The Brothers Isley are really tuned in to life around them and this awareness is the prime source of inspiration in their music. Eavesdrop as David Nathan talks to Marvin, Ernie and Chris, the+3 of the outfit.
IT'S BECOME almost an annual event: the release of a brand new Isley Brothers album. And the pattern is almost predictable: a smash single — usually turning gold within weeks — and an album destined to cause excitement and enthusiasm instantly following.
And, inevitably, that turns gold or platinum within literally days of release.
What is it about the music of this talented family that always brings them home safe — with yet another addition to their wall of gold? Well, it could be any number of things — and it's probably different things to different people. But — to paraphrase one of their own songs — what it comes down to is the universality of what the brothers have to say.
Talking about freedom, bullshit, love, sensuality, sexuality, summer breeze and loneliness. "Fight The Power", "For The Love Of You", "Make Me Say It Again", "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight", "Live It Up". And before that: "It's Your Thing", "Work To Do", "Pop That Thang", "That Lady." And now, the Isley Brothers, a musical institution and legend in their own time, are talking about change. And love, of course.
"It's about life in general, people of today, what they think and do. But it's more about what they think — the mental attitudes of people rather than the situations." So speak Marvin and Ernie Isley and Chris Jasper: the musical as opposed to vocal side of the six-member team. They're the 'three' in 3 + 3 joining Ronald, Kelly and Rudolph. They're speaking about the group's new album, "Harvest For The World."
"We're in a period of transition, of uncertainty. The album is a reflection in part of what people feel about the economic situation, war, that general feeling of apathy — of leaving things where they are rather than moving ahead drastically. People are uncertain today — and we like to reflect in our music what's going on. That way, people relate.
"And it can come to us from our own personal situations or attitudes or from hearing from what people have to say when we talk to them — backstage after concerts for example."
"And with me just finishing college," notes Marvin (the youngest Isley), "I get to touch on so many different subjects. The combination of what the three of us see added to the experience of our older brothers ensures that what we say can get over — because there are a lot of common experiences in there.
"We don't close ourselves away like some entertainers do — we listen to the radio, read the newspapers and generally get into what's happening out there in an attempt to reflect the world as it is. And having the six of us working together on songs, you're gonna get six different answers, viewpoints. Whereas with one person, a song is likely to be more personal — that figures!"
Another key to the unquestionable success of the Isleys lies in the fact that they plan and discuss way ahead of time what they're doing next. Nothing is just thrown out there.
"Like our last album, "The Heat Is On". We wanted that to be as funky as possible musically, and yet for the lyrics to say something unusual. "Fight The Power"? Well, we decided not to be passive, to take a stand. And we met hardly any resistance because that power could be anything — we all have our different conceptions of what it is to each of us. And just letting it out — about the bullshit that does go down — is something that everyone wants to do."
That album — which sold over 2 million units bringing the Isleys' total sales in excess of 35 million units over more than a decade — related to more than one kind of heat — the passion of "Sensuality" and "For The Love Of You" — the latter quickly becoming a classic in its own right.
And the new album deals with the subject too — "Let Me Down Easy" (At Your Best) You Are Love". Once again, a well-planned and successfully executed project.
After spending the largest part of their career out on the road, it's inevitable that the group has slowed down personal appearances somewhat. But they're quick to point out they've been constantly working at weekends, a situation brought about partly by Marvin still being at college.
"But that will change after June and we're expecting to begin a nationwide tour in the summer, to be followed by a possible worldwide tour. The demand has been there and we've had more than a few offers. Now we can deal with it."
Not that the group is by any means idle when they're not on the road. Aside from the obvious creative processes they undertake in preparing new material and recording, the team can proudly claim to literally run their careers — being their own management and running their own record company, T-Neck and their own publishing company, Bovina Music.
Not content with that, the group are very excited about one immediate project "We're building our own studio from the ground up. It's going to be at Mount Kisco in Westchester county in New York state — about forty minutes from our home in Jersey. And it will give us so much more opportunity to stretch out, be more experimental.
"We'll have the opportunity to explore a lot of different styles that we haven't even begun to show our audiences yet. Plus we'll have our own offices moved from Manhattan — so that everything will be there on the spot."
The three younger Isleys feel very positive about their situation "because through hard work, the group has attained a certain financial security which allows us to continue at the same pace without undue pressure. And that creative process — singing and playing — will never stop. We have the advantages of having experience and youth all combined in one group."
And they have no doubt about their future aims. "We want to enlarge our audiences even further still. With the "3+3" album, our audience seemed to almost triple — we'd been building to that with albums like "Givin' It Back". Because, in that particular instance, we chose songs that people already knew and did them our way, picking up a whole new following as a result.
"Now, we want to expand even further but we stress that we don't want to put anything out there that's not important. It must mean something and relate."
The group's attitude to their music is obviously a reflection of their success. "We take it seriously, it's more than just a gig. Our material is composed rather than just improvised, although we obviously leave room within the structure of what is written. And that, too, has kept people's interest.
"Harvest For The World" should prove another golden harvest for the team and no doubt all their future harvests will be just as rich. They certainly deserve to be.
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.