WASHINGTON — Few things are as exciting as the moment you first hear a great musician.
That was the case for Yours Truly last year. I was driving through Brooklyn to meet former WTOP music critic Marcus Moore, who now works at Bandcamp and is currently penning the upcoming book “The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America.”
Suddenly, a mesmerizing sound came on the radio that was at once delightfully nostalgic yet entirely fresh, starting with a driving drum and toe-tapping baseline, followed by a throwback horn section, soulful crooning and a falsetto hook that you could listen to on and on and on.
Fittingly, the song was “On and On” by Curtis Harding, who plays U Street Music Hall on Saturday night, bringing his “slop ‘n’ soul” style of soul, punk, gospel, psych rock and blues.
“‘Slop ‘n’ Soul’ was something I called my music because if you don’t call it something, then the public, writers, critics and journalists would call it something else,” Harding told WTOP. “The ‘slop’ part is basically just that I tend to use what other artists don’t use [like] what the farmers would not eat at the table and feed it to the pigs. … Sometimes it’s funky and sometimes it’s sloppy. It flows and it runs. … Then, of course, the soul is the foundation. You gotta have soul.”
That foundation began in Saginaw, Michigan, where he was born to a mother who traveled the country as a gospel singer. Moving from Michigan to Alabama, Arizona to California, Texas to Georgia, Harding sang backup for his mom from age nine and on into his teenage years.
“It definitely made a huge impression on me as far as how to present myself to the world,” Harding said. “Gospel music has always been something that has been rooted into my culture and it’s pretty much the foundation of where soul, blues, even rock comes from. So, I think if you listen to the records, you’ll hear elements of that there, and definitely in the show.”
At age 14, the family settled in Atlanta, where Harding formed the hip-hop group Proseed, which soon caught the eye of Outkast, who invited Proseed on tour as their opening act.
“I got to spend a lot of time with the Dungeon Family [and] learned a lot about music and stage presence,” Harding said. “We were just a local act who would do local shows, then one day we had the opportunity to go to the studio; actually invited by Andre 3000 to ‘Stankonia.'”
Turns out, CeeLo Green was recording in that same studio and invited Harding to join his 2002 Smokin’ Grooves Tour, alongside Outkast, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill and The Roots.
“CeeLo was there working on his first solo album [and] we just all started rapping and singing,” Harding said. “He took a liking to us and invited us out to his studio, which was further out in Atlanta. I got my first placement on that record. When it came time for him to tour, he needed backup singers and I was one of the few that he chose. The rest is history.”
Eventually, Harding went solo with his debut album “Soul Power” (2014).
“I just felt it was time to explore the foundation I talked about from my past,” Harding said. “I taught myself guitar [and] started writing songs. Then I went into the studio and presented it to this label Burger Records out of Fullerton, California, that [previously] put out a single that I did with a buddy in Atlanta, Cole Alexander from The Black Lips. … They decided to put it out.”
This caught the attention of the label Anti- for his follow-up album “Face Your Fear” (2017).
“The difference [is] that ‘Soul Power’ I produced myself; ‘Face Your Fear’ I produced with Danger Mouse, [who I met] when they started Gnarls Barkley,” Harding said. “Ten years later, we ran into each other [and] the day came when he invited me out to L.A. and we just started recording stuff. With the addition of Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen, who’s based out of New York, it just adds more layers. When you put talented people in a room, you can make magic.”
That magic included the aforementioned single “On and On,” which is as catchy as they come.
“‘On and On’ started with the bass line,” Harding said. “I’m a huge James Jamerson fan, being that I was born in Saginaw, Michigan and Motown music was always playing in my house. So I just started working with some Jamerson runs [and] I played it for Sam, who was like, ‘Yo, that’s kind of dope! Let’s get the drums popping.’ … I had this idea of continuation and ‘On and On’ would just pop into my head and it evolved from there. … It’s just musical curation, man!”
What can we expect him to curate on Saturday at U Street Music Hall?
“You’ll definitely hear ‘On and On’,” Harding said. “I’m really looking forward to playing the new album for you guys. … Come on out. You’re gonna have a good old time, I promise you.”
Find more on the U Street Music Hall website. Listen to our full chat with Curtis Harding below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Curtis Harding (Full Interview)