Interview: Raphael Saadiq
Fri, 19 Sep 2008 15:36:07
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Forget the hip hop back beats. No need to trot out a parade of pop stars to give the kids something familiar to grab onto either. The Way I See It isn't fusion, and Raphael Saadiq isn't a salesman. There's been a steady stream of retro-leaning soul-jackers unleashed on the pop scene in the past year, most of which have come packaged in shiny new school wrapping. Which is why a release like The Way I See It stands out from the pack. Saadiq isn't raiding his parent's closet to play dress up; he's dusting off his own threads and happy to find they fit better than ever. These are the sounds of his youth, and he approaches them with all due reverence. Admiring his dapper throwback stylings, we got the singer to talk about his new album in an exclusive interview. He talked about the musicians that inspired his approach, his multi-instrumental recording technique and more.
I just wanted to start by saying, "Born Not To Know," that Tony! Toni! Toné! jam, was my favorite song when I was 9 years old. I had that on a mix tape and I used to play it all day long. We got your new record in the office, and the sound that you pull off on this is on point. What prompted you to go and do a whole record with that classic soul sound?
It's always been in me. I've had a lot of time to think about it and do something I've never done before, and I just kind of went with it. I don't even remember what happened. I just remember going in and recording and just coming up with it.
I was reading up on you and saw that you came up playing music in church when you were young, but you have some obvious soul influences. What artists were you listening to coming up?
I think for me, I was divided at first. What was amazing was "Pride and Joy" by Marvin Gaye. After that, it was The Mighty Clouds of Joy and things that you wouldn't think of, like a local guy called Roy Tyler. A lot of local dudes were basically mimicking groups that were bigger. My foundation, kind of, came from that. I played like that with local bands at talent shows, or at houses parties.
So you knew from jump that music was where your heart was.
Exactly. I didn't have a college plan.
I think it worked out in your favor. When you were coming up and doing these talent shows, what was your dream? Was it superstardom, or were you just trying to make music and be heard?
I was really just trying to play for other people.
I feel like you're a fixer that people can call in for help on their albums if it isn't going right for them in the studio. When you're in there recording for other people, how is the process different for you?
When I'm working with other people, I just become a member of the band. I don't really like to call myself a producer, I like to feel like I'm a part of the band, like I'm going on the road with you across the world. That's what helps me. Based on the pressure, when I'm by myself it's even more intense, because I can only look towards me. I'm really hard on myself but at the same time, I'm having a lot of fun the whole time. I like to dream. All those things are in my dreams. I dream all this stuff up the more I try it.
Do you have a core group of musicians you worked with on the album?
Basically I play everything on the album. I play bass, guitar and piano. The only person I brought in was on the exclusive piano stuff. When you hear the piano riff in the beginning of "O Girl," that’s Greg Curtis. He's on four or five songs and a lot of the other songs are just me playing basic piano.
That's pretty impressive. That just pushed it up a whole other level. I didn't realize.
I did 98% of the record, then I added one of my best friends Rob Bacon, he's a guitar player. As a kid, he grew up right behind Hitsville in Motown. So when they were singing, he was a kid. He had to jump over the fence to get his football. He always said the cake was always baked; he just added some frosting on it. Since he grew up behind there, he added what I missed.
Obviously you came up listening to that sound, but did you bring in any other older heads to gauge how you were doing with it?
Definitely. I had someone who did all the tambourines who did all the Motown stuff. Paul Riser did all the strings for the record. He did "Just My Imagination." He's been with Motown since he was out of high school. They brought it together for me in the end.
On the radio, in the last couple years especially, there has been a pop soul revival. Was it something in the air? What's your take on that?
I think people really have a love for the music, and if you do, you have a long memory. If you follow my career, you'll see, I always tap into something. A lot of European cats love that style. Motown was bigger in Europe than in America, believe it or not. My whole thing is that, everywhere I travel I've heard that music. The very thing that everybody loves the most is what we created, and as black artists we just kind of ignore it. So I decided, it's so much a part of my life—the soundtrack of my life—I wanted to make my own history in that era.
Do you feel like the kids today might buy those records and like that music, but not realize the history behind it? Like, the industry isn't giving the older pioneers their due?
I was talking with Stevie Wonder the other day and he said that to me, "You know what? A lot of people have a short memory. How many people honor the people on memorial day?" So we just have a real short memory, but the rest of the world never forgets. I think that music, if anybody hears it, gets through to your system. That's why it's so big and to the point.
Across the album, stylistically you do a few different things. Are any of the songs direct odes to any artists?
Definitely. The Delfonics with "Stay in Love." "Love That Girl" is like anybody in that era, it can be Frankie Valli, it could be just that general era. That's just a good filler song. When I point toward songs like "Oh Girl," The Delfonics are definitely there.
Outside of this record, is there anything deep down the road that you can tease us with?
I'm working on a project called Tha Boogie. Kind of like a hipster thing. Like The Fugees—two guys, one girl. They're Lollapalooza or that kind of crazy. They're kind of self-produced.