On Saturday, March 26, Raphael Saadiq will take part in his very own Red Bull Live Session, performing multiple sets that draw material from both past albums and the forthcoming Stone Rollin’, set to drop on May 10. The following interview is a taste of what’s to come.
The scene is set in Austin, Texas, USA. Between the bands going off in the Cedar Street Courtyard next door, the sweaty green mass of St Patrick’s Day revellers under a tent across the way, and the loud mix of patrons taking refuge in the restaurant we’re currently dining in, it’s nearly impossible to catch a break from the constant barrage of sound. It attacks from all angles, topped off with a steady flow of bass emanating from the floorboards underneath our feet. Yet for all the clamour and confusion, Raphael Saadiq is about as well composed as Beethoven’s 5th.
You may or may not know that Saadiq began his professional career as a member of the late ’80s R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! Alongside En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he was also one-third of Lucy Pearl, one of the game’s most under-the-radar yet short-lived supergroups. Dig a bit further back on his resumé and you’ll see that he toured with Prince when he was barely 18. Scan the liner notes for D’Angelo’s Grammy Award-winning Voodoo and you’ll find his songwriting credit for Untitled (How Does It Feel). He also produced Joss Stone’s platinum-selling Introducing Joss Stone, among other projects. There was, indeed, life before The Way I See It, Saadiq’s 2008 breakthrough solo album. It’s what’s come since that’s got people buzzing.
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On Wednesday night, Saadiq blew the roof off Stubb’s with an eight-song set that featured new tunes like Heart Attack and Radio alongside old favourites like 100 Yard Dash. Today, the veteran R&B singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist will stop by KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic pop-up station for yet another performance that’s sure to draw a massive crowd. We may be in Austin, but this is not Saadiq’s first rodeo.
The Way I See It was a breakthrough album for you, but it’s interesting to see how many people aren’t aware of the long history you’ve had as an artist and all the different groups and sounds you’ve been a part of. It’s almost like you’re doing it all over again. Do you think that provides you with a unique perspective?
It’s funny, I noticed that. It’s almost like you’re being brand new twice, which is almost impossible to do. My friend said you can never be new twice. You only get that first time in, but I saw him years later and he said, “You did it. You’re like new!” Everybody thinks The Way I See It is my first record…ever. I think it’s a unique thing, it’s a unique situation, but I think it’s a great way for people to find out about me, then go revisit all the other things. It wasn’t designed like that, but that’s the way it’s been happening.
It’s a bit like what’s happening with Cee Lo’s career. People are getting hip to him now, then going back to discover all his work with Goodie Mob and his early solo material.
What about the other side of the coin. Has there been any downside to that phenomenon?
I can’t see any drawbacks to it. It’s been very positive, actually. From The Way I See It to Stone Rollin’, everything has been pretty much moving forward. It’s only a problem if things are going backwards. I think people are listening to the music and feeling me out, and that’s what I like people to do; take the music at face value. Watch, listen and have a good time.
R&B is such a tricky genre right now. On one hand, soul music is getting a good look through artists like Adele, but on the other hand you’ve got a more disposable sound that relies on passing fads like Autotune. What’s important for you to bring to the game, especially with the hindsight you have as an R&B artist?
What’s important to me is that things feel right, and the only thing that ever felt right to me was live music. I never stopped and looked at any one style of music, from the Autotune to New Jack Swing or neo-soul. I never focused on any of it, no matter what term they called it. I just knew you had to have a guitar, had to have a bass, had to have the drums, keyboard, strings and a good song. I just knew that a good song wouldn’t let you down. Even with all the pop music that’s out now that everybody’s doing. I don’t look down at any of it. I just said, at the end of the day, good songs are always going to be around.
The new record has less of a Motown feel than The Way I See It. It’s a lot rougher and rawer.
Definitely. What led you in that direction?
I had a chance to go out and tour for two and a half years after The Way I See It. That album was my love letter to Motown. It’s a music that I really love and enjoy, and I wish I had a chance to be a part of it back in the ’60s, but I didn’t, so I just felt the Motown grooves and I started writing songs. But after touring and being on stage and getting all this energy from people all around the world, I said that when I come back, I wanna be loud. I just wanna jam. I knew when I left tour and I came back I was just gonna be loud, and it wasn’t gonna be about any Motown.
When you play these songs out live, are you getting that loudness and that energy back from the crowd?
Yes. I was getting that energy from the last record, so I knew if I stepped it up and raised the bar, that I could make that impression on people and they would give it back to me. I wanted to tour like some of the bigger bands I watched in coliseums who had that power. I grew up liking power groups – I call ‘em power bands – so I try to make powerful records.
Out of all the instruments you play, you’re closest to the guitar, yes?
Motown was very much about being in the pocket and supporting the dynamics of the vocals. You’re playing on this record is much less reserved, with sharper edges. Did you find that your playing style changed while recording the record?
I was always a dirty guitar player. [Laughs] For The Way I See It, I had to play those parts that way. When you play The Way You Do The Things You Do, it’s like clockwork. It’s precision. The vocals really have to come at you, so the music can’t get in the way. The only thing that could get in the way was the bass. On Stone Rollin’, I’m just rocking and rollin’. It’s gotta be a little dirty and a little messy. It could be loose but still tight. You have to find it.
The cover art for Stone Rollin’ is a photo of you playing your guitar. It reminds me a bit of some of those classic Hendrix live album covers, where you had a man so obviously in tune with his instrument. I think it says a lot about your approach to music as a player and performer.
It’s definitely a cool crutch. You love it. It has the curves. I spend a lot of time with my guitar; more time than I spend with anybody. (Laughs) It’s just a natural thing when you’re taking photos. You’re not thinking about the photo. You’re thinking about the guitar. It’s not a pose. You have to catch it. It’s like that photographer catching Ali when he hit Sonny [Liston]. It’s like, “How did he get that picture?” Because it was real. I always try and keep everything real so that everything has consistency through the record. The music is real, the picture is real and everything is flowin’.