The New Church of Soul:
Curtis Harding Shapes His Own Gospel
Curtis Harding’s solo debut sounds more time-honed than first-timer, and the reception it’s getting reflects that. It’s not just because he’s in a relatively well-known band and has also been involved in several mainstream projects, though we’ll get to those later. In recounting the Atlanta-based musician’s career – and why it already seems to be on an electrified path for greatness – it makes more sense to start much earlier than all that.
“My mother was a gospel singer, and we traveled all over,” he says. “I used to live out here [on the West Coast] when I was a kid.”
The years spent playing drums and singing with his sisters in what he laughingly calls “a kind of traveling gospel family unit” undeniably influence Soul Power, his inaugural platter out this month on Burger Records. Thick, warbled organ fit for a choir enriches numbers like “Next Time” and “Castaway,” and cuts like “Freedom” and “Heaven’s on the Other Side” are thematically in tune with the genre. But by no means is it a faith-driven album.
“I’m not religious. I’m definitely spiritual. I honestly don’t know what I believe in. I more so believe in energy, but I’m not a religious person at all. I don’t think I could do what I do and be religious,” laughs Harding.
Though the legacies of old-school gospel greats like The Consolers are very much concrete fixtures in Harding’s arsenal of inspirations, the album’s called Soul Power for a reason – elements of R&B support the former, and the smash of raucous rock ‘n’ roll backs the later. It’s Harding’s lyrical messages, however, that truly fulfill the expectations.
There’s an unabashed earnestness to his songwriting; his words are simple but carry greater meaning, and are heavy with emotion, yet not mired by melodrama. “Castaway” is a ballad that soars out of the dejection of being “casted away” into progressive self-initiative: “Here’s what you do/ Just push them aside/ It’s best for you/ It’s best for you, soldier.” His gorgeous falsetto only perpetuates how soothing the previous assurances in “Freedom” are: “Wherever ya been/ It’s left behind/ There’s light in your heart/ To quiet your mind.” Harding’s preaches hit a height in waterlogged vocals on the slow-burning “Beautiful People,” demanding that “you’ve got to stand up or die.”
“I believe in the human spirit, and I believe there is something that pushes us forward. Energy is what I believe in. And if that’s God, cool, so be it. I think that if you do your best and you are trying to do the right thing…and I think the God concept is definitely a good one if it’s orchestrated right, but not when it’s used for one’s personal gain monetarily. But if it’s personal gain, like your spiritual growth, that’s good too,” he pauses. “I’m still figuring it out like everybody else. That’s what most of the songs are about on the record – it’s wishful thinking.”
The theme that holds obvious prominence on Soul Power, though, is forging ahead despite difficulties. Harding isn’t referencing his own life specifically, he says. He’s actually quite adamant about maintaining a level of privacy – he won’t even share his exact age.
“It’s not necessarily anything I’m trying to escape. I just think that’s important to anyone that’s struggled, in a sense, whatever it might be. You have to let go to move forward. Don’t forget, but you kind of have to use that as fuel. It makes you stronger to remember those hard times that you made it through, whether it be a bad relationship or leaving a job or leaving the country, whatever it may be. Maybe that’s the theme of the record,” he ponders. “Maybe that’s what ‘soul power’ is all about – using those things and adding them to your soul to make you stronger. But I just think that’s an important thing for everyone: Hold on, but don’t let go.”
Harding may not provide a lot of clear-cut insight on Soul Power’s content, but he is open enough about his past that we can safely infer a little about his current mindset. And, in terms of his career, he’s naturally candid. Along with Cole Alexander of the Black Lips, he founded the psych-infused garage-soul act Night Sun a few years ago. Before that, he was a mainstay in CeeLo Green’s songwriting, recording and touring troupe, both solo and with the Gnarls Barkley project.
“I was a backup singer for CeeLo, on tour and on recording. On his first solo album, I’m actually rapping. I was a rapper first before anything,” he says. “I’m on his first record, CeeLo Green and His Perfect Imperfections.”
In between, he played a short but seminal role in the Atlanta-based pop-rock group The Constellations, who were once signed to Virgin Records. Harding was long gone by then, though.
“I was one of the original members. I just left, just because I wasn’t in the right head space [for] one, and two, it just took on a direction that I didn’t necessarily want to go in at that time. Also I wanted to move, so I moved to Canada. I moved to Toronto for, like, a year. They kept going forward with it, so…it really wasn’t anything personal with anybody. It’s just something that I didn’t want to do, and I felt like I wanted to take my career and my vision in a different direction,” he explains. “Like I said before, I grew up traveling. It’s in my blood to go see different things. Gain inspiration. And at that time I was in a weird head space; there was a lot of stuff happening. It was like at the height of Gnarls Barkley’s success and CeeLo’s other project with Danger Mouse and I was involved in all of that stuff. And going out, doing a little too much. I just decided to leave. Basically it was like going to rehab for me, and seeing some things, but in a different sort of way. Just, like, I guess a sabbatical so to speak. You have ministers sometimes who get overwhelmed and they take a vacation, so that’s what I did. I took a year’s vacation, I worked at a restaurant under the table, and was a busboy for a year. And I saw things and I wrote songs, some of which made the record. And I think I made the right decision.”
When Harding returned to Atlanta, he worked as a nursing assistant in a program for young adults with disabilities, and all the while he continued writing. But it was his efforts with Night Sun – the 7-inch released through Burger Records, namely – that pushed him to finally complete a solo record.
“I physically met [the Burger Records crew] for the first time [recently], but I’d met them over the phone. Conversation just jumped off from there – they asked me if I had solo stuff, and I told them yeah, I had been working on some stuff, some demos and whatnot. It was just ideal, because they love music and vinyl and analog recording, and they just love music in general. And they weren’t big-league cats in a sense that they weren’t all about the business, they were more so about the music. That’s why I went with Burger,” he says.
Like most artists who wait until later in their careers to go solo, Harding’s first platter is a purge of his songwriting backlog, plus some freshly written tracks. And, unsurprisingly, he didn’t totally abandon the collaborative nature to which he’s accustomed.
“I’ve got a song with Cole, he’s playing guitar on one song, it’s a song called ‘Surf.’ And then I wrote a song which is actually on the Black Lips record with Jared Swilley, as well. So we’re going to do a 7-inch split with Vice. It’s called ‘I Don’t Want to Go Home,’” he says. “I got a couple writers on the songs – Randy Michael [of The Booze] co-wrote ‘Keep on Shining’ with me. A host of different musicians that came in. but for honorable mention those are the names that should probably go out right now.”
Michael’s been handling lead guitar at live shows for Harding, who plays rhythm. Swilley’s younger brother, Jonah, helms the drums. Curtis Whitehead, a musician with a steady history with R&B and funk artist Van Hunt, plays bass.
“When we play festivals, we’ll add horns and keys and stuff, because the record’s full of horns and Wurlitzer and Hammond. Well add that when we play bigger shows. It’s just kind of expensive to facilitate all that stuff. Right now we’ll just keep it as a four-piece. Especially when you’re playing with a lot of rock bands,” he says, “you want to feel it, you know?”
Ahead of the album’s May 6 release, it’s apparent a whole slew of people are already feeling it – and not just the crowds at the various shows played during this past SXSW. Not only is he getting press from outlets both small and huge, but also he’s getting a push from Yves Saint Laurent. The high-fashion staple’s famed creative director Hedi Slimane has put together a super-sultry video for “Next Time” and his image is featured in an ad, too. Of all the musicians commissioned by Slimane in the past – Chuck Berry, Marilyn Manson, B.B. King, Daft Punk and Courtney Love, among others – Harding is the first pulled out from under the radar.
Unlike many Atlanta artists, though, Harding seems to be kicking off his career from beyond the city. Forthcoming is an album release show, but before that he’s only performed at 529 as Curtis Harding one time.
“You know sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to make things happen. I grew up traveling all the time, so Atlanta is home base, but I feel like I’m a citizen of not just the US, but of the world,” he says.
It’s not much of a risk to assume the city will embrace Harding’s debut as warmly as it did Night Sun. But what about his religious mother?
“She loves it. She doesn’t necessarily get into everything that I do, you know what I mean, but she loves it. And I’m an adult, so regardless…if you base things on what other people think then you’re losing the game, man. It’s always a risk when you do certain things, but that’s what lets you know that you’re alive,” he says. “She’s fine with it, but if she wasn’t? Oh well, I’m sorry. This is my life!”
Photo by Hedi Slimane.