We're backstage at East London venue the Moth Club and Curtis Harding is attempting to piece the past two years of his life together.
Staring through jet-lag and the after effects of last night's Welcome To London style festivities, the singer is threading his thoughts into a line.
At one point he looks up, wrinkles his nose, and says: "I don't know... does this make any sense to you?"
The thing is, though, is does. Every Curtis Harding says is crystal clear, delivered with real emphasis in that caramel sweet Atlanta brogue.
Debut album 'Soul Power' ended years in the sidelines, working as a backup singer while nursing more than a few ambitions of his own.
Follow up record 'Face Your Fear' is something different, though; if the debut felt at times like a homage, this peers effortlessly into a future dappled in psychedelic synths.
Produced by Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen, it's a wonderfully creative return that underlines the universal power of soul.
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The new album is called ‘Face Your Fear’ - is that what you feel like you’re doing on this record, facing down some very personal fears?
Yeah. I feel like everyday you’re faced with one of your fears. The title is actually one of the songs on the record that I wrote about a recurring nightmare that I had. Not to get deep into that I feel like it’s an important statement to make right now, especially with what’s going on in America, and the globe. Not to get too political but there’s a lot of racial tension going on, especially in my country.
I feel like when people are afraid, generally, that creates anger, and anger can turn into some evil shit, man. So I just feel like it’s an important statement to make right now. Even if you’re just afraid of heights or something. Facing that could be huge for somebody. General statement, but it crosses all channels of what you’re feeling.
Your debut album feels like a more straight forwardly ‘soul’ record than this one – do you feel like you’ve said enough about those influences?
I don’t think you can ever say enough. I’ve got more to say. ‘Soul Power’ is a different record, for sure. I produced it myself, and this one I collaborated with Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen. So I think that’s the biggest difference. We have less guitars on this one. Sonically, I think it takes a different approach.
As far as lyrically, I’m still talking about some of the same stuff. Even though this one is ‘Face Your Fear’ and the other is ‘Soul Power’, there’s still some of the same stuff going on.
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I feel like when people are afraid, generally, that creates anger...
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At root it’s the same songwriter.
How did you and Danger Mouse cross paths?
We randomly ran into each other, but I’ve known him for over a decade now. I met him when I was singing back up for CeeLo, and then they started working, doing the Gnarls Barkley stuff. But we randomly ran into each other in New York… just like walking down the street. I was with a friend of mine, he was with a friend of his.
It was like: hey man, what you been up to lately? He was like: same old, same old. Obviously, I knew what he was doing! And he had heard that I had put a record out, and one of the songs that’s on ‘Soul Power’ he actually dug, and put on one of his mixtapes. So we talked about possibly working together. Me, not really believing that it would actually happen.
We exchanged numbers and it did. It finally did. We kept in contact… and I was sharing different music with him, and he was sharing different music with me. I was out in L.A. working on a deal with ANTI, so I went to his house and we finally decided to give it a go. So that’s how it happened, man.
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He’s such a music guy, his career has been wonderfully diverse.
For sure. Danger’s always been somebody that I looked up to, production-wise. So it was good meeting him.
Did you have the songs largely prepared before you went into the studio?
I had some. I played him some demos that I did at home, but I really wanted to start from scratch. I wanted to come in with a fresh new set of songs, and I didn’t want to hinder us working together. Some of the demos I did use and put forward, but I kind of just let it go, and be what it is.
Most of the songs were written in the studio. Or I would come up with a demo and then lyrically take it to the hotel and finish it there, before taking it back the next day.
It was that fresh?
Yeah. The demos were quite basic sketches, some of them were like guitar riffs and melodies that I had, some of them were maybe a paragraph of lyrics that I had. Like really, really rough stuff.
Do you tend to write with the guitar?
Yeah. All the time. Either the guitar or sometimes I’ll pick up the bass. Sometimes I start with basslines, just because I’m a huge James Jamerson fan, so I’m always doing James Jamerson runs. But it just depends.
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There’s always been – at least with me – a sense of adventure...
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James Jamerson’s playing was so integral to those Motown records – like three dimensional melodies in their own right.
Exactly. It changes the whole realm of the song, it takes it to a whole other level. I consider James Jamerson to be the meat of Motown, and the rest of it is just potatoes, vegetables. He was the meat for a lot of that stuff.
Is this the sort of discussions you and Danger Mouse would have about music?
I think we just kind of got it. One of the things that we talked about was, like, not making the record guitar heavy. Just going more with a psychedelic approach, with synths. And he’s a genius in that regard, and so is Sam Cohen – just super, super good. We just got it. We shared different music, we’d vibe on stuff at first, and then we’d go in with fresh ears.
The synths are hugely important to the sound of the album, but were the actual songs written on them?
That was texture, afterwards, for the most part. Like, we would lay the rough tracks, and then we would do a lyric thing, lay some melodies over it, and then layer add that. Towards the end. Some of the beginning, and maybe something in the middle.
Do you think this was a reactive process? Did these new sounds and colours force you to re-assess the path each song was taking?
If you go back and listen to it for a couple days or even a couple hours it’s like, this would be cool if we try this or try that. It changes. It definitely does. But there’s always been – at least with me – a sense of adventure. I’ve always wanted to explore music using new synths, different sounds. I think that’s one of the biggest differences from ‘Soul Power’, there’s definitely more synth elements, psych elements.
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‘Wednesday Morning Atonement’ arrived online with this quote from yourself, describing your feelings of abandonment towards your songs. That’s an incredibly close connection with your work.
Yeah. I think it’s important. I think it’s to feel that way. Otherwise… I don’t go into it trying to make a hit song – of course it would be nice if it was a hit – but there’s definitely a technical side to writing songs, structure and whatnot. I need it to feel good. And there’s a sentimental sense that I have to be like that with my songs. They are, ultimately, my children. They’re going to live longer than anything, so that’s the idea I try to take into the studio when we start making music.
And that’s why I’m OK with collaboration. You can get the ego and shit out the way and let it be what it is, because the songs are ultimately going to live longer than all of us. If you can take that approach then you will ultimately be alright. You’re doing something good, something really special.
Do you ever struggle to let them go?
Yeah. I definitely hold on to songs for a while. Until I feel like they’re there. But that’s the great thing about collaborating with somebody because you get that second opinion. Like, it’s good, it’s there, it’s ready.
That was the great thing about working with Sam and with Danger. We’re pretty spontaneous. And it felt good, it felt right. So it feels good then you can let it go and be a free range child! (Laughs) Go out into the world and get shit going!
Was that freshness a key part of the record?
With ‘Soul Power’ some of those songs were written ten years prior to me even getting into the studio. Like I said, I had abandoned working on shit for a while. Just because of the business side… and trying to figure out who I was going to put the record out on. I didn’t have a manager at the time – all that stuff. It felt like I was abandoning my children. So when I was finally able to get in there, that’s what came out. It was cool.
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How quickly did this record come into being?
It took us about two years to finish it, but it wasn’t because we weren’t working quickly in the studio, it was because we all had other shit we needed to do. But when we got in there for a week-long stretch we would be knocking shit out. Then it would be, like, six months before I was able to go back. When we got in there we made the most of our time, you know what I’m saying? In the grand scheme of things it probably took about two months to record the whole record. It was really quick.
Are lyrics something you would obsess over?
I still obsess over it. But if it feels good – now – then I kind of just let it go. ‘I Need Your Love’ is a simple song, but the point of that song, at least to me, was to be lyrically, almost childish and easy. Sometimes it’s the easiest… How can you easily express something? Like ‘I Need Your Love’ is super simple… just get to the point! As opposed to trying to over-think some shit. So in that sense it worked, and it felt good.
Sometimes these things just need to be said, don’t they?
Exactly. And I know it’s a super cliché thing to say, but…. Dude, honestly – it’s a hard thing to do for a lot of people. It’s hard to understand why you’re upset, or why you don’t like something – it’s because you’re afraid. And once you figure it out the options are endless. You can conquer the world. Seriously.
Soul is a very loose term, is that something you would apply to ‘Face Your Fear’?
Yeah. Soul music is something that comes from your soul. I still live by this shit. I know a lot of people that I feel have soul and aren’t even musicians. Just by the way they dress, how they talk, the way they move, how they interact with people. That’s what soul is to me.
Soul is also experience. It’s a beat up road or it’s a road paved in gold. That’s what soul is to me. And it can apply to anything: country, punk… math-rock! Anything. If that shit feels good then it’s soul music, man. It’s got to come from here.
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'Face Your Fear' will be released on October 27th.
Photography: As Credited
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