Bobby Womack broke into the music business as a guitar player and backing singer for Sam Cooke, and he never stopped collaborating with the biggest names on the radio. His songs were played by The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Wilson Pickett. He played on albums by Aretha Franklin and Sly & the Family Stone. Without ever really becoming a household name himself, Womack has long been a star magnet. The last time the veteran soul singer released an album of new material, in 1994, the guests included Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and Stevie Wonder.
Released earlier this month, a new album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, continues the trend. Womack recorded the album with Damon Albarn of the bands Blur and Gorillaz, and producer Richard Russell, who also owns the record label XL Recordings. The album packs allusions to Womack's past in soul and gospel alongside programmed beats and samples, all centered around Womack's voice, which sounded weathered even when he was in his 20s. In one span of about two minutes, you hear a raw version of the spiritual "Deep River" followed by a recording of Womack's mentor Sam Cooke, speaking about how age can improve a singer's ability to interpret music, and then the voice of the young (but retro-inclined) singer Lana Del Rey. There are layers of irony and resonance in these elements (Cooke's premature death, Womack's survival); even the inclusion of the Cooke sample — as reverent as it seems — alludes to Womack's sometimes controversial past.
When I spoke with him earlier this spring, Richard Russell told me that the path that led the three men who made The Bravest Man in the Universe together was just as unlikely and organic. Womack had worked with Albarn previously; Russell, a producer who started XL to put out dance singles, had recently gone back into the studio to record Gil Scott-Heron's final album. Speaking of Womack, Russell often refers to "the voice," but the singer didn't sit back and let his producers craft a comeback album. True to his history, Russell says, Womack approached the sessions as a full collaborator.
Jacob Ganz: Can you tell me how your collaboration with Bobby Womack came about?
Richard Russell: I went to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo last summer — I was there not in any XL related capacity; I was there purely in the capacity as a record producer and as a musician, with a bunch of people led by Damon Albarn making a record which ended up being called Kinshasa One Two. The stuff we made together there happened very smoothly, came together very well. I think we found that we had a good way of working together.
Damon had actually played a little bit on the Gil Scott-Heron record. He'd done a few overdubs for me in London. Damon's someone I've always had a lot of admiration for as a musician and I always thought his output was tremendous and the way he was able to improve and get more interesting as he's gone along. This to me is like a key thing: You've got to have that spark to start, but if you want to do this over a serious period of time and really create a serious body of work, you've got to get better and more interesting as you go along.
Damon had recorded a little bit with Bobby Womack, because Bobby had guested on the last Gorillaz record, Plastic Beach, and Damon had always been a fan of the voice. Then Bobby had toured with Gorillaz, so Damon and Bobby had done 50 dates together. Damon had been contemplating approaching Bobby to just do more recording, and he spoke to me about doing drum programming and helping him record Bobby and create a context for the whole thing. Not necessarily to create a record, not necessarily to create a record for XL; to get in the studio and to see how the chemistry was between the three of us, because you never know about stuff like that, and to see what we'd be able to do together.
JG: It's interesting to me that this isn't a retro-sounding record in any way. It's not one of those late-era Johnny Cash records or the Al Green records that that try to recreate the studio atmosphere and the sound of the recordings for which these people are best known or strip them down so that their age and wisdom is revealed. It sounds like a Bobby Womack record that could only have been made in 2012. Was there a decision to do it that way? Could it have worked any other way?
RR: I'm not really sure I can imagine doing anything other than that, because it is now. To recreate something, yeah, I think especially with Bobby, I mean, we'd just get beaten by his past if we did that. If you assembled the musicians and tried to make Across 110th Street, you know, that type of sound, that's not going to be as good. I'm not going to be able to do that anyway.
It was more that when we got in with Bobby and started messing around, what worked was, initially, Bobby on acoustic guitar and the mic, Damon on piano or synth, and me on an MPC, you know, a drum machine. And we were able to jam and play together. I wasn't setting loops on the MPC, I was playing it as an instrument, which is something I love to do, get an enormous amount of pleasure from doing.
The MPC, for me, is an instrument that I'm very passionate about. It's a drum machine that you can play as an instrument. And where it was useful in these sessions [was] we were all able to be in the room together. We sat round a table and we played and so we were able to create a feeling and create ideas and we were writing and recording like that. But while we were doing that, I think we were also hitting on a sound, which was the sound of the combination of the live instrumentation with the drum machine.
We sat and we'd be talking; you're not always flat-out working all the time [when] you're in a recording studio. Bobby had mentioned Sam Cooke quite a bit as his mentor. And I didn't really know that much about Sam Cooke at that point — I know he's an incredibly important figure in musical history — I wasn't that aware of him. So I went off overnight during these sessions to just learn more about him. And when I was watching YouTube I came across an interview that he did. And during this Sam Cooke interview, he said, "As a singer gets older, his perception gets a bit deeper," and he was talking about how a singer can improve as he got older. And I thought, "This is very pertinent to what we're doing with Bobby, because Bobby's sounding incredible in these sessions. The voice sounds amazing."
And so I brought this recording in to play to Bobby and Bobby loved it. And that sample became part of the piece of music we were working on that day. We just ran it over the top of the piano and the drums and it sounded great. And the writing of the song was partly prompted by the sample. Bobby loved the sound because Sam was this guy who had meant this incredible amount to him, and he was there, in this presence. Bobby said, "When you use the sample the second time in the song, slow it down. And then the pitch will lower and he'll sound older." And I thought, "Wow, he's not just doing the stuff you expect Bobby Womack to do. He's really contributing to the production of this. He's so fully understanding of what we're doing."
JG: He's caught up with everything you're doing.
RR: Exactly. "We're all involved in this." And I really felt we were all at our most ingenious, we were all able to come up with the things we wanted to come up with easily and naturally and samples were playing a part of that. There's also the Gil Scott-Heron sample on there. You know, Bobby had written this song about televangelists and over the course of the sessions — this is entirely accidental — I had this live album of Gil's, I didn't even put it on deliberately. It came on on my iPod on shuffle at home. It's a recording Gil gave me at a club in Philadelphia. It's not actually a released live album, and Gil was talking about this same subject and he came up with this incredibly funny, kind of a gag really, about televangelists. So again, I took it in and played it to Bobby and Bobby loved it. And so it was just a question of throwing it in to see what stuck.
He pushed us. Bobby's voice on the record is very loud, it's very out front. And in terms of the lead vocal, it's pretty much untreated. But Bobby pushed us to mess around with it because he'd thought, going into this, that it's going to be modern. He'd worked with Damon on Gorillaz and he expected us to manipulate the voice and to use electronics.
What I did end up doing was using snippets of Bobby's vocal ad libs weaved into the rhythm tracks, creating part of the texture of the music. Because I was such an avid hip-hop fan as a kid and have been an avid hip-hop fan my whole life. And [on] the James Brown loops [in hip-hop songs], you'd often hear the sound of James Brown grunting and making noises. You'd have the voice in there, but not the voice as a sung thing, more this sort of a capella noise that would really add a lot of energy and texture to the drums. And with Bobby, when I started, I chopped up all these ad libs that he'd done and laid them out on a keyboard and started playing them back over the beat. It was great. I mean it just sounded incredible.