Ain’t Nothing If It Don’t Feel Good
Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics Dig a New Sound From the Red Clay of Georgia Soul
Wednesday night rehearsal for Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics starts off slowly.
Start time was at 6, but as of 6:30, less than half of the eight-member soul band is present at Diamond Street Studios, a small space in Atlanta’s funky Little 5 Points neighborhood. I push my back against a partition, making room for the controlled chaos of tuning up and settling in — instrument cases open and slam shut, amps move, then move again. Amid a backdrop of chatter and random bursts of music, frontwoman Velle quickly scans the room. Nothing fancy about it. A piano and organ sit toward the rear. Sound panels covered in vintage-styled fabric hang on the walls. She turns to me and smiles, explaining the delay: “There are costs and benefits to being right next door to a tequila bar.”
Surely one of those benefits is that by the time the band is in place, everyone is feeling tequila-good, even if only by association. And baby, soul music ain’t nothing if it don’t feel good. Tenor sax player Taylor Kennedy tinkers playfully on an upright piano.
“You could get a job on a ship!” trumpeter Jason Collier yells. Laughter. The tinkering simmers, then stops.
Velle has an announcement to everyone and no one in particular: Grab some flyers on the way out to promote the show next month. They’re performing at The Earl in East Atlanta Village, an alt-scene restaurant that books indie bands in their smoky, cave-like venue in the back.
Outside on his mobile phone, keyboardist and producer Spencer Garn calls baritone sax man Tony Staffiero to pin down his location. Drummer Mark Carbone starts to set up his kit. Scott Clayton plugs into his amp, bluesy guitar chords echoing over the monitors above. Garn re-enters with news: Staffiero is parking; bass player Kevin Scott can’t make it tonight. Then Garn starts a discussion about the tunes they need to rehearse. Between the multiple conversations and cacophony of notes, it is not immediately clear to me just who Garn is addressing.
Apparently, the right person heard him. Clayton’s casual guitar chords build into structured, mid-tempo strumming. The music sounds right and tight even at this stage, a song sure of itself but still in-progress. The ear-catching phrase has a contagious vibe, and I wish I could hear the full arrangement. I’m pretty sure I’ll know the lyrics to this tune one day. Still in their own worlds, each musician moves to the riff.
Yeah, it’s pretty obvious: Good music gets made here.
For almost two years now, Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics have been working on a sophomore album, a follow-up to their 2012 debut, It’s About Time. A lot of indie bands are on the grind right now, working to book new shows and record new material. This band is different from a lot of the others, in that they are not just building momentum. They are working to pull off the infamous sophomore feat that follows an unforeseen, yet totally deserved, sudden burst of success.
It’s About Time was a groove-laden record that encouraged listeners to wake up, choose their fate, and take action (in matters of love and life in general). The record gained immediate traction. Within two weeks of its September release date, the single “My Dear” was selected as the iTunes single of the week. Then the album hit Billboard’s Heatseeker Top 30 chart, which catalogs the most popular songs by new acts. In December, Starbucks chose “Heartlite,” a single predating the EP, as their single of the week.
As with a lot of good fortune, some of it was nice timing. Over the previous decade, soul music had experienced a commercial revival, if you will (true fans will tell you it never went anywhere). Acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Duffy, and Amy Winehouse had garnered notable sales and critical acclaim, bringing the genre into the foreground more than it had been in decades. Timing and more established contemporaries aside, Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics had something. People noticed.
“They’re the real deal,” says DJ Jamal Ahmad, host of “S.O.U.L of Jazz,” who’s now in the 20th year of his nationally syndicated show, hailing from Atlanta’s WCLK-FM. His program is known for mixing contemporary UK soul with underground domestic acts. He was among the first to play Erykah Badu and D’Angelo; he helped found the Atlanta ’90s collective Groovement that launched the careers of India.Arie and Anthony David. During our phone conversation, he says more than once just how much of a Soulphonics fan he is. Especially when you put them in context with how soul music sounded in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
“They’re part of this global movement of young bands who are trying to get to the root of what soul music is today.”
And this is why listening to Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics is both entertaining and compelling — because they’ve gone after the root of the thing, in their own way, while living in a place that’s got a built-in connection to soul.
Ahmad calls it the “ancestral energy” of Georgia. He says what the Soulphonics have is an extension of “that cultural red clay that’s always been a breeding ground for this style of music.”
But fans who downloaded It’s About Time weren’t channeling memories of soul music from the past. They identified with the band’s sound, which was just gratifyingly real. Here was a group of musicians that could really play. Here was a recording that had enough grit to feel like soul, but was polished enough to assure you someone had been paying attention. This wasn’t a group asking to be considered. They knew what they had. On the opening track, “My Dear,” Velle sings, “Listen here,” in her throaty voice, and most people keep listening — for the next 42 minutes.
“That was pretty surreal,” Velle says of that post-release period, over a late-morning coffee at Fork and Juniper in Midtown Atlanta.
Surreal, like half-a million-downloads-as-a-result-of-the-exposure surreal. The swift, positive response was all the more impressive since the band launched the record off of their own label, Gemco Recording Group, founded by Garn and Bill Elder (of soul band The Dynamites). To get the word out, they partnered with North Carolina-based Redeye for distribution, and to keep earnings close, they opted to self-publish.
The group enjoyed spurts on the road, meeting their fans and earning new ones.
They played SXSW in Austin and the Governor’s Ball in New York City, a lineup featuring Kings of Leon and Kanye West. They took to San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago. At the Mammoth Festival of Beer and Bluesapalooza in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., they shared billing with Mavis Staples and blues hall-of-famer John Hammond.
They even sold out the Blue Note. Yes, that Blue Note, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, heralded as one of the most respected and historic jazz venues in the world.
“I’ll never forget it,” Velle remembers, humbly mentioning that a lot of her friends came out to support the band. She pauses, then chuckles, almost to herself, “They’re probably like, ‘I can’t believe she’s still fucking doing this.’”
If by “this” Velle means fronting a band that writes, records, licenses, sells, and performs well-crafted soul music, pays homage to the genre’s classic form, while keeping the attention of a dedicated listenership, then yes, she and her fellow bandmates are still doing it.
They’ve persevered now for almost 10 years, not solely because they’re a band that’s passionate about making music. They’re also a band that has invested in the business of making music. Sure, they may be an indie act struggling to navigate a fickle industry that doesn’t cater to them. But as indie bands go, they’ve done pretty well. Some of their success is certainly attributed to their solid sound and a live show that connects with people. The other side has a lot to do with the foundation they’ve built as resident performers of Atlanta, a place with a few of its own special marks on the history of soul music.
But before the Soulphonics settled in Atlanta, there was an instrumental funk-jazz band in Gainesville, Fla., on the lookout for a female vocalist. And long before those wires crossed, a young girl in Toronto was falling in love with music.
Velle, age 29, was born in Toronto to Indian parents of an arranged marriage who had immigrated from the North Punjab region of their homeland. Her mother worked as a nurse, her father, who had studied throughout Europe, as an engineer (he holds a microchip patent). Velle, her parents, and older sister lived in Toronto until she was 7, and in those early years she remembers her parents played a lot of Paul Simon and early Bollywood tunes. But her biggest musical benefactors were a British couple her parents befriended. Ruby knew them as Aunt June and Uncle John. The two couples became extended family, so close that when June’s father died, Velle’s maternal grandfather adopted her. Velle says in addition to exposing her to a range of new music, the couple were always advocates for her creative interests — an important balance in a household with strict Indian traditions.
“Aunt June and Uncle John used to tell my parents, ‘Watch out for this one, she’s not going to go the conventional route. You have to foster her creativity and make it a safe place.’” Over gin rummy and coloring books, her “aunt” and “uncle” introduced Velle to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Al Di Meola. Along the way, Velle says, her parents became music lovers as well, even when her aunt and uncle weren’t around.
“We’d still listen to Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Queen, and Sting,” Velle says, “these great artists I was able to build a foundation on.”
And she did build on that foundation. She learned all the words to those great songs by great artists. While she didn’t take up an instrument, she studied the musical patterns, repeating them through beatboxing and mimicking sounds. Her father eventually moved the family to Melbourne Beach, Fla., for work, where Velle grew even more passionate about music and how to put it together.
She sang in her school choir. She was motivated by the storytelling elements of folk music, and wrote pages of lyrics in her journal. There wasn’t much else to do in the low-key beach town — surfing, mall trips, picking at the guitar in her room. In choir, she noticed she kept getting assigned soprano solos, something she attributes to an early childhood spent singing along with Bollywood divas. Velle worked to strengthen her alto skills, not content with singing only the top. “I wanted to master the whole range, to take my voice as far as it could go.”
Velle knew that she wanted a career in music, but the big picture was still a little vague. After high school, she moved three hours north to Gainesville, to study advertising at the University of Florida.
“I wanted to learn the business side of things — I figured if I made anything, I would always know how to promote it,” she says.
Gainesville is where Velle got into Incubus, Portishead, and Ani DiFranco and spent even more time writing. Gainesville is also where she met Garn and Clayton, who would become the founding members of the Soulphonics band. In 2005, during Velle’s junior year, a mutual friend introduced Velle to Garn. Garn was busy with a mostly instrumental funk-jazz band called The Elements, and he wanted to add a female singer to change things up. Clayton played and managed a small music venue called the Side Bar, where Garn would perform. The friend thought Velle’s sound would be a good match for what Garn was trying to do — play soul.
While it’s hard for Velle to pin down her soul music “a-ha” moment, she says the emotion of the style always resonated with her. Her eyes widen with enthusiasm when she talks about music from the ’60s and ’70s, like Marva Whitney and Aretha Franklin. “I always thought that’s what music should sound like,” she says.
The messages in soul music, its raw honesty: For a girl who filled journals with song lyrics long before she was a member of anybody’s band, the way soul values the human experience moved her. Velle wanted to sing songs that built a dialogue with people. She wanted to write songs like that, too. Velle met up with Garn for the audition. She sang, she says, and “that was it.”
The three renamed the band The Soulphonics and filled out the open horn and rhythm section spots with alternating players on the Gainesville scene. They played the soul classics — James Brown, Otis Redding. It wasn’t long before they were considered the go-to soul act of Gainesville, where they performed constantly for about a year, selling out shows and touring all through Florida.
As Velle prepared to graduate, she felt the urge to go north to continue her education in graphic design. She liked Creative Circus, a leading art school in Atlanta, and asked Garn and Clayton how they felt about moving. They believed Atlanta could be a good market for what the band wanted to do next, which was play more original music and record an album. Plus the city had a couple of perks — it was bigger than Gainesville and it wasn’t New York.
“We’d been The Soulphonics for about a year,” Clayton says, “and we’d gotten a taste of what the big picture could be.”
Garn also felt what they had was worth keeping. “I was on my second stint in Gainesville: College Town, USA. Ruby was coming to Atlanta — if we wanted to keep it going, moving made sense.”
Velle arrived in 2007, Clayton and Garn followed a few months later. They worked on rebuilding the band, trying out different horn players and drummers. In 2008, the group snagged a residency at Star Bar in Little 5 Points, where they played every Wednesday night for about a year. They diversified their soul standards repertoire and incorporated other musical influences, like classic rock, R&B, and jazz. They got their chops up as a group and built a fan base. Now it was Atlantans who knew where to find Velle & The Soulphonics whenever they had a hankering for soul music. Those audience members would come back the next week and bring their friends to watch the live act.
But the stage is a place where musicians go to showcase. The band needed a dedicated workspace to rehearse — and record.
Diamond Street Studios isn’t on Diamond Street. It never was actually. The basement studio Garn put together in the house he once lived in with Clayton, was on Diamond Avenue in East Atlanta. That worked out OK until a bad leak got worse and they had to rescue the equipment. Garn tried booking recording time at studios around town, but it was cost-prohibitive. Day rates get real expensive real fast, Garn says, and if you listen to a demo of that day’s recording and want to make changes, better buck up for more studio time to fix it. It’s a restrictive way to develop a project that might need time to meander.
“Some of the songs on It’s About Time, we started two years before we got this space, at studios around town,” Garn says at Diamond Street, swiveling left-to-right in an office chair. An eight-track machine sits behind him. ProTools waits for instructions on his desktop monitor. “We’d run out of money as a band, so we’d sit around for four months. Then we’d get a studio for a week, then have no money again.”
Garn finally stumbled upon a space the band could afford. It’s behind Elmyr, a Mexican-ish dimly lit dive bar next door to the Variety Playhouse concert venue. The bar/restaurant is lovingly referred to as cheap, smoky, and awesome, often by the same person. The space had that same down-to-earth vibe. Elmyr stayed open late and sold tequila. It was perfect.
The wall with a window separating the control room from the recording space was already there. But they needed equipment and a few more touches. Garn sold his Honda Element to buy gear and he built out the rest of the space, bit by bit. The Soulphonics finally had a home. Enter Velle, the advertising grad with branding expertise, and the feel-good space also got a name: Diamond Street Studios. There’s always something on the wishlist, but the studio does what it needs to do.
“With the sound that we go for, less is more,” Clayton says, “Especially with the analog tape.” Most of the album was recorded there.
Garn leases and manages the studio, which he also rents out to other acts for whom he produces and engineers as well. While even the most casual music fan can put together a home studio, it’s a bit more unorthodox for an indie band to have their own commercial space. Velle says that’s one of the myriad opportunities they’ve been able to take advantage of while being in Atlanta. The band works in the studio throughout the week, pushing out digital singles when they’re ready, and sometimes selling commissioned demos for licensing in television spots and commercials (DSW and Monster Energy Drink are a couple). Velle & The Soulphonics sell a lot of vinyl — so whenever their neighbor Criminal Records has Record Store Day across the street, they take the opportunity to cross-promote.
”This place has allowed us to sustain and keep moving forward,” Velle says, referencing Diamond Street, as well as the city of Atlanta. “Why would we leave?”
It’s a good question. And if you consider that the Soulphonics’ foundation here is made from more than brick and mortar, you start to get into that “red clay” business Ahmad was talking about. You start to connect the dots between what the Soulphonics are doing now and what Ahmad says is often a “missing piece” of the soul music conversation as it relates to Georgia.
Well, now. We’re not about to overlook any pieces today.
When Ahmad talks about the “cultural red clay” of Georgia, he’s talking about the influence that persists in this region, one that lives in music and our spirits and belongs to everyone. He’s talking about Georgia native Fletcher Henderson, the innovative 1920s bandleader who toured with Ethel Waters. He’s talking about “Georgia Tom” Dorsey, a blues pianist out of Villa Rica, who became known as the father of gospel (and the writer of the immortal “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”). He’s referring to Ray Charles, who was born in Albany, James Brown (the Godfather of Soul, mind you), and Otis Redding, who came from Macon. But to understand what he means in relationship to the Soulphonics, we have to go back to the origins of soul music, which is firmly rooted in the black American cultural experience. Soul, no matter what its many manifestations might indicate, is a genre that evolved from the blues, an early 20th century mood of a people.
The blues soaked up everything its creators had — deep South work songs sung by slaves, Negro spirituals, and even the minstrel shows. The blues was pain and suffering, peaks of joy, and the defeat of happiness lost. That mood, the instrumental and vocal outpourings of people who weren’t born free in a country that espoused freedom, was so consistent, that it developed into a standardized musical structure called the 12-bar blues.
Most popular music today tips its hat to this form. But the storytelling essence of the blues — musical and lyrical — is an intrinsic element here. That’s because a blues chord progression is built with a beginning, middle, and end. Even music-theory novices would notice if a phrase left them hanging — it would be as if someone stopped the joke right before the punch line. Musically, the blues always resolves itself. There’s something incredibly resilient about that fact, considering the people who first sang the blues were violently and unilaterally denied the opportunity to determine the results of their own day-to-day lives.
This is why many artists, including Velle, say that singing soul music is like therapy. If you’re doing it right, you cannot help but tap into some personal, vulnerable place. But the blessing and irony of the blues is that the blues actually make you feel good. People sing and play the blues not to summon grief, but to process it — to bring it all up and get it all out. The performer’s emotional delivery, along with their ability to weave a story inside the format, is what makes up the style.
The blues have endured, but they have also evolved. That’s because the experience of black Americans changed, and drastically. More than 6 million blacks decisively left the Jim Crow South (named for a popular minstrel show character) between 1915 and 1970, seeking better economic opportunities in northern and western cities. The Great Migration changed the demographics of the United States forever, and the new, urban environments people lived in influenced black music, too. By the 1940s and ’50s, rhythm and blues, or R&B, had arrived, along with its determined backbeat. Even then, there was talk of a return to the “roots” of black music, where artists wanted to embrace early blues and the secularization of gospel (think Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman”). By the late ’60s and into the ’70s, black popular music would take a looser and more political tone, with calls to action, unfettered appeals for love and lovin’, and prideful declarations that being black was just as beautiful as being anything else.
Right here — this is where we find soul music. Now, you could say that soul music has always been a part of black music, regardless of how the final product might be packaged. Listen to Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Hartman, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Natalie Cole, Lenny Kravitz, or Seal — it’s there. But hone in on this place in time, layered with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, upon Ruth Brown and Dinah Washington, upon Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack and so many more — this is the era that Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics begin to draw from in the course of creating their own sound.
The strongest point of It’s About Time is that it doesn’t separate Velle from The Soulphonics. The band is cohesive and conversational, which adds ear candy to the listening experience and is a joy to watch live. Their songs develop as naturally as conversations. On “The Man Says,” a lament of lost perseverance in the face of economic distress, the horns brood in response to Velle’s desperation, and the finale builds on form and improvisation.
The gentle fade-in of “Looking for a Better Thing” belies the bright opening notes from Velle, who went against the general rules of songwriting to begin at the top of the range.
“Don’t hold your breath for bad love to change” she cautions, almost pleading with the listener. From the emotional way she pushes the words out, you get the sense she just just learned her own lesson. Garn’s organ playing is wonderful here, energetic and supportive as the song continues, like that good friend who knows just what to say when you’re down.
“Ruby, the Soulphonics — they went deeper,” Ahmad says, remembering a time when he says Atlanta’s soul scene got a little too “pretty” for its own good. “They came out of nowhere, it seemed, and then we got back to it. They showed that people will follow you if you do something right.”
And you know something is right when you hear it. There’s a line in “Medicine Spoon,” a driving force of a song about a lover getting his comeuppance. When Velle sings “I’mma let you have it,” you know she’s not playing around. Later, she challenges the “little boy” to get a move on: “Don’t worry / I heard yo’ mama house got room.”
That daring spirit, that sass, combined with Clayton’s frisky guitar and the band's sharp horn arrangements — that is soul music. Even if you’ve never kicked out a trifling man, you find yourself rooting for her.
You can’t hear It’s About Time without recognizing the band’s salute to “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” the James Brown classic from in 1966. Its plucky guitar opening, the sustaining bass line, the arrangement that builds with drama — it’s a nod to the founders, but they are carving out their own place.
“We’re trying to be the torchbearers,” Velle says.
Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics are settled in some ways, but they’re still hungry in others.
“We know where we’re going and what we want,” Velle says. But they’re also trying to figure out the power of their music and what really works for a Soulphonics record. Most of their songs on the first album were written music first, lyrics second. On this new project, they’re playing with a song concept and lyrics first, which will then inspire the music. Why? Just because. It’s part of the exploratory process.
During rehearsal at Diamond Street Studios, they’re excited to bring new material to fans at The Earl, to try it out and see how it lands. Atlanta is good for that, Velle says. The city has been like a safe haven. In Atlanta, the place they gelled, grew, and garnered both national and international attention, they’ve become strong enough to let down their guard.
“In another place, you’re on their stage and you’re trying to prove to them that you deserve to be there,” Velle says. “Here, it’s home. It’s like, come to our soul party!”
Someone is talking about the notes Clayton is playing, part of the tune Garn wants to rehearse tonight.
“Isn’t that the piano part?”
“Well, it might be an organ, actually. I don’t know yet.”
Clayton looks at Garn, slowing down the riff for emphasis. “It just goes between a minor 7 and a minor.”
Kennedy, Staffiero, and Collier clear out their spit valves. Carbone starts on his snare, joining in with Clayton, who has returned to the rhythmic phrase. Kennedy floats an improvised melody over the top. Velle moves about the space, feeling out lyrics beaming from the Evernote app of her iPad mini. She rarely writes freehand anymore.
Over in the control room, Garn turns on a partial recording of the tune Clayton started. The horn players stack their parts, singing bah-doo-dop back and forth to each other. Suddenly, a second of silence. Clayton counts off, and the band plays through the intro together, their music taking shape. It’s getting there, the vibe says. The band stops playing, and the space bubbles up with suggestions and more random notes. Good music gets made here.
By the way, rehearsal has begun.