WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

On 'Introducing...,' Aaron Frazer Contemplates Love And The Road Ahead

Originally published on January 10, 2021 12:41 pm

The music of Aaron Frazer feels a bit like stepping into a time machine: It's got touches of Curtis Mayfield and Carole King, but it's also very much of this moment. The Baltimore native, who's best known for playing drums and singing in the band Durand Jones & the Indications, says he was in the middle of making dinner one day when he got a call from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, asking if they could make a record together. That solo album, Introducing..., was released Friday, and Frazer joined NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro to talk about it. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I understand you and Dan Auerbach wrote the album together in the course of just a few days?

Aaron Frazer: Yeah, that's right. We wrote the record over the course of four days. I think we came out with like 16 vocal tracks and four more instrumentals. It was a sprint, but I've never had a writing session so fruitful.

Is that what it's like when something just clicks with someone? All that creative energy just explodes?

Yeah, I think that's right. I think Dan tried to get me to a place of accessing my intuitive songwriting because, like you said, Carole King, Curtis Mayfield, those are such finely crafted songs. Each one is like a watch, or something. We both love 45s, these singles that sound raw and from the gut. I think the idea of this record was to find a midpoint between something that feels good in the brain and something that feels good in the gut and in the ear.

And Durand Jones and the Indications are known for this very retro-soul kind of sound. But on this album, you expand beyond those roots. Tell me about the song "Have Mercy."

I love boleros — I've really fallen in love with them over the past few years, learning more about them and their history. I wanted to put a touch of that in the song. This one is pretty autobiographical: the story of me meeting my lady and that feeling of being like, 'Oh my gosh, this person is so special.' And the fear that comes with that, of 'I don't want to screw it up.'

You brought in a wide range of musicians to record: members of the Memphis Boys, who backed icons like Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, but also some younger artists. Tell me about that dynamic and what they brought to the album.

I think everybody, both old and young, brought such sensitivity and empathetic playing. Most of it was done live. A bunch of stuff on the record, musically, you'll hear happen on the two [beat]: Like, one, boom. That's because you have people who are listening first and reacting, letting other people set the tone and doing what needs to be done in response. I think that's the working dynamic at Easy Eye, Dan Auerbach's studio — everybody working together to make things happen. It's like a barn raising.

There's one song in particular I want to listen to, which reflects a lot of what we've been hearing lately. Can you tell me what "Bad News" is about?

"Bad News" was written two Novembers ago, but I think it's only gotten more timely as release day was approaching. I wrote it to be heard almost from the perspective of Mother Earth — like, I'm on fire, I can barely keep it turning. But it's also all of us in this moment of relentless, 'Yo, can I catch a break? Please?' But we have to keep marching forward and waking up the next day and going back at it. ... "Ride With Me" is another climate change song. It's classic gospel sort of imagery — the train is at the station, you can hear the diesel humming and we can't afford to miss it. It's an issue I think a lot about, and stress out a lot about.

YouTube

Given that so many artists who have come before me, especially artists of color, have given me so much, I feel like I have a platform and I want to use it. I think I can bring people joy and light while also bringing them some place to feel mourning or anger, outrage, sadness. All those things. That's what my heroes did: They made time to, on their records and in their lives, express all the dimensions of themselves in that way.

Tell me about this time for you. How has it been not touring, not doing live music?

It has not been my favorite year [laughs]. It's really hard not to tour. Being able to travel and meet people all over the world, I'm so thankful to have had that opportunity because I feel like it's helping me expand my perspective and understand other people's perspectives. Especially because the kind of music I make is [enjoyed] pretty widely across the board: Maybe it's not your number one thing, but generally people don't hear soul and soul-adjacent music and go, "Oh my God, I can't stand this." So yeah, not playing shows has definitely made me feel disconnected. But it's also been a time to take stock of what the last few years have been.

I wonder about what art is going to look like after this period. Because you've been in New York, which has been so affected by the pandemic, do you think that's going to make its way into your music in the future?

Durand Jones & the Indications, we're starting our next album, this weekend and we definitely have a couple of moments on there that were born from what we all shared and went through together this year. I think that this year will affect things to come for a while, as so many past past moments of political chaos and other kinds of chaos have been reflected in folklife, whatever form you define it. I think a lot about Gil Scott-Heron's "H2Ogate Blues" and how much it maps onto today.

: 1/10/21

An earlier version of this interview misspelled Gil Scott-Heron's first name as Gill and omitted the hyphen in his last name.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The music of Aaron Frazer feels a bit like stepping into a time machine. It's got touches of Curtis Mayfield and Carole King.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I GOT IT (YOUR LOVE BROUGHT IT)")

AARON FRAZER: (Singing) If I got a house, got a home, little meat left on my bones. If I got it, baby, your love brought it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's also very much of the now. And the Baltimore native, who's known for playing drums and singing with the band Durand Jones & The Indications, is paving a new way for American soul. And of course, he's got a new album, "Introducing...", to show for it. Aaron Frazer joins us now from Brooklyn.

Welcome to the program.

FRAZER: Hey. Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. I am wondering - your band is still together. What made you want to branch out with your own solo album?

FRAZER: Yeah. It was really just getting a phone call while I was making dinner. I got a call from Dan Auerbach being like, I love your music. Let's make a record.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of The Black Keys.

FRAZER: Of The Black Keys, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I understand you wrote this album together in the course of just a few days.

FRAZER: Yeah, that's right. We wrote the record over the course of four days. I think we came out with, like, 16 vocal tracks and, like, four more instrumentals. It was a sprint.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what it's like when something just clicks with someone - all that creative energy just explodes?

FRAZER: Yeah, I think that's right. I think Dan tried to get me to a place of intuitive songwriting because, like you said, Carole King, Curtis Mayfield - like, they're such, you know, finely crafted songs that each one is like a watch or something. But we also both love 45s, you know, these singles that kind of sound raw and from the gut. And so I think the idea of this record was to find a midpoint between something that feels good in the brain and something that feels good in the gut and in the ear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to listen now to "Have Mercy," which has got touches of doo-wop. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE MERCY")

FRAZER: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this song.

FRAZER: This one is pretty autobiographical. It's the story of me meeting my lady and just, you know, that feeling of being like, oh, my gosh, this person is so special, and then the fear that kind of comes with that of, I don't want to screw it up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's interesting that that is what the song's about because this album does seem to sort of have love at its core. I'm thinking of "Lover Girl" in particular. Tell me about that song.

FRAZER: Yeah. I mean, I think sometimes, like, when you meet somebody - in this case, it's a romantic love. But I think there's a lot of stuff on the record about just, like, also, like, platonic love and anyone who brings you joy and light. But on "Lover Girl," it's just that feeling of just, like, man, there's just some magic there. It can be bewitching.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER GIRL")

FRAZER: (Singing) Never going to find me another lover girl like you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you brought in a wide range of musicians to record with you - members of The Memphis Boys who backed icons like Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin but also some younger artists. You know, tell me about that dynamic and what they sort of brought to the album.

FRAZER: I think everybody, like, both old and young, brought such, like, sensitivity and empathetic playing. And most of it was done live. I think it's kind of interesting to note that a bunch of stuff on the record musically, you'll hear happened on the two - like, one, boom. And I think that's because you have people who are listening first and reacting, letting other people sort of, like, set the tone and then doing what needs to be done in response - and everybody just trying to work together to make the thing happen. It's like a barn raising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I like that - a barn raising. There's one song in particular I want to listen to, which reflects a lot of what we've been hearing lately. This is "Bad News."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD NEWS")

FRAZER: (Singing) But you don't listen. So it's bad news. Yeah, it's bad news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about this song.

FRAZER: "Bad News" was written two Novembers ago, but I think it's only gotten more timely as release day, you know, was approaching. And the song itself - I wrote it to be heard almost from the perspective of Mother Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD NEWS")

FRAZER: (Singing) I'm on fire. I'm burning. I can barely keep it turning.

But it's also just - it's all of us - right? - in this moment of just, like, yo, can I catch a break, like, please?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've spoken about how important it is to raise awareness about injustices through music. And I think we hear some of that in "Ride With Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE WITH ME")

FRAZER: (Singing) If we don't change, then we stay the same.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me a little bit more about that and the role you think you might play in the events we've seen unfolding over the last year.

FRAZER: "Ride With Me" is another climate change song. You know, it's classic sort of gospel imagery of the train is at the station. You can hear the - you know, the diesel humming. It's - and we can't afford to miss it because it is leaving the station. It's an issue I think a lot about and stress out a lot about. And I just feel like, given that so many artists who come before me, you know, especially artists of color, have given me so much, I feel like I have a platform, and I want to use it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this time for you because you've been in New York, which has been so, you know, affected by the pandemic. Do you think that's going to make its way into your music in the future? I mean, I wonder about this - sort of what art is going to look like after this period.

FRAZER: Yeah. I think as so many, you know, past moments of political chaos have been reflected in kind of, like, folk life, you know, in whatever form you define it - yeah, I think a lot about, like, Gil Scott-Heron's "H2O Gate Blues" and how much it maps on to today and what we look at. And my work with Durand Jones & The Indications - we're starting our next album actually this weekend. And we definitely have a couple moments on there that were borne from what we all shared and went through together this year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Aaron Frazer. His new album is "Introducing...".

Thank you very much.

FRAZER: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON FRAZER SONG, "GIRL ON THE PHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.