Interview conducted by phone on November 3, 2010 during Anthony's visit to London
A soul man who continues to build a solid audience on both sides of the Atlantic, Anthony David – touted as a personal favourite artist of both US President Obama and his wife Michelle – is committed to continuing the tradition of insightful musical storytelling that goes back to Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and others. His latest album reflects that commitment and he shared with David Nathan – during a November 2010 visit – about “As Above, So Below” and more…
David Nathan: Well, I want to welcome today to Soulmusic.com a gentleman who has established himself as one of the leading lights in the independent soul music movement. He’s now about to release his third studio album which is entitled As Above, So Below, and that will be out next week (February 21) in the UK and in March in the US. I want to welcome today to Soulmusic.com Mr. Anthony David.
Anthony David: Hey, how you doing?
DN: I’m good. Are you good too?
AD: That’s good. Absolutely, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
DN: Great. Well, let’s start out by asking: how many times have you actually been to London? Is this your third, fourth visit?
AD: I don’t even know, honestly. I’ve been coming here since 2001 when I was touring with India, so I’ve probably been here a couple times a year since then. Last year was the first year I didn’t come.
DN: And what prompted you to make visits here aside from that first visit, which was with India.Arie?
AD: I was always touring, that’s what I’m saying. I’ve come with her I don’t know how many times. Since my own records in 2004, I was coming here promoting. And then actually, too, trying to get a situation, particularly, with Dome Records. And I got that maybe in 2005 or 2006, and I’ve been coming [to the UK] ever since.
DN: And what have you found about British audiences in terms of their acceptance of your music?
AD: Considering that I’ve been playing in venues that are geared towards it, very good. For instance, the pinnacle so far was when I came with Eric Roberson last year, we toured… we played the Indigo, and then before that we did a couple of different cities throughout the UK. And also we opened for Boyz II Men throughout the UK, so actually very well.
DN: And what do you find—if anything—is different, Anthony, between American and British audiences?
AD: Actually, no, not really. It’s a very similar culture. Other than the obvious surface things like the accents and stuff like that, it’s been very, very, very similar. If anything, some of the things that I do that are specifically (US) Southern-related [which] may not go over in the same way, but then there’s an appreciation for that worldwide, so even that works sometimes.
DN: All right, well, let’s move on to talk about your forthcoming album, As Above, So Below. Of course we have to start with the title, which is—and I’m not sure if it’s biblical—but something that has been said over centuries and centuries and centuries. So tell us a little bit about why you chose that as the title.
AD: Yeah, well, you hit it on the head, too. When I first heard it I was trying to remember if it was biblical and there was some[thing] of a spiritual nature of what I was trying to tackle as far as the topics [on the CD]. That was what I was going for, really: trying to connect with something familiar, something that may have been lost a little bit and bringing it back. And I think, also, it seems to be a time of a kind of enlightenment going on in the world, and that seems to be what we’re all trying to do and understand. So that was just the beginning of something that I’m pursuing, I guess philosophically, in my own life and I see it also in wider society.
DN: Do you equate that phrase with a similar phrase, which is—I guess you could say—as within, so without?
AD: Exactly. You know, you’re totally hitting it on the head, yeah.And that’s one of those things that’s sort of a key to a lot of mysteries. That phrase seems to answer a lot of questions in general.
DN: Okay. Well, good—that’s good to know. I’m sure that some people are going to ask you the same question about—
AD: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, that’s the point, too, was also to sort of reintroduce the phrase—because many people who may have heard it before and don’t remember—and then to introduce it to some people. It’s just interesting.
DN: Now how would you say this album differs from your previous albums?
AD: I think my song structure is a little tighter in this one. I worked with some people that are a little better at that than me. And then also the production; a little more solid. What’s also interesting; I actually produced a lot more of the music than the first and the second album as far as beats and stuff like that. I did them all together with Shannon, but I just realized that I had actually written a lot more of the music part than I did on the second album. The first album I wrote all the music.
DN: And when you referenced Shannon you were referring to Shannon Sanders, correct?
AD: Exactly, Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey, those are both the producers. They’re a team out of Nashville, Tennessee. Shannon’s India’s music director so I’ve known him on the road for that. He’s also produced and written for Heather Headley, Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang—all these different people. And him and Drew are just a treasure-trove of music of all types. I’ve always had one producer with each album that co-produced with me to tie it all together and give me that aspect of it that I don’t have and this time it was him. The first time it was Marcus Jefferson, second time it was Brandon Burch and now it’s Shannon.
DN: All right, let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. Let’s talk about one that’s kind of reached right out to me straightaway, which is “Backstreet”. I think that might be interesting to talk about, probably in the wake of whatever happened in November 2010, the midterm elections in the United States. I’m guessing that “Back Street” is going to give us some sense of life in the United States in 2010. Is that correct?
AD: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And oddly enough, what’s funny about that one is that I wrote that song in the nineties. The neighbourhood that I live in now is sort of similar. It’s sort of similar. I’m a storyteller and I just kind of covered something I was seeing. It’s a tale of a drug dealer gone bad—or a would-be drug dealer gone bad. It’s interesting that you point it out as something ….long with the election. It’s really more so along the lines of… to me, it’s about choices. I think in the bigger picture it does paint a picture of a larger situation. It’s hard to, I guess, phrase exactly what that is. At that point I was just kind of immersed in the character so much that I know it’s kind of outside the character and inside it at the same time. As above, so below.
DN: Well, there you go. Okay. All right, well, let’s move on to another song, which again, just the title alone would be enough to have somebody immediately check it out, and that’s “What God Said”.
AD: Yeah, this is another difference with this album: I’m playing a lot of characters, and so this one I’m playing a bigot. The song is about people pretending to know things they don’t know and the dangers of not using reason. And on this one I use the example from what happened in just last year in Haiti, when they had the earthquake. And there was a guy [in the US], Pat Robertson—and I think some people are familiar with him here—right wing, conservative… well, he’s a preacher. And he basically [he] said God did that to them because they did a deal with the devil, which is ridiculous. And then there’s another part in the song where there’s a guy who actually prayed that Obama would die and I found out that was a thing called imprecatory prayer, which is the precursor to a curse word, which is commanding God to do something to someone else. That kind of thing. So it’s dangerous when you get into this assuming that you know what God said. It deals with religion on a larger scale. Obviously when you have issues with Islam and Christianity, trying to interpret what the Creator wants, or whatever, that can be dangerous, obviously. So that was what we were dealing with on that one.
DN: Well, I want to comment a little bit more about that. I obviously want to talk to you about a couple of the other songs, but… Well, particularly now that you’ve said what you said about that song, it seems even more relevant to what I just referenced before about the midterm elections, and of course the presence of the, quote, Tea Party… I mean, one of the things that I want to, I guess, expound upon a little bit with you, Anthony, is the fact that a lot of artists don’t comment, or don’t create tracks like “What God Said” or “Backstreet”, for fear that people will think it’s too heavy: why are you going down that road [instead of] ‘let’s just make love songs…’ Talk to me a little bit about how you approached doing what you do, in that regard.
AD: Well, I just look at albums as conversations with people. I’ve listened to albums that are full of love songs; I’ve made albums with quite a bit of love songs. I love love songs, but I would kind of want to know about the artist that I’m listening to. I like to hear the different dimensions and I imagine that other people would—somebody would. So as long as it’s still fun or still gives you whatever it is that, basically, you’re supposed to get from music—or what music’s job is, which is first some kind of movement—as long as you just never, ever, ever forget that, then being able to tackle other topics is certainly fine. I’m a big fan of Public Enemy and that kind of thing in hip-hop, so to me, that’s why hip-hop was the soul music in the eighties and nineties because it would speak to a lot of things. And if anything, soul music should be able to do that. It should be broad enough to talk about things intelligently and have you talking afterwards—be the basis of some kind of discussion.
I would hate to just leave a bunch of love songs as part of my legacy. I tackle love songs, but honestly music for me is a way to sort out my feelings on a topic. I can’t get interrupted in that. I just say my little piece and either you agree with it or don’t agree with it, and it’s a done statement. When it’s over it’s easier for me to explain things that way than it is to even do what I’m doing now, which is talking about it.
DN: Talking about it—no, I understand, I understand. Well, obviously there’s a tradition in soul music that we could go back to in the late sixties, early seventies.
AD: Yeah; Marvin with What’s Going On, and all that kind of thing.
DN: Of course. And I notice Bill Withers is a name that pops up in your bio as somebody who apparently was of primary influence. And he, of course, was very much someone who was unafraid to tackle many different subjects.
AD: I Can’t Write Left-Handed”, about Vietnam. And so it’s natural. I demand it of the people I listen to so I want to be that guy for someone else.
DN: And how do you find your audiences react to you doing that kind of material, distinct from just doing, as you said, love songs?
AD: My audience connects. The thing is, that’s part of my development, is to find people who are interested in that and cultivate that. So I guess because that’s what I’m looking for, that’s what I’m seeing.
DN: In other words your audiences are in sync with the fact that you’re not doing just the same-old, same-old.
AD: Exactly. And that’s really a goal on this album, is to make sure that’s clear: it’s like, okay, this is who I am and this is what I’m interested in. If you’re interested in this, come over here; if you’re not, that’s cool. But just know that I’m not going to just talk about that.
DN: Well, that's great, and I admire and appreciate that, because I know how easy it is to just get caught up in doing what you know people expect or what they want, and not necessarily material that provokes thought, because that is what these kind of songs do. I mean, just these two examples that we’ve talked about so far, “Backstreet” and “What God Said”, are obviously thought-provoking.
AD: Yeah, and the thing is, “Backstreet” is very much open to interpretation—that’s why it’s hard for me to explain it. Whereas “God Said” is open to interpretation as well, but I had more of a pointed idea with that one to get across. But what I’m really appreciative of is that those are the songs that people are noticing about this album. That’s one of the goals, to be able to have another dimension added on and really pronounced in what I do.
DN: Well, I noticed also that you’ve done a remake of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which is clearly not a love song.
AD: Clearly not.
DN: What prompted you to choose that?
AD: Well, it became a tradition from my last album - that I think I’ll stick with all the time - to do one eighties tune in every album: just pick one, because that’s the era I grew up in and I love that kind of stuff. And obviously it reminds me of fun because of childhood and that type of thing, but also it just so happens that that also fits the topics that I’m dealing with in this album. It also fits the dynamic, absolutely, that I am pursuing. One of the things that song accomplished was being a great pop tune and actually being a little [thought-provoking], you know what I mean?
DN: Yeah, absolutely.
AD: It’s sort of contradictory to the sort of rule that we think that we should abide by, like “Oh, no, you have to make it simple”—you know, the lowest common denominator—whereas this song, if you really listen to it, is a little bit heavy. In fact it’s sort of political but it’s so much fun no one minded it at all. So I hope to accomplish things like that, doing the same as Bill Withers did: it’s like you remember his songs more than you remember him sometimes. And they just make you feel good. So that’s the school of songwriting that I want to be in.
DN: All right. Well, let me ask you: you are now three albums into your career—well, three studio albums. Now am I missing a live album?
AD: Actually, now we just released on iTunes in the States a thing called The Set Up, whereas it turns out there is a bit of an unplugged album. And it’s only on iTunes now. So if you count that one that’s four, but I guess in the proper sense this is my third. Iit’s actually an unplugged version of quite a few new songs that we have here and two old songs.
DN: Okay. Well, let me ask you: so you’re three—well, let’s say four albums in—three and a half albums in….how do you feel about how your career is progressing?
AD: Actually, really good. I’d like to make some more money, but overall it’s always been progress, which you just mentioned as the key. Every year is better than the last one, every week is better than the last week. And then on top of itthe thing I set out to do in the beginning was to be consistent and to run the long race, so I’m starting to see that manifest itself. So yeah, I’m into it. I’m really happy with the way that it is. I had a sort of blurry vision of what I wanted when I made my first record, and I am starting to see that come alive. And then some of the accolades that I’ve gotten I would have never dreamed, so I’m into it.
DN: Well, one question I have for you which is really, I guess, important to me to hear your comments on, which is this: there are many, many—now with the Internet and with technology—there are many, many independent soul music artists. There are literally thousands. I mean, if we’re talking about independent music artists outside of soul, I mean just in general, there are literally hundreds of thousands throughout the world, you could say, who have now been given access to the public by virtue of the Internet, by virtue of Reverbnation, iTunes, CDBaby—all the different opportunities that exist. And you’ve managed to certainly establish yourself with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and probably beyond that. This is kind of a hard question to ask you, because you’re the person involved—but what is it that’s enabled you to, for want of a better word, rise to the top and rise out of those thousands and thousands of other soul music artists?
AD: Persistence. That’s one thing I always say is, if it was easy everybody would do it. I never assumed that it would be easy. I do hear people sometimes assume that because they’re really talented that all types of things should happen to them. And they should, but the main thing is just being prepared for whatever opportunities came so far. And that’s really my motto, is to be ready.
DN: So that’s your business model?
AD: Yeah, to be ready and to keep the store open for whenever people want to come in.
DN: That’s great, that’s great. And I assume that you’ve encountered people who, as you said, are very talented but don’t do that?
AD: Yes, absolutely, there’s a sense of entitlement that comes with having a certain, particular talent. And that can be dangerous for a person.
DN: No, I gotcha. I gotcha. There was a question that came out of what you just said and it just came and went, so I’ve got to think of what it was. Well, I guess it has to do with the fact that you have made this much progress in what we call the independent soul music movement. But do you ever contemplate or wonder if life might be different, or might have been different, if you’d signed with a major record label?
AD: Well, here’s the trick: I did sign with them. I did a thing with Universal. That kind of speculation is what it is—like I don’t really do that. This is another thing I should have added on to the last answer, was also the talents of others, which has been really good. Like the team that I’m with now, obviously here in the UK being with Dome Records, has been able to lay it out the way I want. I can speculate on those type of things a little bit because I’m around people that do that. So it would different in some ways in a positive way, and negative in other ways. I know the problems with the car I’m driving. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
DN: So you’re happy with the choices you’ve made to continue to be independent and to work the way you work?
AD: Yeah, and I’ve made some mistakes within what I’m doing, even within this, that could have made a bigger difference to this way or that way as well. So I don’t think it’s necessarily just, “Oh, if I’d signed to a major I’d be this.” That’s just one of many sets of circumstances. But overall, yeah: I got what I got and I’m into it.
DN: All right, well that is… I love endings, I love endings that are natural, and what you just gave us was a natural ending. I’m looking forward to the release of your album. I just really want to thank you for taking time today for what has definitely been a thought-provoking conversation.
AD: Thank you, I appreciate it as well. I would say there is a difference sometimes in the media that I’m coming into, as far as over here and over there. Like I can get more conversations like this, here, when I talk to people such as yourself than over there. It’s usually more about other things, you know what I mean? So I appreciate that. This is the kind of conversation I like to have.
DN: Well, I think we pride ourselves—certainly I can speak for some of my colleagues in the world of soul music and R&B—we pride ourselves on taking it a little more seriously in some ways. We appreciate this as an art form, rather than just something that’s just going to be around for five minutes.
AD: Exactly, so I appreciate that.
DN: All right, Anthony. Take care. Bye-bye.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.