Phone interview recorded May 18, 2011
Noel Gourdin is a city dude with family deeply rooted in the south. It’s not surprising that his music is a combination of both those worlds: the urban contemporary and the classic southern soul. This musical marriage would reach its zenith with the release of his 2008 hit, “The River”. His debut album, AFTER MY TIME, would begin and end his relationship with Sony Music. His new album, FRESH: THE DEFINITION reconnects him to his musical integrity and his confidence as an artist. It is a brand new start with a brand new team as he explains to Darnell Meyers-Johnson…
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a name that’s probably going to be new to some of you. He broke out in 2008 with the hit song “The River” from his album AFTER MY TIME. Critics say he is paving the way back to real R&B music. He has even been called, “the new age Sam Cooke.” He has a brand new album out called FRESH: THE DEFINITION. Today I am speaking with Mr. Noel Gourdin. How are you sir?
Noel Gourdin: I’m doing good, Darnell. I appreciate that warm intro, man. That was nice, man. How you feelin’?
DMJ: I’m good. I appreciate the time you’re taking out to speak with us today. As I said just a second ago, people are saying you are one of those artists who is on the forefront of bringing back real R&B music. How would you describe your sound?
NG: I would have to describe my sound as, first and foremost, R&B/Soul. That’s what I would say it is. I don’t think there’s anything new about soul when people say “neo-soul”. I just try to keep my music pure, keep it with a straightforward and honest feel. Just music that comes from my heart, not contrived, not trying to make something sound a certain way. Just me making music that I love and it comes from the music that inspired me to do what I’m doing now. I try to keep it as pure as possible and have music that people can feel and relate to.
DMJ: Tell me about your early home life and how it influenced your music today.
NG: Being born in Brockton, MA, about 20 miles south of Boston, it’s known for breeding boxers. Marvin Hagler and Rocky Marciano are from the same city. It’s known as the city of boxers and fighters that never stay down for long. So growing up in the city with that quick, witty, fast paced type of thing is a harder and harsher way of life. And then each summer growing up in my early childhood, going down to Mississippi where my parents are from, riding down the highway about 5 or 6 cars deep with family, was a slower pace way of living, the southern hospitality way of living. It all correlates into me as a man and it carries over into my music. That southern soul feel that you get from my music as well as the city part of me, some of the hip-hop edge that I have on some of my records. So they both correlate over into my music. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
DMJ: So it’s like the best of both worlds, the contemporary as well the old classic soul sound.
DMJ: It was one of your producers who called you “the new age Sam Cooke”. When you hear yourself compared to timeless greats like that, how do you feel? Do you ever feel any added pressure to live up to that standard?
NG: I just take it as it is. It’s a compliment. To be even mentioned in the same breath as a Sam Cooke is amazing. Do I feel any added pressure? I really don’t. Because I take it for what it is, a compliment. Sam Cooke in my opinion, and Marvin Gaye, are some of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. If there was pressure, I’ll tell you what, it would be tough for me to even stand up because that’s a lot of weight to be holding on your shoulders. I just take it as a compliment and keep it moving. I try to make music that’s the best that I can do, as well as the team I have around me that we can put out.
DMJ: In ’05 you signed a deal with Sony. They’re one of the biggest names in music. How did they hear about you?
NG: It was my manager at the time, Larry Fernandes and my production company at the time, Trakaddix. Trakaddix had a good rapport with Kay Gee and worked with him before and knew a lot of people in the industry at the time. So while we were grinding and trying to get our music together and our catalogue up, he had been—I’m talking about Tommy Olivera, who was heading up Trakaddix at the time—he had a lot of relationships and got in touch with Kay Gee because he had worked with him in the past. He gave Kay Gee a call and he said, “Bring him through.” This was around the time when—I don’t know if a lot of people are familiar with it—but the movie “The Cookout” that Kay Gee was working on at the time. He had done the music for that movie.
Kay Gee just took a liking to me, so he actually put me on the intro to that movie—it was a record called “Family Reunion”. That was pretty much my first big break in the industry; he didn’t have to do that. And to this day me and Kay Gee have a good relationship and good rapport, and his whole team over there at Divine Mill in New Jersey. So that was pretty much one of my first things, and then just going around the city and getting auditions and things of that nature. This was around the time when Jay-Z was over at Def Jam, and we had an impromptu type of performance in Jay-Z’s office with Tata. They got all the women together and so I performed over there. They said to come back. I was going to be going back there within the next week or so. That same day, we went to Virgin—that’s when Jermaine Dupri was over there. So I went over there and we had another impromptu type of performance. They also said the next week they were going to be getting in touch with us and we were going to be back over there.
It was one more stop that we were contemplating taking, and that was at Sony. It was getting kind of late and I knew everybody was going to be heading home out of the office, but we did stop in to Sony. That’s when Chad Elliott was over there and K.P. as well. We had another impromptu type of performance, and they said at the end of that, “Don’t bring it anywhere else, ’cause we want to try to move forward with paperwork.” So that’s pretty much how that went down. It was overwhelming to be at such a big label. Knowing all the culmination of the years that we worked in trying to get where we were, getting past the doors and the desks at these major labels and to be in the office and being told that “We don’t want you to take your music anywhere else ’cause we want to do something,” it was great. It was great that it all came to a head and we started celebrating. It was a great time.
DMJ: And that was in ’05, but your album didn’t actually come out until ’08. So for those of us who won’t have that opportunity to know what it’s like to be involved with a major company like Sony, just paint a small picture for us of what’s going on in the meantime, between ’05 and ’08: are they grooming you? What’s going on? Just paint a small picture for me there.
NG: I think it was put into the category of “artist development”-type of thing, ’cause I was constantly working, constantly writing, constantly recording. We were doing shows. It was in that span that I actually did “Showtime at the Apollo” and many other shows. So that time didn’t crawl by, it was just time that I knew they were trying to give me to groom. I was grooming my artistry and myself, as far as onstage and in the studio as well. It was a time that I knew what was being done and I knew what I needed. But all at the same time in the back of my mind I was just like, “When is the record going to get out? When is it going to be available for people to buy? When is it going to hit the shelves?”
There’s a big misconception about the industry: a lot of artists actually don’t get a chance to have their music released. That’s just what it is in the industry. So by the time ’08 came and we had the date for the album release and everything, it was all starting to come together, and I felt that it was worth all the time that I and my team had put into this project. So yeah, it was a time when I was constantly working, constantly writing and recording—and working, as far as doing shows and being onstage. Those three years passed by rather quickly, but they couldn’t get by quickly enough to get the album out.
DMJ: And when it came out, your song “The River” became a huge hit, in part due to some help from Steve Harvey. Share with me how Steve ended up being connected to the song.
NG: He said that after one of his shows he got into the car—got into his limo and his driver was playing XM satellite. A lot of people don’t know that Caveman Kelly that works over there at Heart and Soul is one of my biggest supporters; he’s been there from the beginning. So he happened to play it while Steve was in the car leaving his event, and Steve finally got a chance to hear the record from the beginning, ’cause every other time he said he heard it, it was always from the middle to the end and he never caught the name of who the artist was. So at this time he saw my name come up, Noel Gourdin, and it was called “The River”, and he heard it from the beginning to the end. It was from then that he went on a hunt for me. And it was crazy, because I remember the weekend: I was back home from off the road and I shut my phone off—I was staying at my cousin’s house and I was knocked out. It was crazy because when I turned my phone back on, I had fifteen or sixteen messages, and it was my manager like: “Yo, man, I’m trying to…”
The first message was cool, Darnell; it was calm and all that, but by the time the fifteenth came he was swearing and all kinds of stuff going on: “Yo, you’ve got to get back in touch with me!” It was all that one day that Steve started playing it, and I think he played it three or four times on his show. It was a culmination of a lot of things coming at the same time. And then somebody as far as Steve Harvey, who had the number-one morning show in the country that started playing the record and took a liking to it, it was out in the mainstream where everybody could hear it. And it just took off and it changed my life overnight.
DMJ: What a lot of people may not know about that song is that even though it was ’08 when it broke out, you actually started working on it back in ’03. Now that some time has passed since it’s been out, when you hear it today what are your feelings about it?
NG: I hear it and I think about all the things we were going through at that time. We were grinding, we were sleeping in cars… whatever we had to do, as far as survival, we did it, and that was just to keep our hopes and dreams alive. So I think about that. I also think about us in the studio, making the music at that time: myself, Balewa Muhammad, who was a genius of a writer; CK, as well as Arama Brown, who was the female voice on the record. We were all in the studio talking out the concept, saying we needed something old but new at the same time; something that makes people reminisce about their childhoods. If they’re not necessarily from the country or from the South, it will make them think about if they had some family there throughout their childhood or their life. So we just started talking this concept up, and writing. I went into the booth and came out and when I came out I knew we had something special. I think about all of that whenever I hear the record. It’s great to be able to look back and know that I have… a lot of people have been saying, “You have one—you have a record that you can perform for life.”
And a lot of artists don’t get that—pretty much a signature record. So I feel incredibly blessed to have that record, even though I look at it as my anomaly in a sense because the record was so big and people thanked me so much for making a record like that. It’s a blessing to be able to have one like that.
DMJ: Your new album is out there right now competing with the new joint from Raphael Saadiq. He worked on your first album. What’s it like being in the studio with him?
NG: Raphael is a genius. He’s a true throwback, but still knows how to do it today. He is a pioneer. It was great to be in the studio with him, seeing how his mind worked and his artistry: his pure artistry. And seeing all of his guitars lined up just like they’re asking to be put on deck, you know what I mean? Every instrument he has in there has a different feel he says for each individual track and artist that he’s making music for. So all he did was listen to some of the tracks that we had on the album at the time. We talked about the kind of music and influences that I had growing up, who were pillars in my life. By just telling him that, he came up with “P.Y.T.” in the groove. Just his pure artistry, man. And it’s good to see him flourishing as a solo artist because he’s just so talented. It was an honour to be in the studio with him and I’m looking forward to working with him again. Raphael is no joke.
DMJ: Your new CD is not on Sony. What happened to that relationship?
NG: It was basically being somewhere with the muscle that Sony has, and a lot of the times, creatively, I wasn’t able to be heard. There were a lot of bigger voices and heavier voices over there than mine and my team’s. There were a lot of things as far as, like I said creatively, that we didn’t see go our way. And I understood that at the time; I knew what it was going in. So it didn’t really take me by surprise but it was just some things I couldn’t bend with, as far as the integrity of the music that I wanted to be out there with my name on it. There were a lot of things, for instance, the video we did for “The River”. It wasn’t something I would have necessarily done, had it been from my head or creatively from myself and my team. There were some things that we had to bend on and there were some things that I couldn’t bend on.
So that seemed to lead to us falling apart. And soon after that I did go into a brief depression, asking myself the typical questions: Why me? Why did our relationship go downhill after having a number-one record that held the number-one spot for five weeks? So I knew we had to part. And by no means did I wish that it never happened, because I really did appreciate that opportunity and being there and being with such talented folk. It just seems like we didn’t have the same vision, as far as artistically, that I had for myself. It was a great time in my life and I look back and I’m glad it happened. I wouldn’t rather it happened no other way. The Lord blows us in certain ways that we have to witness and we have to go through in order to be where we’re supposed to be, so I appreciated that whole time in my life. I’ll never forget it.
DMJ: Your new album is called FRESH: THE DEFINITION. So tell me, what is the definition of “fresh”?
NG: The definition of fresh for me is that clean, rejuvenated, blossoming, brand-new… just a fresh start for me. It’s sort of like my redemption story: to be regenerated as a man and as an artist in the industry. Because parting from Sony took a lot out of me, as far as artistically and being in the right mind I had to be in to be an artist and a man as well. I did a lot of growing since leaving Sony. With this album it’s pretty much my comeback story; it’s my redemption story. I wanted to make an album that I really wanted to do from the first time—more live instrumentation implemented. My writing was closer to my heart in this one.
It’s a project that’s independent, yet with major distribution from E1. But I have a whole new regime this time around: a new manager, Marvyn Mack of Top-Notch Marketing; a new label, Mass Appeal Entertainment. I really wanted to step out and do the type of music that influenced me. I wanted to make that kind of music: that pure production value of the live strings, horns, bass, drums, grand piano, guitar—everything right down the line as much as I could. Now what I mean by as much as I could have that music implemented; I didn’t want to bring it too far back so that way there was a disconnection with today’s listener.
I didn’t want to bring it so far back that people would say, “Why am I buying this? I could just pick up an Otis Redding or a Marvin Gaye or a Sam Cooke album.” So I wanted to keep it relevant enough and new enough that people can tell the difference between having some classic, classic feel with a relevant record. So that’s what fresh means to me: just to be able to come out and realize my vision this time around after parting from Sony.
DMJ: And I think doing it that way feels a little more genuine to the listener as opposed to making it seem like, “Oh, this is just a dude who’s trying to do Sam Cooke or trying to do Marvin,” you know what I mean? It breaks you out of making it seem like you’re just a mere copycat.
NG: Absolutely, and that’s what puts me in the genre of R&B/Soul. I had a great time making this album; I really did.
DMJ: Let’s talk about a couple of songs on the album before we run out of time: the first is the single “Beautiful”. It’s getting a lot of attention. Tell me about that song and how that came together.
NG: I did that record with Ryan Toby, he’s another genius songwriter and a lot of people know him from City High and from doing records with Usher and Musiq Soulchild. I came in on the latter half of this record, and I just knew how special it was when I was in the studio and how relevant it was going to be and how much of an impact record it was at this particular time. Some of the music out there right now that is—as far as the lyrical content—degrading to women; condescending when speaking to women. It’s something I thought the industry needed at this point in time.
It’s also really close to my heart because looking back at my life, up until the point I was born, my mom was a victim of domestic violence by my biological father. She was beaten for many years and I see the kind of scarring that it left on my older brother and sister, as well as my mom. But thank God for my stepdad for stepping in and erasing some of those scars that she had. So it was very close to my heart and I thought it was something that we needed to hear; that old-fashioned respect for women. And it’s no specific race of women—I think it’s all women in general. I think it needed to be said.
DMJ: Are you getting a lot of feedback, from your female fans in particular, about that song?
NG: Absolutely. A lot of women are thanking me for a record like this; a lot of women are saying a lot of men need to listen—a lot of artists as well need to listen —to what you’re talking about here. It can stack up a whole lot of conversation. But there was one in particular that I got on Facebook, Darnell; it was from a fourteen or fifteen year old young lady and she actually thanked me. She said, “Thank you, Noel, for making this record because it’s enforcing something that my mom’s been telling me for years.” That really hit my heart. Also I replied back to her and said, “Your mom is right. She’s been right for years.
So you carry yourself with and demand that respect and you’ll get it as such.” That was a special message for me, so I knew that I was doing this music for a reason, and it made me feel good.
DMJ: Changing lives is what that’s about. Whenever you make a song or an album and it makes somebody think about their life or their self-esteem or whatever, it becomes so much more than just a song.
NG: Right; it is more than entertainment. I’ve heard that many times: “It’s just entertainment. It’s just entertainment.” I don’t think it is and a lot of people would beg to differ. When you had music back in the sixties and seventies that started baby booms and you have people walking around today that were actually conceived to a certain genre of music, it’s not just entertainment anymore—not to me and not to a lot of people out there. It is touching lives, and if you can touch lives—and I know it sounds cliché, but if I make this music and I can touch one life, then it’s for a reason and I’m happy to be doing it.
DMJ: One of my favourite songs on the album—and I say one because I have more than one—is a song called “Brand New”. It speaks about not taking life for granted. What’s the inspiration behind that song? Is that one that you wrote?
NG: Absolutely. That was actually when I was coming out of my dark place, my depression; that was probably the first that one I really started going into real deep. That is my favourite record on the album, so that’s a great pick, D. That record, I did it with Kevin Ross, who came in on the latter half and helped out tremendously, and we were able to finish my vision for that record. It’s basically like you said: not taking life for granted. Your life isn’t over even if things seem like they’re going downhill for you or the tribulations, the trials get too rough for you.
I like to say when you wake up early in the morning, when the good Lord blesses you with breath, it’s not over—it’s your brand-new start to your day. Or, if you have things that aren’t going right in your life, it’s a brand-new opportunity for you to fix it, to make it the way you want it to be. If you’re not happy with your job in particular, if you’re not happy with your love; your heart has been broken, or if there’s not enough money in the bank, there’s always an opportunity for you to fix it. So that’s what “Brand New” is about. It’s a special record for me and I feel that a lot of people needed to hear it. Because it is my favourite record, I actually did put in a little bit of extra care with that. The bridge means a lot to me. There’s just something about that record; a lot of people have been hitting me on Facebook or Twitter saying it’s the first record that they open their day up with, so it means a lot to me.
DMJ: There’s a definitive romantic vibe throughout the album, so on behalf of ladies everywhere I have to ask this question: are you a romantic person by nature?
NG: I am, in fact, a romantic. I just think those are the spices of life. You don’t get many, many opportunities because of the way the economy is today and how hard it is to make a living—to be a romantic. But I think you have to hold onto those moments and those are the moments in life that you remember always, you know what I mean? I think it’s really important to be a romantic, and it helps with the record making process as well, as far as writing, just pouring your heart and soul into records. But yeah, you have to be a romantic today to make life and love and your relationship memorable.
DMJ: So tell me what’s coming up for you. What’s the next single? Are you going to be touring? What’s up?
NG: Yes, the next single is “Not Around”; I think it’s number five on the album. It’s a record that I think a lot of people are going to be able to identify with. It’s almost got that same feel as “The River”, with that classic throwback feel but still with the retro new-age concept. As far as touring I am going to be out, I’m going to be doing a lot of spot dates and we’re putting together two tours right now. I don’t want to say what it is or who it’s with, but those are going together right now.
Spot dates I have coming up are with Tank and Dwele and Ginuwine, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Olivia… we have a lot of dates coming up. I’m going to be all over the country, so people can watch out for my posts (on Facebook and Twitter). And I’m doing a lot of nonprofit things right now too for people that went through the storms and tornadoes down south in Alabama and Mississippi. I’m doing a lot of things; the calendar is filling up.
DMJ: You mentioned Facebook and Twitter, what is that info in case anybody wants to stay updated with what you’re doing online?
NG: On Facebook it’s just my name, Noel Gourdin. I have a personal site and a fan page as well, so hit me up on both of them—I work them both. On Twitter it’s the same, Noel Gourdin: N-o-e-l G-o-u-r-d-i-n. I love to stay in touch with my fans because it’s because of them that I’m actually even speaking to you, Darnell, so they mean a lot to me. Hit me up on Facebook and Twitter whenever you can.
DMJ: And you also have a website that’s still being developed. What is that?
NG: It’s noelgourdinmusic.com as well as noelgourdin.com, so that’s being worked on as we speak. It’s almost done. And when that’s up and running, people are going to be able to log onto there to check out my schedule, my calendar, just to know where I’m going to be. So that’s coming out really soon.
DMJ: And lastly before we break out, this is your second album. What is it that you hope to achieve by the time you get to, say, album number ten?
NG: What I hope to achieve is just letting people know that I will not jeopardize the integrity of my music. It’s always going to come from my heart and soul. It’s always going to be respectful, tasteful—your whole family can listen to it, from two years old on up to your grandma and great-grandparents. It means a lot to me to uphold and maintain my integrity. That will never be in question. I’m going to try to expand over into the acting, so people will get sick of my face in a short time. So I’m looking forward to that.
DMJ: Is there anything you want to mention that we haven’t talked about?
NG: No, just look out for my posts and look out for my appearances, and I appreciate everybody’s support. And I thank you for this opportunity, Darnell, you and SoulMusic.com—I appreciate it.
DMJ: Thank you so much for your time, sir. Good luck with the album—it’s a great album, I encourage everybody to check it out—even go back and check out the first one, they’re both pretty good. So again, thanks for your time. We do appreciate it. Our doors are open anytime you want to come through and let us know what you’re doing.
NG: I appreciate it, brother. Thank you so much, God bless you.
DMJ: All right, man. Be blessed.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.