Over the last 10-15 years or so, soul music has seen an incredible resurgence in popularity with a number of bands across both the country and globe turning to the old school sound. Much like how punk rock was a reactionary movement against the excesses of rock music in the 1970s, this contemporary soul revival is similar, as it’s a reactionary movement against prepackaged, soulless commercialized music made and conceptualized purely as product to be bought and sold.
Of course, just like in the past when you immediately thought of soul music, certain specific cities came to mind – New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and a few others. And yet, because of it’s reputation as the legendary home of country music, Nashville, TN most likely won’t come to people’s mind as the home of part of this burgeoning soul revivalist movement; however, the folks at the Nashville-based G.E.D. Soul Records, the label home of acts like DeRobert and the Half-Truths and AJ and the Jiggawatts are part of a group of folks actively changing Nashville’s long-held reputation as a country music town, towards a reputation as being purely a music town.
Interestingly enough, G.E.D. Soul Records and DeRobert and the Half-Truths can trace their origins back to Murfreesboro, TN where G.E.D Soul Records founders Dave Singleton and Nick DeVan were students at Middle Tennessee State and where vocalist DeRobert Adams was a member of the local soul act, the Sky Hi Funk Band. Impressed by Adams’ vocals, Singleton and DeVan asked Adams to join in on a studio project that they dubbed DeRobert and the Half-Truths. And originally, the trio went into the studio recurring material before the rest of the band was actually a thing. By the release of their excellent Soul in a Digital World, the band was a fully fleshed out band, and they were starting to gain national attention from the likes of We Funk Radio, the folks behind the Dig Deeper parities, and across the blogosphere, including this site. (Of course, I have to thank a dear friend Jenn Sussman who first introduced me to DeRobert and the Half-Truths. After all, some of the best music discoveries are serendipitous.)
Released in January, I’m Tryin’ is the much-anticipated and long-awaited followup to the band’s previous release, Soul in a Digital World. Taking over three years to complete, i’m Tryin’ has the band sounding the loosest and most limber to date. And yet, thematically, the lyrics deal with things that are deeply universal and familiar to many of us – the struggle to survive with your dignity intact; the frustration and fickleness of love when you’re down and out; the simple joys of hearing your jam on the radio and how it can make a shitty day seem much better; the pleasure of attaining success on your own terms; and more. Indeed, much like the soul music of old, the lyrics come from the personal struggles of the songwriters and band members involved, infusing the material with a gritty realism that is rare for most modern pop music.
I recently spoke with DeRobert Adams, the specular and silky smooth vocalist and co-lyricist of DeRobert and the Half-Turths; Dave Singleton, guitarist and co-founder of G.E.D Soul Records; Nick DeVan, bandleader co-lyricist of DeRobert and the Half-Truths, and co-founder of G.E.D Soul Records about the band’s early history, the Nashville soul music scene, the new album, the personal experiences that influence the album, and much more. And they give some rather pertinent advice for artists trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a rather honest, thoughtful interview from some rather thoughtful guys, who are a part of this country’s quietly-kept secrets. Check it out below.
WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that it was the thing for you?
DeRobert Adams: I’ve been singing all my life. I guess around 5 or so I started off trying to sing like any voice I heard. Trying to mimic singers I heard, I realized I could sing. Many folks in my family sing as well, we sang when were together.
Dave Singleton: I come from a musical family and played drums in school bands. I taught myself how to “fake it” on guitar and keys and bass, but it’s all pretty much playing by ear and I can’t read music. But I’ve always enjoyed playing drums and bass and got into recording when I was 13 with a metal band my friends and I started. My musical tastes have changed a bunch over the years so I’m not really trying to perfect blast beats anymore.
Nick DeVan: I got into music through piano lessons in grade school and school band later on. My dad is a music enthusiast with a very open taste, except for pop, so I got to hear a huge variety of music coming up. When I started playing in bands in Junior High, it was on from there. It’s always been the most obvious path for me.
WRH: Who are your influences?
DA: All sorts of music has influenced me, if they have a good singer it definitely moves me. But the music part has to paint a picture in my head in order for me to be interested, to feel it. My influences though are Stevie [Wonder], Kim Burrell, Kirk Franklin. Recently Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe have been huge to me, my mom was real into salsa music.
DS: My musical tastes are so far flung that its really hard for me to pinpoint influences. I like artists that are multi instrumentalists, that is something I can relate to. So lets say Stevie, Shuggie [Otis], and Madlib?
NDV: I grew up heavy into punk, I started getting into more rhythm-based music after I started smoking weed. The tempos came down from punk, and I had some great teachers who helped me get into simple groove oriented styles. Listening to rap growing up is what really introduced me to the soul styles that I produce today.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
DA: The main thing I’ve been doing is listening to independent artists, I’ve been skipping the major radio artists. It’s not that they are bad; it’s just that they play the same damn songs on the radio. We have a good station here called Lightning 100 that plays independent artists, I rock that daily.
DS: I’m trying to get my head right for another Magic In Threes record so I’m listening to a lot of instrumental library tunes. I’ve been feeling The Beauty In All by Oddisee lately, that record has a cool vibe I enjoy very much.
NDV: Recently I’ve been non-stop listening to any productions with Roots Radics as the backing band. Junior Keeting, Freddie McKay, Wayne Smith just to name a couple. There are so many albums that they played. So simple and bumpin’, never over thought or produced. I’ve also been listening to Wally Clark’s Sportin’ Waves album, he’s a local MC and owner of Gummy Soul. That album is so bumpin and entertaining. We are going to work on his next album, the Grips are going to record his backing tracks.
WRH: How did you and your band mates meet? And when did you realize that musically things clicked into place?
DA: We all met in Murfreesboro through the band Sky Hi, that band has been around for over 10 years. Pretty much everyone in G.E.D. soul went through that band at one time. Nick DeVan and Dave Singleton had a couple tracks they wanted me to record on, that project became DeRobert & the Half-Truths. We recorded first; then created the band later.
I met Nick DeVan in 2001 and kind of started an improv funk jam trio thing called G.E.D. Funk that was pretty much just three dudes goofing around in a storage space. We actually recorded a lot of those jams, a lot of them just keep on going and going into oblivion, but some of them in my opinion have some really fantastic energy and nice melodic moments. I know Nick still has a shoebox full of G.E.D. Funk Cassettes. From an instrumental stand point, that is when I knew that Nick and I had very like-minded sensibilities when it came to music and we are able to compliment each other’s playing pretty easily. It wasn’t until right before the label got started in 2007 that we started seriously working on music together and trying to write structured songs. We knew DeRobert from Sky Hi (which Nick and I both played drums for at different times). Once the three of us recorded the first G.E.D. Soul 7" (The Grips – “Tennessee Strut” b/w “Fancy Roll”) I think we knew then that we needed to continue making music together and that’s where we are today. Since then, Nick DeVan has really stepped up as a bandleader and really pushes the direction of the band. He and Dee work very closely together.
NDV: Dave Singleton and I met at Middle Tennessee State University. We’re both drummers and have always loved the same music. Dave also plays other instruments; many of the G.E.D. recordings are based around Dave on bass, guitar and keys, and myself on drums and engineering. We started putting out recordings before we really formed any true bands that could play out live. We’d make a recording, make up a band name and release it. Magic in Threes are still recorded that way.
WRH: You guys are probably one of G.E.D. Soul Records biggest acts as you’ve managed to gain quite a bit of attention both locally and nationally. How did you guys wind up getting involved with the folks at G.E.D.?
DS: Nick DeVan and I actually founded the record label back in 2007 and I guess the real reason we did so was to put out records of us recording music that we really liked. I think at the time, we weren’t too keen on the idea of chasing a record deal and figured we could probably do just as well on our own. Plus the idea of being your own boss is nice. Over time we added more groups to the list. All of the bands on G.E.D. Soul are interconnected in some way.
NDV: DeRobert & the Half-Truths was a recording project that Dave and I created and then invited Dee out to sing on. That was the “Fallin’ In Debt” 45 we put out. We named it DeRobert & the Half-Truths and took it from there.
WRH: The new album, I’m Trying has the band sounding the loosest from the album’s start to its end that I’ve heard to date. Was this intentional?
DA: As far as looseness, we recorded some of these tracks 3 or 4 years ago so there was probably some slack in the playing. But it’s also part of our production, we don’t do a lot of studio correction, we leave it as is when we record. So it wasn’t really intentional, but it is how we usually record.
DS: It is a little different than previous records. On this one we actually approached recording a little differently in that we relied mostly on overdubs whereas on Soul In A Digital World, that album was mostly tracked live with a band that was well rehearsed together. It might get that looseness because there are several people playing different roles throughout the album. For instance, if you listen to “Please Shine on Me” some of those tracks are recorded with the original line up of the Half-Truths right after SIADW. Other tracks have the new guitar guy, Andrew, who has a pretty mean rhythm guitar. Some of the more sloppy tracks are probably me playing guitar.
WRH: After a show you guys played at Littlefield in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, I had a lengthy conversation with one of the members of the band – I think it was with Andrew but was a few years ago – and I was told that Nashville has quite a soul music scene. Sadly, for most of the country that’s a little known fact that’s starting to become more regularly known. Have you had the experience of having to explain to people that you’re a soul act from Nashville – and that you’re not a country act?
DA: There aren’t a whole lot of Soul acts coming out of Nashville, but there is a lot of non-country music coming out. We are pretty isolated from the country music scene, that’s major label oriented stuff. I really don’t know many country music singers or musicians, but everyone I know here is involved in music somehow. So there’s a lot more going on here than just country. When we hit the road, people love that we are from Nashville. Folks like the idea of Soul coming out of a country music city. But it called Music City, there’s more music here that you’d believe.
DS: I think people are a little shocked at first when we tell them we’re from the Country Music capitol of the world. But what’s really crazy is the amount of musicians in general that populate the city. Back when I worked at a video store, a lady asked me if I had recording studio, I said, “Yes! How did you know?” to which she replied “Honey, it’s Nashville, everybody has a studio.” Which is sort of true. There are more studios and independent labels in Nashville than you can shake a stick at. I would say the non-country segment of the music community in Nashville is robust.
WRH: What’s the soul music scene like in Nashville?
DS: The king of that scene, or the man who I think fostered it’s growth the most is Doyle “D-Funk” Davis who is the co owner of Grimey’s New and Preloved Music and former host of a weekly deep funk radio show on the now defunct Vanderbilt college station. The radio show definitely informed Nashville to the glories of soul music in the 21st century. I’m pretty sure he helped get the Daptone bands down to Nashville early on too, which was pretty awesome. He also helped the Dynamites (which are another great soul revue band from Nashville) get started. We mention him all the time and of course are big fans, plus he’s an all around nice fella. Aside from the G.E.D. Soul acts, you’ve got disco kids like Deep Fried Five, more than a handful of jam bands with a soul lean like Captain Midnight, Kansas Bible Club, and a host of bands that employ our horn players. So, as far as the soul music scene in Nashville is concerned, it’s growing and doing its own thing with it’s own flavor.
WRH: Lyrically, the material manages to be personal and yet it deals with things that are fairly universal – struggling to get by with one’s dignity intact, heartbreak, trying to find the right person for you. I think of songs “I’m Tryin’” based on a church spiritual about surviving tribulations sung in church; “Going Places” which tells off a fickle ex-lover who thought the narrator was just a dreamer who wasn’t going anywhere, that the narrator has achieved quite a bit – without their ex; “Mama Told Me” which suggests that mama is usually right; “Ooo wee” describes a fairly universal experience of having your favorite song or a great experience change your day; “Do It Alone” says “hey if I can’t find someone worth my time, I’ll do it alone.” How much of the songs are based off of personal experience?
DA: All the songs are based on personal experience. When Nick and I write songs we try pick themes that are true to us or that everyone can relate to. Those are always our best songs, and they are the easiest to write. Pick a theme and expand on it with real life stories.
DS: I think the last song I wrote lyrics for was “Stay On Point” and the DeRobert Christmas EP song “Christmas Kisses”. Neither of which were from personal experience. Nick writes a lot of the lyrics for DeRobert & The Half-Truths and I know some of the songs do in fact have basis in real life. But another thing to take into account is these guys really do work bullshit jobs on the side to make ends meet. That is not an act or marketing gimmick. So the whole “struggling to get by” aspect is as real as it gets. Dee has been homeless before, slept in his car, which infuriates his friends cause any one of them would give him a place to stay if he needed it. He is a proud, genuine and kind-hearted man. It is a bit absurd that one of the finest voices, regardless of genre, in Nashville is a delivery driver.
WRH: Like many musicians, a great deal of the members of DeRobert and the Half-Truths are involved in several other projects – Sky Hi Funk Band, AJ and the Jiggawatts, and others. How do you maneuver the songwriting process with each project? How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you have fully fleshed out songs ready when you go to the studio? And how do you avoid plagiarizing yourself with many of these projects going on simultaneously?
DA: There is a lot of cross over in bands at G.E.D. Soul; everyone is involved in each other’s bands. A.J. Eason and Andrew Muller write most the Jiggawatts songs and Nick DeVan, Dave Singleton and I write most the DeRobert tracks. Both bands are going for different sounds, so there’s not much problem keeping the bands sounding different. Sky Hi has a different crew now, so that ends up different as well. If one of us writes a song, it’s usually pretty clear what band the song should go to.
DS: Great question. It works differently with different bands. Nick is very prolific in his writing for the Half-Truths. He will come up with the bones of a song and since he’s writing the lyrics too a lot of the time, he kind of has it worked in how long each section will go on before the change. Once that’s in place, we’ll usually riff over the different parts and flesh the song out with guitars, or horn parts, add percussion, then he and DeRobert will cut vocals and add harmonies and that’s that. For me, if I’m writing for something like Magic In Threes, I’ll usually record all the ideas hastily and probably not very well and take the rough demo to Nick. We’ll then smooth it out and add overdubs or whatever trippy elements we want. I am not a perfectionist when it comes to recording. If it feels good and there is a genuine energy to it, I don’t care if there is a minor mistake here or there. As far as plagiarism is concerned, it happens sometimes, but always on purpose. For instance, if you listen to “I Don’t Get Mad No Mo” off the new record, you might notice that the bass and guitar are taken from the intro track from Magic In Threes. I think it’s cool, it’s like we are repurposing elements of different songs we’ve written to create something even cooler.
WRH: You guys have been around a little bit longer than most of my readers would be aware of. And in the time you’ve been writing, recording, and performing together you’ve built up a following that initially started in your native Nashville and has slowly developed into a national following. What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?
DA: Never give up. We’ve been doing this for years and we still haven’t made it to where we want, so just keep on going no matter what. After each project, you take a step forward. People need to hear about you many times before they consider you an artist that deserves consistent attention.
DS: Play a lot of shows and keep your business affairs in order and set reasonable goals. I guess. I don’t know, music is such a fickle and sometimes disheartening business. Really, the best thing you can do is put yourself out there as much as you can, don’t be afraid to try something different. For years we would play shows in Nashville and no one would be there, then we’d go to Brooklyn or Chicago and play in front of a huge crowd who are really feeling what you are doing. It was kind of backwards for us. We didn’t really have the hometown crowd at the beginning. That didn’t happen until we had travelled quite a bit. It’s weird and I think it can be really frustrating when you believe so fully in what you are doing and it just takes forever to get anywhere. For us I think a crucial aspect is to be able to keep doing what you are doing without getting burned out.