. (Bobby Womack died soon after the recording)
You generally need one or two takes.
What was it like working with Mavis Staples? You have worked together before?
We have been on the same bill before. It was great because she is a professional and been around a long time. All these people, they know what they are doing, they have been through this many times, like me. They pick up where the song is and just go. You don’t have to ponder it or anything. It’s kind of Jazz as opposed to rock kind of approach.
Then there is Steve Winwood on ‘Fire In the Belly’
Yeah, unfortunately Steve couldn’t make it in, but he is so good that he just put his part on at home in his studio. He didn’t even have to be there, just sent it in. He is so good, sounds like he was there.
One of the real surprises, is Whatever 'Happened to PJ Proby'.
His voice is still there. He has a great voice. I met him when I was a kid a long time ago. I did Wembley, I can’t remember, NME poll winners or one of those concerts. He was actually top of the bill at the time and the Beatles were second, I think. I remember he was a very welcoming and friendly guy. We were kids, he didn’t know who the hell we (when Morrison was with Them) were, he was a big star then.
What is it like going back and listening to these songs from early in your career? Some artists just want to stay in the moment they don’t want to go back and hear what they did 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago. Are you like that or are you happy to ponder what you did at different stages?
Not really, it’s very difficult, you see. It’s not only difficult picking people because there are so many of them, it’s also difficult picking songs. You are working from 350 songs and that is extremely difficult. I don’t really ponder past stuff unless I want to maybe redo it or do a different arrangement.
The last track, I think that is my favourite actually, with Taj Mahal. The way it fades with you guys laughing. You were playing in that hotel in County Down and this was done at the soundcheck!
This is the thing. They never write about this stuff in the rock magazines, they never write anything like that. Keep the mythology going, it’s all very dour and I am grumpy, never have a laugh. Because they are so lazy they might have to get a sense of humour.
When did you first meet Taj?
Around the 70s actually. We were playing a gig together, I think it was Filmore West in San Francisco, early 70’s. I was trying to get out of the music business, but Bill Graham kept pressuring me to do gigs. I said to him, ‘I want to retire from this performing’. He says ‘Why don’t you do one more gig before you retire?’ I was fed up with the music business. Taj was opening. He went on, then I went on and he was still around. When I went on the lights were so bright even with dark glasses on, I couldn’t see. It was all sort of psychedelic lighting, it was blinding me. I said I can’t do this, I was going off. Taj took the microphone and said ‘can you shut the F… lights off?’ So they did, because this guy is about 6 feet 6 saying to turn the lights off and I could do the show. That was when I first met him.
I guess you don’t have to play small gigs, but there is something clearly that appeals to you.
They have always appealed to me. I have always liked small gigs, there is nothing new. It’s harder to do financially when you have the overheads I have. But yeah, that’s the kind of gigs I would do, plus there is no travelling. I have to do them; for me it is like breathing, something I need to do. I don’t like travelling I never have, especially long distance travelling. I like it even less now because I am tired now. Just to cross the bridge, finish a gig and go home. I don’t like booking things way in advance because sometimes you get there and you’re not in the frame of mind to do it or too tired. I like to be able to book things at short notice as much as possible. I can’t do tours anymore. Too exhausting.
There is that contact with the audience, that you don’t get in a bigger venue…
Yeah but to me that’s what it is about. It's about being on a stage and people engaging, To me that’s what its about. It’s playing and singing rather than performing. It’s more direct and its more communication.
It stays spontaneous, and your musicians never quite know what’s quite going to be coming onto your set list at any given moment in an evening.
Yeah, you have to keep it that way otherwise it gets boring, doesn't it?
I wanted to ask you talking about the blues tradition and R&B. R&B has become a very different animal now. I wondered how you felt about that?
Terrible. I can’t relate to it now, what they call R&B. It doesn’t have any rhythm in it. It doesn't have any blues. To me it is very unrhythmic. It's very robotical I find.
So do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the way the Blues and Jazz traditions are going.
Well I just feel like you know what you know and you just get on with it. I don’t really know if there is any tradition anymore. I was lucky to meet, work and hang out with all these people. I remember the first time I saw Jimmy Witherspoon play in London, it was unbelievable; that was like a spiritual experience for want of a better word. I met him then, it was like ‘65 or something, hung out, came and talked to me, hanging out at the bar just like normal people. I was lucky to meet these people, get to know them, hang out with them, learn things, observe stuff.
How's it going, and what were you doing before you answered this?
Life is good, thank you. Just before this, I was powering down a breakfast of scrambled eggs, turkey bacon, fresh strawberries and blueberries, and a nice hot cup of green tea…simultaneously responding to the usual daily onslaught of emails.
Do you know much about Love Supreme Festival?
Only that it is a new festival, established in 2013 and, obviously, deriving its name from the legendary Coltrane album 'A Love Supreme'.
Echoes have called you “the hottest new talent to hit soul music in at least 10 years”. That's quite an accolade!
This truly is a humbling notion to fully assimilate. I definitely felt, as I was working my debut album slowly over the course of about four years, that this was something unique and special, however, I did not foresee this level of notoriety coming about. It is extremely encouraging to see that there are still people left in the world who desperately thirst for something which goes against the grain of the contemporary pop formula. A formula which, to me, seems to be a spiritual vacuum, devoid of any real substance or relevance lyrically or otherwise.
As I am not signed to a record label as of yet, the financing for this album had to come from within. I spent over 10K of my own money to make this project happen, which was literally just about ALL that I had. This was all before the mixing and mastering had even been considered. At this time, I reached out to a pair of incredibly generous souls who had been loyally frequenting my shows in the Portland area for many years. They are friends, patrons of the arts, philanthropists, and project financiers. They have requested that their anonymity remain preserved, but they gifted me enough clams to completely finish my album, a favor to which I am eternally grateful.
When did you start singing and playing piano?
My parents will tell you that from the time of infancy I was ALWAYS vocalizing in some way or another. I don't know where that comes from, but, it's just always been inside me to sing! I took up the piano at the age of 13, at which time I became infatuated with the prospect of the composure of complex harmony.
Your father had a musical background. Was this a big factor in your musical upbringing?
Yes, my father is actually quite an accomplished guitarist. He is getting up in his age now and hasn't put a lot of intention into his music for some time, but, he did impart much musical knowledge to me at an early age by way of simply exposing me to a rather sophisticated sampler platter of different styles and brands of music, in addition to introducing me to a basic understanding of how scales and chords work.
Tell me about your musical inspirations.
As a child, I was SUPER into Michael Jackson on the pop side of things, but, my father played a lot of Antonio Carlos Jobim (which is still to this day some of my favorite music), Oscar Peterson, George Benson, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Sons of Champlin, etc. A little later on in my life, I started to really gravitate to soul music…Al Green, Otis Redding, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, etc., but especially soul singers who brought a message that spoke about social and spiritual subjects, like Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, etc. These days I'm definitely influenced by more contemporary soul and jazz artists like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Omar, Van Hunt, Esperanza Spalding, etc. In addition to all of this, I am a listener of classical music, electronica, folk, bluegrass, reggae, latin & afro-cuban, brazilian, flamenco, jazz fusion, and just about any other form of music that is composed thoughtfully, tastefully, and musically to my ears.
You played at Stevie Wonder's birthday party…when and how was it?
At that time, I was performing weekly at a restaurant in Portland called Quartet. The owner, a man named Frank Taylor, new Stevie Wonder personally from a past time. Stevie had come in to eat one night at one of Frank's other restaurants (somewhere around Michigan I wanna say) and the two of them apparently hit it off immediately and became close friends. Fast forward to 2013, Frank decides he wants to bring Stevie to Portland for his birthday and throw a big party at his restaurant for him. Stevie agrees. Frank reached out to Farnell Newton and myself, asking us to assemble a band to back up Stevie Wonder. It was a dream come true! A completely surreal experience…one I’ll never forget. I literally was sitting three feet away from him and trying to keep myself together musically while feeling completely enamored and star-struck. One of my greatest musical memories.
The Brits love their soul music. How do you see the Brits and their soul?
Well, as history shows, the Brits displayed an appreciation for early blues and soul music which appears to have superceded that of the US where the music had originated. Back in the 50's when Muddy Waters was getting less than the recognition that he deserved, he was brought to the UK and wowed audiences in a way that he had probably never known. I think that, like with many things in life, we take for granted what we have right in front of us (the grass is greener… syndrome), placing greater value upon things that are less readily accessible to us. Couple that with the standard British sophistication, which I find to be a cut above generally, and it all kind of makes sense. As far as modern British soul artist go, I'm a big fan of the under-appreciated, mythological hermit Lewis Taylor, as well as my favorite, and the finest of new soul songbirds, Lianne La Havas.
What, to you, is soul music?
To me, soul music is not necessarily a genre, and many people would probably disagree with me on that. The way I see it, soul music came from the blues which was always the rawest, most authentic, heartfelt outcry, calling attention to a situation of personal anguish, social injustice, or other such subjects. Soul music doesn't always include this component, but for me, the best soul music does. To tie into my opening statement, to my perception, Bob Marley, though his music came through a different lineage, was a greater and more important soul singer than many whom are commonly labeled “soul artists”. He sang from the deepest part of his SOUL and spoke to social injustices, matters of personal anguish, his people's oppression, and of course, above all, spiritual matters. So, by this rationale, though contrary to common perception, Bob Marley epitomizes soul music for me.
Tell me about the band you are bringing to the UK.
My core guys are Christopher Friesen on the bass and Joshua Corry on the drums, both of which played on my debut album. More recently, we have added Chance Hayden on the guitar, and Tahirah Memory and Molly Foote on background vocals. This is THE SQUAD!
Plans for the rest of 2015 and beyond?
I have a very rigorous touring schedule ahead for the remainder of 2015, however, I'm going to focus hard on album number two in the coming year. I already have another album worth of material ready, just need to allocate some time to spend in the studio. I've also been working on several collaborations which will begin to surface over the course of the coming year. Looking forward to a prolific musical future!