Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics

Soul of the Earth:
Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics Bring Light to Dark

For Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, it really has been about time, and how much more it took to complete their debut album than they ever imagined. I remember talking to them in early 2010, upon the release of their first 7”, “Feet on the Ground.” They had big plans, telling me they’d have a couple more singles out that spring with their album to follow that summer.

Two summers later, It’s About Time arrived at long last in retail outlets Sept. 4th, on vinyl, CD and download. But while the group may have naively underestimated the ease of the album’s creation, it’s readily apparent that they put their all into it. It’s About Time is a stunner.

‘They just played [our album] at Sound Table, the vinyl, the other day. That was so sweet. I was so happy!” beams Velle during a conversation over beers and spinach dip one recent evening. “I’m very happy with the songs. Some of the songs have brought me to tears before, and I don’t know if it’s because of what I was experiencing when I wrote the song, or it’s the fact that it’s just done. It’s finally done.”

“It brought me to tears, too, because it’s…hearing the culmination of how much time it’s taken,” guitarist Scott Clayton interjects. “Just years and years to get this fuckin’ shit together. And then when you finally get it together, and you’re riding around in your car listening to it, and it hits you, you’re like, holy shit!”

“[It’s About Time’s song] ’Soul of the Earth,’ to me, was like a future message I wrote to myself,” adds Velle. “It was weird. What I needed to know to get through this whole experience came out in that song. The song’s all about the struggle, and not knowing why things are so hard until they’re done, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, shit – now I understand why I had to go through that.’”

Honestly, the Soulphonics have brought me to tears as well. Sometimes I’ll be watching them play a show, and I’ll be getting into it, you know, letting the music take the lead, and soon enough the crowd dissolves to the background as I’m absorbed deeper and deeper by this stirring, robust, interweaving vibe they’re pouring out there, and I just get a little overwhelmed. I’ve been transported somewhere else, somewhere that makes me smile and cry and feel utterly amazing. This band is really that good. And Ruby just caps it. She seems so unlikely as a soul singer. You’d never expect it if you hadn’t seen her onstage before. But man, what a presence – she’s simultaneously welcoming and radiant. She rarely all-out wails like so many of this mold. She doesn’t over-extend herself. But her voice has sass. It has this plucky honesty. She’s inspired by other vocalists and performers, but she’s mimicking no one. You can feel it – it’s not a tribute act.

“This genre, too, it’s all been done before,” Velle admits. “It’s a matter of how your story is different, and what you’re doing with that music, to kind of give it an edge. I think that’s where Soulphonics kind of stand out, ’cause we’re not just trying to recreate this music. We almost were falling into that trap for a while. But we wanted to be more creative. If you’re just going to repeat what’s already been done, you might as well play soul covers.”

The Soulphonics did more of that in their formative years (the core of the eight-member ensemble – Velle, Clayton and keyboardist Spencer Garn – moved to Atlanta from Gainesville, Florida in the late ‘00s), but as It’s About Time makes clear, no one has any bidness calling out for “James Brown!” when the group has compiled such a rich abundance of fresh originals, from the slinky sway of “My Dear” to the rousing uplift of “Soul of the Earth,” from the deep-funk kiss-off “Medicine Spoon” to the humid ‘70s R&B prowl of “Longview” to my personal favorite, “Looking for a Better Thing” with its gradual keyboard build and possibly Velle’s standout performance of the album.

“Somebody said that that should be our next single,” Garn points out.

“You know what’s funny about that song?” asks Ruby. “I said to my vocal teacher, ‘I know songs aren’t supposed to start out on a high note, really blaring,’ and she was like, ‘Do your thing. If that’s what you feel, do it.’ So we kept it. And I’m glad we did. Who says you can’t start off a song like that?”

“For me, when we are in the last choruses of ‘It’s About Time,’ all those background vocals come in with the strings and the horns, to me, that is the culmination of the production value of that album,” offers Clayton. “That’s the most produced song, it’s got the most instruments on it, and seven, eight, ten layers of background vocals that we all did, the three of us, and when you hear it, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s just me and Ruby and Spencer,’ but it sounds like some kind of choir… It has this kind of Gal Costa ‘70s lounge background vocal kind of vibe.”

“I think a lot of this album is about poignancy, and it’s about where we are in our lives at this point in time. We’re at a turning point politically, culturally and as a band. So those three things kinda came into play for us,” Ruby says. “So there are some songs about, you know, ‘don’t give up, keep doin’ it.’ And maybe that’s our underlying message to us. And then you have ‘It’s About Time,’ which covers a political gamut of what’s going on in the larger scene, with the Occupy movement and things like that. So I think poignancy is the whole undertone of the album. And in some respects, social change and change on a human level. A lot of our songs talk about that, too. They say 2012 is the year of awakening.”

“Who says that?” I ask.

“I don’t know…They!” she laughs. “I just think there’s a certain level of consciousness raised, a little bit. I don’t think it’s like an anxiousness thing or anything, and the album’s not meant to be that at all, it’s just kind of like a guide to the times.”

They (the Soulphonics, in this case) began recording the songs for It’s About Time in March 2011 at Zero Return in Reynoldstown. Later that summer, Garn sold his Honda Element and invested in 11 grand worth of new gear and recording equipment, and the band finished tracking the album in the Little Five Points rehearsal space they acquired.

After “busting our asses,” they finished in early spring but delayed the album’s release until now, partly for financial reasons but also to set up a publicity campaign (through New York-based Good Cop PR) and distribution for their new record label, Gemco (through Redeye). Yes, they’re going pro.

“Trying to, yeah!” says Garn. “We took so much time to do it, why not?”

“I think we just really believe in this album, and what it can do,” Velle expands. “All of us are in agreement that we’ll do whatever it takes right now to put it out the best way that we can.”

That, of course, includes touring, something the Soulphonics haven’t indulged much in the past. After all, it’s hard enough keeping eight people in a band at home. When you have to coordinate schedules around tour dates – and finance the endeavor for so many people – it can get dicey at their level.

‘You just have to be insane to want a big band,” Velle declares. “You either have to be really dumb and have a lot of hope and faith, or you’re really smart and you’re funded or backed in some way. But our band, they’re gung ho for taking a hit sometimes if they need to, and just doing what a struggling band does.”

“We’ve already got our first little run booked in September: St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, and then back in Atlanta,” Clayton details. “I mean, that little run, the budget for that is very daunting. We want to be able to do that, literally, three weeks a month, or at least two weeks a month. We have to finance those trips with our better paying gigs.” While they’re generally not the most fun shows to play, the Soulphonics do high-paying corporate and private performances when they can, and some of the members play other pickup gigs in jazz bands that can pay more. It’s not an ideal situation, but it enables self-sufficiency.

Also, they often play with complimentary bands (such as Nashville’s The Dynamites feat. Charles Walker, whose founder and guitarist Bill Elder is Garn’s partner at Gemco), and they’ll occasionally use players from those acts when needed. “We’re probably going to constantly have different people rotating in different positions,” says Garn.

“But at the same time, we have found a few really dedicated guys that are in it, and part of the team now for the last year,” adds Velle, who’s officially at the front of the band’s name after being The Soulphonics & Ruby Velle for so long.

“I was the one that brought it up,” confesses Garn regarding the name switch. “I was just tired of seeing it billed the wrong way, you know – it’s like, we’re fighting a battle we’re losing. It’s more traditional [this way].”

For Ruby’s part, “I didn’t really care, you know. It didn’t matter to me, and it never has mattered to me.” Then again, she’s the only one on the cover of It’s About Time, alone in a MARTA station, suitcase at her side, outside a train she’s either just emerged from or is about to board. Although she came up with the concept with Garn and Clayton, she stresses it was not her plan to be photographed solo. “If it was up to me, I’d have the whole band, but sometimes the guys don’t want the whole band in the shot. I’m not sure why. Something about ‘selling albums,’” she laughs.

“It’s just been a long road, and to see some of those songs come to life, I really hope they have a long shelf life,” she continues. “I hope that I get to sing them on stage for a long time. I love them. I’m really happy. There’s so many deterrents, and there’s so many challenges, and yet, through it all we have this faith that we are a good band, and we have a good product, we have a good message. I think that faith is really what we’re leaning on right now. There are so many times when it’d be so much easier to pack it up and call it quits, but now we’re really on the verge of doing something spectacular. I’m glad.”

Photo by Kenitra Canty.