Just a few years ago, Aloe Blacc was singing “I Need a Dollar.” Now he’s The Man.
Aloe Blacc is the man. Even if you don’t know his name yet, you’ve heard his song “The Man.” It’s been saturating the airwaves on TV commercials and at every stadium across the country. The stylish, socially conscious soul singer wrote the lyrics and performed the vocals on Avicii’s 2013 ubiquitous worldwide hit “Wake Me Up,” and his 2010 song “I Need a Dollar” was the theme song to HBO’s short-lived series “How to Make it in America.”
We caught up with Blacc in Alabama before a show on his summer tour supporting his latest album, Lift Your Spirit (featuring “The Man” and the most recent single, “Love is the Answer”). He is a headliner at this weekend’s Philly Fourth of July Jam celebration before coming to Central PA to open for Bruno Mars on July 12 at Hersheypark Stadium.
Fly Magazine: You were the uncredited singer and writer on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” Are people starting to realize that was you?
Aloe Blacc: Slowly but surely. I think people are just fans of the song. It takes about three or four songs for an artist to really develop true fans. So, I figure with “The Man,” I’m one song in, and if they learn about “Wake Me Up,” then perhaps it will help them become even more of a fan.
FM: Was it weird being on a worldwide smash hit and no one knew it was you?
AB: It was a different experience. I enjoy the process of being a songwriter, and quite often songwriters don’t end up being the star of the song because they have someone else singing it; like Sinatra never wrote any of the songs he sang. So that was a different experience. I enjoy the songwriting process, but I want to always be able to be the artist.
FM: Feel-good soul music is making a comeback with Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Mayer Hawthorne, Bruno Mars and you. Why do you think that’s happening now?
AB: It’s a perfect juxtaposition for all the really over-saturated empty pop music that’s out there. People need the mindlessness and emptiness for when they go to the club and are partying and drinking. But too much of that throughout all parts of the day becomes monotonous. When you’re coherent and sober and sane and conscious, you need to have some music that sustains that kind of mentality. Soul music does that – it gives you food when you’re awake and ready to eat.
FM: You’re able to write catchy pop songs with a deeper underlying message about social issues.
AB: Yeah, just the way Michael Jackson would do it, you know? A song like “Black and White” was literally a song about racial tolerance, but it was the biggest pop song of the time. Bob Marley’s “One Love” is one of the biggest and most well recognized reggae songs of all time, and it’s about compassion. I think if you can use pop music to deliver important positive messages, why not?
FM: Who were some of the musical voices that gave you hope as a kid?
AB: I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop music, so groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Public Enemy were some of my favorites. But also I listened to soul music like Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder and also some singer-songwriter music like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
FM: You’re collaborating with The Roots for the Philly Fourth of July Jam. Have you played with them before?
AB: I played with them in the early days of Jimmy Fallon’s show. We did “I Need a Dollar.” They’re a really talented band and really fun.
FM: What kinds of challenges have you faced in your career?
AB: The biggest challenge is getting music in the U.S. to the popular media streams. Radio wants to know, “What else you have coming out?” TV wants to know, “Have you been on radio?” Print wants to know, “Have you been on TV?” Somebody has to take a risk at some point. The biggest challenge is getting the media to take a risk. The best way to do it is to make really good music that doesn’t require a whole lot of pushing. A song like “Wake Me Up” that kind of raises its hand on its own online before anybody picks it up is great. It’s more authentic if the music can attract people without a PR team behind it.
FM: You’ve collaborated with some of the biggest producers in music like Pharrell, Madlib and Dr. Dre. What did you learn from them?
AB: Everybody has a different process. Working with Pharrell, I got to be in the studio with him writing the song and seeing how he works. He works really quickly. Working with Madlib was different. Madlib is very hands-off. He makes the beats and sends them to you, and you pick which ones you want and record it and send it back to him. Dr. Dre kept suggesting to me to keep working on the lyrics. Get the lyrics right and get the chorus right. He’s a perfectionist. Nothing goes out if he doesn’t feel comfortable. You have different processes and different philosophies.
FM: You’re always wearing those hats. Except for a baseball hat, I can’t pull off the hat look. Do you have any style tips?
AB: That’s where we differ. I haven’t done a baseball hat in a decade. The secret is, buy what you’re comfortable in and makes sure it fits right. That’s most important.
FM: You took some lyrical inspiration from Elton John on “The Man.” Who are you a fan of that might surprise some people?
AB: Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, there’s some obscure funk and soul jazz artists like Eugene McDaniels or some Brazilian soul like Jorge Ben.
FM: So what’s next?
AB: Next up is a lot of travel. We’re going to finish up the Bruno tour at the end of July and head over to Europe to do some summer festivals. And in the middle of the summer, Tate Taylor’s film – Get On Up: The James Brown Story – is coming out, and I’ve got a small role. I play Nafloyd Scott – the guitar player in the Famous Flames.
FM: You’re the man, Aloe.
AB: Thanks a lot.