Traipsing Through the Flowers with Curtis Harding

Martin Douglas
All photos by Jake Hanson

"Oh, we've seemed to have picked up an extra," the van driver observed.

I'm sitting in a Sprinter to the right of Atlanta soul impresario Curtis Harding, and the gang's all here. Harding, his backing band, his manager (with whom I managed to secure this interview about ten minutes prior), and the driver/tour manager. Harding and his band just finished an excellent and rapturously received set for KEXP's live broadcast from THING Festival — the rightful heir of the now-defunct Sasquatch and arguably the best kept secret of the summer festival circuit — and are heading to the main stage to set up for their golden hour performance. 

With a big smile, I toss a quip: "I'm the new singer." 

Even on my top dollar best day, I don't have the lungs to replace Harding. Since he emerged on the scene in 2014, shirtless and smoking a cigarette on the cover of his solo debut Soul Power, the Michigan-born musician has been one of contemporary soul music's leading lights. With occasionally garage-y, increasingly psychedelic instrumentation, Harding has managed to wring every ounce of regret, longing, and pain from his voice. Because that's what soul music is first and foremost about; using the human voice as an instrument of expelling our deepest feelings from the hardest-to-reach parts of our insides. Few people active in music today do this as effectively as Harding.

2021's If Words Were Flowers expands Harding's psychdelic bent to widescreen proportions; a near-epic rumination on hope, appreciation, and fidelity. 

The Sprinter parks behind the main stage, where Seattle stalwart Jarv Dee is rocking the mid-afternoon crowd. Harding and I decide it's quite too loud to effectively do an interview we originally thought would be recorded for the air. (Chalk the fact that this ended up as a written piece to the comedy of operator errors I experienced learning how to use our new-ish device.) We engage in a little small talk as we walk through the dried out, wheat-colored grass, back up the hill of the erstwhile military base turned historical state park, on our way to the media room where we think our interview will take place. The media room is being used as a workspace, so we look around for an unoccupied room to record this conversation.

After our third or fourth locked doorknob, we just decide to go to Harding and his band's dressing room in the next building over. After we settle in, we enjoyed a brief but insightful conversation about Harding's musical background, what he has learned about making music and being a human in the years between Soul Power and If Words Were Flowers, and much more. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity; it was transcribed by KEXP volunteer Natalie Vinh.)

KEXP: Curtis, how you doing, brother?

Curtis Harding: Doing good, man. How are you?

I'm alright. It's been a day, but we got more than half of the festival to go. You know what I mean? About to catch you on the big stage. We just saw you over at the KEXP stage doing a live broadcast.

Yeah. It was fun. It was really fun.

Are you into doing that intimate setting, live broadcast sort of deal?

I've done quite a few. It's always a good time, especially when there's a group of people able to come in and check it out. You know, it's a little strange when it's just the interviewer or just the media folks, but when people are able to come in and check it out, it's awesome.

I wanted to get some background on your experience in music. So tell me about your earliest experience. How did you grow up with music? I'm going to assume that you were in church, just from being the singer you are. I've heard a lot of singers in my day and they all say, "You know, I grew up in the church." Was that the same for you?

Yeah, I did. My mother's a gospel singer, and I remember my earliest memories of music were seeing her actually singing in church, either with the choir or just doing solos by herself. And my godfather was a bass player, so I just remember them two just going at it, early on when I was like maybe three or four years old. I have not full-on memories, but I just have like glimpses, you know what I'm saying, of that. I was born in Michigan, in Saginaw, Michigan.

My moms was born in Mississippi; Philadelphia, Mississippi. And then she moved to Mobile, Alabama. And all my aunts and uncles at some point were singing and my dad is from [city] Tennessee by way of Memphis, Tennessee, and he grew up with Isaac Hayes and B.B. King and all those guys. They were all friends. And my uncle had a group with Isaac Hayes. So I just remember seeing those guys when I was younger, didn't know who they were at the time. So music has always kind of been prevalent. Now my sister, she's a pianist and they all sing, my older sister, she sings and she used to rap, so they kind of turned me on to different things. So yeah, music was always around.

How old were you when you started playing music?

Oh, I was pretty young. I was like seven. I started playing drums. I started playing drums in church. So that was my first instrument. I didn't pick up the guitar until I was in my late twenties, and I just kind of did that to start writing songs because I couldn't find anybody to write songs with. So I decided to teach myself guitar. I'm still learning. But it was, yeah, experience, man. It was always something in the house, whether it was a piano or a guitar or something around. So anything I could, you know, provoke a sound or emotion out of I would pick up and just try to play with it.

What were your formative influences when you were first writing music, writing songs?

Oh, when I first started writing songs, I would write raps. So it was like hip-hop, man, it was old school stuff. You know, Melle Mel, the Furious Five, Rakim, Eric B. & Rakim, the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, old school stuff man. And then as I got older, it turned into a lot of nineties hip-hop, then the samples started invoking me to do case studies as to where these samples came from. And oddly enough, they would come from stuff that I would hear as a youngster but just didn't really tune into all the time, like a lot of Isaac Hayes, a lot of James Brown, you know what I'm saying? Lotta soul stuff. So, it kind of just came full circle, you know what I mean? Then I started doing solo music.

That's real interesting. So tell me about the process of creating your first album, Soul Power, because that's when I first started hearing about you.

Okay. So I moved to Toronto just because I was going through just a bunch of stuff in Atlanta, man, because at that time I was singing backup for Cee Lo. And then I had started my own group, and I just kind of got burnt out with the industry and just partying all the time. So I moved to Toronto cause I had a buddy that was living in Atlanta and he decided to move back home. I think his Visa or something was up and I just told him, I want to kind of get away for a minute. So he was like, "Come to Toronto."

So I end up going there and I found a pawn shop and I bought a guitar and I just started writing songs, working actually at a restaurant with him, an Italian restaurant, bar backing and [unsure] work and stuff. And I started writing songs and that's where some of the first songs of Soul Power started coming out. With no intention of actually making an album, just to write music, you know, just to see what I could do with it.

How did that process go from writing songs without the intention of making the album to actually making the album?

I moved back to Atlanta and started hanging out with some of my buddies who were in bands and just seeing them curating different projects and just was like, okay, I think I can do this myself as well. But then I didn't have any aspirations to find a label or anything. I just wanted to put a body of work together for myself you know, just to say that I could do it. And that's how it started. So it just ended up that I connected with some of the right people that were willing to give me a shot and put a little money behind it. And then it was heard and ANTI- Records gave me a little deal. And it was off to the races after that.

Moving forward to almost the present day, If Words Were Flowers, you mentioned in the live session that it comes from a saying that your mother and your grandmother said. And probably a lot of our mothers and grandmothers said, you know, "Give me my flowers while I'm still here." And I think about that a lot. And I was wondering, is there an instance that you can think of where you felt you should have been more appreciated by someone in your life?

Me personally, I feel like looking back, there are always missed opportunities that we all have. And I'm sure that in the moment of me, even if I did feel that way, I can't really think of any specific moments, even if I did feel that way, that a lot of times people show appreciation in different ways that you're just not locked in to, you know what I'm saying, into the sentiment and how they're trying to show it. So I don't know, but I just feel like we just need to be available to receive appreciation. Sometimes it comes through words, sometimes it comes through deeds, you know what I'm saying? And you just have to be locked in. There's a lot of ways to show love and appreciation, and you just need to be able and open to receive it. So I really don't know. That's a hard question. It's a good question.

Walk me through the process of sitting on this album, being locked down [in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic], the emotions of it, and then deciding to take it back to the drawing board and essentially rerecord it.

Well, you know, as an artist, you are always kind of second guessing yourself, especially if you have something that's done. Because they gave me, I had a timeline, and my timeline was up. And it was like, you need to turn the album in. And so I turned it in and then all of a sudden COVID hit, it was like, Oh, so we can't release it. And I wasn't feeling too strongly about all the songs in there anyways, so I was like, All right. So now I got a little time to sit with it. And thankfully I did because like I said in the live session earlier, the world kind of just was thrown into this ball of chaos and I was able to kind of translate some of the moods. I even think audibly like the record kind of sets the tone to what I was living and what I was going through at that time in Atlanta because it was really quiet.

And then there was moments of lots of protests. And a lot of just, you know, police sirens and then it would just be quiet again, you know what I mean? So I feel like If Words Were Flowers, the album itself kind of took on some of those vibes and some of those tones instrumentally as well. But it was a good thing, man, I think. And I think that the fact that I was able to kind of express the sentiment of the environment on the album is an artist's dream. It just reminds me of, not saying that my record is anywhere in comparison to ... like the Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" tune? You know what I mean? Or any of that stuff. But it just kind of reminds me of that sort of idea of being able to translate the times into musical form.

I think I did my best to kind of, you know, capture that.

Hell yeah, obviously you did.

Thanks, man.

Last question. Both as a musician and a person, what is the biggest difference between the Curtis Harding of Soul Power and the Curtis Harding now?

I would say growth, man. I would like to think just I'm more mature. Whereas when I was touring before with Soul Power, I was, you know, I was still a little wild and crazy. And that doesn't mean that I'm not wild and crazy, you know? But I have a sense of maturity now as where I'm more open to different ideas because I've seen the world since that album. The album allowed me to travel the world and see a lot of things. So I'm now way open to more culture, more sounds, more ideas, more art. I have just a wide array of colors to pick from, to paint. Whereas before it wasn't that many, you know what I mean?

And just my stateside experiences, as far as I had went outside of the country at that point was Toronto, you know what I mean? So now that I've seen the world and I've met different artists and I've been exposed to different art and different people and different ideas, I just have more to paint with. You know what I mean? So it just opened me up to such a wide array of different things and hopefully I continue to grow and I'm able to do more in the future. So yes, just growth man.

Well, thank you. Thank you for this great interview. It's been great to talk to you.

Same, brother.

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