Standing Under Stars: An Interview with Rahsaan Patterson
The innovative soul stylist tested the concept of God and what did he find? Patterson talks to PopMatters.
It is 25 September 2007, the release date for Rahsaan Patterson's fourth album, Wines and Spirits. The sun is making its slow descent across the Manhattan skyline when the artist unassumingly walks onto the terrace of a west-side hotel. He's dressed in jeans and a red and grey striped v-neck sweater. The bracelets dangling on his wrists seem to glow in the soft light of dusk. He stands about 40 blocks away from his grandparents' church in Harlem and a few lifetimes away from his childhood.
Ever since the arrival of his self-titled debut in 1997 on MCA Records, Rahsaan Patterson has been catching up to himself, especially with the young boy who moved to Los Angeles at an early age to pursue show business. "This whole process has been me reconnecting with that little boy, apologizing to that little boy, and just trying to continue and live my fullest potential," Patterson shares with typical candor. "I didn't ever realize that he was sitting over there till like four or five years ago." Imagine Wines and Spirits as the passport to Rahsaan Patterson's expedition to make peace with himself. The man is noted for communicating truth in his work and the new songs reflect a generous amount of it. Ledisi explains the genius of Rahsaan Patterson this way: "Rahsaan's greatest artistic strength is his ability to be overly honest in his recordings and in his live performances. If I had to sum him up in one word, I would call him 'uninhibited.'"
Wines and Spirits is both a stunning example of the personal veracity in Patterson's music and a superior illustration of how soul music has evolved in the 21st Century. Some listeners seem genuinely surprised by the range of styles Patterson employs on this album, even though he's never limited his modes of recording to one source. Each song depicts a certain picture that is wholly unique from any other track. "I think somewhere in me there's a director that knows how to piece it together and bring it to life," says Patterson, who co-produced the album. "It's another thing that makes my albums what they are because, to me, they're very cinematic. It's more than just sitting and listening. It’s like watching a great film that can tap into every human emotion in a matter of an hour and 40 minutes." From the bubbling, infectious funk of "Cloud 9" to the paranoia that lurks in "Pitch Black" to the euphoria of "Higher Love", Wines and Sprits showcases a wide range of emotions and soundscapes with Patterson as its tattooed auteur.
(Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
Joining him at the console is a handful of producers who help give each of the songs their distinct personality. Keith Crouch, who worked with Patterson on Rahsaan Patterson (1997) and collaborates here on five tracks, describes his working relationship with Rahsaan "like two brothers". He explains via e-mail, "The studio is our playground as well as a safety net for whatever we talk about. Then, the music comes out. When [Rahsaan] was working on Wines and Spirits… he never played anything that he was working on for another producer. Meaning, the tracks that we were working on, he didn't play them for another producer he was working with. He wanted to get the true essence of the connection: Untainted Soul".
Crouch and Patterson open the album with "Cloud 9", a song they wrote together, which symbolizes the dynamic of the working relationship that Crouch described. Though the sound design exudes fun(k), there's some serious catharsis transpiring underneath:
With the cool breeze on my scalp blowing back times
That found me down
Come hither my child
Let's work it out
Patterson arrived in California at ten years old. Though he was a major talent on shows like Kids Incorporated, he came equipped with a share of traumatizing childhood experiences. As the lyrics above allude, Patterson only recently resolved some of the personal hardship he endured as a child. "I was a pretty sad individual," Patterson shares, "very emotional, and was like, 'What the fuck is this shit? What the fuck am I doing here? How did I ever get here?' Growing up Pentecostal, you automatically come equipped with this God theory and these demands of what is supposed to be based on this creator that you never really quite know is real".
I'm impressed and heartened by how comfortably he opens up:
"Traumatic things happen in your life as kids and more traumatic shit happens as adults. I got enticed and caught up in the world of show business and all of that shit while my other half was sitting over here waiting for me like, 'Hello?' I sat in fucking jail and broke the fuck down. I sat in there and realized that was the wall that I had hit. I was being very defiant and reckless. I was trying to test and see if the concept of God was real -- Where is it? What is it? -- to see if what everybody was talking about was real. What gift outside of singing did I have? Would I be able to make it through? Here I am, still. Reconnecting with that child, it's like also regaining that fearlessness that children come equipped with."
Patterson works out a whole history of travails in his songs, though instead of bitterness or anger, he exudes sensitivity, awareness, and a playful spirit that balances the weight of the lyrics. In the midst of his romantic frustration Patterson still entertains his listeners. "Delirium (Comes and Goes)", for example, is a dandified romp that uses a slightly manic vocal loop as its main hook with interjections of trumpet and saxophone. The intersection of all kinds of instrumentation exemplifies the brilliance of Patterson's approach to recording.
He credits his father for instilling his passion for music and exploring the possibilities of how a song could sound. At 3:00 a.m. on a school night, Patterson would hear his father blast music in the living from his DJ set, right on the other side of young Rahsaan's bedroom wall. The memory is vivid in Patterson's mind. With a glint in his eyes, he recalls, "I remember those moments used to make me feel thrilled and energized because I knew I was about to get some kind of musical education. I would just see him standing there listening to the music, like it was heaven. He would play a certain part of a song over and over until I got what he was saying, 'You hear that? Now listen!' Music is all little hooks and where you place them in the mix." As a result of those late night listening sessions, hooks abound on Wines and Spirits, whether a Sly-styled "boomshakalaka" on "Cloud 9" or "doo dat dat" on "Time". It doesn't matter if Patterson is singing about panic attacks or his broken heart, the listener will come away with a memorable melody line and even a readymade ring tone.
In fact, there's one ring tone in particular that opens up a whole other discussion with Patterson: "Tears Dry on Their Own" by Amy Winehouse. "I don't mind answering the phone when I hear that," he grins after excusing the interruption of Winehouse's gin-soaked voice. This presents an opportunity to discuss the notion of musical authenticity in soul music. Patterson defines soul as "raw, honest emotion, not contrived". I mention that opinion is quite split about Winehouse, with some listeners decrying her Back to Black album as a "watered-down" version of soul. Of the latter perspective Patterson says, "I could see how people who have that interpretation may feel that way. I wouldn't agree. When you go back to [Winehouse's] Frank -- ain't nothing watered-down about that! She, in my opinion, is one of the best artists to have come out in the last ten years. She's smart and you can tell that she's smart. You can tell that she knows what she's doing. At least I can." Even amidst all the tiring tabloid reports about Winehouse's weight loss, drug use, and erratic stage behavior, her music has connected with millions of listeners. "There's always that level of consciousness that some people can get a sense of with certain artists," Patterson suggests, naming Chaka Khan and Billie Holiday as performers whose artistry transcended the perils of their addiction. "There was something very ingenious about Billie Holiday doing 'Strange Fruit', very poignant in the midst of her haze or whatever you want to call it. There is an awareness and there is a way to communicate. Some of the best artists do that and I think Amy's one of them."
Wines and Spirits marks the tenth year since Patterson's debut and I wonder about his own evolution as an artist. Though he grimaces at the "neo-soul" label, Patterson was hailed as one of the progenitors of that oft-contested style of music in the mid-'90s. His eponymous debut and its follow-up, Love in Stereo (1999), were warmly welcomed by thirsty ears. He broke away from the major label infrastructure and established the Artistry Music label, where After Hours (2004) found a home. Patterson has been swimming upstream for most of the past ten years, maintaining his artistic integrity while critics try to box him in and the mainstream pretty much overlooks his work. How different was Patterson ten years ago? His answer reveals the dubious nature of show business:
"I just always saw the best in people, the most positive. I'm learning to be that way again. At this point I don't feel it's necessary to need to be that way. For myself, for my loved ones, and the people that I care most about, I wish the best. I wish the best for everybody on their path and whatever they're gonna do. Then, I was just way more tolerant of people, of human beings. Now, I am less tolerant of people and their bullshit: people who are phony, people who are fake, people who smile in your face and the next minute, it's another thing. That's fine too. Fuck 'em. God bless 'em at the same time. I don't really pay them any mind. The people that I'm speaking about are people that enter your circle and you allow them in and then you find out, 'Wait a minute, you shouldn't be there'. It's tricky, people, because you never really know someone and you only know what they allow you to see. You can have a sense and your intuition can tell you a lot but some people are great actors. Some people should be actors instead of the jobs they choose to do."
"Pitch Black" reflects this kind of uncertainty in relating to people and making sense of this "beautiful ugly life that we're living". Post 9/11, Patterson finds that people are more on edge, hence the line, "Pitch black / Panic attacks lookin' over my shoulder / Wondering what's going on". Of course, the lyrics also reflect his own experiences of being cautious with people, not always knowing what their motives are. He seems to have an engrained sixth sense about the fickle nature of people, something that contributed to his somewhat reserved exterior as a child. "Really, it was [being] scared of people," Patterson realizes. "It was being scared of the power that we really have and when we look into someone's eyes you can see that power. When I was a kid, I used to close my eyes and sing in front of people because to look at all those people looking at me scared the shit out of me".
The way people latch onto labels is also troubling for Patterson. "The minute you put a title on who your entire being is supposed to be, you limit yourself and I'm not one for that," he says. What labels, in particular? "'Oh, he's neo-soul. Oh he's this. Oh he's gay. Oh he's that.' I'm all for whatever other people want to do with their lives but I'm not one who needs to join a peace party or some kind of group to feel validated or 'a part of.'" "Time", which follows "Pitch Black", could be interpreted as a rejoinder to the critics, sycophants, and ne'er-do-wells who bound Patterson to a label, whether in terms of his personal life or his music:
Yeah, I know what you're doin'
What you're subliminally sayin'
You can talk about me I don't care
What's right or wrong makes no difference
Cuz I'm human
Christian Wikane with Rahsaan Patterson
"I'm very much who I am and that's it. I don't have to defend myself," Patterson says calmly, yet defiantly. "I'm past that point."
The second half of Wines and Spirits traces a kind of re-birth after the trials of the first half. Indeed, the album has the framework of a vinyl record. The musical and thematic intensity of what would be Side A climaxes with "Time". If the record could be flipped over, the dulcet tones of "Stop Breaking My Heart" (the album's first single) would commence the more healing, celestial experience of Side B.
"Slay the abominable dragon that's caused my mind to bruise", he sings on "Deliver Me", which he co-wrote and produced with Jamey Jaz. When he exclaims the song's title, it is one of the most felt moments on the album. The song is hooky enough that if you don't listen to the lyrics, it can just be enjoyed simply on the merits of Patterson's patented grooves. Such is definitely the case on "Water", a song awash with warm programming and flourishes of trumpet that flows buoyantly along like its namesake. The lyrics tell a different story. "When I wrote that song, I was in a place where I needed some kind of rescuing. 'Water' is also very much about the womb, like right before being born. I have realized that a lot of this album channels the idea of being conceived and all that is kind of going on in the womb before you're actually born into this realm, which is why 'Deliver Me' is right after that."
Patterson goes back almost to the moment of his birth on "Oh Lord (Take Me Back)". The song is a teaser to the forthcoming SugaRush Beat Company album, a trans-continental project that united Patterson with Melbourne-based producer/writer Jarrad Rogers. The two met in 2004 when Patterson performed club dates throughout Australia. Their meeting spawned a few songwriting sessions and "Oh Lord" was completed soon after their initial meeting. After several more songs were written throughout 2005, Patterson and Rogers decided to create an entity separate from each of their own artistic endeavors to release the material. SugaRush Beat Company will be released in Europe via SonyBMG in early 2008. "I'm just excited to be inspired," Patterson says about working with Rogers, "because for a few years I didn't care about it. I was like, 'Whatever.' I was just down. Really down." One only needs to hear his spirited and soulful vocal on "Oh Lord" to sense how sweet the inspiration feels.
"I'm way happier now than I have ever been in my life before," Patterson says, smiling. The peace he's made within is palpable in his interpretation of "Stars", Janis Ian's poetic parable about the pitfalls of fame. Patterson calls it the "period" of Wines and Spirits, the final statement of the album. "At the end of the day, people are always gonna have something fucked up to say, but when you're authentic in your work and your craft and you communicate and your spirit translates, that's what matters the most. Long after we're gone from here, that spirit still speaks no matter how crazy someone may be personally or how misinterpreted or misjudged they may be." Van Hunt, who co-wrote and produced tracks on Love in Stereo and After Hours, has a similar sentiment about the strength of Patterson's artistry. His "most forceful and lasting impression," Van Hunt says, is "the courage which he shows in bringing his abilities and his feelings out for the world to scrutinize and ponder".
By the conclusion of our conversation, the sun has become a distant ball of orange with a hazy light emanating from the rising moon. The first sparkle of stars in the night sky appears. The setting is conducive to the source of Janis Ian's metaphor: "Stars ... they come and go / Coming fast, Coming slow". I envision Rahsaan Patterson standing on a stage, a lone followspot shining on him with strings swelling in the background. "But most have seen it all / We live our lives in sad cafés and music halls / Always with a story". This is Rahsaan Patterson's story and I believe it has a happy ending.