Every lyric that Charles Bradley sings is engulfed by emotion. Characterized by his raw, rasping howl and lyrical directness, Bradley’s songs capture a life plagued by homelessness, loss and a changing America; allowing insight even to those of us whose lives could not be more different. Following years of performing as ‘Black Velvet’, a James Brown impersonation act, Bradley’s discovery by soul label Daptone Records saw him release his first album, No Time For Dreaming, in 2011 at the age of 62. The release of his following album Victim of Love earlier this year has seen Bradley emerge as one of America’s foremost soul singers in the twenty-first century. He’s in Brooklyn, New York when he speaks to us.
Will next March be your first visit to Australia?
No, I think this will be my second or third time.
What was the last time like?
The last time was very beautiful. I was by the waterfront with those ice-cream cones with the shapes on top.
I liked the part with the ice-cream cones, we were running around taking photos, and I loved the people, and I was there in summer so it was beautiful. I enjoyed it.
Entering the music scene relatively late, is songwriting something that you’ve always done?
I’ve always been into music ever since I was sixteen years old.
Did you ever write music while you were a James Brown impersonator?
Yeah, but you know what? Everybody called me a James Brown impersonator and I want to make the record straight: I am not a James Brown impersonator. I actually did a show last night and they said ‘You are Charles Bradley, and you are Charles Bradley’.
I know 58 songs of James Brown’s, but I got my own lyrics and when I get on the stage I let my spirit free, and I do things so well when my spirit is free. When people just want to classify me as trying to be like James Brown, they don’t know the truth. Back in the 60s, even the dance that James Brown was doing – that dance is called ‘the slide’ – and everybody was doing that dance. James Brown just took that dance and made it into his own and added a few little steps to it. And that was his dance. I was doing that dance back in the day. Back in the 60s a lot of guys had long hair and that was the style before I put that stuff in my hair. But I didn’t even know who James Brown was until 1962, and I was always being the person I am. Always as a child I loved to dance, and my grandmother couldn’t leave me at home, so we went to the recreation center and I used to watch all these grown people dance, so I’ve always been a dancer. But you know, when I get on stage I know the kind of music I like, and I like a band that knows what they’re doing, and who get on stage knowing that they are funky, they know how to do things. When I feel the music, and when I know the music is real down to Earth then I can open my spirit and I can let my body and my mind go with the tune of the music, and then react on it. If I hear music just laid down no good as if they’ve got no feeling to it, I can’t dance. You gotta put something into my spirit to make me want to dance, and make me want to give you a show, and that’s the way I feel about it. So I am not an imitator – I may be a duplicator but I am not an imitator.
People really like to see me do James Brown, and people like me to do Charles Bradley. But Charles Bradley doing James Brown is Charles Bradley. I just do it in my own way of thinking.
How do you go about writing songs?
Now what I do is I use my smartphone, because normally Tom [Brenneck] helps me do it and I’ve learned a new method of how to use my smartphone and my dictionary. So when I get to a verse I cannot get, I can call up the dictionary and it will tell me what’s the word and how to spell the word. So I’m learning how to do this. You come to a part of your life when you gotta show the world that you can do it by yourself. All I need is friends to help me when I ask for help.
If a person’s gonna help me, help me the way I feel – then I know you’re helping me. If you try to control me and manipulate me to do it the way you want me to do it, then I’m doing it the way you want it done, and I’m not really getting all the deepness that I want to bring up. If I say one lyric that way and you want to say it the other way, no – let me do it my way. That’s how it’s gonna be, I’ve got to do it my way. It’s my turn to have my way of thinking.
Have you encountered many people in the music industry who try to interfere with or manipulate what you’re doing?
Oh yes, all the time. All the time.
How do you deal with that?
Well, Otis Redding said “I can’t do what ten peoples tell me to do”. So I guess I say the same, that’s how I deal with it.
Whenever they try to tell me to do something, and I look at it and I know it’s not right for me, I listen to them, I say ‘Okay. Cool. Right.’. And a lot of things I go through too are lost. Everybody’s trying to out-talk me, and when I started talking they started talking – and so I though ‘Oh shoot – we can sing together but we can’t talk together. So ya’ll guys want to be fast talkers with me and everything you say is right’. I got my theory and I walked away.
Do you find it easier to write about any particular topic?
Everyday I go into my thinking index inside of me; I just watch the world. When things hurt me like right now, the next song that I feel I’m gonna write is about my mom, because she’s thinking that she’s gonna soon leave me and we’ve got to talk. She tells me a lot of things that I should have known for a long time in my childhood coming up. But she tell me a lot of things, and I’m gonna write about it. When I hear something that I like, eventually it sticks to my mind. And so then I do something with it.
Is it easy to put those feelings into songs?
Sometimes it hurts, that’s why it’s good to have a recorder. Because if I sing a song and I have to write music, I let it out raw, and then eventually I go back on it when I can deal with it and listen to it. And I think ‘Okay, that was beautiful – I gotta get this in writing’. These are things that I’m learning now that I should have been doing a long time ago. I let everybody get a part of it and take a percentage from me, and it’s time to get my percentage back.
Which musicians do you feel inspired by?
James Brown is my number one. I love Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Barry White, Otis Redding. They’re people whose songs you know they’re singing – you know who the artist is. If I hear an Aretha song come up, I know that’s her voice. If I hear Barry White come on, I know that’s him. If I hear Diana Ross, I know that’s her. See, now days the music sounds so much alike. Everything’s got that equality to it.
What have you got planned for 2014?
To be a better person, and I hope to God that I get the chance to create my own music and to bring my own hand and my own band to be able to do the style of music that I want to come out with.
Charles Bradley will play at Golden Plains 2014, and in Melbourne on March 7th 2014 as a part of the Twilight Series at the Melbourne Zoo. Buy tickets here.
Other tour dates are as follows:
March 2nd – The Basement Sydney, NSW
March 4th – The HiFi Brisbane, QLD
March 6th – The Corner Hotel Melbourne, Vic