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Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Soul of an Artist

Below is a piece I wrote for the online publication Muso’s Guide. I was asked to provide a few bytes on the buzz word, “Soul.” What I came out was a slightly snarky, two page tirade about Pop music today. Apologies if I come off a bit righteous, but living with little or no sunlight can do that to a man, as per my last blog entry (I’m posting your responses before year’s end, don’t fear. Some funny notions you readers have). As always, you can email me your thoughts about this blog, or really anything at You’re guaranteed a response from yours truly. And now…



Soul is a curious thing. It's its own genre, but weirdly, to me, most modern soul music lacks soul. The All Music Guide defines soul as "the result of the urbanization and commercialization of rhythm and blues in the '60's.” I imagine the term was born from more earnest beginnings, from artists possessing an abundance of the quality. In my world, it starts with Billie Holliday, moves through Ray Charles, then James Brown, on to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and wraps up somewhere around Prince (with a few notable exceptions like D’Angelo and Jodeci – yeah that’s right I like Jodeci!).

Finding soul in modern Pop music is not as clear-cut. For example, the retro-musings of Amy Winehouse are very soulful, while Duffy’s Dusty-style, cupcake R&B is not. Will Young and James Morrison have soul, but Leon Jackson and James Blunt are devoid. R. Kelly has soul to spare while Akon is the most soulless man in R&B (I heard him talking on 4Music about the ‘European Market.’ Any artist dropping the word ‘market’ in an interview does not have Soul).

It is my theory that soul is directly linked to pain. The one thing an artist cannot fake is the experience bestowed by life from pain. An artist can relate this experience in many ways; through their voice, their dance moves, even off-the-cuff comments made on daytime talk shows. I’m pretty sure that Soul is something you’re born with. Artists and Labels can do their best to dress things up, but in the end, Soul always rears its lonely, aching, wrinkled face, much like Miles Davis’ visage on the Montreux Jazz Festival poster.

If you’re confused about who’s got Soul these days and who doesn’t, below is a list fit to my standards:

Justin Timberlake – A corporate, Disney puppet. But he’s got Soul and he’s very, very, talented. Let’s hope one day he stops endorsing cologne that looks like an MP3 player and gives us music chock full of what we know is inside him.

Chris Brown – more in touch with his Soul than Justin, but still confused.

Rihanna –She’s got it. Flaunted it in the beginning with ‘Pon The Replay,’ but it got blurred somewhere along the way. Justin’s in her new video…maybe he had a hand in covering it up.

Beyonce – So much Soul despite herself. Anyone who doubts it, watch her new ‘Single Ladies’ video.

Britney Spears– She’s from Kentwood, Louisiana, the Deep South. For years she was trapped behind the Mickey Mouse veil. Somewhere between childbirth and attacking paps with umbrellas, she let her Soul show.

Keane – very white but soulful.

Kings Of Leon – Soulless. I’m sorry but they are. Anyone who names a record “Youth and Young Manhood” is too cool to have Soul. In a lot ways, cool is the opposite of Soul.

The Killers – I still don’t know. Brandon Flowers being a Mormon throws my radar off (though Big Love is a great show). Plus the guy keeps on asking that question: “Are we human, or are we dancer.” All things considered, he’s got it.

Coldplay –Chris Martin is in so much pain, I sometimes wonder. One listen to ‘Yellow’ and you know Soul is there. Maybe it’s hiding beneath a Gwyneth, Apple and Moses sandwich.

Take That Great tunes but completely soulless

Boyzone - Ronan’s got it. Met him and I was proved right. Life is a rollercoaster indeed.

Mika – No soul. Imitating Freddie Mercury, the most soulful man in the history of Rock, still doesn’t get you it.

Pink – Soul, soul and more soul. A bit annoying how she rubs it in your face all the time, but who cares. She’s got plenty to go around.

Katy Perry – Got it. Can’t sing or dance, but has Soul. It’s her best quality.

Girls Aloud – I dunno about this one. Lemme get back to you. Does being extremely fit count toward soulfulness? They are my Achilles’ heel.

In conclusion, anyone having a hard time finding Soul in modern Pop music, just take a listen to
Kayne West’s new album, 808s and Heartbreak. Despite the blatant overuse of Vocoder and uber-80’s beats ala Phil Collins (the most soulless artist of the 80’s), the record is oozing with pathos. Oh and this little known fringe act Julian Velard. He’s got it in spades.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The loneliness of the long distance songwriter

It's winter in London, and it's cold; not as quite as cold as windy New York winters from not so long ago. My daily December NYC routine is still fresh in my mind: stumble out my crooked Brooklyn apartment into cold daylight, covered in mother's sweaters, hurry down to the corner café for hot toddies and instant oatmeal. Two years later and not much has changed. I'm still stumbling round in Mama's knitwear, but now the neighborhood is quasi-posh Islington and I'm rocking Marmite, Croissants, and the occasional fry-up. The greatest disparity is sunlight.

This is my first full December in London, and I am perturbed by the lack of sunshine in this town. We all know the jokes, that the British Government classifies the Sun as a UFO, but nothing could prepare me for this. England is hardly Scandinavia, but I'm starting to wonder. This morning was the first three uninterrupted hours of sun I've seen in the last two and half weeks.  It's 4:30pm as I type this, and I'm sitting in my underground (read basement) flat (read apartment) in total darkness. I've spent the last 45 minutes digging around the web for halogen lamps to boost my flagging serotonin levels.
I'm exaggerating slightly, but it's silly how little Sun there is here. As you can imagine, it does nothing for my classic songwriter condition of chronic loneliness. I already find the winter months fraught with self-pity. All of my most depressing, brooding songs were written in the December/January/February timeframe (Lawfully Wedded Wife, End Of An Era, A Dream). At least in New York, I get the occasional blast of UV to keep me on my toes.  I find that when it gets dark in London, it's easy to get on a roll.

And rolling I am. Being an international superstar, I don't dive into darkness lightly. Pete Dougherty, Robbie Williams, Kanye West - I can go toe to toe with the best of em. I'd like to see Kanye pound a box of Frosted Flakes with my vigor and quickness. When was the last time Pete did 5 boiled eggs in as many minutes? I know for a fact Robbie couldn't watch Robert Altman's "Nashville" back to back with the remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" starring Ethan Hawke. Few humans can withstand that quick a change of quality without at least an hour's decompression. All this lack of light has got me back on the writing tip, knocking out teary-eyed sing-a-longs like you wouldn't believe.

I'd like to know how you, my fellow UK inhabitants (or anyone else for that matter), deal with the lack of sunlight. Please email your thoughts to I will post the best answers. Maybe I'll find a few new ways of coping.