Interview - Joel Culpepper
Straight off the bat, I want to say that his interview was a long time coming. If you follow me on the various social media platforms you will know that I have been trying to get this interview since June. Don't get it twisted. The only reason it took this long was because I wanted to time it right. You'll understand as the interview rolls out.
So let me give the backstory. At the start of the year. I was browsing around, looking for some new music to get into. I found some albums here and there but what really captivated me was an Eight track EP by the name of "Tortoise". I'm not a professional reviewer by any means and I the closest I get to reviewing is when I do my end of year lists. But let me tell you that there aren't many projects that have dropped in the past few years, that have as much soul as this project. If we're staying contemporary, it is on the level of Leon Bridges "Coming Home". Both have a classic vibe and the respective voices are amazing.
After hearing the EP, I wanted more. Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to see this artist live. Shout out to Oliver's Jazz Bar in Greenwich, the atmosphere was intimate and so chilled. If you're ever in the Greenwich area, take a night there, peep a live session. You won't regret it. The live session was great and after a few months of sitting on it, the time has come to finally have this interview.
My interview is with Mr Joel Culpepper. In my opinion, one of the best upcoming voices in British music. One of the most unique voices you will ever hear. Some have compared him to Frank Ocean, but if you read the caption on my IG post above, I compare him more to Al Green from a vocal standpoint. The heights this man can reach make me want to shake my head in disbelief. I've hyped him up enough, let's get to know him. From his upbringing, to nearly getting signed by a major American label at 16,(!!!) to his inspirations. Here is my interview with Joel Culpepper.
C: We start, as we always do. The beginning. Where were you born? How was life as a kid and what were you like?
J: I'm a south east London boy. Originally Peckham until I hit 11 and my mum was like "nah we're moving..." I don't think she wanted me to get in with the wrong crowd and I was already a known face on the estate. Not in a bad way but maybe with her being a probation officer, she saw a pattern about to emerge. I'd like to think I was a good kid in a mad city. I cried when we left... Moved to sunny Catford. New school, new friends, new everything.
C: Peckham! Very early for a tangent but was this around the same time when the TV show "Desmond's" was on?
J: Yep! Actually got my haircut in Desmond's. Obviously not the TV set but it was based on a real barbershop. I went there once, they butchered me.
C: Ahaaaaa! That's amazing. That's a Top 5 show for me, I had to ask.
Alright, back to you. So mother was a probation officer, was it just you and your mother growing up?
J: No. Me & my elder sister. My mum raised us. My mum separated with my ol' man but he had a pub in Peckham at the time so I would go and visit him. Very popular man, always had his friends wrapped round him.
C: I see. So, how were you exposed to music back then? Was it you listening to whatever your sister or mother listened to or did you have a more independent ear?
J: I remember quite vividly my sister bringing home two LP's. Boyz II Men and Mary J Blige. Eventually, H-Town was in there, Heavy D (who my mum fancied) and it just sort of grew from there. Mum played Luther [Vandross] a lot in the house... A lot bro!!! But also a lot of Whitney, Gloria Estefan. Wow, a lot of memories there.
C: Heavy D huh? I see you Mama Culpepper!
So that's a very eclectic mix. A lot of soul, R&B, little bit of Hip-Hop in there. Putting a pin in what music shaped you for the time being. When did singing come in? Because I've assumed is that you started out very recently, sometime within the past 5 years. Am I wrong there?
J: I've been singing a while, it just took me awhile to find my voice I think. Everyone I knew and their gran sang, so I didn't even wanna admit it caught me the way it did.
I was really known for art at that time, dance even, but not singing. I started singing in church. I thought I was a tenor but I wasn't which frustrated the life out of me. I had no idea the range I could get to, I was too busy trying to sound like Boyz II men! Thank God I kept pushing through really.
C: You're telling me that it took you a while to realise you had major range?! Pull the other one!
For those that don't know singing terminology, could you explain tenor right quick and the ranges you can hit? Because I and you know that your voice is next level.
J: Ha, that's kind of you bro, but it's very true. I didn't know my own voice or at least I didn't understand it.
Tenor being a lower tone sang in a three part harmony. The other parts being alto (mid range) and soprano which is really high. But I wasn't a tenor, I was a baritone really. I had a lot of bass in the voice and needed to work out how to use it. Neo-soul really aided that. Artists like D'angelo, Musiq Soulchild, Dwele, really helped me but when I found Prince it completely changed my musical life. And I grew in an MJ household! I'm proud because I discovered him personally.
C: I have a feeling that we'll be naming a lot of influences throughout this interview! Okay, I'll believe you for now.
You mentioned you needed to work out how to utilise your bass. How long did it take you to nail your voice down?
J: Bro, I'm still nailing down! It's a process. I think I'll always be trying to improve. I started making headway when I got my own band and started gigging. It's the best training ground.
C: Fair point. Nothing is perfect. So before we get into that, I just want to colour in the gaps. A lot of exposure at a young age, everybody around you singing. Between that and starting to take up singing as a true profession. What were you doing in life?
J: Working! Had a few jobs even working for The Lion King in the puppets department. However mainly working in schools, kids with behavioural needs.
C: I'm glad you mentioned working in schools. You probably know where I'm going to go with that but we'll get to it in a bit.
Let's lift the pin of going pro. Just quickly, when was this and what was your situation at the time where you said to yourself "Let's go for it"?
J: It's weird, I've never had that moment. I don't think so anyway. It's just always been how can we move this forward further. Going pro, to me, was me at 16. Going to New York trying to get signed. How serious you are about it is the definition of pro so I guess I've been pro a while.
C: Well damn! Okay, how did the chase for the American Dream go?
J: Not bad as it goes. It taught me a lot, showed me how bad I wanted it.
We had a few meetings with Sony over there, Arista at the time wrote to me. I think I still have the letter somewhere. They said they loved the demo but wasn't taking anyone new on at the moment. I just couldn't believe the same Arista that put out Whitney, the LaFace machine with Usher and TLC, Clive Davis and all that wrote to... ME! Maybe that was my moment in feeling pro. It wasn't a knock back at all. Their acknowledgment and response made me know I was meant to do it.
C: Wow, that's some high praise, and at such a young age!
So with that, knowing that you can really do this, we can move a little closer to now, what would you consider your next milestone?
J: I've done the EP thing and I'm ready to put out a body of work. A concept album. I've been working hard at it & hopefully I get it right. Just trying to stay away from the pressure of making it great and make it honest, something I like.
C: Ah yes! We'll get to the album but I'd like to talk "Tortoise" if you don't mind. Actually, I had a question in mind but this one is better. Why "Tortoise"?
J: Because I saw a tortoise ornament at a mates house when I was round for tea. Beautiful looking thing but not in a loud or obvious way. And then I realised I've eaten dinner here a thousand times but never noticed this tortoise. It's always been here. I sort of liked the idea in finding an identity with it. It hides in plain sight and always consistent. In the story of the Tortoise and The Hare it was underestimated because it was never counted in the race. The perceived weakness was almost used as a strength for the Tortoise because the Hare never saw him coming which makes the Tortoise more dangerous than anyone, what a threat.
My EP took 4 years to make but I think it's subtle release continues to creep on people, maybe something that wasn't expected I'm not sure. Well I hope it does anyway. Artists that really move me are not necessarily fast but they do impact. I want impact.
C: Very nice! Always love a backstory. I especially love that last bit about taking time. I'm completely fine waiting years for my favourite artists to drop their next project. As a writer I believe the longer you marinate on something, the better it becomes. But there are exceptions.
Which brings me to a couple of your songs! Let's start with "Woman", because from some other talks I've seen you in, the song didn't take long to make did it?
J: Very true mate! Yes, "Woman" was very quick. Organic. It wasn't a labour at all, pure expression. I loved recording it. It felt very liberating and Swindle is a master to work with. He oozes funk and grit in his music.
C: I felt that. It's very simplistic but still smooth. Real highlight of the EP. But even though I've got four tracks on my regular rotation. I just want to know about my personal favourite is "Mr & Mrs Brown". I remember when I saw you perform at Oliver's Jazz Bar and you mentioned that it's based on a true story, and with the knowledge of you working in schools, could you tell me the story behind the "Mr & Mrs Brown"?
J: "Mr and Mrs Brown"... Where do I start?!
It's a mad one as it's very close to the heart. "Mr and Mrs Brown" is about a young lad I looked after in school. Essentially, it's my role to keep kids with behaviour problems in school. If working with me doesn't work then the school don't have much choice but to kick them out of school put bluntly.
I was running late this day in particular and I just wasn't there when he had a melt down. He caused some serious trouble and the school couldn't condone it. He had to be out. I went through the wars with this kid. He kicked me, punched me, spat, you name it, he did it. But when I was told he could no longer be apart of the school. I couldn't stop the lump coming to my throat. It cut me. I just felt I'd failed him. I let him down because I wasn't there and maybe if I had been then he'd still be at that school. I was surprised by my own reaction to be honest because as I say we went through the wars. The thing I think that bothered me most was that he was another black kid in the system. From a young age, already experiencing failure and meeting rejection which then sets off a very familiar pattern. In the midst of this going on I had a session with Rich De Rosa and Morgan Nicolls. We just started talking about it and the song came out. I felt bad for his parents for not being able to keep him in school I wrote an apology letter to his mum and dad... Mr and Mrs Brown.
C: That's a really touching backstory. That says a lot about how an artists life experiences can be the best inspiration. A perfect example. And what is great about that song lyrically is that it's so vivid. Especially with the backstory, I'm sure when I listen to it again the mental picture will be clearer than ever.
Alright, so from working in schools to supporting Beverley Knight. Quite a come up, but obviously this is only the beginning for you. Which brings us to the album you're currently working on. You've mentioned it briefly before. Is there anything can you say on it or you gonna keep everything hush-hush?
J: The album is definitely being worked on currently. I wanted to get in with some of the same producers from the EP as it felt like a natural progression to me to lead into a full length LP. There will no doubt be a few surprises on there as I like to keep switching it up.
C: Looking forward to hearing it!Alright, penultimate question. Your style, vocally, sonically, can be compared to many people. I wonder, who do you look up to? Who has helped shape you as a singer? Directly and/or indirectly.
J: Have you got an hour?! Many, many artists ranging from soul to alternative rock.
The Beach Boys, Prince, The Bee Gees, D'Angelo, Nina Simone, The Eagles, Donny Hathaway, recently Kwabs. The tone is incredible! I love melody in a vocal. They've all taught me about melancholy, joy, sensitivity, expression, the list goes on.
I used to think a great artist was dependant on the vocal ability, the acrobat and what they can do with their voice. Now I understand the ability to connect requires more. Al Green is a great example. When he sings, I believe him. He connects. That's the kind of voice that goes beyond genre and time.
C: I completely understand that. And Al Green really is a great example. One of my favourite voices ever.
Okay, hopefully this one won't take you an hour but then again some of mine change like the weather. Final question. What's your Top 5? The subject of your Top 5 is completely up to you. It can be as basic or as detailed as you like.
J: It depends on the day to be honest. Sometimes I'll hear an Elbow track and think this is the best thing I've ever heard! Then it can jump to something probably a bit closer to home like Prince. It's that random. So today my top 5 is:
That will change tomorrow!
C: Hey. I feel you. Like I said, some of my lists constantly fluctuate. But you gave me five, and it's a great Top 5.
Mr Culpepper. Long time coming, finally glad we got to do this. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing what you have next.
J: Thank you Charlie, it's been a pleasure, bro.
Once again, I appreciate Mr Culpepper for participating. It is always great getting to know somebody and I hope you, the reader, enjoyed this one as much as I did hosting it. I'll be on the lookout for the album for sure, I hope you will do the same. Get on the bandwagon while you can! I have left Joel's aforementioned EP " Tortoise" below, get educated. Until the next time. Thanks for reading.