Anthony David: Setting a precedent
Atlanta, Georgia-based neo-soul singer/songwriter/guitarist Anthony David this month releases his intriguingly-titled fourth album ‘As Above So Below’. Which in turn finds him teaming up with a new production partner - Nashville, Tennessee’s Shannon Sanders - in addition to such guest vocalists as upcoming Atlanta songstress Algebra; rapper Phonte from Little Brother; plus cousin Shawn Stockman of Nineties R&B supergroup Boyz II Men.
Indeed, with its deceptively diverse musical moods ranging from the gospel/rock-tinged, political ‘What God Said’ and romantically-lilting ‘4 Evermore’ to the charmingly lilting’ Getaround’ and acoustic guitar-strummed, seven-minute-plus cautionary ghetto tale ‘Backstreet’, ‘As Above So Below’ also represents David’s first album release since prestigiously becoming publicly acclaimed by US President Barack Obama and his First Lady wife Michelle as one of their favourite artists.
All of which seems a far cry from when Savannah, Georgia-raised Anthony first moved to Atlanta at 19 to jumpstart his music career. A move which would soon lead to him discovering and befriending then-aspiring/since-Grammy-winning neo-soulstress India.Aire and writing the song ‘Part Of My Life’ for her critically-acclaimed 2001 debut LP ‘Acoustic Soul’, before touring the world as one of her backing singers. Since which time (in addition to co-writing and producing the track ‘There’s Hope’ for India’s 2006 album ‘Testimony Vol. 1: Life & Relationship’) , Anthony has released three albums of his own - 2004’s ‘Three Chords & The Truth’; 2006’s ‘Red Clay Chronicles’; plus 2008’s ‘Acey Duecy’, which contained his Grammy-nominated duet with Arie, ‘Words’.
Indeed, often described as the heir apparent to his early influence (Seventies soul/folk singer-songwriter) Bill Withers, over the past few years the distinctively raspy-voiced David has gradually built up a solid reputation for creating space for intelligent lyrics and a grown man’s voice in today’s often-youth-obsessed marketplace.
Fresh off the stage from the previous night’s ‘Atlanta Soul Session’ at Camden’s Jazz Cafe, a personable and forthcoming Anthony meets up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis at the West End’s fourteenth-floor restaurant/bar The Heights to discuss - in warm Southern tones - his eagerly-anticipated new album; his soulful Georgia upbringing; plus his views on his music becoming publicly acclaimed by the Obamas.
PETE: Let’s start by discussing the title of your new album ‘As Above So Below’ - a phrase I believe emanates from an ancient belief that men’s actions on earth parallel the actions of God in Heaven…
ANTHONY: “I actually discovered the phrase in some of the spiritual-type things I’d been reading and studying over the last couple of years. And, while I can’t remember exactly how I first ran across it, I do remember that it struck me straightaway. So I just kept studying it, kept finding it in different places... And what I found really interesting is that, though it sounds Biblical, it actually originated BEFORE that. Which made it even more fun to me, because - in terms of the meeting of different civilisations, religions and philosophies - it is a phrase that sort of ties them all together, in that it’s agreeable to them ALL! So in that way it’s very inclusive. Plus it’s also something that can still be applied to everyday life - even to FUNNY things! Like as we were working on this album, I’d be like ‘Some of the songs I want to be for the head - more brainy/political/philosophical - and some I want to be just for the HIPS! As above, so below!’... You know, I just found so many ways of playing around with it. So it was a phrase I definitely wanted to reintroduce into today’s culture at large.”
PETE: While very much rooted in acoustic Southern soul and blues, your new album also includes more diverse influences - like gospel, rock, doo wop, pop, hip hop… What primarily did you want to achieve musically?
ANTHONY: “Just that diversity you just mentioned really, while also kinda finding a common thread in BETWEEN all those styles. You know, I never learned the guitar while I was growing up. So when I DID start learning to play as an adult, I learned the BLUES! And so I think maybe the one thing that’s the common link between all my music is that it’s ROOTED in the blues!.. But yeah, in terms of that diversity, when I’m making an album I do tend to think along the lines of ‘Do I have a song that would really be comfortable in this ROOM?’… ‘Do I have a song that would be comfortable in a STADIUM?’... ‘Do I have a song that would be comfortable in an ELEVATOR?’... You know, whatever place I’m in I like to have song on the album that can fit it.”
PETE: Lyrically your music has been described as “intelligent, masculine soul from a grown man’s perspective”...
ANTHONY: “Well, what influences me lyrically is just stuff I read and see. You know, I’m kind of a YouTube nut! So I just sit and watch people that talk about stuff and, if they give me an idea that I want to convey, then I’ll go and DO it! And in terms of the mature aspect, I can’t not reflect my wisdom or my YEARS! You know, I like to hear common sense, and I feel there’s a large population of people out there that would like to hear some common sense in their music TOO! I don’t wanna be the young guy pretending to be 20 when I’m 40! Because for grown-ups to be following children to me makes no SENSE! And all the collaborations this time obviously have the same thread too. In that they’re all what we describe as ‘mature people’! I mean, Shannon - my co-producer - even has an album he’s working on called ‘A Grown Man’s Handbook’! Then we also have Algebra; Phonte from Little Brother; my cousin Shawn Stockman from Boyz 11 Men... You know, these are all people that you don’t have to tell what to DO! You just give it to them, and they DO it!”
PETE: One of the most controversial tracks lyrically has to be ‘What God Said’ - a gospel/rock-tinged political composition that’s been described as “a very clever atheist statement against fanatics who seek to justify even their most indefensible actions by religious reference”…
ANTHONY: “That song was basically born out of the religious tension that exists all over the world right now. Especially the clash between Islam and Christianity that seems to be really heavy in America these days - and I guess over here too. And the first of the situations that are directly mentioned in it relates to the earthquake in Haiti. In that, when that happened, Pat Roberts - who’s like this right-wing guy - started saying it all came about because they’d made a deal with the devil! Which really pissed me off. Because, while I’m not religious, if I could get rid of one thing about religion it would be this arrogant assumption of pretending to know why something bad has happened. You know, ‘It’s God! He’s pissed at them because they‘re wicked! I know, because God speaks to ME!’... Then the second situation deals with another guy who, during the election of 2008, was praying that Obama would die because he claimed that was what GOD wanted!... You know, it’s that controlling, man-made-god thing that leads to people saying stuff like that - which is something that really gets on my nerves.”
PETE: Another standout track is ‘Backstreet’ - a seven-minute, acoustic guitar-accompanied tale of life on the ghetto streets…
ANTHONY: “Yeah, I call that ‘a ghetto epic’! You know, it’s about choices - and I’m glad that people out there are really taking the time to follow the story. Because, while I knew it would work in a small setting, with it being so long I was a little wary as to whether people in general would actually sit and listen to it! I actually wrote the song a long time ago, but I was just waiting for the right album to put it on. The inspiration basically came from the area I lived in at the time. I was watching this one guy outside my window. He was a drug-dealer, and on that day I started to notice that - while his clothes used to be really crisp and starched - because he’d started to do the drugs himself he was falling OFF. So, while it started out as being about like the decline of this guy, it eventually developed into a full-on tale about the heat and the neighbourhood in general. I basically started to weave a lotta other stuff into the song and make it into a story.”
PETE: So can you fill me in on your upbringing in Savannah, Georgia?
ANTHONY: “Well, I was born a military brat. So I actually lived in Germany before I moved to Savannah with my family. And musically, the most I did in school was playing snare drum in a marching band! You know, all through High School I never sang, I just WROTE! Which is where you get a song like ‘Backstreet’ from - ‘cause back then I used to write stories all the TIME! But, though I first lived in Germany, my general lineage is definitely SOUTHERN! You know, my mom is several generations in Georgia, my dad is several generations in Florida... So obviously, from the music selection in the house as I was growing up, my roots are vey definitely in blues and gospel. But then what was interesting about me being an army brat, is that I didn’t actually move to Georgia until I was 10. So I’ve always been sorta outside AND in! You know, though I was an outsider first, I later started to realise that - because of my lineage - I was already INSIDE! Which meant I was always kinda observing and able to recognise the uniqueness of the culture. And I guess in turn that made me more open - as both a person and artist - than most to other THINGS. Because in the Bible Belt we are very traditional. And sometimes the bad part about that is that the people are very CLOSED to things.”
PETE: You’re obviously very much a part of the whole Atlanta neo-soul movement. What do you feel makes the scene there so special?
ANTHONY: “You’ve gotta remember that in Atlanta we have what they call ‘The AUC Centre’. Which is made up of three black colleges - Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, which is very prestigious and well-renowned. Which in turn means you have a whole bunch of young black professionals and young black thinkers in the city. You know, you’ve got people from all over the country - New York ,Chicago, as well as people from smaller cities - who all wanted to come somewhere and maybe do something different from what they did BEFORE. And, when the Atlanta live scene was at its peak, one of those ‘different’ things to do there was to go see a band at this place called The Ying Yang - which was the first place I ever saw live MUSIC being played! You know, EVERYBODY’s been on that stage! I saw Erykah Badu first there; I saw Floetry first there, before they even got their deal; I saw Dionne Farris do her thing… And the people that were supporting that were the people from those COLLEGES! They’d come out, they’d get jobs that made money, and so they could actually SPEND money!... So while I didn’t go to college, I do very much represent that SCENE! And, though it gets overlooked a lot, that black college thing is actually the SOURCE of it all! Which is probably the unique thing about the whole neo-soul movement, and is something that’s actually also comparable to the soul movement in the Sixties - which in its time was backed by the Civil Rights Movement and backed by black thinkers! And which is turn also explains why, with neo-soul AND Sixties soul, you have a party aspect, but then you also have an INTELLECTUAL side.”
PETE: So how do you feel about both Michelle and Barak Obama now publicly embracing you as one of their favourite artists?
ANTHONY: “Well, to me that’s the pinnacle of what I was just TALKING about, in terms of the black progressives and black intellectuals! I mean, this is the guy who was smart enough to become America’s first black President with a name like ‘Obama’! And so, as I’ve always accepted that that audience is my base, in a lotta ways to have one of the peaks of black intellectualism like Obama listening to and relating to my lyrics is like ‘mission accomplished’! Because this is the sort of person who I’m representing, who I’m speaking for, and who I’d like to hear my music and hopefully AGREE with it! You know, while there are a whole other set of listeners BEYOND that, that is still very much my CORE audience!”
PETE: The Obamas’ public seal of approval should surely prove a major career turning-point for you…
ANTHONY: “Well, we’re obviously gonna take advantage of it, right?! You know, that morning when Obama said he’d been listening to my music, obviously quite a bit of attention came our way. And so now I guess it’s up to us to kinda really MAXIMISE it - which I WILL! Because, though I’ve not yet met the Obamas - but I look forward to it - it’s probably the biggest accolade I could ever THINK of! It definitely makes me feel GOOD! So, while it remains to be seen exactly what changes it may make to my career overall, if nothing else I could always be the old guy standing on the corner playing for change for the rest of my life and going ‘You know what? Obama liked me!’… Not of course that I wanna ANTICIPATE that!! But yeah, to me getting the public seal of approval from America’s first black President is about as good as it GETS!”
Anthony performs at Bush Hall, London on February 22 (tickets from Ticket Web or phone 0843 221 0100)
The album ‘As Above So Below’ is released through Dome on February 21
Words PETE LEWIS