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There’s a music loving audience out there that cringes every time the phrase RnB is used to describe music by artists such as Beyonce, Rhianna, Drake, R Kelly and the like. You know who you are. You were raised on pioneering soul and original rhythm & blues music created by legends such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and James Brown and you know the difference. You’ll also be pleased to know that there’s a growing movement around the globe of new artists playing a refreshing brand of soul music. Sure, it’s a modern kind of soul but arguably, it’s soul music which has more relevance to the term than those currently performing under the ‘RnB’ moniker. I’m talking about artists such as Son Little, Leon Bridges, Vintage Trouble, Allen Stone, St Paul and the Broken Bones, and others who take an innovative approach to the genre but retain the feel of those who have come before. You can also add Atlanta-based Curtis Harding to that list of impressive modern-day singer, songwriter, performers producing quality soul and authentic R&B flavoured recordings.

Harding, who paid his dues rapping and then singing backing vocals for Cee-Lo Green before moving out on his own, has just released his second solo album Face Your Fear. Produced by Harding, Sam Cohen and Danger Mouse the album mixes traditional soul sensibilities with atmospheric grooves and modern day recording techniques to create something uniquely his.
Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips recently caught up with Curtis, who had just returned home to Atlanta between USA tour dates to talk about the making of Face Your Fear.

Curtis, were all of these songs written with this new album in mind or was it just a collection of ideas that you had at the time?
The majority of them were written while working in the studio. I would demo a song, lay down a melody, take it to my motel and refine it. I’d then take it to the studio the next day and just record it. We came in there with ideas in mind and some lyrics but they were pretty much written there. A couple of months prior to going into the studio, I was recording some other stuff in LA. I had the space and the opportunity to do so… so I had some songs down but didn’t use any of those ideas for the sessions with Brian (aka Danger Mouse) and Sam because I wanted to start out fresh and see what we came up with.

Danger Mouse was a producer on this album along with yourself and Sam Cohen. What was the attraction to Danger Mouse as a producer initially?
Well we’ve got the same taste in music for a start. I’ve known Danger for over a decade. I have always admired his skills as a producer and his tastes and the way he goes about making the stuff that he does for people that I am also a fan of. So I was a fan first and then a friend. It was an honour to be in there with him. I learned a lot. That’s another reason why I wanted to get in there with him man, it was like an internship. I liked to watch how he got everything done and he brought Sam Cohen in. Sam and I did the bulk of the in-studio stuff and then we’d play it for Danger. As the master-producer, he said I feel like you guys should do this or that.

How important was the time in your past working with Cee Lo Green? Did you learn much about recording from him?
Definitely man. I learned a lot about vocal stylings and just how to write. I am always learning from people I work with. I don’t work with people that I don’t feel like I can learn anything from. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way you get better. So yeah, I learned about vocal stylings, songwriting techniques and learned how to do things on the spot.

Do you like to get your vocal takes down quick within a few takes or do you tend to do a lot of takes and try different phrasing and stylising?
It just depends on what we are trying to accomplish and what the song requires. I do whatever is best for the song. If I feel like the song requires a bunch of takes and I am trying to hit a certain mood or whatever, then I will do it as many times as I can. With the song Ghost For You for instance, I did that a bunch of times because I was trying to get a certain mood for the song. I thought the song deserved that. Each song is different man. Sometimes you can knock it out in one take. When it feels good, you know it.

Go As You Are is the current single. Whose idea was it to feature the wah pedal? It’s such a great sound.
Thanks, that was mine. I did that track at my home and then I took it to the studio and played it for Sam and we got the guitar to where we could use it.

Are you a big fan of pedals? Do you have many?
I don’t have a lot of pedals but I have enough. Although sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough. I’m always looking for new sounds. I think right now on my pedalboard I got a fuzz pedal, an overdrive, a wah, a tremolo but I have a ton of pedals just laying around the house, some I’ve even forgotten about. Most of them are overdrives.

You generally play a Fender Jazzmaster. Did you record with that?
Yeah I did. The guitar on Go As You Are is a Jazzmaster. I have a ton of guitars, some of which I don’t bring out live. I will at some point but haven’t yet. I have an SG, a Stratocaster, a bunch … I have a Martin concert acoustic. I got a lot of guitars.

What was the first guitar you owned?
A Strat that was given to me.

You’ve stayed with that sound really haven’t you?
I’m a Fender guy man! It’s just my tone that I like to hear.

There’s acoustic guitar on the track Welcome To My World. Did you use a studio guitar or it that the guitar you write with?
No that was an old vintage guitar that Sam had in the studio. I can’t remember what brand it was but it sounded really good.

Are you more likely to write a song on an acoustic guitar or can it just as easily be an electric with a pedal?
I wrote most of the songs on acoustic for Soul Power but I didn’t write many songs on acoustic for this record. I mainly used my electric guitar, unplugged just sitting in my hotel room. A lot of the songs I started out with the bass lines first, that’s what I did with the song On and On. It just depends what you have at your disposal. I mean, I could write a song with just my iPhone, humming a melody into it.

Why is Face Your Fear the title track?
I felt like it was a general statement but also a relevant statement for what’s happening across the world. Here in America there is a lot of racial tension and political excess going on and I just felt like when people are afraid, they are easily manipulated, so I just felt like it was an important statement to make… for myself as well!

I read in another interview that you said you’re not really a political artist but it’s getting increasingly difficult not to get drawn into it. Do you think music has a role to play in politics?
No I don’t so. I think music has a role to play in people’s lives in general. I think politics is just one aspect of what we have to endure. There’s politics in the music business as well so it depends about what kind of politics you’re talking about. I don’t think that music necessarily should be used as a political tool, although it can be. At least for me and my opinion, it’s a way to heal. It’s for me first. It’s therapy, it’s entertainment. I prefer music with a message but not specifically a political message, something that is going to push me forward to a positive stance. I try to seek out positive things as much as I can. So I don’t think music should necessarily be used as a political tool. We got enough of that goin’ on with people pushin’ agendas.

I love the horns in Til The End, it’s a real authentic 60s sound. Do you reference other records at all when trying to achieve certain sounds?
I never go into a song trying to make it sound like something, it’s just how I feel. Afterwards maybe I might go well this reminds me of this or that. Listening to as much music as I have listened to in my life from gospel to old soul, that stuff is in my DNA and sometimes I can’t help it and it will sound like something else.

Did you have many other tracks that you were working on that didn’t make the album?
I always have songs man. I am always curating something. Some things are just 15 seconds of a melody, some are whole pages of lyrics that aren’t necessarily a song yet but yeah, I got songs. As I was saying before I have songs which I recorded in LA. I got a whole other band with a record called Night Sun with Cole Alexander (Black Lips). We just haven’t put them in a form for people yet. We have a record’s worth of material. I was just hanging out with the boys in New York. They’re on tour with Kesha and we caught up a couple of nights and talked about how we’re going to put the album out. I think we are going to record some more stuff and then refine what we already have but we’re definitely going to out something out. It’s just been hard with everyone’s schedules. That’s what we been talking about. We just need a week where everybody in the same place and just get in there and knock it out.

What are the plans for playing the solo album songs live? Will you replicate all the parts or play more organic versions?
We’re definitely going to try to replicate it. It’s just a matter of getting the parts facilitated. We’ve already been playing the songs out live. The only things that’s missing are the back up vocals. We’ve got this girl Amber Mark, who did a lot of the backing vocals on the record. We can do the strings with the keys. We did an acoustic session for a TV show and we had to do Wednesday Morning and there are no acoustic guitars on that. It wasn’t even written on acoustic guitar, so it’s always fun to do another interpretation of your music but I want to try to stay as true as possible to the album.

When a musician gets busy touring and promoting an album, they sometimes don’t get to actually listen to music. Do you still allow yourself time to listen to other people’s music?
Yeah we get to listen to music, especially if we have a travel day. We’re listening to music and podcasts and stuff. We make time. In the green room before the show. We mainly listen to a lot of old stuff, soul standards, rock standards, some punk, dream pop occasionally. I’m all across it. Honestly, this is the rule … whoever is driving , which is usually our tour manager, they get to DJ because they have to be in a good place. You want the person driving you to your destination to be in a good place, so whoever is driving or up front, they have the reins to DJ. I learned that from my mum, traveling a lot. She’d say whoever’s driving, they can listen to what they want to … within reason!

When can we expect to see you in Australia?
I’m not really sure but sooner than later I hope. We have this tour coming up in November and we start on the east coast in Philly and end in Seattle, then we do Europe until the 29th but I hope it’s soon. I think my booker is working on that now. I’m looking forward to it. I hear a lot of good things about Australia.

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