I was watching a DVR-ed episode of Conan recently, as I often do, and the guest line up was as follows: Chris Colfer (Kurt from Glee), Charlyne Yi (from House), and then Allen Stone. If I don’t recognize the last guest, it’s usually a stand up comedian and I like to watch those guys, so I decided to give it a whirl. Yet in the monologue, Conan said “…musical guest: Allen Stone!” Blah. Sounded like a bad country artist, so at that point I nearly turned it off but I have really enjoyed the guest interviews Charlene Yi has done with Conan in the past, so I decided to watch at least her segment. She is just the most bizarrely cute girl; she interviews like a ten year old who’s high and surprised she is on a talk show. And Conan clearly loves her, which makes for an all-around funny interview. Catch her if you get the chance sometime.
So her segment ends, and I am getting ready to turn it off when Conan introduces the musical guest as a soul singer from Seattle. My brow immediately furrowed in confusion over that description and then this performance happened:
Holy cow. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a voice and singer that are more mismatched. I mean this guy doesn’t fit at all. He looked like Brett Dennen’s hipster twin but the song that he played was as far away from that as you can get. He completely blew me away. When I showed Colleen the video later that day, she had the exact same stunned expression as I did after it ended.
And after I got a hold of his album and have taken it in a few times, a new question has been rolling around in my head. What is soul music? I hear that term all the time and I use it all the time, but do I really know what I mean?
Where did soul come from? Wikipedia’s intro statement on their soul music article reads as follows: “Soul music is a music genre originating in the United States combining elements of gospel music and rhythm and blues. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is ‘music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.'” There is a lot to unpack there, but the main point is that soul music really came into being in the ’60s, when genres really started getting melded together in new and innovative ways by black artists. They took the religious passion of the African American churches and injected it into the melodic snaps and claps of rhythm & blues. Soul music in the ’60s was loud, energetic, and meaningful. Soul singers made you feel what they were singing. Can you compare most of today’s popular music with what you hear when Aretha Franklin sings to her man that he makes her feel like a natural woman? Damn if that’s not real and sensual and pure. When Sam Cooke sings “It’s been too hard livin’, but I’m afraid to die, cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky…” in the masterpiece song A Change Is Gonna Come, I get chills. Who hasn’t gone through hardship and questioned their entire life philosophy? These are real thoughts and feelings that people across racial boundaries, across age and gender and socioeconomic lines really deal with. In the liner notes to their album Naturally, Gabriel Roth (bassist and producer for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) writes: “Somewhere between banging on logs and the invention of M.I.D.I. technology we have made a terrible wrong turn. We must have ridden right past our stop. We should have stepped down right off the train at that moment when rhythm and harmony and technology all culminated to a single Otis Redding whine. That moment of the truest, most genuine expression of what it means to be human.” That’s exactly it.
And this is where it becomes really important for me. Soul started as a traditionally African-American genre of music. But at its core, soul is so much deeper than that. It’s called soul for a reason. If it was strictly a genre of music for one people group, it’d be called skin. But it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or any other color. Anyone can relate to feeling love or love lost, questioning the deep life question. And love is universal. Soul, at the most atomic level, is universal.
So let me throw this back to Allen Stone. Thankfully, skin color does not determine a soul singer (see: Dusty Springfield, Adele, Susan Tedeschi, Steve Cropper, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, etc.), so is he a soul singer? Of course he is, if for no other reason than his incredible tune Unaware. That song is beautiful, whether he’s singing about the government or a dame who’s done him wrong. He sings from inside, and you can hear the raw emotion in his voice. That’s says soul to me.
So how the heck would I describe soul? On the surface, certainly not by the shaggy, blonde-haired, gap-toothed hippie singing on Conan. Yet that is soul, all the way. Soul is bass that knows it can play more than the root note. Soul is knowing how to use horns in a subtle way. It’s bobbing your head backward on the 1 and the 3 beats instead of forward. Soul is a drummer that can be sloppy in the most controlled way, or adding a new rhythm within the main rhythm. These are all musical elements of soul, and somebody else might define soul in a totally different way, and that’s OK. What I’m sure of is that I know it when I hear it. I get goosebumps when I hear it. Here are a few examples of that:
http://youtu.be/Qgp7hlkfstI (goosebumps: 3:55, the rhythm change in the drums)
http://youtu.be/bb6cBKE3WzQ (goosebumps: 0:15, the whole freaking chorus)
http://youtu.be/-4Yz_bUTlbo (goosebumps: 3:15, the keys part that comes in is heartbreakingly beautiful)
http://youtu.be/XrjXLbQQmZA (goosebumps: 0:24, that seventh chord)
http://youtu.be/TgRplZMRJvI (goosebumps: 0:15, when the verse really starts)
http://youtu.be/ShO6KKaEoZQ (goosebumps: 3:00, when they sing the chorus together. I swear, Adele has the voice of Sister Act 2-era Lauryn Hill. Chilling.)
http://youtu.be/wz2_N_9ggHI (goosebumps: 2:57, the bass. The bass!)
http://youtu.be/24gjW4Oqj2k (goosebumps: 2:10, the bridge. Beautiful combination of both voices and John’s guitar part.)
http://youtu.be/dAao_2_pNCo (goosebumps: 3:34, the horns, and 3:47, when his vocal line and guitar line trade places)
http://youtu.be/UdYRzH10L2M (goosebumps: the whole thing. SRV could do no wrong)
http://youtu.be/dZkjo3mNmsA (goosebumps: first seconds you hear the bass. Man that bass is funky)
http://youtu.be/ccenFp_3kq8 (goosebumps: 0:42, when the synth part comes in)
http://youtu.be/TmaKSpTIJzI (goosebumps: 2:51, when the chorus drops out and the new chord progression kicks in)
http://youtu.be/U438sZlUj4w (goosebumps: 4:52, the last chorus into the “Booty” part of the song. The vocal layering stops me in my tracks and sheer groove of “Booty” brings it on home. Legitimately though, as I’ve said before, this entire album could go on this list.)
These are all songs that I’ve heard from the last fifty years that I’ve thought “Man, that is soulful.” And you’ve got a huge mix of genres and feelings and passions and faces here. It’s a transcendent genre of music. In the end though, when I say soul, I just mean music that I like. It’s music that means something, and means it to many people. The things that matter in life matter to more than just me. They ultimately matter to everyone, and these themes are represented in soul music. That’s what makes it so enduring.