Behind every great male soul singer, there is a woman. A woman who has done him wrong, usually.
Behind Charles Bradley, there are about four decades of obscurity followed by his recent friendship and fruitful collaboration with Thomas Brenneck, the New York producer-guitarist with various Daptone Records soul groups (the Budos Band, Antibalas and the Menahan Street Band), as well as a sought-after session player who has appeared on records from Amy Winehouse, St. Vincent, Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
Brenneck was in Toronto recently to talk about Victim of Love, the new album by Bradley, the sexagenarian soul-music revelation whose long-straggling career was boosted from obscurity to niche stardom with the release of 2011’s Brenneck-produced No Time For Dreaming.
I’ve heard Charles Bradley describe you as the man who gave him a career. And that he’s had people make money off him over the years, but you were the only one who believed in him and kept your word. That’s pretty heavy.
Well, everything he says is heavy. I’m used to it.
Can you talk about your friendship, and how it affects your songwriting together?
I don’t think I could make a record with Charles in the same way I would with someone else. The intimacy of our friendship carries over to the intimacy of the songwriting. It’s different than Wanda Jackson making a record with Jack White, or Bettye Lavette making a record with someone. With Charles and I, the stories we tell aren’t fantasy stories.
How does your collaboration work?
We’re not trying to write something classic. We’re not chasing after anything. We’re trying to write something for guitar, piano and vocals. Then Charles gives me the freedom to flesh them out in the way I see fit. Whether it’s in the early-1970s, Temptations, psychedelic-soul kind of way, or whether it’s in a more traditional, Stax-y, William Bell-Otis Redding kind of way.
I hear a Curtis Mayfield influence on this record, particularly on the song Confusion. Were you chasing that?
There’s Curtis Mayfield’s If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go. That’s an obvious one. But that’s not the one I’m trying to wear on my sleeve. It was more of 1970s Motown thing.
What about lyrics? Do you glean things from Charles?
Always. You know, there’s a million different ways we could write a song together. It could be a conversation. Confusion started when we were out on tour. We picked up the bass line from the bass player. After a sound check, I worked on the guitar riff. I played it for Charles the next day, and he felt it. I had written it during Occupy Wall Street, but by the time we came to record it, that became irrelevant. So, I looked at Charles’s life. At that time, a lot of people were envious of what was going on with him, and that was causing a lot of trouble in his personal life. So we made the song about that, as opposed to the Occupy movement. But that’s just one song.
Does your own life ever enter in the material?
Sometimes I’ll write a song about the struggles I’m having with my girlfriend. I’ll play it for Charles, and when he sings it, it has another life. His version of love isn’t “Oh baby, will you please forgive me.” His “Oh baby” is to the world. He delivers it from a different place.
In the way Percy Sledge sang When a Man Loves a Woman, right?
Exactly. When he sings my first-person stuff, it’s transformed into something bigger, something broader. That, for a songwriter, is powerful.
What about the song You Put a Flame on It? It’s poppy, and the bass line is different than anything else you’ve done.
Sometimes you write songs you don’t even like. That’s one of them. But for me, it’s part of being a creative person. I would prefer to have no filter. So, Charles really liked the song. And the band really liked it. I didn’t. But I finished it.
Charles was in a much different place when you two made the first record. How did that affect the second album?
The first record, No Time For Dreaming, was recorded in a bedroom. It’s really raw, really gutsy. Charles only knew how to write from a specific part of himself, which was pain. Then that record opened up a new chapter in his life. I think this new record will be easier for him to perform, because it’s not just about sorrow. It’s about “thank you for getting me through the storm.” It’s about “let love stand a chance.” His message is so positive, because he’s seen so many fans come at him with positivity, from songs that he wrote from such negativity.
It seems he’s the lifeblood of the material, even if you’re doing a lot of the writing.
We in the band are here to give him a platform. Otherwise, he doesn’t have anything to sing from. We’re just trying to grow, like he’s trying to grow. I think this record speaks for itself when it comes to that.
Charles Bradley plays Toronto’s Phoenix Theatre Saturday; Montreal’s Corona Theatre Monday.