South-East London soul man Joel Culpepper’s star is rising. His music is a heady mix of contemporary soul, flourishes of funk and an almost undefinable off-the-cuff energy that echoes grime and punk without any of the sonic cues associated with those genres.
Until recently, Joel had been balancing his music career with a full-time job as a learning mentor, supporting vulnerable children. He tells Clash, “It’s like putting out fires. It was like that every day. You get into it with the assumption that you're there to help the kids, but I think there's an exchange in that you learn a lot about yourself as well. But the music side … man I was I getting off planes from doing shows, and going straight into work. It just got to the point where I wasn’t doing either thing very well.”
Joel’s early musical upbringing was particularly soulful. “My mum’s music was definitely a force. And my uncle put me on to some proper soul boys, Donny Hathaway, The Temptations, artists of a certain time and generation. That’s when I was discovering I had a bit of falsetto.”
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While at college he fell for the smooth melodies of yacht rock, which added even greater texture to his work. “Bands like the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald, they soundtracked some of the films I loved growing up. The nostalgia of that genre led me down a well. It started coming out in my own music.”
Joel’s music is a unique take on long established sounds, with a distinct ‘south of the water’ feel to it. “I always notice a difference when you meet South-East Londoners, it's just a vibe. I think there’s an attitude of ‘come on then, let’s have it!’ And I’m drawn to that mentality, it’s like a light switch, especially before a gig. It’s like ‘give me the mic.’ I recognise that in me.”
‘Woman’, the standout cut from Joel’s 2017 EP ‘Tortoise’ perfectly captures both that indomitable presence and Joel’s incredible falsetto. There’s a rawness here too, as he weighs up frustration (“Just got paid / But the man needs to give me a raise”) against the restorative power of love. His charismatic Colors Studios performance of the track has amassed over 12 million views on YouTube.
Like a lot of great art, the Swindle-produced track was completely unplanned, capturing a moment in time. “We didn't write anything down. It was the most organic song that I’ve written in that it didn't require me to pen anything. It was like a freestyle. I hit certain notes, and Swindle’s quite animated in the studio. He’s stopped the music, like ‘that’s it! Do that again!’ I didn't really know I had that in my locker. But I’ve kept rolling with it.”
His relationship with genre-hopping Swindle appears to have unlocked his true potential and the pair have worked extensively on Joel’s forthcoming debut album ‘Sgt. Culpepper’. “Our friendship is pretty special. And he's a really supportive character in my life. He believes in me, one hundred percent. And I think he senses where I can be hesitant. In the studio, I'm quite pensive. I can be quite reserved. He’s an encouraging person in the studio and brings out the best of me in those situations.”
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On the album, they’ve tapped into the processes favoured by the masters of soul to create a cohesive body of work. “We went to watch Hitsville: The Making Of Motown in the cinema. There’s a blueprint that you follow in order to create those kinds of albums. We went to a remote studio, we stayed there for a week, we brought in musicians who played across the whole thing. Swindle was adamant that we spoke to each producer and made sure they understood the picture we were painting too. There was definitely a Quincy Jones element to the way we attacked this.”
Thematically, there’s a real urgency to the glimpses of ‘Sgt. Culpepper’ we’ve been given so far. ‘Return’ finds Joel meditating on thoughts of payback over a driving bass (“Hear them voices a calling / Trying hard to ignore them / But I wanna give in / Get up / And get lawless”) while the upbeat vibe of ‘W.A’R’ can’t mask his disdain at the treatment of marginalised groups. Justice and forgiveness is explored on the funk-licked ‘Poetic Justice’. It’s prescient music, reflective of testing times.
For Joel, articulating injustice and pain is a key element of being a soul artist. “I wrote ‘W.A.R’ the day after I performed at Glastonbury. These were feelings sitting beneath the surface that came out during conversations I’d had with Swindle. I think it’s important for artists that lean towards soul to address these things, because soul isn’t just about the sonics. It’s the message, it's the strife and struggle. They come hand in hand. My music is truthful, and if it invokes discomfort in people then that shows conversations need to be had.”
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Joel Culpepper's new album 'Sgt Culpepper' is out this summer.
Words: Robert Kazandjian
Photography: Lauren Luxenburg
Clothing: Liam Hodges
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