Interview: Charles Bradley

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 04.02.13 in Interviews

[Charles Bradley turned heads and broke hearts with his 2011 triumph No Time for Dreaming. On the advent of his second masterpiece, the scorching, searing, Victim of Love, we invited Bradley and his bandleader and co-writer, Tom Brenneck, to take over eMusic's editorial section. Below, they discuss the whirlwind that was the last two years of their lives. You can also read our interview with legendary songwriter Leon Russell, commissioned at Bradley and Brenneck's request. — Ed.]

Emerging from nowhere to deliver his 2011 debut at the ripe age of 62, Charles Bradley has quickly become one of the most talked about and beloved artists of the decade. With a rich, raspy voice fit to compare with the greats of the golden era in the 1960s and early ’70s, Bradley, almost overnight, has become soul’s leading ambassador in the new millennium.

His live performances routinely unfold as touchy-feely love-ins between artist and audience. Behind this in-the-now euphoria is a life story of deprivation, itinerancy and bitter failure. As illustrated in a new documentary about him called Soul Of America, Bradley, like the subject of a Curtis Mayfield song, has lived most of his life beneath the poverty line, relying on charity from soup kitchens, sleeping rough, with no fixed abode.

After settling in Brooklyn, he plied a meager trade for many years as a James Brown impersonator in the Black Velvet revue. His fortunes only began to reverse when he hooked up with Gabe Roth from New York’s R&B imprint, Daptone, who in turn introduced him to aspiring band leader, producer and songwriter, Thomas Brenneck. From unsteady, no-budget beginnings, the duo worked at realizing Bradley’s higher talent.

Backed by Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band, Bradley released “No Time for Dreaming,” about his own private hardships, to huge global acclaim. He duly wowed the world on tour, and now returns with Victim Of Love — a record of exquisite joy, hope and gratitude, which pushes at the boundaries of conventional R&B like some lost treasure of early-’70s psychedelic soul. When eMusic hooks up with him and Brenneck on their latest ambassadorial London visit, Bradley’s voice is hoarse from so much testifying and giving. But now, at last, is the time for dreaming.

Yours is an incredible story, Charles: all that power to move people has been bottled up inside you all these years. Did you always know it was in there?

Charles Bradley: True artists, that sing from their soul and heart — nobody knows the depths they go under for a length of time trying to hold onto the honesty and decency and respect inside them. A person don’t get that easy. They work their asses off. I’m saying if you wanna be a career singer, you gotta take that hurt with ya.

But it was all this guy [pointing at Brenneck], helping me get heard. I say this to all my interviews — he’s gonna get tired of me thanking him. Then I’ll say, he might as well get used to it, because I can’t tell him enough where I would’ve been at right now — calling people and getting nowhere, doing my James Brown show still, keeping alive the dream, hoping it’s not too late.

Did you ever audition for TV talent contests, hoping to become a Susan Boyle-style “senior” success?

Bradley: I tried to get on all those things. Then I saw Jennifer Hudson [low-ranking finalist on the third season of American Idol, who went onto recording and acting mega-success] — I was angry at her! How did she get the chance? Overnight she just flew up, and I’ve been trying to get there for years? I was having doubts about everything. But my time came, in its own way.

The first album, No Time For Dreaming, documents the pain and hardship of your life, in a gritty funk style. Was it a kind of exorcism for you?

Bradley: I say, what is soul? Soul don’t have no creed or color. It’s what you been through, your hardship deep in your soul. You gotta reach down there where people’s never been half as deep, and pull it out. So the more I’m going deep into myself — that’s what soul’s about. Me and Tommy, we didn’t let go, we kept digging at one another, and that turned into that first record.

Was it a DIY effort, between the two of you?

Thomas Brenneck: 100 percent. I wrote all the songs with Charles, produced it, recorded it in my bedroom at the time — our humble beginnings. Gabe actually bought me a half-inch 8-track machine, which I kept right next to my bed, with a little stereo and a piano, and I chipped away, played stuff for Charles, and he loved it.

The years have been nice and we’ve got a recording studio now. We toured the first record, wrote a bunch of other songs, then went to the studio and recorded them with a much bigger sonic palette to choose from.

Did you know Daptone’s stuff before that, Charles?

Bradley: I knew Tom going on a lotta years.

Brenneck: We had recorded two singles, prior to the first album, with a different group. We first got introduced by Gabe from Daptone. I had an instrumental group called Dirt Rifle & The Funky Bullets, based on The Meters, James Brown, Dyke & The Blazers and such. Charles had knocked on Gabe’s door, saying, Hi, I’m a singer, you make records — are you looking for singers?

So Gabe introduced us, and we recorded two singles for Daptone that Gabe produced, as Charles Bradley & The Poets. The two singles were extremely derivative. It took five years after that, I’d say, of growth for myself, maturing in taste of music, for me to record some Menahan Street Band stuff that was much deeper music, it wasn’t just funky on the surface. It was slower and much deeper.

When Charles heard that music, he got inspired, and I think all his inspiration was really coming from all his trials and tribulations, and from living a life of struggle and poverty, and moving around, and not really having a home, and so that first album is really just Charles singing about the darkness, about the world from his perspective.

So that was Ground Zero?

Brenneck: Yeah, exactly, and now he’s felt warmth from people all around the world, and it’s because of those stories that people can relate to Charles — they’re drawn to him, and they love him, and he’s not just an entertainer up there that’s singing somebody else’s songs.

We write these songs together, they come from a really deep place, and now his inspiration is being drawn from some of these positive things that have happened in his life, and it still lends itself to be beautiful, soulful songs. They don’t just have to be tough, gritty and raw, they can be beautiful and psychedelic and soulful at the same time.

Some of your live shows have become the stuff of legend. One that often gets mentioned was at an outdoor festival in Utopia, Texas, where the heavens opened for a biblical downpour, and you went out and hugged crowd members in the rain…

Bradley: Yeah, that was a show! There’s nothing on earth like being on stage. To me, stage is home. If I see the people standing outside in the rain, getting wet, to watch me perform — I said, “Naaah, that not fair!” I had to jump off the stage and get out in the mud and get wet with ‘em! That’s when everybody went crazy. I said, “You gettin’ wet out there watchin’ me perform — can I come out, too?” Yeeah! It was a tear-dropper. There was warmth, kindness, hurt, love, and, in the midst of it, it was beautiful.

Does it feel massively different to you, doing your own show, with your own music, compared to doing your old James Brown show?

Bradley: I think they’re loving me more because I’m singing my song, and I’m singing from the heart, rather than doing James Brown and trying to manifest on his style.

Victim Of Love feels like a watershed record for Daptone. People were sometimes sniffy about it at first, like it was pointless and copyist. Has it all been a process of winning people over?

Brenneck: Yeah, to modern soulful music. With this album, I was really trying to push outside of the boundaries of the normal Daptone production by adding elements that you wouldn’t hear on Sharon Jones records and such. We’re trying to make soul music in 2013, and embrace all our influences that are outside of just directly James Brown or Otis Redding or any Motown Detroit artist. But once he sings on it, it’s impossible to call it anything but a soul record.

Bradley: Tommy said, “You wanna move on from James Brown?” And he’s doing it by putting in that music that I like. Once my spirit gets into the depths of the music when I hear it, it all happens. I don’t wanna do James Brown no more, because I’m feeling that feeling I’ve been wanting for a long time, and the more you put it on me, and when I get into it when you give it to me, the more I want it. That’s just the bottom line.

Now we’re doing funk and rock. We’re gonna find a new mixture. We’re heading into a mixture that nobody’s doin’, our own creation.

Brenneck: It’s not gonna be fresh by doing a hip-hop song. It’s gonna be by him doing his own song, that embraces all that and lots else beside. Bradley could take a Black Sabbath song and turn it into a soul song.

You might go heavy metal next time? Like with Jimmy Page guitar?

Brenneck: Jimmy Page is cool, but that’s not heavy metal, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s where we’re going. Bradley can do a good Robert Plant impersonation, and he doesn’t even know it!

Bradley: Yeah, and one song we play is Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold.” I lu-u-urve doing that song. It feels good, it fits right in.

How has your life changed since your upturn in fortunes, Charles? Do you have a decent lifestyle now?

Bradley: Not totally. I’m working on it.

Do you have a family, with kids to provide for?

Bradley: I made a vow to myself when I was 14 years old, and I lived that commitment from that date right up to today: No child of mine is comin’ into this world. I’m gonna keep seeking, but right now at my age, 64, it’s too late for me to have kids.

But surely your story proves that it’s never too late for anything?

Bradley: No, man, it’s best to have kids at Tommy’s age. He can grow up with his kids, be young with ‘em, play with ‘em. My playin’ — I wanna do it onstage. I’m gonna be godfather to a lotta kids [gesturing out into imaginary audience, smiling], and I’m gonna teach them to the best of my ability. Same thing with Oprah [Winfrey]: She never had no kids, but she’s like the motherhood of all kids. So I’m gonna be a godfather!

And you’re going to be a movie star, too, with your own documentary…

Brenneck: That’s not gonna make Bradley a movie star, that’s just gonna make him a topic of conversation. It’s more about his life than his music. Where it ends, another documentary could start, because the last few years have been crazy, successful, amazing — but with that success, after 60 years of being down in the dumps, your shit doesn’t change overnight, even if the money starts coming your way. It’s still hard to change what you’re used to, psychologically, even if physically it’s easier to get material things.

There’s a lot of people around Charles trying to help him out, and Charles is trying to steer on the right path, not listen to people around him who’re trying to just leech onto him. It’s hard.

Bradley: One thing my mother taught me, I won’t forget: Go out and make money, but never let money make you. And I won’t. The only thing material things can do for me, is buy things I don’t have, and get me outta that level that I’m live in.

But this new record is about documenting the changes that are underway, and expressing your hope, love and gratitude?

Bradley: This new record is coming out of the darkness into the light, and meeting new peoples. I’ve been meeting lots of positive people, and they’ve been making me more sure of myself. [smiles] It’s a beautiful thing.