As a child, I grew up in a home where my mum would play artists like Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Earth Wind & Fire, Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. Being from Australia, this was quite a contrast to the majority of my friends who were raised to a rich nurturing of that old time rock n roll.
As I grew older, my tastes evolved. My first real musical obsession was hip hop. Naturally, like anyone who delves deep in rap music, would come a new appreciation for breaks and grooves. I found myself revisiting a lot of my mum's music and then digging deeper to discover so much more. Soon I was learning about so many amazing variances of jazz and soul from around the world like latin, brasilian, dub, reggae, afro-beat and so on. Later, through funk and then disco would come my love for house, techno and the boundless world of electronica. No matter how disparate these genres may seem to the foreign ear, to me, this music is intrinsically rooted in soul. Many of these contemporary music forms are the popular music of the time. You can hear it in every club, house party, on TV commercials and at sporting events. However, oddly still today, the feeling of being an outsider to the dominant musical discourse in this country feels too apparent. The music I love can be popular, but not appreciated nor properly understood. Rock and folk are still high art in this country. Soul and its club counterparts to many is a gimmick. The fun and silly stuff we play to let loose but not to be played at a family dinner party. Right now, the Australian soul scene is bubbling like never before. In fact it’s boiling over. Aussie musicians are leaving their mark on the world yet sadly, unless you are actively engaged with the scene, you probably aren't all that aware. The "Australian Music Industry" at large isn't ready but finally a changing of the guard is occurring without their help.
Triple J is a unique beast. Unlike many countries, Australian youth have one dominant national radio source for alternative music. The Js have an extremely powerful footprint on Australia's musical landscape. This is an important contention that I will come back to. But to start with, I feel it is perhaps a great reflection on Australia's current relationship with soul music. Triple J love to claim that its annual Hottest 100 is "the world's largest music democracy." You know about it. Whether you celebrate the occasion or despise it, its fair to acknowledge the cultural significance of the day. Thousands of young Australian's vote, bands that make it can probably add some extra zeros to their performance fee, and we can probably use it as a rough gauge of what’s hot in the alternative mainstream. The other day a friend shared with me a special poll Triple J held in 2009 to produce the Hottest 100 of ALL TIME. Going through it I wasn't all that surprised to see all of the usual suspects - Zeppelin, Bowie, Nirvana, The Smiths, Jeff Buckley, The Beatles, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and so on. What also didn't surprise me but was frustrating to take in, was the lack of soul's luminaries. Pop's greatest star MJ scored some high spots with Billie Jean & Thriller. Stevie Wonder just squeezed in. Where was everyone else? No James Brown, Prince, Gil Scott Heron, Nina, Aretha, Marvin, Parliament Funkadelic, Roy Ayers or Sly Stone. These aren't exactly unheard of artists right? They only sold a few million records, transformed popular music and in some cases, popular culture as we know it. I didn't even list the stars of today who were equally, underrepresented. My two cents only but lets be honest here, jazz trained artists tend to play and sing on a far more critically advanced level too, but I won't put my foot in that debate. The Australian youth had their say and they snubbed soul music. While I'm not for a second suggesting the Hottest 100 is hard evidence of the entire scope of Australia's musical preference, its probably still a fair indicator that we are not the largest soul market in the world. But why? The classic chicken or the egg. Do we as a nation not have a taste for this music, or are we not exposed enough to realise we do? I should also make it clear that I am not pointing the finger solely at Triple J. This kind of neglect is ingrained in most of our music institutions - Major Australian record labels and distribution, promoters and venues, music press and journalism. We have a systemically rock and pop orientated infrastructure. Soul is too often poorly categorised. Heck, JB Hi-Fi and the ARIAs still refer to it as "Urban". I surely don't need to delve into why that is problematic. With the recent returned success of jazz-fusion through names like Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington or our own Hiatus Kaiyote, one can only imagine the headaches the big execs would be having trying to sell this stuff. Because lets face it, currently there's not many avenues to package and promote this newly rising sound, and that's exactly what the industry is about - selling a product. Place it in "Jazz" and no one will take interest because for years the industry let that sit as some alien, old prude music clearly separated from the rest of the cool stuff. Place it in in "Urban" and it won't get the critical attention it now suddenly deserves because we don't value that jiggy, moët sippin music. Don't get me started on the god-awful pigeonholing known as "World" whatever that even means. At least for internationals it becomes a little easier to gain our approval due to their more fostering home markets. A big reputation built in authoritative USA or UK demands our attention right? For Australian's it’s not that easy. Well at least it hasn't been.
Right now, Australian soul music is flourishing like never before. Not only are we making great forward-thinking music, the world is taking notice and even seeking it out. Our country is no longer a beach pit stop on some soul musician’s world tour. There's a valuable bubbling scene here. Undoubtedly Melbourne has been the epicentre of the movement. The mix of a sustained underground soul scene, very knowledgeable and eclectic DJs along with some young, inspired and talented musicians has made the city the breeding ground for a new generation of forward thinking soul artists. Hiatus Kaiyote have absolutely kicked in the door and a string of other amazing musicians from across the country are right behind them. Australia is continually producing artists that are turning heads the world over. Hiatus backing vocalists Silent Jay & Jace XL just released an amazing EP on London label Rhythm Section International. Genre fusing genius Kirkis is playing in Floating Point's band and slated to release an LP on he and Alexander Nut's Eglo Recordings. Brisbane's Jordan Rakei featured on Disclosure's last full length and was Jamie Woon's key support across the UK. Our home grown talent are getting featured on all the major media outlets - Okayplayer, Complex, Resident Advisor, Boiler Room, Red Bull Music Academy and so forth. In clubland, Independent Aussie labels like Butter Sessions, Noise In My Head and Good Company are also garnering a following globally. Andras, Harvey Sutherland, Andy Hart, Inkswel, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Tornado Wallace, Francis Inferno Orchestra, Sampology, Dan White, Daze, Sleep D, Mall Grab and so many more are getting rinsed by the world's biggest DJs and playing alongside them in the world's most esteemed venues.
Before I continue, I should also make the note that this country has had a history of talented soul exports. About a decade ago The Bamboos turned the heads of deep funk lovers internationally including tastemakers like Mr Scruff, Keb Darge and Craig Charles. Their debut Step It Up got released on acclaimed UK label Tru Thoughts and the following years saw the group cement themselves as one of the world's premier funk outfits. Once again though, another case of proving yourself abroad before making it back home. The Bamboos name in Australia didn't really take off in the mainstream until their eventual cross-over success on the back of teaming up with Aussie rock champion Tim Rogers. Daniel Merriweather didn't gain our approval until he collaborated with Mark Ronson. The only real exception I can think of to the rule is harking back to the 70s when vocalists Renée Geyer and Marcia Hines made their mark on the Australian market. My presence on this planet wouldn't come for another 15-20 years so I'm open to some correction, but I sense their success was more on the back of accessibility in a smaller, less connected world. I'd like to be clear that I'm not disregarding their talent. In my humble opinion, Renée Geyer is one this country's greatest musical exponents period. However, I wonder if we as a nation really would've recognised this if we were consuming the sounds of Motown at the time as much as other parts of the world.
I could go on forever celebrating artists making moves but why not focus on a group I believe, while maybe not single handed, certainly have carried the torch in the current down under explosion. What an incredible band is Hiatus Kaiyote. The four piece of virtuosic and supremely creative musicians are not only making music of an international standard, they're leading the way in pushing new and original musical territories. Seemingly overnight they've garnered praise from heavyweights like BBC tastemaker Gilles Peterson, Erykah Badu, Animal Collective and Questlove. They've collaborated with everyone from Anderson Paak to Q Tip to Taylor McFerrin. Last year they won UK Jazz FM's "Album Of The Year" and have been nominated twice now for a Grammy. In spite of all of this critical praise and success, traction here in their homeland still doesn't feel like it matches the buzz around the world. They go without much coverage from Australian music media, including that influential monster I spoke of before, Triple J. On that note I was gobsmacked when I was informed that Jordan Rakei's debut album Cloak got sent to Double J rotation. A station aimed at over-30s rather than the youth-orientated Triple J. Really? I don't think I'm biased in saying this is a classy album. It’s completely relevant to the popular sound of now. James Blake, The Internet, The Weeknd, heck even Beyonce get a run on Triple J! I've heard the argument. They’re under resourced and in competition with their commercial competitors. Where is the line though? Shouldn't the station be exposing this music, allowing for listeners to realise they actually like it? It's not exactly avant-garde. Jordan's music fits the realm of those aforementioned artists.
Oddly, it still feels like this country isn't quite up to speed. These artists are far more popular, critically acclaimed, covered and promoted abroad then they are in their own homeland. The fact of the matter is, Soul music is alien to the Australian music landscape. There's a good 60 plus years of embedded rock industry and infrastructure that has pervaded the Australian psyche. Undoubtedly there's probably a lingering touch of racism that has influenced this narrative. While I'm optimistic that race is not a significant factor in modern Australia's musical preference, the impact of bygone years have probably shaped what we find familiar and comfortable today. Without stepping too deep into that discussion, Australia simply hasn't been exposed to the cultural milieu or influences that originate from Africa and The Caribbean. Our institutions subsequently reflect this. As a keen crate-digger living in Brisbane, the most exotic records I'll commonly come up with in any op shop are Kamahl. Traditionally in this country, jazz bars haven't exactly been viewed as a place for the edgy young hipster, rather a hub for those "geeky" music conservatorium students and old folks out on a rare date. Mention hip hop to many, and they'll respond with some cringe worthy construction full of ironic “Yos” and hand signs to signify their understanding of a culture they can't get past as a gimmick (the real irony of course being how much of their cultural identity has been made up by such a movement). The worldly art student who enjoys good coffee, artisan crafts and philosophical discussion wants skinny jeans and a Patti Smith book as part of their aesthetic not saggy jeans and the poetry of Nas. It just doesn't fit with the romantic image we've constructed in our society. An inherently very white society. Perhaps I'm too cynical and self-conscious. I'm constantly aware that if I told that pretty Indie girl straight up, I like Large Professor or Larry Heard and that Nick Cave wasn't for me, chances are she'll immediately judge me as lacking the intellectual capacity she seeks. I could go on forever on Australia's lack of understanding of some of the richest musical contributions to this earth. I know this because I face it everyday. The frustration of having to explain the context of an entire genre before I can just share a song. Drop a chart topping disco hit to the wrong crowd whether DJing at a bar or on YouTube at a house party and have it fall on deaf ears because no one knows who The Whispers are. Believe me, its heavily ingrained.
Thankfully, it really feels as though the tides are turning. The Internet age is among us! Similar to most media industries, the landscape is transforming drastically. Its no revelation, the fact is it is increasingly easier to discover music. Music will infiltrate your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and every other social media profile you have set up. You can get lost in a "YouTube tunnel", follow Spotify playlists, read free articles and blog entries then share them with your friends. We don't need Triple J like we used to. There's endless Internet radio and podcasts and mixes. You can listen to radio stations from around the world whether that’s BBC Radio, Rinse FM or KCRW. Then there's the growing presence of local and independent radio like NTS, Red Light or Berlin Community Radio. Your local record store doesn't stock your tastes? That's fine because there's now online shopping and Bandcamp and iTunes. Big business won't give you a break? Use a crowd funder like Kickstarter to have your record pressed or documentary shot. All of these beautiful new tools give me hope. Because this generation doesn't have to consume what is filtered to us from the traditional gatekeepers. The breakdown of barriers is also creating a far less divided musical generation. Scenes are now way less definable. Gucci Mane sits next to Tame Impala on a kid’s iPhone. Its this kind of openness to discovery that is allowing Australia's new wave of musicians to learn all about this rich Soul history I speak of, and with that knowledge, are now creating new and exciting sounds. As this scene continues to grow independently, the big wigs will begin to take note. If there's money to be made, rest assure they'll be there, even if they are late to the party. In the mean time I'll keep fighting the good fight. Right now, there's a lot of pain in the world. I think we need some soul now as much as ever.