Soul music is a rejuvenating force. When times are hard, soul singers can make a genuine connection to real life struggles and hardships with a smile, credibility and a sense of the effortlessly cool like few other artists can.
Of the soul artists breaking through after recent hard times, Aloe Blacc stands out.
His second album, ‘Good Things’, has earned the Orange County Californian critical acclaim across the board. Going from being one half of the hip hop duo Emanon, Blacc took up an internship with business consultants Ernst & Young, still secretly performing gigs on the side. When the recession hit and he found himself out of a job, hit single ‘I Need a Dollar’ – soon to be re-released on May 1 – was born.
We caught up with Aloe Blacc as he was admiring the sights of London – from inside the Sony building.
So, you’ve got a pretty big UK tour, and the official release of I Need A Dollar, coming up, how are you feeling about all that right now?
Very good, I’m enjoying the fact that my music is becoming popular, because for so many years I’ve just been an underground artist.
It’s certainly made an impact already. What do you think about critics calling it ‘the anthem of the recession’?
You know what, I kind of feel it is an anthem for the recession. A lot of people have been struggling, and it’s a song that actually discusses their situation.
I’ve introduced a few people to I Need A Dollar, who haven’t really been affected by the recession and they agree that it’s a great song. Are you hoping that it will achieve widespread popularity, that it will be a big hit with the official release?
I hope so. I really hope so, because it will give me the opportunity to present more songs that are relevant to people around the world. Especially in my country.
You certainly have a very interesting story. You were an MC at the age of nine. Do you think you could quickly talk us through how you went from that to soul singing?
I started rapping when I was really young because I was really interested in hip hop, and so I joined with a DJ in high school and started recording and making hip hop songs. And through making hip hop songs I became interested in the music that I was sampling, like soul, and jazz, and classic rock and singer-songwriter folk music, and I became interested to try and write those songs. So I began writing folk songs and recording them on my own in secret, but eventually some of my singing was heard by an indie label out of Los Angeles called Stones Throw. They’re mainly known for hip hop but they wanted to try their hand at finding a singer.
When you were working for Ernst and Young were you always hoping that one day you would go on to this career in music, or was it always more of a side project?
Music has always been my side-project, it was a hobby of mine. Instead of getting high or drinking, and sports or videogames, I was making music. But when I got laid off, it became my full time occupation.
Also, as a Velvet Underground fan I have to say your cover of Femme Fatale is very impressive, it’s an interesting choice of song to cover, what made you choose that?
I think really the story behind the song, is that there were a lot of songs I had on a list to try and cover, but when it comes down to it, the idea thematically of Femme Fatale in the album Good Things is America and capitalism and the allure of streets paved with gold and the American dream. And so, with the femme fatale being the Statue of Liberty you’ve got this very attractive promise of living the dream, but a lot of people come to America and end up living a nightmare because they either get sent back home or struggle for a long time.
I’ve read also that you share a lot of the money you make with various charities, what’s that all about?
You know you can’t necessarily believe everything you read, because I haven’t made a lot of money yet! But I do participate and offer my time to the unfortunate youth. I’ve spent some time going to the juvenile facilities where there are seven year olds that are incarcerated for crimes that they have committed – but at seven years old, what’s a crime? The real crime I think is that there’s no support in the neighbourhood that he grew up in to make sure that his parents had jobs, so that they felt a sense of pride and to make enough money to look after their children properly. Putting a seven year old behind bars doesn’t make sense, because the brain isn’t even hard yet. It’s still kind of moulding into what a human adult can be.
Interesting, I’ll check my sources next time.
No I’ve read the same thing! I’m not exactly sure where it comes from. I offer my time, but I can assure you that as soon as the label accounts to me my first cheque I will be donating to various organisations.
So do you still need a dollar?
No, no, no, no, I don’t, I’ve never actually needed a dollar. The sentiment of the song is more about looking for a helping hand, not necessarily a financial hand but a social hand. I think that capitalism really created this huge disparity psychologically between the haves and the havenots. Even the people that have a lot are in dire straits. They need support as well. They say in America about 50% of marriages end in divorce, and a lot of it is because of money issues.
On a final point, Good Things has earned you a lot of comparisons from critics with legends such as Curtis Mayfield, and Gil Scott Heron, you know, artists who really changed the world, how do you feel about those comparisons?
I think that they’re really really nice compliments, maybe a little overstated. But I’m happy to hear them because it means I’m doing something right, and I’m honouring the tradition of soul music.
Do you hope to achieve that status in the future, do you think you could?
You know what. I think I can. I hope I do, not for status’ sake but because ultimately what these characters mean for music and what they mean for people. Curtis Mayfield was the voice of a generation, he told stories that were not represented elsewhere. I want to be able to do the same. The same time ‘I Need a Dollar’ was released there was another song on the radio called ‘Billionaire’. It goes to show that there are different stories being told, there’s the exaggerated stories then there’s the down home gritty bare-naked truth. Someone’s gotta represent what real people are feeling. I think a dollar makes a lot more sense than a billion.