It’s this kind of grip-and-grin B.S. that happens in Hollywood all the time: “Oh man, huge fan of your work, we should totally get together and collab sometime! Call me!” Then week, months, years go by and nothing. Except in Curtis Harding‘s case the offer was for real, even if it did take a few years to come together.
The Atlanta-based soul singer whose slow-burn career seems poised to heat up thanks to his just-released new single, “Wednesday Morning Atonement,” co-produced by Danger Mouse, took the long way to where he is today. And, he tells Billboard, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As I started to make my way out of high school I realized music was something I was really good at and so I had a go at it,” says Harding, 38, whose mother, Dorothy, remains active on the gospel circuit, which is where he learned about being a performer at her feet as a toddler. “Being around that environment in Atlanta — with Goodie Mob, OutKast, doing promotions for LA Face for a while… Being around those characters and seeing them have success and making great music was a motivational pull for me to see how to do it professionally.”
Just like that, as he immersed himself in the ATL scene in his 20s, gone were the childhood dreams of being an oceanographer or playing professional basketball as a “pretty good” shooting guard.
Around 2001 Harding — who was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and lived everywhere from California to Arizona, New York and the Midwest over the years — decided to give it a go. He soon landed a gig rapping and co-writing on Cee Lo Green‘s 2002 album Cee-Lo Green and his Perfect Imperfections album with some fellow members of his then-rap group, Proseed.
Hanging around the ATL scene, Harding learned a crucial lesson that he took to heart while pursuing his unique brand of warm-hearted, modern soul. “I learned it was cool to be yourself,” he tells Billboard about the years when he was a “sponge” soaking up vibe and hustle of the Dungeon Family/La Face crews. “You just have to be comfortable in your own skin. With my music I try to be as honest as I can without sharing too much with the world. All that time observing finally paid off when Green went on the road with the Smokin’ Grooves tour in 2002 with an all-star lineup that included Outkast, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill and The Roots.
“I was lucky enough to get on there singing backup for Cee-Lo and things started to work out,” Harding says. “I came back and started working with a local group, then I moved to Canada for about a year to catch my bearings and came back to record with some friends in my living room.” Those sessions led to Harding’s 2014 debut for indie label Burger Records, Soul Power. The unique mix of garage rock, soul and funk on songs such as “Next Time” and the yearning Motown-like rave-up “Keep On Shining” marked the emergence of a powerful new voice.
While it didn’t land Harding on major magazine covers stateside, he found a sizeable fanbase in England, Paris and around Europe, helped in part by a placement in a fashion video by former Yves Saint Laurent mastermind Hedi Slimane [Editor’s Note: video contains nudity]. And, because Atlanta is a magical musical melting pot, he also found himself in a bar one night watching Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander spinning old gospel 45s that reminded Harding of his peripatetic childhood. So, of course they formed a band, Night Sun, with Black Lips drummer Joe Bradley, and cranked out some soulful garage rock tunes that got fans excited about a full-length album the unlikely combo haven’t gotten around to recording just yet.
“We just haven’t hard time to curate everything,” he says of that side project he swears he’ll return to some day. All along, though, Harding’s focus remained on finding the perfect way to record the sound of that timeless late 1960s and early 1970s soul that lives in his heart. “It never gets old,” Harding says of acts such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield (both of whom he’s often compared to). “The reason why my music reminds people of that time and that era is because it’s been instilled in me, it’s embedded in me and it’s the foundation of what I am. From gospel, soul, funk, even country. I try to do it the best way I can and make it as modern as I can without breaking the foundation.”?
Which brings us back to Danger Mouse. Back when the producer (born Brian Burton) began working with Green in 2005 on what would become the first Gnarls Barkley album, St. Elsewhere, he and Harding first met. Years later they randomly bumped into one another again on the street in New York in 2015 and exchanged numbers. Harding mentioned he’d been working on new material and Burton noted that he’d heard Soul Power and liked it, calling out “Castaway” as one of his favorites and, yes, said it would be cool if they could work on something together.
“I was not thinking that would happen, but I kept in contact with him — he’d share stuff he was working on with me and I’d share stuff with him — and then I was out in L.A. working with the people at -Anti [Records] on a deal and we went to his house out there and decided to make a go at it,” he says. The result is Burton’s production work on “Wednesday Morning,” the the first single from Harding’s -Anti Records full length debut, Face Your Fear, out Oct. 27. The dreamy, synth-drenched soul track finds Harding urging, “Hey mother, I’ve been saving/ Working here all alone/ Trying to build a happy home/ So most people are never given/ A second chance to be a better man maybe.”
His soaring falsetto, overlaid with trippy Mellotron strings and Burton’s signature wall of mood make for a soothing, funky exploration on what Harding says is a track with a slippery double meaning. “That was the first song we started working on to see if we could do a record and Brian already had this idea, so he laid down a beat and the Mellotron strings and then I came up with the melody and started writing what came to mind,” says Harding, who ended up recording the entire album at Burton’s 30th Century Studio in New York.
“The lyrics have two meanings, one explains why I’ve been away so long and what I’ve been doing — this was my second album and it’s been a couple years and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do — and I thought it would be cool to give it a double meaning,” he says. “The other is about an estranged father who is away working and hadn’t seen his kids for a while… Maybe he and the mother are not on the best terms, maybe the kids don’t want to speak to him. It also just speaks about my musical journey at that point.”
Burton also co-produced the song “I’m Gonna Find You,” alongside one of his other artist, producer Sam Cohen. “Brian offers really good advice,” Harding says of what he learned from Burton. “He’s the master martial artist and you’re the grasshopper. His ear is just amazing. Like, he’ll say, ‘You don’t necessarily have to sing this in falsetto,’ or, ‘You don’t need that synth part here, put it there.’ At first you’re like, ‘Ahhh…’ but then it makes sense. It’s little things that make a huge difference that the average person wouldn’t hone in on.”
Cohen says he felt the same immediate musical connection with Harding that the singer experienced with Burton. “We love a lot of the same artists and records so we were just speaking the same language,” he tells Billboard. “Sometimes I’d lay down a bunch of stuff by myself while he was working on lyrics and he’d be like, ‘Cool, I love it!’ And sometimes he’d be telling me just what to do. ‘Play the bass part like this and then let’s add a wah guitar, some Wurlitzer…’ I’d do it all and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, totally, this is great!’ I didn’t know him at all before we worked together on the track with Danger Mouse and the next time I saw him was day one recording the rest of the record at my studio in Brooklyn. It’s so cool to me how quickly a relationship forms when music is the catalyst. I love that!”
And, in case you’ve listened and are wondering if Curtis is named for that other Curtis that Harding hears so much about in interviews — Mayfield — the answer is no.
“I’m named after my father, who is exponentially older than Curtis Mayfield,” Harding says about his 88 year-old pops. “I wouldn’t be mad if that was the case [though]. If you listen to the whole record I think you’ll come away with an understanding that I am invoking the spirit or that music and those people from that era, but it’s definitely Curtis Harding. I feel like even with the album title, Face Your Fear. It’s needed right now. It seems like there’s a lot of fear going on in the world and that’s where a lot of the hatred and anger comes from.”
Face Your Fear track list:
1) Wednesday Morning Atonement
2) Face Your Fear
3) On and On
4) Go as You Are
5) Till the End
6) Need Your Love
7) Dream Girl
8) Welcome to My World
9) Ghost of You
10) Need My Baby
11) As I Am