SoulCulture interviews Anthony Hamilton
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes

We rubbed our eyes with disbelief when Anthony Hamilton’s name appeared at the top of the ‘Best Reggae’ nominations list for this year’s Music Of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards. The peculiar nature of this placement is briefly alluded to on the Awards website, which acknowledges “Anthony Hamilton may be the sole – indeed, soulful – exception” but explains no further, innocuously describing his sound as “pure unadulterated emotion-filled vocals mixed with a no-holds-barred approach to truth-telling”. The 35-year old Aquarian singer from Charlotte, North Carolina possesses a distinctly soulful voice which accomplishes an exceptional balance of gravelly and velvet-like qualities. Anthony embraces country music, funk, rock, and even opera (because, he states, “I understand any music, I understand how to interpret it my way”), and his UK single ‘Everybody’ has a potent reggae lilt. The song is, however, his only claim to the genre. Hence, the Best Reggae nomination is “a little weird”, to quote the man himself…

D’Angelo is a common denominator of sorts in Anthony’s career. Back when D’Angelo was working on his Brown Sugar album, Anthony was working on XTC. Pitted as rivalling soul acts, Brown Sugar blew up and XTC never got released. A few years later, D’Angelo wondered where Anthony had gotten to and soon he was invited to sing backing vocals on D’s Voodoo album tour. Their continued friendship has Anthony hoping D’Angelo will feature on his next album, saying of D’Angelo’s much-anticipated third album “He’s got a lot of songs already, it’s just a matter of him putting it out.” The relevance? This trail leads to London-born Jamaican James Poyser, who has produced for D’Angelo, along with half of your soul collection (probably). Poyser came up with idea of the song ‘Everybody’ for Anthony, and he jumped at it: “I was recording ‘Change Your World’ at the time, and I stopped recording it and said ‘I’m gonna come back to that one, I have to do this song right now’. Me being a big fan of Bob Marley, Luciano, Prince Malaki, The Roots, and Beres Hammond… I’ve always had a love for reggae – it’s like soul music with something different.”

America didn’t take to ‘Everybody’ in the same way that we have in the UK, which is why it is the UK single. Joyful to be championed by UK DJs, Anthony accredits this to our discerning taste in music; “Americans, sometimes, can be a lil stupid,” he jokes, “y’all love real music here”. As discerning as we might seem, what does Anthony think of his Best Reggae MOBO nomination? “It is kinda weird. It’s a great song… I feel really honoured and in no way or form do I want to disrespect the people who’ve been doing it for so long, like Luciano and Beenie Man and so many greats who been doing reggae music for a long time, and I respect it,” he responds graciously. Anthony attributes his musical versatility to a broad ability to interpret any style of music and translate it to soul. He would consider recording another reggae song, “I’m not just gonna try to do it, that way it comes across as phony. If it makes sense – if it comes around and it’s real, then I’ll definitely do it again. It’s like being in a different vehicle with the same message. I wouldn’t dare attempt to sing it Patois.”

Anthony certainly knows his music. It is probable for American soul singers to cite Omar and Lewis Taylor as their favourite UK artists, but Anthony goes on to name Beverly Knight, Jamiroquai and, entirely unexpectedly, home-grown late 1990s R&B group Damage. “Cor‚e and all those guys, they’re really good cats. My girlfriend back in the day was writing for them.” With more surprises in store, Anthony names Jodeci’s Forever My Lady as his favourite album, along with an appreciation for Elvis Presley “because he was doing something, he made me dream even bigger”, enjoying country acts Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks, and confesses to having a “big, huge crush” on Natalie Cole. It seems fitting that he praises the eclectic rock-soul star Van Hunt, whom he has recently toured with, whilst I was wondering whether he ever feels limited in the influences he can allow to shine through in his music. “They wanna keep you so-called ‘black’. I’ma always be black, just let me do my music and let it come out”, he explains of the marketing limits of record labels.

“Listeners expect it to sound a certain way because the record companies promote it a certain way. The audience want what is considered hot, but they’re being brainwashed everyday about what’s in”, he says of the expectations. Has it, then, been tough to maintain his unique brand of soul in a market that encourages lust-inducing, suave soul stars? Earlier, in the 13 years that he has been a recording artist, the label tried to “tweak” him. “They gave me real fancy haircuts and shades, trying to make me look like a soul guy instead of letting the music speak for itself. I got caught up in the hype early, because it was about image back then.” Furthermore, Anthony’s appearance on a track called ‘Twisted’ on Carlos Santana’s album was not as smooth-running as intended: after having recorded the song, Anthony reveals, “they wanted to put Joss Stone on it, and they tried a whole other lot of people on it… but it never panned out so they had to stick with me. They were saying I wasn’t MTV enough. Ain’t that somethin’?” His resultant advice is: “If you give up, you give up everything. Hold on, stay focused, and don’t let the industry create you a new person. Stand firm on who you are as an individual and what you believe in as a musician.”

Remaining on the theme of individuality, Anthony divulges that he has been writing a movie, aims to start up a label “for real artists”, release a line of jewellery, and plans to open a restaurant called Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens. With wholesome music in mind, Anthony plans to strip down his sound for a different effect on his next album: “The next album’s gonna be ‘the one’. It’s gonna be better than Coming From Where I’m From, Soulife, Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, and XTC all put together. There’s not gonna be so much music around it – it’s gonna be voice, going back to the real, raw essence of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke when he barely had music in the background, Donnie Hathaway’s ‘A Song For You’ with just piano and voice and lyrics. Subtle instruments like upright bass, violin, cello, harp, and some harmonica. It’s gonna be so raw and so real.”

That “real, raw essence” is one thing Anthony Hamilton does have in common with reggae.

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