We spoke to him about his new album, If Words Were Flowers, why he scrapped half of it and remade it, and his plans to take it out live...
The pandemic threw everyone's schedules out the window, and that meant that a lot of artists who'd made albums, handed them in and were gearing up to promote them, were suddenly left in status.
Some, doubtless, left the albums as they were and ploughed headlong into new material, or just took a break after long spells of touring, but others decided that the time suddenly gifted to them could be best put to use by tightening up the album.
Soul singer Curtis Harding is one such artist. The singer, who has enjoyed serious acclaim for his first two LPs, now unleashes his third, If Words Were Flowers, which is out now in hmv stores.
Harding's career has taken a few different turns. Living in In Atlanta in the early 2000s, Harding was part of the hip-hop group Proseed. where he met and worked with singer CeeLo Green.
The pair got on so well that Harding rapped on some songs off Green's 2002 album Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections along with several Proseed members. He toured with Green right up until 2010. He also spent time as part of garage band Night Sun, along with guitarist Cole Alexander of Black Lips.
After striking out on his own, he's built a reputation for thoughtful, elegant soulful music and that's shown in its fullest on new LP, If Words Were Flowers
We spoke to him about the album, why he scrapped half of it and remade it, and his plans to take it out live...
Is this a record that was planned pre-Covid-19 or did Covid-19 gift you the time to make it?
“It was pre-Covid. It was actually done and I’d handed it in before Covid. I didn’t have a goal in mind or a design, I see this record as another step to establish my sound. The foundation of what I do feels strong and I’m building up my house. I want to be as progressive as I can. And although I’ve got a foundation, there’s nothing to say that I might not do an electronic dream-pop project next, I just want to make sure I’m always building bridges because I feel like people are still getting to know me.”
What is that foundation to you? You’re often described as a soul singer, but it’s more complicated than that…
“Soul is definitely the foundation of what I do. I’m always classified as soul and gospel, but it does feel sometimes like that’s just so somebody can package me and put me on a shelf. I’m such a mixture in what I do. My background is that I grew up singing in church, I was born in Saginaw, Michigan so there was a lot of Motown and my Dad is from Memphis, so I was raised on Stax. That’s my foundation. Everything else is on top of that.”
What did you do when Covid hit? Did you spend any more time with the record or has it remained untouched?
“I’d turned the record in and everything got pushed back. I was thankful for that because I already wasn’t happy with the way the record was flowing.”
What did you do?
“I took five or six songs off and made some new ones.”
When did you realise that you weren’t happy? After you’d turned it in or did you have a bad feeling the whole time?
“I felt something. I was in the studio and I just had the deadline hanging over me. Thing is, everybody else around me, they all loved it. But it just didn’t flow to me. I turned it in, thinking they’d hear it and then ask me to do some more work, but everybody liked it. I had to take it back. I knew I had to refine it. When I’d added the five or six new ones, they still loved it, which was great. But, by then, I loved it and I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t care what anybody else thought.”
Are the songs that got cut ever going to see the light of day? Or are they sealed away?
“I don’t think they’re bad songs, I think maybe another artist could pull them off better. If they see the light of day it’ll be like that.”
You did the record with Sam Cohen, who you’ve worked with a lot in the past, was is it about him that you keep going back to it?
“Two minds are always better than one and Sam’s technical ability and his gear is amazing. Every time I’m in the studio with him I learn a lot. He’s an amazing player and a real style to him. He’s a solo artist as well so he’s got a different dimension from a lot of producers. We like the same music, we play with the same tones and that’s why we work together so well. We’ve got such an open thing going on, if he has an idea, I’ll never shoot it down, we’re always going to try it. Same for him with me.”
The fact he’s an artist in his own right, do you think that helps your relationship?
“Definitely. Even if he just ends up becoming a producer, which I think he may well do, his temperament is so good and he just knows how to get the job done. He’s got this place in upstate New York, he’s built this studio and all there is out there is him, his wife, his two little girls, some deer and a groundhog that comes out every now and then. It’s such a great spot.”
Is that how you like to work? To cut yourself off?
“It helps me. I’m always wanting to go out if I’m in town and you never get enough rest and drinking f***s with my vocals. It’s easier for me to get away and to cut off it all. I can really focus and that really benefits the music.”
When did you settle on the record’s title?
“I’d written the title track, I did that in my loft before I moved during Covid and I had that filed away. The song was always there. After lockdown, it really resonated, and it kept resonating as things kept happening. I was seeing so many protest signs everywhere, words everywhere, it kept coming up.”
Is there a song on the album that’s been on the biggest journey with you?
“That’s ‘Hopeful’. That song took me forever, forever to figure out what I wanted to do with it. It didn’t take long to write, but it never flowed and it never felt right. We ended up piecing it together and now it’s this real Frankenstein. It’s two instrumentals and the demo for ‘Hopeful’, we pieced them together. I still didn’t think the vocals were quite right and I went home from Sam’s studio and it wasn’t anywhere. Then Sam made it a lot better, brought in these backup singers and that gave me the impetus to finish it. I ended up finishing the vocals at home, it took so long.”
Were you ever ready to give up on it?
“I did give up on it, several times. Sam just kept saying ‘C’mon Dude’, you need this song on the record. It’s got this very poignant message, it’s a real reflection on what America has been going through. It’s not just a Black Lives Matter song, it’s about every movement that’s been going on. That message, I needed it. And it’s just a f***ing awesome tune. It’s got hip-hop, it’s got gospel, it’s got afrobeat, it’s got psych, it’s all over the place, I love it.”
Touring starts in earnest in the new year, how’s the set coming together?
“We’re rehearsing hard at the moment, seven hours a day at least. We start in the US in January and then in Europe and UK in February and March. I’ve been trying to piece together a setlist, but we’re learning everything. I’d like to be able to change it up from night to night.”
How’s 2022 looking for you? Are you busy?
“Gigs are coming in fast. I’m going to be busy and I’m happy with that. We haven’t played live in well over a year. I’m ready to get out and play, I’ve missed it, I need that energy.”
Are you chipping away at the next record already?
“I’m working on my next project. I’m always writing and curating. That’s the way I like to work, I always want to keep things flowing. I’m just looking to get better. Topping myself with each thing, that’s success to me.”
Curtis Harding's new album, If Words Were Flowers, is out now in hmv stores and available here in hmv's online store.