A New Generation of Soul: Durand Jones and The Indications
|thenorthstar||Mar 3, 2019|
Close your eyes and drop the needle on Durand Jones and The Indications' American Love Call and you’ll be transported back to the early 1970s. The five piece recently released a sophomore record that channels the impeccably smooth and politically astute styles of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, with vocal harmonies to match.
Durand Jones and The Indications (DJATI) are part of a worldwide revival of 1960s and ‘70s soul sounds, which pay homage to legendary labels like Motown and Stax with a distinctly twenty-first century spin. It’s retro without being derivative, earnest in its vision, and pulls no punches in listenability. American Love Call offers 11 tracks of all killer, no filler vocal harmonies, beautiful orchestration, and a mix of soulful influences that bring the band from its Southern and Midwestern roots to the thick of Chicago and Philadelphia sound.
American Love Call is also unafraid to mix sentiments of love with pointed political indictment. “Morning In America,” the album’s second single, is a modern protest song in the style of Gil Scott Heron that nods to the Flint water crisis, teacher strikes, and the opioid addiction epidemic. “It's morning in America/We're mourning in America/And I can't see the dawn,” singer Durand Jones croons over moody piano and horns. On “Long Way Home,” Jones invokes images of slavery and triumph: “So we walk along the roads/That we did not plan/We bought it on the ships/To a promised land,” noting that “We don't walk it on our own.”
Where soul music is inherently political due to its roots in Black communities and the ways it soundtracked Civil Rights movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s, few modern acts are as politically vocal. “I feel like it’s a legacy to carry, to keep pushing forward and keep the narrative of the social and political alive in soul music,” Jones, the group’s sole Black member, told The North Star.
Durand Jones and The Indications have come a long way from their roots in a basement at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. The band as completed multiple national and international tours, gaining acclaim for their potent mix of sweet soul and powerful messaging. The North Star caught up with drummer/singer Aaron Frazer and Jones as they prepared for a cross-country tour, with their first stop at South By Southwest.
TNS: Happy release day! I love the new record, but it feels more produced and on some East Coast early ‘70s style instead of the rougher Midwest-meets-Southern groove from your self-titled. Was that intentional?
Aaron Frazer: Philadelphia and Chicago are two city musical traditions that we were touching on in this one, and I think it was a natural progression. Durand has a true gospel upbringing, so that’s always been part of the group’s DNA in some form. The other piece of it was “Is It Any Wonder,” which I sung one song on the last record and it became a fan favorite. Durand was confident enough in me, and himself, and the band to embrace multiple voices and we love singing together. Singing harmonies is so fun; it’s good for the soul and makes me happy.
TNS: It seems like American Love Call is heavily influenced by early ‘70s politically salient singers like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. How did that inspiration transpire?
Durand Jones: Someone I really hadn’t listened to was David Ruffin; I hadn’t listened to his discography outside of The Temptations, and felt the need to branch out. Curtis and Marvin were really, really, really big influences to me during the writing process. I was reading Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, by Curtis’s son, and there was so many tunes to listen to as well as you were reading. A tune like “Don’t You Know” wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Todd Mayfield really laying out Curtis’s life. I have this little obsession with the Marvin Gaye album I Want You. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, the string arranger for that album, was the director for the IU Soul Revue, where guitarist Blake Rhein and I met. I got so inspired from that album; “Circles” and “Listen to Your Heart” catch its essence to me.
TNS: Why was it important to you to write and release “Morning In America,” and tie it specifically to the Poor People’s Campaign?
Frazer: The Poor People’s Campaign verbalized something that I’d been feeling for a while — especially when traveling around the country and the world — which is that we’re in a time of pretty extreme political polarization. But when you go and meet people face to face, even when they’re different than you, you tend to find that you have a lot of things that you share. One of those things is it’s hard to keep the lights on. Especially in the US, which is the richest nation to have ever existed, over 70 percent of working Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
Jones: I couldn’t agree more. Especially where I am [in Hillaryville, Louisiana], I live in a poor Black community and a couple of miles down the street is a poor white community. These communities don’t want anything to do with one another, but if they could just look past the hue, the melanin, they could see that we have a lot more things in common than we don’t. We should totally be working together to provide a better future for the generations to come. It’s really cool to see a young new generation carry on what King dreamed about.
Frazer: You have so much tribalism happening, and some of it is identity politics of race, which are crucial to the discussion, but the Poor People’s Campaign promotes a lot of class unity. It’s people of all different colors coming together around the same economic struggle, which was a very powerful thing for me. It’s a mixture of hope and anger.
TNS: A lot of your contemporaries shy away from politics in their music. Although the majority of your first album followed suit, “Make a Change” was pretty political and now you have a couple of songs that condemn the status quo. What do you think is the role of political messaging is modern soul?
Jones: I think we all as songwriters have felt impacted by a social and political stance in music. It’s really hard right now, at least for us, to sit by and not sing what we’re feeling and our generation is feeling. I’ll never forget being introduced to Gil Scott Heron by Aaron and Blake, hearing “We Almost Lost Detroit” — I get goosebumps even thinking about it. Or hearing “What’s Going On” for the first time, or even “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway.
Frazer: Gil Scott Heron for sure is a big touchstone for me, and Curtis Mayfield especially on the Curtis album with “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” “The Other Side of Town,” even “Move On Up” are all integral parts of our music DNA. TNS: I read that, for “Long Way Home,” Durand took words from his journal about dealing with law enforcement as a Black man. Can you tell me about that?
Jones: I just got caught up in some really immature, dumb shit with police and a friend, and it really just changed the track of my life. I can think of friends and different people who have been in the same situation as me, or way worse situations, and how the US justice system just ruins peoples’ lives man. To the point when it can almost feel hopeless at times – that’s the emotions that led me to write that song. We’ve played it live a couple times and it’s been a great response. Before we start, I dedicate it to brothers and sisters who are incarcerated right now on nonviolent crimes and charges. It’s about spreading that messaging.
TNS: More people have gotten hip to soul music since your debut album. Have you noticed any changes to your fan base and audience? Do you see more Black and Brown folks?
Frazer: One of the things I’ve come to understand about the touring experiences of the Daptone Records artists and the older guard of that chapter of soul music is they were playing to a lot of white audiences. Because the style of soul music we’re playing trended kind of slower, we touched a nerve in a different vein of soul music fan: the Latinx community. Especially on the West Coast from Texas up to San Francisco and inland.
As we’ve toured more, it’s cool to see more diversity in age too. People will be there with their parents or kids, it’s something multiple generations can share in and that’s really powerful. I feel really lucky to play music that can bridge the gap, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but with the generation gap, which can separate people too. TNS: I think about Leon Bridges, who received a lot of criticism after his first album for being a Black man who sang non-political soul music to a white audience. Whether a result of that criticism or not, his next record was much broader and an attempt to get a more diverse audience. Do you have any thoughts on that dichotomy?
Jones: I grew up in a Black community and I’m currently living in a Black community, but while I was growing up we were bussed to a school maybe 30-35 minutes away that was 95 percent white and we were like the 4 percent of Black people. That was always the norm for me. The code switching thing comes to mind because there are things you can be celebrated for within your own community, but outside of your little bubble those things may deem you to be threatening or aggressive. It’s something that’s always been in my head, but I feel like going out and being in those audiences and seeing a lot of white folks allows me to share my story with those people, because I really do feel like that’s what soul music is about.
[Classic soul and funk labels] like Stax Records, Fame, Hi Records brought together a collective of people from all walks of life. Not just Black people, but middle class whites, working class whites. It’s a very American thing. Frazer: Music doesn’t have to be overtly political for it to be a political act. Cardi B comes to mind, though these days she’s more vocally political, but sometimes just being yourself if your self doesn’t fit the mold of whiteness can be a radical act.
About the Author
Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories and also writes on the business of music.