Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

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Feature

HESTON: Soul Speak

Heston @B&S
Heston @B&S Heston @B&S Heston @B&S Heston @B&S

Currently hailed as the hottest new artist on Atlantaâs vibrant underground soul scene, singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Heston Francis this month releases his critically-acclaimed debut album âStorytellerâ.

Born in Dominica but based in Georgiaâs aforementioned soul capital since 2001, Heston initially released a self-titled, self-financed EP in 2005 and has taken over three years to write and record his debut, 15-song LP. Which (released in the UK and Europe through Sussex-based UK independent Dome Records) features input from fellow Dome artists, soulstress Angela Johnson and bassist/producer Khari Simmons. Meanwhile, with the mellow vibe of his Seventies-soul-flavoured music already invoking comparisons with Marvin Gaye, Leon Ware and Maxwell, Heston will actually be showcasing his timeless, Caribbean-influenced songs live in the UK for the fist time at Londonâs Jazz Café this coming April as support to seasoned Californian songstress Chante Moore.

Indeed, boasting live instrumentation throughout and predominantly penned/produced by Heston himself, âStorytellerâ has been universally hailed by connoisseurs as one of the best indie-label contemporary soul albums of the last 12 months. And - with moods ranging from its bustling, funky opener âMy Baby and the âWhatâs Going Onâ-influenced shuffler âDistant Loverâ; to the joyous reggae chug of âFeel Like Dancingâ and heartfelt anti-war protest of âGood Morning Americaâ - provides excellent subject-matter for Hestonâs introductory âB&Sâ interview with Pete Lewis.

How would you break down your album musically?

âMusically I just wanted to get back to what the Marvinâs and the Smokeyâs and the Stevieâs did. Which was to bring musicians into a room and capture the essence of a song, instead of finding contrived, producer-driven tracks to write to - which is something Iâm not a fan of at all. You know, I do need the live instrumentation. Because to me sometimes the errors in live music make it what it SHOULD be! The timing mistakes you can make, or being able to intro or outro a song... Thatâs all stuff that you canât really capture as much when youâre programming music. And, in order for me to breathe lyrically and musically, I just couldnât do it any other way!â

Whatâs your general approach to songwriting?

âI write music from scratch. For the most part it starts with me and my guitar, and itâs pretty much about whatever it is that Iâm feeling at that moment. Like the song âGood Morning Americaâ came about when I was watching the news really early one morning and having a problem with the idea of a 19-year-old going to war and not making it back home for his twentieth or twenty-first birthday. So I just let it flow! Whatever comes COMES, and I donât try to hide anything or force anything. You know, Iâm not an on-demand songwriter where I can just pull something out in 10 minutes. If two verses of the song come and the bridge doesnât, then I just let the song go until the inspiration naturally comes back to me. I donât go out of my way to make something happen.â

Has your early Caribbean background influenced your music?

âIf you pay close attention to the way I sound, you canât really avoid the West Indian tone - even if I HAVE lost a lot of my accent! And I think the same can be said for the RHYTHMIC influences. You know, all I ever heard from birth to 10 years old was calypso and reggae. And so I think subconsciously that just comes out, and is what makes my music a little DIFFERENT. Like for me horn and percussions are HUGE! So, even the out-and-out soul stuff I do - like âNo Way, No Howâ or âYour Perfumeâ - still has those undertones that lend themselves to Latin or Caribbean rhythms.â

So how and when did you become a professional musician?

âTo be honest with you, growing up I never really had a strong musical background. My mom sang in church; I sang a little bit in church... But, though at High School I did do plays and win awards for singing and acting, it wasnât until I moved here to Atlanta in 2001 that I actually first got on the mic with a live band. At the time I was actually working for a carpet-cleaning company, whoâd moved me to Atlanta from Florida to help with sales and opening up a new office. And because - when I first came - I was bored, I ended up hanging out at night. You know, thereâs a big poetry and live music scene here. And the guy that I was hanging out with - his name is MD - basically forced me to get onstage. And thatâs actually when I first realised this was something I actually liked doing more than Iâd been prepared to admit! So I decided to just start taking it seriously, look more into it, and pursue it professionally.â

In your opinion, whatâs so special about Atlantaâs thriving underground soul scene?

âI really canât put a finger on whatâs so special about it. But what I CAN say is, Iâve never seen a place with so much talent! Plus everybodyâs completely individual in their style of music and their APPROACH to music. Like Donnieâs music is extremely well-written and well put-together, but at the same time he has a very different style from someone like Anthony David. You know, the scene is very vibrant; thereâs a lotta live performing venues like Sugar Hill and Apache Cafe, which was formerly The Ying Yang. So I do genuinely feel pretty honoured to be in the company of such good and talented artists - male AND female - that really do understand the essence of timeless music.â

So why has it taken you until now to release your debut LP?

âWhile I really wanted to put something out back in 2001 just to see what people would think, at the same time I am a perfectionist. So I wanted to make sure I had everything done right first! I wanted to make sure I packaged it, l mixed it, and I got it mastered to where I could present it as something that can stand next to someone in the store who is signed to Sony. Because I understand that presentation is the key. And that, if you are wanting to compete in that market and get any kind of attention, you do have to present your music as professionally as a MAJOR label artist would do. You know, to me the fact youâre not on a major is no excuse!â

And whatâs the story behind you putting out your music independently through your own label Worldsoul?

âWell, one thing Iâve always said is that I always want to be proud of the music Iâm putting out. Making timeless music is the most important thing to me, and Iâm not gonna sell myself out to some major-label A&R guy to end up making music that Iâm ashamed of! And so I ended up HAVING to put my music out on my own! I didnât have a choice, because - except for maybe my mom and a close friend who thought I could sing and write well - no-one else believed in me enough to finance it! But, though no-one else at the time thought it was worth the investment, after putting it out myself I did end up getting a surprising amount of attention. And, while so far the Worldsoul label has just been an outlet for own music, eventually I do wanna write more for other artists and produce other peopleâs records. So, if I do find something I feel is worth investing in, Iâd love to eventually expand the label so I can release other artistsâ material through it too,â

Heston performs at Jazz Cafe, London on April 17 and 18

The album 'Storyteller' is out now through Dome
Words PETE LEWIS

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