“I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Simply calling Curtis Harding a “soul man” feels reductive. Yes, his music is undoubtedly soulful and his songwriting is both evocative and provocative, but there’s more to his music than the stock imagery the label conjures. Harding’s voice conveys pain, pleasure, longing, tenderness, sadness and strength—a full gamut of emotions. Yet still, “soul man” seems too simple a description for musician like Harding, a man who has lived multiple lives as a musician, participated in different scenes, and brought all those varied sounds and experiences together to carve out his own unique niche. The culmination of his experimentation is his latest masterwork, Face Your Fear.
To understand Curtis Harding, the singer-songwriter, drummer, guitarist and producer, one must first understand his musical origins. For Harding, it all began in his birthplace, Saginaw, Michigan. It was there that his church-going mother, a singer herself, first exposed him to the sound and spirit of gospel music. He sang and played drums in church with his family, and songs like Mahalia Jackson’s stirring rendition of “Elijah Rock” left an indelible mark on him. While his mom’s gospel records praised the sacred, his big sister’s rap tapes showed him the beauty in secular music. He looked up to his big sis, an amateur rapper herself in the vein of MC Lyte, and before long young Curtis Harding was writing his own rhymes. After a nomadic childhood of moving Harding put down roots in his adopted home of Atlanta — the perfect place for an intellectually curious young man to broaden his musical horizons.
Embracing his surroundings and fearless in his exploration, Curtis the rapper and rhyme writer would eventually become Curtis, the songwriter and back-up singer for ATL icon CeeLo Green. “I learned a lot from that dude,” says Harding, recounting the valuable lessons the Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley member taught him about singing and songwriting. “He used to say, ‘You ain’t gotta commit murder [on a track], you can do a simple assault.’” No need to overdo it to get your point across. The singer’s task is not to prove that they can sing but to get the audience to feel. For Curtis, it isn’t enough for him to be a proficient performer, his voice and his words have to serve a purpose.
Curtis Harding’s definition of “soul” is a broad one. Soul is the essence, not the form. He found soul in Atlanta’s punk scene, he found it at rap shows, he heard it on Bob Dylan records and found kinship with people who heard it the same way. Harding once found soul blaring through the speakers in an Atlanta bar where
Black Lips’ Cole Alexander was spinning the same classic gospel his mother raised him on. The two bonded over their shared appreciation for the music and formed the band Night Sun.
Becoming a fixture in studios and on stages helped him develop his own unique formula: Curtis Harding’s specialty is synthesis. “I take everything that I’ve learned from these different genres and put it in a pot and come up with something new.” His well-received 2014 solo debut Soul Power was the first iteration of the formula, his new album Face Your Fear is that formula perfected. Partnering with his chief collaborator Sam Cohen and with mentorship of super producer Danger Mouse has created an album that speaks to range of emotions a man reckoning with the world and love go through. He’s reminded of a lost love on “Ghost Of You,” he seduces on “Welcome To My World,” he seeks forgiveness on “Wednesday Morning Atonement” and pledges devotion on “Need My Baby.”
As Curtis explains, “The record [Face Your Fear], to me, is all over the place because I go through moods, man. I change.” The dark title track was inspired by the feeling of a nightmare; a foreboding feeling, the spell broken by the clarity of awakening. “By the way maybe don’t worry Its OK face your fear” he croons on the chorus. Fear of the unknown, fear of the unfamiliar is a bad dream the brave among us must constantly shake ourselves out of. it’s something he’s had to practice his entire life as he moved from place to place and continues to practice as he moves forward as a musician, “Just putting myself out there and not being close-minded and just being open to different ideas and different sounds and different flavors and putting myself in situations sometimes where I didn’t know if I would make it out but you know [the mantra is], face your fuckin’ fear!