Music

Southern Avenue's "Savior" Is All Soul (premiere + interview)

Photo: David McClister / Conqueroo

Memphis soul band Southern Avenue expand their sound and vision on their sophomore release. Guitarist Ori Naftaly discusses tradition and innovation.

Keep On, the second album from Memphis-based Southern Avenue, arrives 10 May via Concord Records. True to its title, the record finds the roots-based outfit expanding on their musical vision. "Savior", the latest single from the new collection, offers listeners a glimpse of the collective's soulful and seeking nature.

Built upon a meditative guitar figure from Israeli-born Ori Naftaly, the track soon gives rise to a deeply emotional and impossibly powerful performance from vocalist Tierinii Jackson. Although thoroughly contemporary, it could just as easily be a lost R&B/soul single from the 1960s, rooted in the purest Southern sounds, unencumbered by unnecessary technological touches.

"Tierinii and I wrote it," Naftaly explains. "There was a magic that happened between the guitar and her voice. It wasn't written on a computer. It was me and her in a room. It was originally intended to be a keyboard song with the Rhodes. It took me a minute to let go of my vision for it as a keyboard song. I'm a guitar player but my agenda as a bandleader and producer is to bring everybody in. But the song really seemed to need a guitar. It has that epic feeling that we wanted it to have."

Rounded out by rock-solid drummer Tikyra Jackson and keyboardist Jeremy Powell, Southern Avenue is far from a museum piece despite its deep appreciation for tradition. Other numbers, including "The Tea I Sip", "Jive", and "We Are Not So Different", crackle with a vibrancy, one aware of hip-hop, post-modern pop and the like but unwilling to yield to the basest inclinations of either.

In the end, Keep On reminds us of the power of the ensemble and serves as an important example of how the past can shine a bright light on the future.

Naftaly spoke with PopMatters about the group's continued evolution and the making of this new album.

What was the timeframe for writing this new material?

Some songs were written about a year-and-a-half ago, almost two years ago. "Jive" was written about a week before we went into the studio. The label wanted one more song. The recording process was very interesting.

How so?

We recorded in a museum. [Sam Phillips Recording.] That was different. The Zebra Ranch, where we recorded the first one, had a different vibe. We learned a lot from the process and I think we're a better band now.

When you're in a place like that, one that has so much history, are you thinking about the history and how much magic happened between those walls?

Yes, but we're also a band from Memphis. Everywhere you walk is history. The first day we got to Sam Phillips, it was cool to see it all as a tourist. But then you start working and all of that doesn't matter. What matters is getting the songs we had written [tracked] and trying to accomplish our vision in the time that we had.

There's also a lot of musical diversity on the album.

I think every album will be like that. Once a song is born, it's like a baby. There's a person there. You can't change it. "The Tea I Sip" was written to be a juke joint song. We didn't want to turn it into something else. We want to be very genuine and very true to the song. [In the end], every song has an opportunity to show a different side of us.

It seems to me like you think of the band as an ensemble rather than, "This is a way for me to shine as a guitarist."

We're old school in that manner. We all like to solo and play and express ourselves. Not every show is the same. Even if the song is the same, the solos are different. [In that sense] we're a jam band but, then again, the focus is the songs. When we do "Whiskey Love" live, we go into an extended solo at the end and stretch it out. It's not necessary for other songs. It's always about them and not how many solos we want to take.

You have a large international audience.

The further away from the Mississippi River you are, the more people want you!

[Laughs.]

It's amazing. In Israel, you have promoters bringing in 70-year-old blues men from Mississippi. People freak out. When we play Europe people freak out. There's a lot of guitar players with long hair like me over there but there's not a lot of women like Tierinii and Tikyra. Not a lot of guys like Jeremy. Here, there's not a lot of people who have my sound and influences. I am that guy from Europe who's crazy about the music of the Mississippi River, anywhere from Chicago to New Orleans, so I understand how people over there see us.

Was there a song on the album that surprised you? I hear many musicians say, "I didn't know what to make of that song early on, then we went into the studio and I heard it come alive. It's better than I thought it could be."

All of them. If I'm honest. We wrote a lot on the road. Once we got into the studio, we started to really hear the songs. We really didn't know what we had until we started recording, then mixing. It was very exciting to see and hear how things evolved in the studio. Once we were done with basic tracks and started adding things, it was, "Game on!" [Laughs.] We definitely grew up a lot in this process and learned a lot about ourselves. Especially as songwriters.

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