Anthony David On Making Obama’s Playlist, Embracing ‘Neo Soul’ Labels & Songwriting Philosophy

Fresh off the stage from the previous night’s Atlanta Soul Sessions at Jazz Café, I caught up with Indie Soul artist Anthony David at a 14th floor restaurant on an overcast Friday afternoon in London. We sat down to talk about his career since his last visit to London in 2008.

“It depends on the city, but ultimately it’s more exciting for me to be over here [than perform in the US]. It’s almost unfair for you guys; it’s too easy, you win!” He jokes, his calm and warmly toned voice breaking into a hearty chuckle.

Last time the easygoing singer songwriter was in town, he played on Later With Jools Holland. “They wanted me to perform this particular song that they liked, which I had never performed and didn’t have an acoustic version of,” he recalls.

“I was shook as hell! I was like, ‘I can kill this other one’ but they weren’t having it, so we went away and practised and got it down. I was nervous.”

Recently, the US Mid Term election campaign saw President Obama call into the Rickey Smiley Morning Radio Show. When asked about what he was listening to, the President said Michelle Obama had put him on to a certain Anthony David…

“It’s probably the biggest accolade I could ask for,” Anthony says, looking like the cat that got the milk. The joy is all too apparent and infectious, as I find myself too caught up in the fact that an Independent Soul artist makes the President’s playlist.

“I come from a city full of Black colleges,” he says. “That’s my base, those are the people who support me. Speaking to one of the peaks of Black intellectualism like Obama is what I want. To think that a person with the agenda of running the world the world’s largest superpower can sit down and listen to and relate to my lyrics is awesome! I actually secretly wished it a long time ago when I read his books it would be like, ‘He’s speaking to me, I wish I could speak to him’ – and now I am.”

His own playlist features, “a lot of rap like Slaughterhouse – people that are stupid lyrically – obviously Jay-Z and Rick Ross too,” alongside copious amounts of reggae [“Reggae is really probably my favourite music, I can listen to it all day long, no matter what mood I am in”]. Indie alternative duo The Bird and the Bee also get some rotation along with producer Madlib; “I love the way he puts stuff together, you can tell he knows so much about so many different types of music.”

Acey Duecy was Anthony’s first major label release in 2008 via his good friend and frequent music collaborator India.Arie’s Soulbird imprint. Anthony David is now signed to Purpose Records under his own Rolling Mojo imprint. I ask about his decision to switch labels.

“One; the simple fact of ownership. It’s just a better deal. Two; it was just an imprint for India and points on the record, she wasn’t really an Executive who made decisions. The fact that I had already done so much through her, it only made sense for me to repay her.

“I didn’t ask to open for her on her tour, she would be like, ‘Go play, sell some records,’ so she was already a label in that sense. I had been offered other opportunities, including the current one I am in and it made more sense to go with them.

“Now it’s my own label, so that’s better!” I queried as to whether this had affected his and India’s relationship. Were they still cool? “Absolutely, it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, forget you!’ It’s all good still!”

AD’s music and that of his peers is often described as ‘Neo Soul.’ He accepts the term; “I like it, it’s appropriate. I think people try to run away from it, but to me, all it means is a newer generation of people that like old soul music but are also influenced by hip hop. Yeah, it is a marketing term, but even ‘soul’ was. People forget that and think ‘soul’ just happened. R&B, Rock, Gangsta Rap… they’re all marketing terms. And Gangsta rappers don’t run from their term, whereas a lot of Neo Soul people say, ‘I’m not Neo Soul,’ as if that’s gonna make you cool.

“If your songs suck, they’re gonna suck whether they’re Neo Soul or not. To me, I think Alicia Keys is Neo Soul, she’s just a pop artist who took it to another realm. That’s your base, you can always expand what that is, you don’t have to change the name of it to fool people.

Maxwell is another Neo Soul artists who is huge. There are pop artists who use elements of it all the time, Omarion’s “Entourage” is just like a Musiq Soulchild track. Usher as well, he’s got Neo Soul in his music, he’s just dancing. It’s a very expansive if you allow it to be. We need to defend our term like ‘gangsta rappers’ do!’

After personally witnessing the aforementioned Atlanta Soul Sessions, I could see the musical chemistry and mutual respect between Avery Sunshine and Anthony David. Add this to the fact that he appears as her love interest in her video for her single ‘All In My Head,’ they’re obviously good friends.

“Dana, the guy who produced her record, her manager and partner in crime, and myself are really good friends,” he begins to tell me. “Even before they worked together, I used to see her at jam sessions she was in a group and I’d see them rock out. I was a fan. We’ve just been getting tighter through the music, she’s a sweet girl and obviously a phenomenal singer.”

His collaborations have included work with India Arie on “Words” and with Algebra Blessett on ‘4evermore’, which also featured Phonte of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange fame [“Initially I was writing in his style, and then I was like, why don’t I just ask him?’ And the result is a great verse.”].

His ultimate dream collaboration would be with his favourite artist, Omar. “He has a cult following in the US and I’m one of them. I have one or two on this album that are influenced by what he does. I had a track I wanted him to produce, but I couldn’t get over here. We just paid homage to him instead.”

‘Let Me In’ was the latest Anthony David track to do the rounds, which I put to him has a more Hip Hop feel in its drums and R&B vibe in its arrangement. The departure from his acoustic guitar based style will be one aspect of a diverse range of sounds on his new album, he explains. “Shannon had that beat and the hook and I like circular rhythms. I wanted and needed that. And that’s really what the album is about – finding these rhythms that feel good for one reason or another.”

Intrigued by his upcoming album title, As Above, So Below, I ask what it meant and how it came to fruition. He turns the tables on me and asked me what I thought. “As Above is what you used to do, and So Below is what you now do. You will continue to be as were before. You are the same as you always were and always will be,” I sheepishly attempt. “That’s correct,” Anthony confirms. “It’s very loose and open to interpretation, but that’s pretty much it. It fits a songwriting philosophy: if I write about something personal, I should write about it in a way that anyone can relate to.

Lorraine Hansberry, one of my favourite writers ever, said a long time ago: a good story or writer should be able to speak about something that’s very specific and make it universal.

“That craze is very old and ancient. It’s said to be a key to magic, magic meaning wanting something to happen and making it happen. This is something I wanted to do and I’m doing it. The same with songwriting, you’re pulling stuff out of the air, putting it in sequence and making something like this move people. That phrase and idea of magic became this recurring theme.”

Anthony David’s As Above, So Below LP will be released worldwide in February 2011.

Photography by Neil Raja.