20 People to Watch - Curtis Harding: The independent musician

The soulful singer, songwriter, and guitarist looks to a bright future on his own terms

A few years back, while negotiating offers from a handful of major labels for one of his previous bands, Curtis Harding realized he wanted no part of signing away his life or his music. "The things these labels were saying in our meetings, and what they were offering was ridiculous," Harding says. "We wouldn't have any control over the group, and we'd have to adhere to all of these things that they wanted us to do, as opposed to just working together, like how any happy, healthy relationship is supposed to work. So I said, 'Fuck it!' I walked away from a major deal."

Harding had already landed some high-profile gigs on his own: The Michigan-born guitarist, singer, and songwriter sang backup on a few remixes for Southern hip-hop stalwarts OutKast, and on the album Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections. He also wrote the song "Grand Canyon" that appears on the Best Buy version of Cee-Lo's 2010 album, The Lady Killer.

But it took standing by his ideals and pairing up with a compatible label to kick-start his career. In January, Harding will drop the debut album from the group Night Sun, a four-piece he founded with Black Lips singer/guitarist Cole Alexander. A solo album will follow in March. Both albums are being released via Fullerton, Calif.'s, indie/punk/ garage rock label Burger Records, and both albums' releases will be followed by a string of dates sharing the stage with Black Lips, including a SXSW performance in March.

After briefly moving to Toronto to reboot his musical energies in 2008, Harding returned to Atlanta in 2009. One night, while sitting at the bar at 97 Estoria, his interest was piqued when the DJ dropped the needle on a handful of old gospel records. The DJ was Alexander. The two struck up a conversation about their shared love of gospel music, and within days founded Night Sun.

"I grew up traveling from state to state, " Harding says of his childhood spent on the road with his mother, gospel singer Dorothy Harding. "It exposed me to a lot of different people playing a lot of different kinds of music. When we settled down here in Atlanta it seemed natural for me to seek out other types of music than just hip-hop."

Night Sun started out playing a few shows around East Atlanta and Little Five Points. Harding and Alexander tried out different players every show, each time packing the venues to capacity with their humid mix of Southern garage rock and R&B riffs and melodies. Soon, the lineup solidified with Harding (vocals/guitar) and Alexander (vocals/bass), along with Black Lips' Joe Bradley (drums) and Danny Lee Blackwell (guitar) of the Seattle group Night Beats. The players swap instruments throughout performances and all share songwriting duties.

For Harding, the group provided a solid foundation, built around the kind of relationship the major labels weren't offering. When Alexander and Blackwell played a handful of Night Sun's haunting rock 'n' roll dirges for Burger, the label immediately signed the group. Night Sun's debut 7-inch featuring the songs "No Pressure" b/w "On My Way" is due out Jan. 28.

Harding's first solo 7-inch, "Keep on Shining" b/w "Cast Away," arrives Feb. 18, followed by a full-length album on March 11. A "Keep on Shining" video is in the works.

"Burger has a tendency to deal with you as a partner as opposed to being a mother label telling you what you're going to do with your music and your art, and how you're going to do it," Harding says. "I presented the songs to them and they were into it immediately."

Harding has also found time to co-write a song with Black Lips singer/bass player Jared Swilley, titled "I Don't Want to Go Home," which will appear on Black Lips' forthcoming album, Underneath the Rainbow, out March 18 via VICE Records. He's also started writing and recording songs for a collaborative project with Brent Hinds of Mastodon.

Harding's carved out a place for himself in Atlanta's underground rock scene on his own terms and set the stage for what could be the brightest year of his career yet.