Walking up Bold Street on a rainy day may not be everyone’s idea of heaven but, when you start to listen to the different kinds of music drifting out of every rain-spattered doorway, it doesn’t take much working out as to where our heart lies as a city. Uptown Funk is nowhere to be heard, but a heady fusion of Beatles, jazz, soul and 80s pop drifts through my ears as I near Bold Street Coffee.
A lone sax player sits outside Forbidden Planet and his craft is soon drowned out by the unexpected sound of Queen’s (definitely un-jazzy) Jazz album emanating from the coffee shop’s turntable. The surprises never end. I am here to talk to JALEN N’GONDA, the young soul sensation from Washington, DC who has made his home in Liverpool and has just spent a year on the LIMF Academy train, impressing all who across come into his path. I want to find out why he has made his home in this most musical of cities, and learn a little about his plans for the future now as he is flying solo away from the guiding hands of LIMF.
Looking as slick as ever, N’Gonda shakes off his umbrella as he enters the café and we order drinks. I start by complimenting him on his new single, Why I Try, which is already available to hear on SoundCloud, Spotify and iTunes. It’s a funky, choppy workout that follows up his equally soul-filled, smooth effort Holler (When You Call My Name).
“I wrote that song, like, a year ago, and at that time I was just doing an old-time sound. So the next single after this and stuff I do in the future will have a much more modern approach, but it will still have that old-school feel.”
If you’ve not heard N’Gonda or seen him play live then it’s about time you did. He’s a living time machine. Close your eyes and you could be in the old Motown, Hitsville USA studios in Detroit or at an intimate 60s soul revue. HIs voice falls somewhere between Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, which isn’t shoddy company at all. Mixing his own compositions with a few classic cuts, N’Gonda’s performances make for one of the most incredible listening experiences in the city – but how does someone so entrenched in classic soul function in the 21st century?
“I’m going to be releasing 45s, vinyl pressings alongside Spotify and iTunes. We thought [about doing] that since, having it on vinyl, it’s for life, if you don’t break it, it’s for years and years. People find it more attractive; one day Spotify might not still be a website, or iTunes may go in the future, but if you’ve got vinyl – it’s yours.” N’Gonda is aware of the current trend for vinyl as a must-have, but want to release his style of music on the format it was meant for. “Vinyl sales have increased so much in the past five years, loads of artists are releasing stuff on vinyl, it’s going with the times now, and it’s been hipsterised. Back then, vinyl was the only way you could buy music, now it’s so cool to have it, so I try not to seem like I’m saying, ‘Look, I’m a hipster.’ When you put your music onto vinyl, it sounds fuller; when things get digitised a lot of stuff gets taken out.”
I am intrigued as to why N’Gonda has left the US and made Liverpool his base, particularly when his style of music is so American. “Well, I came to LIPA and I started gigging, working on my own thing – I just wanted to get a career as a musician. It is inspiring, because of the whole Merseybeat sound, The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and so on, but still today it’s like everyone…” he pauses. “Listen, there’s a saxophone outside”. Indeed, the guy is still blowing his blues away in the rain. “You’re just surrounded by it all the time. I used to always listen to it all the time on the radio, to oldies and sounds of the 60s.”
Whilst the young Jalen N’Gonda is very much a modern man, his dress sense is sharp, fitting in with both 21st-century cool and 60s New York bohemia. His spoken voice is not unlike that of Prince, meditated and quiet, saving any energy for performance. His voice was made to sing soul. “I’ve always been a big fan of Motown, Stax, Chicago Soul, jazz,” he enthuses. “Before that I didn’t really listen to music, but when I started listening to that stuff, I kind of immediately fell in love with it. I try and stay away from a clichéd sound and try to bring a bit of British influence to it, like Alex Turner and The Last Shadow Puppets, elements of that as well.” His guitar playing certainly has echoes of the distinct Alex Turner style. “I never really had a specific favourite when I was younger, but a big influence was always David Ruffin from The Temptations along with Marvin Gaye and Amy Winehouse.”
We return to N’Gonda’s new-found home in Liverpool “Yeah, I do see this as my home now. If I was to go back to the US, I would probably go and live in New York City; it’s a place I’ve always wanted to live, but I just fitted so well in the UK. I have a really comfortable career based here. Everybody is humorous and spontaneous when you meet people in the street. I mean, everywhere you go, you’re going to meet ass-holes, but people have been really receiving and they think it’s cool that you’re from somewhere else… ‘You ain’t from here…you don’t understand us’, so they want to get to know you.”
Studying at LIPA, the McCartney-led home of musical talent, has served him well thus far. It was from his association with the school that N’Gonda became part of the 2015 roster of LIMF Academy performers alongside the likes of Michael Seary and Amique. “LIPA helped me to develop as a musician and as a person, you know? For the first time, I had friends from Korea, from here, Ireland and South America. Music-wise, everyone at LIPA is very supportive, right down to borrowing each other’s amps. LIMF Academy was just really spontaneous. I ended up staying in Liverpool over last summer ‘cause I couldn’t afford to get back home. I had a friend named Kady and she suggested I get involved. They called me up one day and said, ‘Would you like to apply to be part of LIMF?’ and suddenly it was like, ‘Hey! You’re in LIMF now!’” His involvement with the Academy is clearly something he is very proud of, and there is a twinkle in his eye as he reflects on this valuable time. “It’s been such a good experience in just meeting those people, talented musicians and producers, and having those opportunities to play the actual LIMF festivals; it’s been an amazing experience so far.”
We chat a little about how young people are given a bad press, particularly in inner-city areas such as ours, and how LIPA and LIMF give opportunities for young artists to show their worth and maybe change attitudes towards youth in general. “It’s always been like that. You look back to the 40s and 50s and most of those people who were being innovative were young, early 20s, late teens. Unless you wanted to be a seasoned jazz pro, which takes years and years of practice, when you’re young you just write daring things and daring songs. At first people freak out, until they realise it changes the culture around them.” N’Gonda’s own songwriting is not exactly daring, but certainly stands against the over-produced bulk of what makes today’s charts. I ask him does it come naturally to write in this style or is it a challenge? “I don’t really see my songwriting as a challenge,” he replies. “I write like that naturally. I don’t pre-meditate that it’s going to sound like My Girl, you know? It’s just, when I pick up the guitar or play the piano, the chord progressions are melodies that I think of, and they come naturally.” I ask him if he employs older production techniques so as not to ruin the sound. “To an extent, yeh. Take the vocals: I put a little delay on it and a reverb sound on the guitar – it makes it sound authentic rather than sounding like a machine. I want to make it as real as possible.”
With N’Gonda’s new single performing well already via streaming services and finding its way onto Spotify’s Sweet Soul Sunday Playlist, I ask him if he is planning on an album anytime soon. “I’ve not really thought about that yet; I’m just living with the single right now, seeing how well it does, and then see if a label is interested or whether we feel independent enough to do it ourselves.” By the we, N’Gonda is referring to his band. I ask him if he considers himself a solo artist or a band member. “Well, we all used to live together a few years back and I had played in a few different projects, but back last year in March I asked them if they wanted to form a band. It’s obvious I’m a solo artist, but when we perform at gigs we’re a band. We talk to each other on stage, we joke, we give each other respect; if someone comes in with an idea we all listen. So it’s not just like we play in a gig; we all get paid equally.”
As we drain the dregs of our coffee, N’Gonda asks if he can thank his fans for listening to the single and coming along to the LIMF festival the previous weekend. “I look forward to playing and writing for the people,” he smiles.
N’Gonda is a genuinely nice guy with an incredible talent that would have been cool in the 60s but is both cool and unique now. We’re glad that he has chosen Liverpool as his base as it suits him down to the ground.
Jalen N’Gonda plays Tramlines festival in Sheffield on Saturday 22nd July. Tickets are available from tramlines.org.uk