Singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc is exactly the sort of artist people unintentionally omit when they say that soul music isn’t what it used to be. He writes songs that are socially conscious without being preachy. He’s experimental enough to appeal to a young audience while incorporating enough nods to the past to charm an older crowd. And he has a strong, clear voice that immediately upgrades any song it touches.
Anyone who doesn’t yet know that Blacc is the future of soul music will come to that realization soon: He’s the unsung creative force behind Swedish EDM producer Avicii’s 2013 monster hit “Wake Me Up”; his platinum single “The Man” can be heard in a Beats by Dre commercial; and he has served as a mentor on the NBC singing competition show “The Voice.” Blacc, formerly signed to legendary underground label Stones Throw, releases his first major-label studio album, “Lift Your Spirit,” this week. He calls its sound “folk soul,” and of his many sonic experiments over the years, his artful blend of these two styles seems to be what will finally launch him from underground favorite to commercial success.
“It was all experimentation until something worked,” Blacc, 35, says in a phone interview. “I found out more recently in my career that the best use of my voice is this folk-soul vocal. One of my favorite singers is Bill Withers, and his vocals were folk and soul— ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ ‘Lean On Me.’ People compare it to Tracy Chapman or Bill Withers, and for me, I definitely appreciate that style, that sound.”
A Los Angeles native born to Panamanian parents, Blacc started his musical career as part of the hip-hop group Emanon. He eventually went solo and transitioned to singing. He signed to Stones Throw in 2006, and released two full-length albums with the label, 2006’s “Shine Through” and 2010’s “Good Things.” Before the Avicii single, his most recognizable composition was “I Need a Dollar,” used as the theme song for HBO’s “How to Make It in America.”
That his career is blossoming and his talents are reaching a larger audience seems just — that he has done so while continuing to make increasingly creative, experimental music is a bit of a pleasant surprise.
“To my benefit, I started from ground up,” Blacc says. “Writing, recording, mixing, mastering, producing, doing all artwork, pressing, distributing, selling — everything from bottom to top. I found an indie to do that eventually, then a major, which has more resources and infrastructure, but there are no questions I can’t answer about my own career. I can always be trusted to make the music that I know how to make.”
On Thursday, just days after the release of his Interscope debut, a documentary about his old label home, Stones Throw, will screen at the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. “Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton” is an in-depth look inside the venerable hip-hop-and-more independent imprint, which has released work from talents such as MF Doom, Madlib and the late J Dilla. The documentary is a balanced portrait, butspends lots of time saying that the L.A.-based label is a precious incubator for innovative work — none other than Kanye West calls it a “creative zone” where musicians are able to maintain artistic purity.
Blacc is the most commercially successful Stones Throw alum at the moment, and his career seems to prove the lore of the label: He left the creative utopia of the indie and found mainstream success with a major. But the fact that “Lift Your Spirit” is his most creative, bizarrely infectious LP adds a new wrinkle to the narrative that a major label can be stifling for an artist.
The album is an ecstatic mix of exultant ’60s soul — big, bright, lots of horns — and slightly twangy, earnest folk. The lyrics are smart but the sonic innovations — mixing two genres not typically regarded as having anything in common and showing that they’re very much linked — are especially beautiful and unexpected. It’s the sort of album one would expect to be released by Stones Throw, or another “underground” label. Although “Lift Your Spirit” isn’t an indie release, Blacc’s experience at Stones Throw, as well as his time managing his career, helped shape it, he says.
“I encourage every artist to start with an indie label and build a fan base on their own terms,” Blacc says. “If they’ve already established themselves, they don’t have to succumb to playing industry games.”
“Lift Your Spirit” shows that Blacc has managed to soak up the advantages of the major-label music machine without sacrificing creative capital. While some tracks skew more country-folk, like “Here Today,” and others are strongly steeped in soul, including the Pharrell Williams collaboration “Love Is the Answer,” the best tracks, like the heady, intense “The Hand Is Quicker” combine both in a fascinating way.
“I’m still making music of all different genres, which may or may not see light of day,” he says. “The unreleased projects sitting around being developed [include] a bossa nova album, a future soul album. I’ve got three hip-hop albums unreleased, and it’s kind of sitting waiting because of the vocal career. At one point, I had kind of an emo, rock-soul mixture blend developing, but I kind of put on back burner; eventually, five years later, it became an actual genre, with artists like Weeknd, Lorde. But I’m not tripping, it’s all good, and I’m glad somebody did it — it’s validation that I wasn’t wrong about that direction. It just wasn’t the time for me — and I did well without it.”
Godfrey is a freelance writer.