Let Yourself Be Loved
In Let Yourself Be Loved, Joy Denalane presents her definitive soul statement. The album is in equal parts an act of self-assertion, genealogical research and homage to the great classics of the genre. A musical masterpiece in which she deftly brings together all the strands of her earlier work.
In the beginning was the idea. And if everything was always as seductively simple and easy as the best soul songs sound, then the execution of this idea would probably have been nothing more than child’s play: “I wanted to make a classic soul album,” says Joy Denalane. “Stylistically I was looking for inspiration from the period around the end of the 1960s to 1973.”
In that statement lies hidden one of the reasons why we must first rewind a few years if we want to tell the full story of Let Yourself Be Loved, Joy Denalane’s terrific new soul album. The record features the shimmering arrangements, the sumptuousness and the ethereal melodies we associate with this musical genre. But without the long back story, without the problems encountered during the search for the perfect sound and mode of expression, it would have turned out to be a completely different album. One without lightness possibly.
Anyone who finds that paradoxical should look back to the soul era from which Joy Denalane draws inspiration. The years from around 1968 onwards represented an important turning point for the genre, and are today rightly regarded as the time in which soul surpassed itself musically and finally became a socio-political force with significant impact. Inspired by the Beatles and by the social and political developments of the time, a number of soul stars were no longer interested in singing yearning love songs for white American suburbia. They were keen to create something more artistically sustainable – songs that translated what was going on on the streets into music.
That period produced albums that are still regarded as classics to this day, ones that far transcend the genre’s boundaries and that belong in any list of the best records of all time. So when we talk about albums such as What’s Going On, Songs In The Key Of Life, Hot Buttered Soul, Spirit In The Dark or Superfly, about artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield, one question must inevitably be asked: how do you find your own voice on such endlessly explored and overly interpreted territory? How are you supposed to add anything of relevance to this incredible canon? It’s easy to feel very small and insignificant in the presence of icons of that stature. Even when your name is Joy Denalane. “When I was a child, I was almost afraid of Aretha Franklin’s powerful voice,” she says.
However, one thing is clear: if there is anyone whose attempt to pull off an artistically convincing approach to these larger-than-life works is not doomed to failure from the outset, it is of course her. Particularly since she has been studying this music and these artists almost her whole life. “My father owned hundreds of records,” she says. “Our living room was dominated by his collection.”
Music was ever-present in the Denalane household. The young Joy spent countless hours exploring her father’s record collection, and she knew most of the albums she now refers to before she could read or write. Her father’s soul, jazz and funk records shaped her as a person and defined the musical direction she would take as an artist.
It’s important to know all this if you want to understand the meaning and the musical power of Let Yourself Be Loved. For Joy Denalane, this deep and devoted engagement with the music of her childhood is not simply a search for her musical roots. It’s not a matter of vintage simulations of old soul recordings.
It’s a matter of identity – musical, political and personal. The biographical aspect, the desire for belonging, has always been a central theme in Denalane’s work. With her debut album Mamani, which went gold, Joy Denalane set off in search of her father’s South African roots, travelled around his homeland and worked with local musicians. With Born & Raised, which reached number 2 in the German charts, the longing for a clear identity is expressed in the title, and the album is mainly dedicated to her great passion for R&B. On the top-10 albums Maureen and Gleisdreieck, Denalane looked back at her own life and revisited the places of her childhood and youth through music.
The concept of a classic soul album as the culmination of this special musical journey therefore makes perfect sense, and actually goes back some time. Denalane had started work on it even before her last album Gleisdreieck. At that time she was working with songwriters and producers in the New York neighbourhood of Williamsburg, where she produced the demos that now form the basis of Let Yourself Be Loved. But when it was time to get to work on the actual production, something didn’t feel quite right. “We just weren’t nailing the sound that I could hear in my head,” she says. “We were very close and yet miles away at the same time.”
After that discouraging experience in around 2015, Denalane put the project on ice. It was an important record for her: she was determined to get it right or not do it at all. She wrote and produced Gleisdreieck, life went on, the years passed. At a certain point, however, the people around her started to ask questions: “What actually happened with those amazing soul songs you wrote back then?” And so Denalane dug out the demos and decided to give it one more try.
One of the great truths of life is that the best solution is often far closer than we think. Denalane had been racking her brains for a suitable producer for Let Yourself Be Loved – but it had never occurred to her to ask her old friend and musical partner Roberto Di Gioia. She had worked with the pianist and producer a number of times in the past in various contexts, and he proved to be a great choice again this time.
Di Gioia is one of the world’s most renowned jazz pianists – he was already playing with greats such as Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer and Woody Shaw when he was in his early 20s. These were American jazz musicians from the same generation as the members of the Motown house band The Funk Brothers, who were responsible for the sound on the label’s classic recordings and who, without exception, all came from the world of jazz.
In any case, Joy Denalane sent Di Gioia the old demos. “I actually only asked him to listen to them,” she says, “but he came back a week later with five layouts that left me speechless.” She’d finally found him: the producer who understood her musical vision for Let Yourself Be Loved.
Before they set to work, however, Di Gioia travelled to Bern in Switzerland. He had found a 1966 Fender Precision Bass on eBay, a similar model to the one used by the Funk Brothers’ bass player James Jamerson on all the legendary Motown recordings he’d been involved in. “Without that bass, the album simply wouldn’t sound the way it does,” says the producer.
After that, in a studio in the Munich suburb of Unterföhring, a production process developed which Joy Denalane remembers as being among the best she’d ever experienced in her entire career. For the most part, Denalane, Di Gioia and the sound engineer Jan Krause used the original compositions as a point of orientation for their arrangements and melodies. Driven by passion and a love of soul, they exercised great care when choosing musicians and searching for the right microphones.
The best example of how the songs evolved during this production process is perhaps ‘Be Here In The Morning’, a duet with the wonderful soul singer from Texas C.S. Armstrong. “The song was written quite by chance on my last day in New York,” says Denalane. “We had a few hours to spare before my flight so we had a bit of a reggae jam, with no special intention or plan. I could hardly believe what Roberto had made of this song when he showed me.”
The dramatic ‘Wounded Love’, the Marvin Gaye-reminiscent ‘The Ride’ and the combative up-tempo smasher ‘I Gotta Know’ are all songs in which Joy Denalane sounds so comfortable that you don’t even think of the famous role models that inspired them. And the James Jamerson bass guitar sounds particularly good on ‘I Believe’, which Denalane sings with the American Motown artist BJ The Chicago Kid, who has also collaborated with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Anderson Paak.
“I made this record,” says Joy Denalane. “What was important to me was the sound and the feeling, a search for myself. Where do I come from, what defines me, what’s left when I leave everything else out?” In most of the songs she is ostensibly singing about love in all its facets: love of friends and children as well as romantic love. Yet the way she does that is similar to how universal themes gained an additional level of meaning and a political charge in soul music in the past. The pain and the urgency present in these love songs naturally laid a trail to the black civil rights movement and the misery suffered as a result of racism and marginalisation.
This suffering is, sadly, international and not limited to the United States of the 1960s. “I can feel my own pain, my rage, my despair and vulnerability very clearly on this record,” she says. “This music brings these feelings to light and channels them even more than the previous records.”
Let Yourself Be Loved is permeated by Joy Denalane’s experiences as a black woman in Germany’s diaspora. When she was a child and a teenager there were very few black people in Germany, and there was no sound that addressed their day-to-day experience of racism and marginalisation.
“All those years I was coming up against brick walls,” says Joy, “even in enlightened, cosmopolitan Berlin. The music gave me strength and helped me to become aware of the situation. As a child it’s a strange feeling when you’re excluded – you’re too young to understand. Our mother would do up our hair perfectly every morning. Our parents impressed on us that ‘You must always be better than the others. If you’re lacking in some way, you have to make up for it.’ By now I understand something I wasn’t able to see when I was 20 or 25: you never get used to these hurts and rejections, it never gets better. The incessant categorising makes you crazy and increasingly sensitive.”
However, that has not made the great Berlin-born artist any less fierce: sometimes when you sing about love, it’s about the absence of love. That is just part of how Let Yourself Be Loved represents the essence of Joy Denalane.