VMP: When did you initially begin to conceive a solo record after working with Durand Jones for such a long time?
First of all, it’s important to note that I'm still with Durand Jones & the Indications. This is just an opportunity that came my way. I felt like it's the motivation I needed, and I sensed an opportunity to make time for it in my busy schedule that maybe I wouldn't have otherwise. I got a call in July of 2019 from Dan Auerbach. I guess he got my number from management. I was in my kitchen frying up some plantains or something, and he was like, "Hey, this is Dan Auerbach. I love your music, let's make a record." That was pretty surreal.
How the hell does someone respond to that?
I had two reactions, one of which was, "Wow, this is very ... This doesn't feel real." Also, in a strange way, over the years, we developed a lot of mutual connections. Even some of our musical journeys, in terms of our listening, are similar. When I was in high school, I fell in love with acoustic blues, like Skip James and Son House and Charley Patton, and then I found Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, the Hill Country Juke Joint, North Mississippi stuff, which is, of course, the spark that launched the Black Keys. They even did a Junior Kimbrough cover EP.
Hip-hop was also really important to me. He did that BlakRoc project. I played in a blues rock band with all of the original Indications before we met Durand. One time we played Akron and Dan's dad was at the show. I wound up meeting him. Then getting into soul music, there are even further connections. You know on Brothers, they're covering Jerry Butler's “Never Going to Give You Up.” Philly legend. Then he did the Arcs, which sort of brings it even closer to the community that I travel in with Homer Steinweiss of The Dap-Kings being in the band. With all that being said, I was like, "Whoa, this is weird," but also I was like, "OK, we're here. It's happening."
Did you have a collection of songs that you thought would be good for solo music, or once Dan reached out to you did you begin thinking about where your solo music could be headed?
It was a combination of both. I'm always collecting lyrical scraps, song ideas and little chord progressions, hundreds of phone voice memos. I'm sure so many musicians out there can say the same. Not everything is exactly right for the Indications, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not good. We had been doing something pretty specific, I think, with the Indications. Seventies-inspired vocal group soul, that's how the last record shaped up. I had some material that I was excited about that was in different stages of completion. Also, when we got in the room together to write the album, a bunch of them came together right there, over the course of the four days that we wrote the record.
You wrote the whole thing in four days?
Which is not a lot of time.
It was a whirlwind. I think that's how Dan got me to an intuitive place with my writing because so much of soul music is a super crafted, very lyrical thing, but then there's this other part of soul music that is just totally from the gut, very simple, and just what feels good. When we got together, the goal for me was to try to thread that needle between having something that feels very easy but also well thought out. I think one of the ways to do that is to put a little bit of time pressure on it.
A lot of your lyrics engage in social issues and standing up for people who have been marginalized, but this is also a love record at its core. How do you balance different themes over the course of an album?
Thankfully, I have compasses for this that I turn to over and over again, and that's Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron. There’s also a lot of Bob Dylan and Donny Hatahway. We are fighters, but we're also lovers and we like to party and we like to be silly and sometimes we grieve and mourn. I don't feel any pressure to be any one thing, and at the end of the day, what I think the album represents to me, is that you can be your entire self and let people see your entire self.
How conscious are you of trying to get audiences to understand that while you are indebted to that world of soul music, what you’re doing is new?
Yeah. That's exactly right. I don't want to be pigeonholed as just, "Oh, this is old school soul," because it's actually not. It really isn't. There are a couple of songs on there that are definitely straight-down-the-line old school. But I'm a very eclectic listener and writer. I think that was what made the connection with Dan really cool because he is too. He's somebody who could probably speak to that more than most. He was doing The Black Keys, and The Black Keys was like, what? It was guitar and drums, and it's just rock riffs, but Dan's got so many influences as well. I think that's what Easy Eye represents to me: a place where you can explore all sides of yourself artistically.
Where does that eclecticism come from? Growing up in Baltimore, what kind of music were you exposed to?
Yeah. Lots of different kinds of music. My dad was, like so many dads, super into classic rock. He's not a musician himself, but he's a great listener. He's a deep listener. I do have these memories of him putting on Chicago or putting on The Doobie Brothers' or Three Dog Night and being like, "Wait, listen." He'd pause it and be like, "Listen to this intro. Listen to these harmonies," and back it up and play it again.
My mom really loved Carole King, so I used to hear Tapestry all the time. I do believe that Tapestry is one of the great records of all time. She likes some soul stuff too. Some early Jackson 5 stuff, like the Motown stuff. I definitely have a memory of dancing around the room to “Beat It” when I was a kid. Then growing up where I grew up, I also got hip-hop coming from the radio stations, from 92Q, 92.3 in Baltimore, and 93.9. The other thing that's interesting is they would also play Baltimore club music, as well as go-go music from D.C., since I was close enough to get those air waves. That's a really unique style of music.
A lot of other music that you love is rooted in southern tradition. Where does the appeal lie in those southern roots, in Mississippi and that sort of blues music? What is it you find so attractive about that history?
Wow. That's interesting. I never really thought of myself just gravitating toward sounds of the south. Yeah, I guess that's true. I'm not a music theory expert at all. I took drum lessons from when I was nine until I was 18, when I went to college. I had an amazing teacher who gave me so many great things, but that was all rhythmic. It's not about the musical note. It's not music theory. That stuff, it's self taught and sort of intuitive. I think that there's something maybe that's shared in the traditional sounds of the American south. It's a lot of oral tradition. It's a lot of ad hoc instruments and making it work with what you got. That was something that I could wrap my head around, I think, immediately.
There's also a really cool dynamic at play on the record between the veteran older players, and some of the younger players. Did everyone work well together?
Yeah, it was super cool. There's a huge difference in experience and what you were listening to growing up. But the common thread was that everybody was in there to serve the music first and not interested in making themselves the star of the show or the centerpiece. It's all about what the song needs. It's a very, very seamless blend of players from across generations.
It is cool. You have some of the younger cats, like Nick Movshon or Ray Jacildo. Nick played bass, Ray played organ and harpsichord on some stuff. They both understand where I'm coming from with my connection to soul music, which is sort of via hip-hop, which is via sampling. It’s a sort of post hip-hop soul music. If I'm like, "OK, this one has to have a little bit of the Wu-Tang attitude, the mid-Atlantic, ’98 kind of dusty, nasty shit," they understand what that means. But, honestly, if I tell that to the older cats, I can get them there, or I can show them an example. Talking to Bobby Wood, who was playing Rhodes on a lot of the album, was amazing. I was telling him about Dilla swing, about how it's not straight but it's not in meter, either. He immediately was like, "Yeah, yeah, I got it." I was really blown away by that elasticity and that fluidity. I hope that when I'm that age, I can do that myself and still be nimble enough to understand the sounds of not just the past but the present.
What’s your thesis on this album? Do you have one?
I hope people see that I have many sides to me. There are so many dimensions. I hope people can see that in themselves, as well, and not worry so much. There's no such thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to music. If it feels good and it moves you, then that's valid and you should chase that feeling.