Curtis Harding has unmistakable star power. Wielding his shiny black Stratocaster he looks timeless in a denim shirt and cravat. Stepping out of the shadows, the red and blue lights above him glimmer off of his dark Wayfarers. Fresh from a tour supporting Jack White at some of America’s biggest amphitheatres, the back room of Brighton Komedia looks a little small for his presence tonight. The buzz in the States doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic yet and there are only a few in the crowd. He may not yet be the star he looks but things could well be about to change.
Fast forward a month and January sees the official UK release of Harding’s debut album Soul Power released on Burger Records, the Californian indie label with a reputation for promoting garage and power-pop. An interesting musical diversion for the label, but one that hints at both the genre-blending style of Harding and the label’s ear for an interesting project. The album was recorded in just two weeks but the twelve songs span as far back as a decade. A former backing singer for CeeLo Green and one half of Night Sun (the other half being Black Lips’ Cole Alexander) Harding blends a mixture of styles to create a sound he describes as slop’n’soul.
“My sound is an extension of Michigan, Atlanta, and every other place I have lived, worked, played, loved and hated. From east to west, north to south,” he tells me. In Atlanta he was involved in promoting Outkast when they were blowing up in the early 2000s and tried his hand at rapping. Soul Power finds him going back to his roots, fusing the sonic palette of Michigan with Motown, ragged soul and riff-heavy garage rock.
Cruel World, the first song Harding ever wrote with a guitar, is one of two breakup tracks which bookend the album. The other is the propulsive Next Time which opens the record in spectacular fashion. Over tumbling percussion, horns and waves of guitar he croons about seeing a lost love in another life. “I will see you there, we can start again. As a love affair or just as friends.”
According to Harding “It’s about love – love lost. It’s about overcoming different things.” Indeed, the ups and downs of a relationship are woven through the seams of Soul Power. In The Drive, Harding struggles with commitment, singing: “You’re moving too fast baby, it scares me every time. So I’m hitting the brakes baby because you’re steering out of line.” The song fades with funereal horns and stormy effects as the love affair veers off the road. The clouds have parted on the up-tempo Drive My Car and Harding takes the listener on a different trip altogether. “On the road, you and I. In my car I want you inside. Where we’re going it don’t matter. I just want you to drive my car.”
Harding seems most at ease while moving on. “Cast it away, forget your pain” he sings on the atmospheric Castaway. Here and on Freedom he sings over an organ, nodding to his past travelling with his mum and sister playing gospel songs. All the more poignant in the latter when he declares: “No matter where you go, you will find freedom.”
“We would spend a lot of time on the streets singing to homeless people, gang members and drug addicts,” Harding revealed in a recent interview with FaceCulture. He touches upon this experience in I Need A Friend. “Someone help me please, lost my shelter” he pleads to whoever is listening. Harding summons What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye in a spoken word section of the track which has the protagonist talking about how hard it is on the streets.
Soul Power is not all heartache and struggle though. Keep on Shining is hip-shaking disco funk with a guitar hook straight out of Nile Rodgers’ repertoire. Similarly uplifting is Heaven’s On The Other Side where Harding invites his girl onto the dance floor to remedy their relationship struggles. Soul Power oozes the kind of maturity found in well-travelled musicians with far more recording experience than Harding. His fearless appetite for genre creates a chronicle of sound that shows he is more than capable of trying his hand at anything. With such immaculate arrangements you almost forget how much of a powerful instrument his voice really is.
Live it sounds incredible with Harding hitting all the high notes. The few in attendance give him and and his four-piece band a rousing ovation. As the house lights come up faces are illuminated with looks of wide-eyed wonder. 2015 will see UK publications like NME highlighting Harding as the man to watch and a television appearance on Later…with Jools Holland. Tonight’s lucky few know he won’t be playing back rooms for long. Until next time, keep on shining Curtis.