afropunk exclusive interview! soul singer charles bradley pours his heart out in new record ‘victim of love’. #soundcheck
By Sound Check
April 12, 2013
On a warm April afternoon, I walked over to the Daptone offices to meet soul singer Charles Bradley. Just a few blocks away from my apartment in northern Bed Stuy, the label office and studio are housed in an old Brooklyn brownstone. So unassuming, I nearly missed it. This is the famed Daptone records headquarters? I walked by three times before realizing where it was. Inside I met Charles. 64 and just getting started, the Screaming Eagle of Soul somehow matched the building. On record, his voice is larger than life, a hoarse unending catharsis, capable of ripping the deepest feelings from the bottom of your soul and pushing them out of you. In person, the man was soft spoken, humble, and warm. But most of all, that genuine love for other people and for the world that has become his stock and trade as a performer shone through. This man is authentic soul.
His latest album is the incredible Victim of Love. Check out our review here.
Words & Interview by Nathan Leigh
You’ve had this incredible life story, and it seems like the story itself overshadows the music. Did you feel any pressure with this album to make it more about the music than the first one?
Victim of Love was less stress than the first one. The first one was like I’m in darkness trying to come into the light. Victim of Love brought me into the light. That first album—it was a struggle for me. Like when I went to Europe on tour, I wanted to quit. It was too painful. Every time I get on stage I got emotional and I couldn’t get the lyrics out of me. I really wanted to get the lyrics out of me. I’d get that full hurt feeling inside and I’d want to stop. One time I walked backstage and I said “I can’t do it man, I wanna go home.” I was—I think I was doing a show with Lee Fields, and Lee Fields said “Charles I think you need to go back on that stage and sing. They’ve heard of you and now they wanna see who you are.” I said “But it’s hard man.” Every time I get involved in that song [“Heartaches and Pain”] I think about the memories. If you listen to the words, they got I’d say 80 percent of what really happened when my brother got killed. When I went back on stage, I sat there for about a minute looking at the public, and everyone started screaming. And I said “Lord, move this feeling away from me and just let me sing it.” And when I opened my mouth and started singing “Heartaches and Pain” I knew it was something I had to do. You know, I couldn’t just get on stage and force it out. A lot of the time I’d try to sing the song and Tom [Brenneck, producer] would say “Charles, you missed that verse.” I’d say “Tom, it’s hard to sing.” And he’d say “it’s easy.” And I said “You can sing it because you ain’t feeling that pain. You just learned the words. You just learned the words and you sing it.” And I got so angry that I just wanted to quit. But Lee Fields talked to me and got me through it.
I thought Tom was an ugly person, I didn’t even like him. But eventually I noticed that Tom loved music and I love music. Tom came from a different era than I came from. He’s younger than I am. He came from a good loving family; mother and father. He was raised up with a beautiful family. I came from a dark world. I didn’t have nobody to tell me things. Everything I learned was from the hard knocks. And so eventually I started focusing on Tom, and how he act. And he started focusing on me and saying “Charles, how he did that? How he went through all those changes.” And it was when we did “Confusion”—Tom came from a rock background and I came from more of a soulful background—and when we came together, and really started to get to know one another, that’s when the beautiful friendship started coming in. Now me and Tommy are really two good friends.
Did you know Tom before you started working together?
I knew Tom, but I didn’t know him well. When they asked me in, they were just paying me to do this, paying me to do that. I didn’t think I’d get involved too deep. It wasn’t that serious. But I told Gabe [Roth, Daptone co-founder] “I wanna get into the music world.” I told Jimmy Hill “I wanna go past. I wanna do more than James Brown. I’m doing the same circuits and I wanna grow.” So when I met Tom and he told me they wanted to record me, and we did “Heartaches and Pain” together, that’s when they said they wanted to do an album.
Do you and Tom write all the material together?
Had you written much music before this?
I wrote one record. I took some James Brown music and ad libbed it and mixed it and put my own flavor to it. It was more jazz and soulful together. I still go it, but I never got a chance to get it out to the public. I never had no money. Tom really gave me that helping hand.
What’s your writing process like?
Me and Tom get together and we’ll say “hey let’s write a song.” We do it better than the first time. I’ve noticed that every song we do now is getting better and better. Tom knows I came from soulful hard funk music, and I’m beginning to learn a lot about rock. Music in general—I don’t care what it is—is deep feelings. And if you can find the lines in the music in the music that you love, you can find that soulful feeling and really do some deep damage with it.
There’s something positive about your music; even when you’re dealing with something really painful. Is that something you work towards?
Anything that I do, I give it from my heart. Sometimes I’m with the band and they’re playing and they’re not really passing the boundaries of just playing the song. But now they’ve got their spirits in it. Now they’ve got their hearts in it. And I feel it. Then when I feel it, I go in a zone of my own cause I know they all with me. But sometimes you’re playing with a band. They went out partying, had a good time, and all they want to do is just get through the show.
They just wanna play the notes and call it good and go home.
Right. And I don’t want that. I want the dynamics. I want the pauses. I want the phrases. I want to feel it and open my soul. I don’t want to just get on stage and sing a song and not put no feeling to it. Like we’re singing “Confusion” and they ain’t putting no feeling into it. They’re just playing it the way it is on the record. See, the record is something you put out there for the people to hear it. But when you play the live show, you must take that record and master it. That’s what I like to do. I like to get on stage. They come to hear “Confusion.” Well I want them to hear “Confusion” and know that it’s me so I can really get nasty on it.
It almost feels like when you’re singing you’ve got like 50 years of feeling you’ve been saving up and you just pour it out.
Yeah! There you got some knowledge about you. I can feel it. That’s it. That’s the way I am. The best thing is when you got a bunch of guys that really wanna play. I want somebody that’s gonna say “Charles, let’s go out there and kick some tails. Let’s get out there and kick some tail.” A lot of time when I perform, and I talk to the people, they’re looking for something that’s real. And when you got something real, they can relate to it, and you find things about yourself.
I read that you were inspired seeing James Brown when you were 14. Has this always been something you’ve known you wanted?
My sister took me to go see him. That look that I saw on James Brown on the stage. How they brought him on stage. How he looked. I said “man, that’s what I wanna be.” I’ve already mastered James Brown cause I did it so long. But now I wanna master Charles Bradley. And that’s what I’m eager to do. That’s what I’m putting my best efforts into.
How do you think things would have been different if you had gotten to where you are now when you were younger? Does approaching things from that much more experience make you a better performer?
I’m glad I got, but I wish to God I would have got here when I was in my 30s. I think I’d be way farther than I am today. Someone said the other day to me “Charles you got so much love inside you,” some people might think that I’m weak the way I treat other human beings. I don’t get no joy from hurting nobody. I try to keep my dignity and profile. I try to love everybody the way I think my creator asked me to do. And they say “how do you feel now that you’re into the music world?” And I say I feel bittersweet. It’s good but I feel bittersweet. I’ve been crying and begging for this opportunity for a long time. So it’s good but I feel bittersweet, because some people never get it.
Where do you want to head from here?
I want to come out with a real mixture. Rock, reggae, and funk. I want a mixture. I know what my ears like, and if I hear it then I want to keep it. I want to get out of that 70’s, 80’s. We’re now. I know the kind of music my ears want. And sometimes, they say “OK Charles, what kind of music you want?” And I’ll be driving and I’ll hear a song on the radio, and I might not like the song, but one section fits my brain. A lot of my music comes from impulse. And I’ll say “wow, I need that. That’s what I want.” I know how to show what I want, but maybe not how to express it.
It seems like most artists when they hit 64 start slowing down, but you’re just getting started.
I know. And let me be honest with you. I’m ready to go now. Tom is so busy. He’s doing other things. I’m ready to get on the road. I’m ready to get some guys who want to be with me on tour. I don’t wanna go out there and then stop for a while. I wanna go out there and keep the body limber.
* Banner photo by Darren Bastecky
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