By Karl Puschmann (photo by Conor Clarke)
The packaging of the Opensouls’ second album is as sparse and cool as the music is rich and warm. Ditching the funky, jazzy, hip hop flavours that previously defined their sound in favour of a lavish Motown-inspired (open) soul direction gives plenty of scope to question their reasoning. For Karl Puschmann however, the first question was a more simple ‘why?’ The one question every Opensouls fan in the country would want answered, he reckoned, had to be why Opensouls quote Sting on their new album ‘Standing in the Rain’?
Confusion reigns in Dirty Records’ immensely spacious and grungely hip warehouse style office. Sitting across from me and deliberating between themselves over my opening question are Jeremy Toy andTyra Hammond, the core nucleus and driving force behind the nine-piece ensemble Opensouls.
Toy, guitarist, main songwriter, album producer and – I suppose you could say – band leader, leans into questions throughout the interview. He answers seriously, almost flatly, but balances this with a tendency to punctuate his thoughts with a loose gag and a guffawing laugh.
Hammond is the group’s inspirational vocalist, co-lyricist with Toy, and, especially with this album, is heavily involved in the songwriting process. She matches her keen ear for creating memorable melodies with a soulful, sassy and powerful voice that can switch from seductress to party starter to heart breaker, all without missing a beat. In contrast to that controlled and enunciated singing voice, in conversation her words often spill out into each other. Refusing to pause for breath she’s filled with a zest well evident in what she’s saying – within minutes of meeting her you’ve known her all your life.
The pair finish their murmuring consultation when Toy looks up quizzically and asks, “What was that one?”
‘If you love someone set them free’ I say, reciting a repeated line from their track Prayer, which also happens to be the offending Sting lyric and its accompanying song title.
“Didn’t we subconsciously get that from a TV ad?” speculates Hammond cheerfully, accompanied by the clickity-clack percussion of the chunky, brightly coloured bangles that dangle around her left hand wrist.
“Or an Anika Moa song?” offers Toy. “Nah. I didn’t even know that Sting one exists.”
The pair are utterly convincing in their protestations of Sting innocence, so I move onto the other big question that’s surely been on the mind of all old school Opensouls’ fans around the country, what was wrong with their jazzy, hip hop and what’s with the newly adopted Motown/northern soul sound? Hammond answers this one quickly.
“We wanted to make songs. That was the main thing,” she says. “I was keen to do an album where you can have some beers in the garage, play the guitar and everyone can sing along.”
“Yeah, not so much loops like the other one,” agrees Toy referencing the group’s impressive and well-loved debut ‘Kaleidoscope’. “This new one was more about making songs that we could all play live. Songs you could sing and play on a guitar, that’s how we wrote them as well. Before we’d be doing drum beats and loops and then writing a vocal over the top. This time it was more hands on; guitar and singing at once.”
But that wasn’t the only reason the group said goodbye to their old sound.
“I started getting away from hip hop and enjoying the Phil Spector stuff, the girl pop stuff, and then the Beatles and Motown,” confesses Toy, who will later describe himself as a ‘soul dog’. “I couldn’t see where we could go with hip hop that could make it new and fresh sounding. For me the Motown stuff seemed more fresh and seemed to work with Tyra.”
Hammond agrees enthusiastically. “My vocals fit really well into the songs. It was easy to write these songs to the guitar rather than getting a beat from Jeremy and just singing over it. I enjoyed it more.”
That enjoyment pours out of ‘Standing In the Rain’. It may be a complete 180 from the outfit’s previous sound, but it also proves to be the most perfectly natural progression you could think of. The pair’s love of old soul music that was only touched upon on ‘Kaleidoscope’ is firmly front and centre here. While Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson may have got there first, theirs is a sound very much of today. ‘Standing in the Rain’ on the other hand sounds very much like it was just discovered deep down in the Stax Records’ vaults. More than anything, it sounds authentic. Toy agrees, saying that became the intent behind the record, though it certainly wasn’t at the start.
“I really wanted it to sound modern,” he says. “That’s where you see those tracks like Dollarsand Blind to See on the album. Those two have got drum machine claps on them and more electro sounds but they’re still quite raw and vintage sounding. But the further we got down the track it became quite exciting experimenting with those old sounds and seeing how close we could get it to sound like something off ‘Meet the Beatles’. We were interested in making it vintage sounding, but with new elements.”
Investigation of vintage analogue gear to capture the audio fidelity of classic soul records started with their discovery of the Neumann M49, a microphone released in 1951. Widely used throughout that and the following decade, the M49 is considered one of the great vocal mics.
“It was really awesome when we got that,” Hammond beams. “The microphone you use does bring out a better sound in your voice. I was like, ‘So it is true! It does make a difference,’ and the guy who loaned it to us was like, ‘Shit yeah. Your voice totally needs this era mic’.”
“We should have tried other ones out as well,” says Toy, before grinning at Hammond, “… but Tyra was like, ‘Nah, this is it’.”
The recording and mixing of the album ended up being a combination of past and present. After the microphone success Toy was keen to use solely old gear to produce the record but the band’s longtime mixing engineer, LA-based Dave Cooley, (Stones Throw Records, J-Dilla, Madvillian) sensibly suggested using the best bits from both eras.
“We used ProTools to record it but we used some outboard analogue gear at the same time, just to try and capture that air of the old stuff,” he says. “It’s hard to capture the exact thing but you make your own take on it with what gear you’ve got.”
The first song they wrote and recorded for the album, lead single Hold You Close, is perhaps the most important song Opensouls has ever created. Firstly it signposted for Toy the sound he’d been looking for to reinvent their approach and gave him clear direction in which way the band should proceed. Secondly it re-energised Hammond, getting her out of the songwriting funk she’d been wallowing in as she grew restless with performing the group’s old hits over and over again. And finally it was a true band effort, with the main hook being presented by bassist Harlin Davey. Once initial structures had been established around Hammond’s lyrics, it was worked on by the group, as a group.
“When we wrote that I had struggled for ages lyrically, even melody-wise,” recalls Hammond. “But with Hold You Close it was so easy to write that song. And that’s how I got my mojo back. Then I could write the other songs. Me and Jeremy both wrote everything together and that was really helpful cos I write things from a dreamy, la-la, woman view and Jeremy’s got the big male view.
“We cover both views,” she says just managing to finish this sentence before letting loose the laughter that threatens to derail her thought. “Otherwise my songs would all be soppy!”
I tell them that it’s refreshing to hear songs about that sweet, more innocent and romantic type of love rather than the blunt and highly sexualised tunes that now regularly clog up our charts. These days professing to want to ‘hold you close’ is as quaint and outdated as the Beatles wanting to hold your hand.
“Today it seems that sometimes music is written in a studio and they’re just singing over a beat and rambling crap,” says Toy. “Whereas with the old stuff it’s a written song. Look at Smokey Robinson or Van Morrison lyrics, they’re not really of a time. They can relate to you at any point, any point through history, from when they wrote it to now. It’s not overtly sexual, it’s just nice lyrics. I can’t speak for Tyra, but for me, I thought that was something I’d like to put down on a record. I don’t listen to much modern R&B but I do listen to the old R&B and the songs have a beginning, middle and end. It’s a complete story. Maybe we will write overtly sexual material in the future but it just didn’t seem right at the time.”
At the time. The time of writing. The time when Opensouls stopped being about one thing and became about something else completely. Because ‘Standing in the Rain’ is a true soul record. Hold You Close is truly indicative of the band’s current trajectory and a superb sampler of the impressive soul styles you’ll find on the album. It’s a radical change indeed so I ask how the other band members took this directional switch. For the first time in the interview there’s a ponderous silence.
“They were pretty good cos they felt the same,” Hammond starts. “Basically we were all just real keen to get new material. We’d all reached the point of, ‘I don’t want to do that song anymore, it’s driving me crazy’. So they were into it, but, um, yeah...” she says trailing off.
Toy takes over to explain that before settling on their Motown/northern soul direction they experimented with a whole lot of other styles and genres. “We did try some electro-pop stuff,” he reveals with an embarrassing chortle. At this Hammond cracks up, loudly exclaiming, “It didn't really work!”
“We tried heaps of stuff out,” continues Toy more seriously now. “We tried some modern R&B stuff and we tried some electro-pop, but as soon as we started this stuff it was like, ‘Oh, this makes total sense’. And now that we’ve got to work it all through, and we’re playing all the songs, it makes total sense. But it was a bit of a shock,” he says. “Some of it was a bit of a shock. Especially when I was trying to get everyone to play electro-pop. That stopped really quickly”
“Yeah, really quick,” confirms Hammond still laughing at the memory.
“Two band practices,” Toy says, now failing to contain his own laughter.
Don’t take this the wrong way, I say, but that whole electro-pop idea sounds dead awful.
“Yeah, it’s an interesting concept,” muses Toy. He gets a distant look in his eyes and worryingly says, “It may work next album. The world wasn’t ready”.
And then he and Hammond fall about laughing and don’t stop for a very long time.