Melbourne based funk n’ soul outfit Soul Safari is a band on a mission. Singer Lisa Faithful and drummer Sam Leskovec sat down with AM’s Greg Phillips to outline their plan to spread their word of groove and empowerment globally.
At some point in the last few decades the terms ‘RnB’ and ‘Soul’ got a little skewed. So skewed that many of the top studio-centric, Afro-American pop and rap artist/producers of today have become the pin-up people for those genres. Traditionally however, soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues was never about studio trickery, it was always about human-generated emotion. Melbourne five piece outfit Soul Safari like their soul and RnB old school … yet you’d hardly call them retro. While they avoid the lure of studio-embellishments and overindulgence in samples, they somehow still manage to bring a modern day perspective to their beats. The traditional component of Soul Safari’s music comes from their pure instrumental talent and groove. The contemporary vibe has more to do with their pink haired, heavily-tattooed singer Lisa Faithful, who brings the attitude. One thing they all agree on is that it has to be real. That’s why in 2014, the band had no hesitation in releasing a live, warts and all, eight song EP recorded at one of their Bar Open residency shows.
“It was completely unedited, exactly what came off the desk,” Lisa tells me. “We didn’t intend to release it. Our manager came back and had a listen and there were a few bits where my voice cracked … there may have been a bum note in a guitar solo, but the thing was … we played it to people and they said you have to release it because it feels like you are there in the room with you. I like it when the vocal bends and goes slightly out but comes back into pitch. It sounds more human. I am anti, anti auto-tune. A little bit of reverb is fine, that’s cool but as soon as anything is auto-tuned I get frustrated.”
Drummer Sam Leskovec and Lisa Faithful have known each other since the age of seven. While at uni together, they decided to form the band out of a mutual respect for artists such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and The Roots. Soul Safari have been through various incarnations since, beginning as an eight piece and currently rounded out to five. “Originally we were really inspired by The Cat Empire and The Bamboos, Australian bands that were doing a similar genre,” says Lisa. “We started out playing the Cherry Bar’s Thursday soul residency. As years have gone on, the lineup has changed. As it is now, Sam and I are the only original members but the lineup now is a five-piece.”
By playing residencies such as Bar Open and The Cherry Bar, Soul Safari has been able to accumulate an ever-growing and loyal following. “We’ve got people who are front and centre with their Soul Safari t-shirts on at every show and I guess it is like … we think of it as our little community,” says Lisa enthusiastically about their fans. “The most bizarre thing is that when we started the band, we never thought of the age group it would attract. We just assumed it would be people the same age as us but at the shows we have this lovely couple who are in their 60s or 70s and they’re in there up the front with the 20 year olds and its really nice to know your music connects with so many different age groups.”
As much as the band love their core audience, it seems that the hard work is really starting to pay off and they’re beginning to discover a new wave of followers. “There was a gig a little while ago at Bar Open,” Sam begins to explain. “We looked out and the place was full but we didn’t know a single person there. It was a moment of wow, word’s getting out. It was quite humbling.” Lisa laughs and adds, “Yeah … we’d got to that point where we thought maybe we don’t have to force our family to come anymore!”
As the band refines its sound and defines what it really wants to be, Sam (who is a Ludwig endorsee) is finding that in regard to his drum kit, less is more. “It wasn’t always that way,” Sam says as he recalls his early drumming days. “When I was studying at Box Hill and at high school as well, I wanted the big kit. I went to the Drummers Weekends and saw guys with massive kits and loads of cymbals. I thought that was cool and I was spending lots of money on drums. As soon as I started gigging professionally, I found that it is just not worth carrying all that stuff around and half of it, you don’t end up hitting anyway. So systematically I began taking things off and ended up with the ‘Ringo Starr’ kit … basic four piece, a couple of rides set of hats and that gets me through everything. I don’t need all the bells and whistles. But now that we are writing, I am starting to think I need a couple of extra things. Still, it is better to come at it from that angle than having everything on hand.”
Sam caught the drumming bug in a major way as a five year old when his mother took him to an INXS gig at Rod Laver Arena. “It was just after Michael Hutchence died,” he recalls. “Jon Farriss was up there absolutely giving it some! I thought that’s me, that’s what I want to do and I have been chasing that bug ever since. The soul thing? I’ve always been into D’Angelo and it was Chris Dave on the drums and Quest Love from The Roots, then tracing it back and going through all the Motown stuff, James Gadson, Al Jackson and the Stax stuff as well. I started with the neo-soul guys and traced it all back.”
As for Lisa’s singing heroes, she looks to the sixties and further back. “Janis Joplin was one of my favourites,” she says. “Watching her, she could get on stage wearing a hessian bag yet the crowd would be in tears. Another woman I still greatly admire is Aretha Franklin. I was reading an interview which was saying if she became famous now, the record labels would tell her to lose 20 kilos and then come back to them and that just breaks my heart. It shouldn’t always have to be about the visual. If you close your eyes and listen, it should be just as good.”
Until now, life has got in the way of Soul Safari releasing their debut studio album but that’s all about to change. To date, the band has the basis of around 14 new songs which they have been developing and hope to have a full length record out for summer. Lyrically, Lisa hopes that the album will be something listeners will find inspirational.
“I guess I am always about empowering people,” says the band’s spirited singer. “One of the tracks which is going to be on it is called ‘I Am’ and that’s been written for a while. We’ve been doing it live. It’s about the little parts of you and people’s perceptions of how they think you are. For me, pink hair, tattoos … you must be into hard core music, or whatever they think. There are parts of you that only you or your family know. So it’s about not judging people because you don’t understand what is going on under the surface. Our manager is talking to us about doing a video clip for that one and having random people write one word to describe themselves, things they might not tell other people. So we want it to be uplifting.”
Four of the five band members have music degrees, the fifth is half way through his studies. When writing for an album as they are now, this can be both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s positive in the way that things can run quite smoothly but sometimes because we all have studied, we over-think everything,” says Lisa. “Sometimes when you’re writing a song, instead of just playing it, it’s like, oh we could put a 5/4 bar in here etc and sometimes we spend hours just working out a catch in a song.” Sam agrees. “I loved my time at uni and loved what I learned but I am almost trying to unlearn a lot of those things and do it a lot more organically and intuitively, now as opposed to how I learned from a book,” he says.
With so much musical knowledge and such fertile creative brains within the band, the need for an impartial voice to create a more cohesive stream of thought was crucial. Consequently they brought onboard Damien Charles of Ghost Oak Studios to oversee the album project. “Damien is helping us to rehearse better too and doing some really abstract things,” explains Lisa.
“We brought him onboard because we want to create the best album we can. His thing is that you have to be comfortable around each other to fully be creative. He made us swap instruments one day. I got drums and I was so bad. It will be good to have him in and have his ears. We are notorious for writing eight minute long songs, you know… let’s add another jam section here!”
The band will also be enlisting the help of some other artists for the album too. One confirmed guest is Sydney MC L-Fresh the Lion, who not only creates music the band admires but also holds similar life philosophies. However, before the band can get really stuck into recording mode, there’s a June tour to complete which will see them play Melbourne, Warrnambool, Adelaide and some snow gigs including the Peak Festival at Mt Perisher, NSW.
“It will be great,” says Lisa. “Most of us are snowboarders as well but I said to the boys, no snowboarding before we play. We don’t want anyone breaking their neck. We have started doing quite a few things up at the snow.”
For Sam, avoiding snowboarding accidents is not the only hazard the band needs to contend with in the mountains. “We did Buller last year and had to play outdoors in the snow,” he explains. “Going from the fireplace in the pub, straight on stage in the snow being frozen, playing for 40 minutes then back to the fire. It makes your drums sound pretty average as well, it shrinks the metal and the guitars can go out of tune.” Hopefully at a major event like the Peak Festival, those factors won’t be such an issue.
The Soul Safari strategy for the remainder of 2015 and into next year is as follows; release a single in November with a launch party, follow up with debut studio album and a national tour a month or two later, then look to overseas later in 2016. The band has applied to play at SXSW in Texas next year and want to tour other American states as well as the UK. Soul Safari … a band with talent, passion and a plan … you gotta love that!
Visit the Soul Safari website for upcoming tour dates: http://www.soulsafarimusic.com/
We fire a few extra random questions at Lisa!