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Curtis Harding: The Shape Of Soul To Come

Is the former gospel-singing nomad the second coming of Superfly? 

by Brad Simm

“What about that burnt orange, crushed velvet suit you’re wearing?”

A smile creeps across Curtis Harding’s face when asked about his outfit on the cover of his new album, If Words Were Flowers. In addition to the stylin’ suit he’s wearing, Harding’s got a lot to be happy with. And even though his new release is now in circulation, Harding is still riding the crest of his 2017 breakout album, Face Your Fear. 

Breakout may be an understatement as to how extraordinary Face Your Fear is as a musical statement that embraces the past while spearheading the future. Not only did the record put Harding on the rising star radar, but his collaboration with Danger Mouse dives into a brave new world that’s not the least bit scary. On the contrary, its fiercely seductive blend of trip-hop, Motown, soul, and dream pop transports listeners into another dimension. And then there’s Harding’s voice echoing the majestic beauty of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield – a divine presence that Harding naturally draws firepower from. 

Throughout his early life in the 1980s and 90s, Harding lived like a nomad, roaming endlessly with his parents who were missionaries of sorts, helping to build and set up churches across the United States, Mexico, and Barbados. His father, a mechanic, and his mom, a modern-day gospel minstrel who Harding sang backups with until his mid-teens. “A gospel minstrel,” chuckles Harding. “That’s a good one! It was interesting but at the time it was normal to me because that’s all I knew. It wasn’t until I grew up and realized, ‘Wow, I had a very different upbringing.” 

As bonafide church planners, Harding’s family would be based at different locations for up to a year. During the stopovers, his mom would perform with college choirs and do street ministry, singing to homeless audiences. “She had a tendency to move us to some of the worst parts of the inner city, and do work there with gang members, drug dealers, whoever,” recalls Harding. “Multiple times it would be people staying at our house, or sometimes we didn’t have a place to stay and would stay in the back of churches, or slept in the van if we got somewhere too early or someone didn’t show and pulled out of an obligation. Yeah, we definitely had some interesting times.”

Harding sings like an angel – the man is blessed with a voice that caresses every corner of your inner universe. He also has a very special talent for reaching into archives of vintage soul and not just capturing its true essence, but reshaping it into a new entity. With Motown, Harding moves through, penetrates, and orbits around that dazzling creative period, but he’s never derivative, never just a contemporary knock off. That’s a special talent. 

Revealing how it all works, Harding simply says, “I think by just being myself. When you try to be something else is when you fail, at least in music. Just be what is already consuming you and that is multiple worlds. And I think that has to do with the way I grew up and spent my time. I was never exposed to just one thing. I was always exposed to different genres, different people, different environments. That’s just who I am. The goal for me is to be as progressive as possible, to add different facets and not repeat myself.”

Harding’s new album, If Words Were Flowers, is certainly a departure from what he’s done before. It takes risks, moving away from the silky smooth pop bass lines of Face Your Fear and delves into regions more experimental, perhaps a touch psychedelic. The guitars are trippy, horns ebb and flow as rich tones from female back-up singers swell and rise up. There’s both a natural ease and urgency to the record that parallels Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. But Harding says there was no real plan in place, other than to just empty his head. “When I make music, I have a lot of material where I’m piecing shit together so it makes sense. And the times were so heavy leading up to writing and recording that unconsciously that’s what came out. I mean, 2020 was a crazy fucking year man. So that sentiment couldn’t help but to creep out, which has to do with the What’s Goin’ On vibe. But that wasn’t my thinking, I was just writing stuff. You know what I’m saying? It just worked out that way. And then once I was able to conceptualize what I had done, it was like, ‘Oh wow, it is a reflection of some of the shit that’s been happening.’” 

But what about that burnt orange, crushed velvet, Gucci designed suit that makes Harding look like the second coming of Superfly on the front cover of his new record? “Gucci, man, they’ve been real good to me, hooking me up with stuff,” says Harding gleaming. “I’m a huge fan of their stuff. I feel like fashion can be like, uhmm… wasteful. It’s pretty wasteful. But I feel their company as a whole, their footprint, they’re leading the way for a lot of brands to do better for the planet while staying true to who they are. They’re also getting involved with the community, bringing up new, up and coming designers, Black designers, Hispanic designers — Anybody who does that, I’m on board.” 

Brimming with delight, he notes, “They have nice shit too, it’s well thought out.”