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Curtis Harding turns struggle into Soul Power

Burger Records debut puts a shine on real world optimism and strife

Speaking from Fullerton, Calif., home to his label Burger Records, Curtis Harding is eager to talk about his debut full-length, Soul Power, but he's not that quick to bare his entire soul. The Michigan-born, Atlanta-based musician grew up the son of a gospel-singing mother, traveling around and absorbing uplifting church harmonies and Memphis blues classics, among other fundamentals. During his years in Atlanta he's backed up Cee-Lo Green and OutKast, and wrote and performed as a member of swamp-baked psych-rockers Night Sun. His musical contemporaries in the city include the Southern-fried garage rock, punk, and metal of Black Lips, the Coathangers, and Mastodon.

His influences span such wide genres that when it came time to release solo material it was just easier for him to instill it with his own term: "slop 'n' soul" or "sloppin' soul," depending on the interpretation. "I take parts of guitar playing most people don't fuck with, I put 'em together and I run with 'em," Harding says.

So when hit with a standard line of questions about inspirations, Harding bristles a little and replies, "I don't like to throw out historical names because I don't want people to claim I'm trying to bite anyone's style. But if you want to know a producer I appreciate, here's one: Willie Hutch is a badass producer, songwriter, guitar player."

Eventually, more names that help put Soul Power in historical context do come to light, including Ronnie Dyson, Solomon Burke, Lee Moses, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Willie Neal Johnson & the Gospel Keynotes, plus the Consolers. Willie Hutch remains the most telling, however.

A songwriter, performer, and prime hip-hop sample source, Hutch composed a few classics for both Motown and the funk-soul blaxploitation era. What Hutch and Harding share in common is the ability to channel an earthy, introspective, while still optimistic vibe. Overcoming struggle is at the heart of soul music, and Soul Power and the ability to write about it can come only from living, not from a syllabus annotated with albums to download. "A lot of my songs are reflecting, looking at things in retrospect, wishful thinking about things that happened or how I think things should be ... but I'd rather not tell you what the songs are about because I don't want to steal your interpretation," Harding says. "I could be writing about something completely fucked up, but the melody is amazing, completely beautiful and takes you to a higher place, so I don't want to take away your inspiration and fuck your day up.

"I've always identified with struggle because black people have struggled in America across the board," Harding says. "And it's not just a black thing, but I'm a black man so I have to be speaking from that perspective. Hopefully the music I'm writing speaks to the struggle of people all around that are working their way through day-to-day life, regardless of color or where they come from ... and I want to do that with music that can also be fun, danceable."

Harding repeatedly refers to Soul Power as "audible," taken to mean clearly arranged and widely appealing. "I produced my record, and by the time we got in the studio I knew exactly how I wanted a bass line played or a guitar tone to sound," he says. "I made the record for myself, my family, and because I had some decent songs that I thought people would dig if they love music."

Tracked to tape over two weeks at the decisively vintage Living Room Recording with house engineers Justin McNeight and Edward Rawls, Soul Power includes 12 warm, spacious recordings that exude expressive grooves. Opening track "Next Time" exemplifies how Harding glues together crisp, melodic Stratocaster, round, walking bass, and smoky vocals, while tracks such as "Castaway" and "Heaven's on the Other Side" add just the right flash of organ or horns, as well as reverb and other embellishments. At the core of Soul Power are fluid guitar dynamics, coming from an instrument that Harding says he composes with because "there's always something new to learn from it."

Soul Power exhibits both his playing's roots and stylistic branches. The single "Keep on Shining," a collaboration with writer Randy Michael, is undeniably indebted to the Spinners' "I'll Be Around," but that doesn't make it any less crackling and punchy. "I Don't Wanna Go Home" has a bouncy cadence and amped-up jangle that would fit comfortably on a '90s-tinged mixtape between the Lemonheads covering Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" and Neutral Milk Hotel circa In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Overall, Soul Power effortlessly ranges from choppy yet chic '70s-style rhythmic inversions to greasier rave-ups and aqueous crooning.

His album finally out, Harding is eager for collaborations with his Atlanta crew and simultaneously to explore new pockets because the whole premise behind Soul Power is one of constant renewal. "I chose different roads to get to this record, but all roads lead to the same place when you know where you want to go," Harding says. "That journey is what creates soul."