ACL Music Fest Friday Interviews
The cosmic soulman revives the Motown sound
Raphael Saadiq5:30pm, Xbox 360 stage
These are conscious decisions Raphael Saadiq makes: thin black tie, tight vinyl jacket, 1960s-style eyewear. The man knows the value of an image. At 43, the Oakland native's worn many hats over his 21-year career – cosmic soulman on Instant Vintage, off-scene beatmaker for Nas' Illmatic and D'Angelo's Voodoo, leading R&B lover of Tony Toni Toné – but none have fit like Motown revivalist. Detroit's other industry shines on every edge of last year's The Way I See It, the crowning achievement of a career that took a long route back to square one.
Austin Chronicle: The Way I See It sounds like 1965. What about Motown and doo-wop makes the styles so timeless?
Raphael Saadiq: It's a style of music that never went away, and though people don't really pay attention to it, it's always there in films and making its way into other styles. You can hear it in hip-hop and ska, R&B. It never left, and that's really what makes it so unique.
AC: What's drawn you so closely to it?
RS: You know, growing up a bass player, James Jamerson really drew me to it. He's always been one of my favorite musicians; he's got this ragtime piano thing going on. That's drawn me in all my life.
AC: Is songwriting for you a labor-intensive process, or does it happen in spurts?
RS: Songs come in spurts, but those guys in Stax and Motown had a lot of clever songs. So at a point you really have to think about it, but the ideas come out in spurts. Once you get into that stretch you just start feeling it. I won't say it's supereasy, because there's been a lot of musicians – a lot of rock bands, a lot of pop bands, a lot of early bands – who would put Motown into their music and people don't really know it. That's the stuff I always heard. Taking people back to that feeling isn't always an easy thing to do.
AC: "Never Give You Up" features Stevie Wonder on harmonica. How'd you get Stevie Wonder on your album and not have him sing?
RS: At the time, I didn't even think about it. I was just happy to have him playing harmonica, and if he had wanted to sing, it would've been cool. But I really needed a harmonica solo, and me and Stevie are pretty cool with each other. We don't get to see each other all of the time. He pretty much stays busy, and I stay busy moving another way, but we talk a lot whenever there's something important, and we look out for each other. I don't call him unless I need to talk to him about something or get advice on something. I called him that night, and he happened to be in town. He came over that night, played the harmonica, and went to work the next morning.