Curtis King Jr. - Backstreets Interview
Interview by Erik Remec
Backup singer Curtis King Jr. is certainly recognizable to Bruce Springsteen fans the world over. He first started working with Bruce in 2006 as a part of the Seeger Sessions Band/Tour and later became a member of the extended E Street Band for the 2009 – 2014 tours.
Erik Remec: You've had a very successful career in the music business for over 30 years, so what made you decide that this was the right time to put out your first solo album?
Curtis King Jr: I started going into the studio around 1996 and tried recording just to see if I could do it. I played around in the studio a bit but then the tours called. I got a call from Duran Duran to go out on tour, and then Carly Simon asked me if I would go out on tour with her [while I was on tour with Duran Duran]. As crazy as it was, the open dates [I had] were the dates that she had booked. So she flew me back and forth between Duran Duran and her tour. Along the way I think I recorded a song here and there; you know at least I was writing, but it just wasn't coming together.
ER: So how did the whole Bruce thing start?
CK: I got a call from Steve Jordan [studio musician and original Letterman show drummer] in 2006. He said that Bruce Springsteen had been auditioning male singers for the Seeger Sessions Band and hadn’t come up with anybody that he liked, and he thought I would be the perfect guy for him. The band was rehearsing at the Convention Center, I think, at the time. So I walk in, and Bruce introduces me to the guys and then he starts to sing and asks me to harmonize with him. I sang some harmonies and [Bruce says,] “OK, that sounds good, come up on stage.” I said, “But I don’t know the material!” And [Bruce] says, “Don’t worry--you’ll learn it along the way.” That was my audition! So I’m really grateful to Steve Jordan for helping me out like that.
ER: How would you describe your sound on the album?
CK: Well, I’m sort of a chameleon in some respects, vocally, in that my influences are wide and vast. I’m a really big fan of Bobby McFerrin. I really like doing [his type of] little vocal stylings. And then, of course, I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, and the Beatles. I just love their music.
ER: You covered Paul McCartney and Marvin Gaye [on the album]?
CK: Yeah. “My Love” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Marvin Gaye’s “Come Get You This.” It’s on the Let’s Get It On album. Whenever you’re doing a remake of a song, you really need to take it somewhere else so that the song will still be recognizable, but different from the original. That’s what I like to hear. If you’re going to pay tribute to a song, then really flip it on it’s head. So I did that with the Marvin Gaye song and also the Paul McCartney songs. I took “My Love” and slowed it down and just turned it into this big romantic song. And then “Can’t Buy Me Love” I turned into a really fun a cappella song.
ER: And you met Paul McCartney right?
CK: I did meet him. I met Sir Paul when we did the Grammys. I forgot what year it was because we were touring like mad, it might have been 2012. I was backstage at the Grammys with Garry Tallent and Sir Paul was there. Garry and I were talking about how it would be great for me to meet him. Garry said, “Just go say Hi--he’s cool” and that’s what I did. He’s [Paul McCartney] a very, very nice man. It was just a perfect opportunity. You know, things happen, and you just know that they’re going to happen. I’ve always wanted to be the fifth Beatle. Of course it never happened, but just to be in his presence, and my favorite Beatle on top of that, it was just an amazing experience.
ER: And you were also at the show with him in London when they turned the power off, right?
CK: Yes, I did the “power off” show! Yeah, I was there. Was it Hyde Park?
ER: Yeah, Hyde Park.
CK: We were playing and having a rocking good time, and all of sudden you could hear that something went wrong [chuckles]. Something went awry, and we could tell the power is definitely off out there in the audience. We were past our curfew, and then as luck would have it, we had another couple hours just hanging out with Sir Paul. We couldn’t leave since we had overshot our time. Usually we leave the stage before the audience is gone but since we went overtime, they had to let the audience get out to get to the subway, which of course blocked our little escape. But it actually all worked out in the end.
ER: So what did you learn from working with Bruce?
ER: But you gotta work, right?
CK: Yes! From the moment we started, I was working. When we stopped, I could feel it in my body: it just literally dropped once the tour was over. I collapsed. Mentally, it’s draining too because [Bruce] always keeps you guessing. He would have us learn new stuff on our off days. He’d want us to learn the new songs so that we’d be ready when he calls us at the sound check/rehearsal. And then, hopefully you’ve done your homework because when you get up on stage you might be doing that [new] song as the opener! He would surprise you. It would be a rush. We’re riding this untamed mare that’s out there, and we’re just trying to hold on for dear life, trying to ride it and not get kicked off. It was just such a blast. It just taught me about being spontaneous. The spontaneity is very much a part of how [Bruce] works. No two shows are alike. Ever.
ER: Did you get the set lists beforehand?
CK: You get the set list just prior to going on stage. You get it, and within three to five minutes you’re walking towards the stage. You’re looking at it and you’re just trying to take it all in while the stage lights are coming up!
ER: And then the set list might change during the show anyway, right?!
CK: Yeah, and nine times out of ten, it would!
ER: So back to your album, what was the recording process like?
CK: Butch Jones was the catalyst for me. I’d see him on a session and he was always asking me when I was going to do my own record. He had this new equipment which allowed us to record anywhere. We didn’t need to go into an actual studio so that made it easier for me. We ended up going to an office, and he’d just set up his equipment, completely mobile, and we’d start recording. The office had a soundproof room that allowed me to be able to sing in there, and we basically made the record there and in the basement of his house. Only once or twice were we in an actual studio.
Butch was just so gung-ho and really stayed on it. He was checking in with me [while I was] on the road. I would send him my ideas, and then he would put them in the track, and I’d come back and just tweak it. I learned a lot from this whole process through Butch. He taught me how to create space on the record. He let me know that you have to leave room. You have all these instruments, and everything has to be able to breathe and have its own space so you don’t crowd the record. I had to make sure that each of the ideas [I had] had its place, and I had to make sure I wasn’t overindulging with too many ideas at once.
ER: So is there a general theme to the music on the record?
CK: Changing Face represents that I’m not just one particular genre. It represents all these different parts of me because I never liked the idea of making a “soul record” or a “pop record.” One of my mentors, Todd Rundgren, never liked being put into a box, and that’s how I wanted to approach my own record.
ER: It does make it a little harder to market the album then . . .
CK: It does. But the way I look at it when you listen my record, and you hear this single, and you go, “Wow, that’s cool!” And then you start checking out the rest of the record, and you go, “Wow, that’s different--I didn’t expect that, but I still like it.” Maybe it’s just me [chuckles], but it seems like [on a typical record], you got the one single--the hit, and now every song sounds similar to that. I like to write something for each song that’s really unique and not in any particular direction. I really feel that once I get out and perform the album, people will get it even more. Once they hear it live.
ER: But there is a common sound to it all, though. It’s not completely different from one track to another. It’s not like you’re doing country and then heavy metal!
CK: Well, it’s not that different! Although if you really listen to it, I think that my song “Still Looking for You” could be a country song. I’ve been singing it around the house lately with a little more of a twang to it, and I’m thinking, “Oh, I think I have my country song here too!”
ER: What kind of idea are you going for with the album cover artwork?
CK: The cover kind of gives you the whole “Changing Face” thing too. I’m getting a lot of kudos for it. It’s from an idea that I came across a couple years ago. I explained [my idea] to Matty [Amendola], who did the [album] artwork and did my website, and he said, “I could do that.” He snapped some photos of me and worked on putting this whole thing together.
ER: Let’s talk a little more about some of the other songs on the album.
CK: “Little Feet” is the first song on the album. I call it a little vignette. It’s not very long, and it’s just a taste of something really cute and fun. I call it “Little Feet” because it reminds me of a child running around the house, something really light and funny.
I initially wanted Angelique Kidjo [African singer] to do a duet with me on the song “Shine.” I sent the song to her, but [instead of a duet] she gave me a lot of African ad-libs. She did something completely different from what I had originally planned, but it worked. “Shine” is almost like two songs. I was listening to that song in the studio, and I got this idea of creating another section, a continuation of the song going off in another direction. I found a chord which I felt would really work, and it just opened up a whole new world.
ER: You have some other singers on the record too.
CK: Yes. I was able to get Cindy Mizelle [fellow E Street Band member], Dennis Collins, Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer. I was really fortunate to get these really top-tier players. I had the girls on "No Sign of Religion" and both the girls and the guys on "Living in Color", "Nothing About My Heart", and "Wildest Dreams."
ER: The song "Living in Color" deals with your experiences with racism.
CK: My son, who was in the fifth grade at the time, came home from school one day and told me that one of the kids at his school had said a very-not-so-nice word [the n-word] to him, and he's asking me, "what's that?" I was just shocked to hear him tell me that, so that [incident] was the catalyst for the song. "We're still living in color." I didn't want to offend anyone with the song--I just wanted people to get it. I was angry when I heard [what my son went through] and I wanted to express myself through the music and get the message across to folks. That was my aim with that song.
ER: It's a shame that it's still like that.
CK: I had gone through [racism]. That's what I dealt with. I thought [before my son had come to me] that it had passed and that we were on to better days. And here we are. I still can't believe we are where we are today.
ER: So what are the plans now with the album? Are you going to go out on the road or play some shows?
CK: Well, the plan is to have a nice little listening party, preferably at The Cutting Room [NYC music venue] and then to play some shows and get this thing up and running.
ER: Right. So what kind of a band would you be thinking of . . . ??
CK: Well my bucket list band would be . . . let's see, for bass players: it's a choice between Anthony Jackson and Will Lee.
ER: [Will Lee] from Letterman?
CK: Yeah, Letterman, right. Omar Hakim was the drummer on at least three songs on the record. It would be great if I could get him to be there as well. See, I'm also thinking of musicians who also sing, so they could also then add the voice.
ER: Double duty . . .
CK: Yeah, double duty, right. Will [Lee] sings. Omar sings.
For the horn section, I'd like to get V. Jeffrey Smith, who did the horn arrangements on the record, and his sidekick Mark Williams who played trombone.
I would like to have at least five singers, maybe six, to pull this all off, for all the vocal things I have going on. Also, I play keys, but I would like to have someone doubling me so that I would be able to jump off and stand up and sing if I want. So that's my plan. I'd like to have that freedom to be able to move around without thinking about it and then come back to keyboard when I need to.
ER: It's quite the production!
CK: Yeah, it's a fairly sizeable band. And it would be a pretty rocking band. See, I want to take the songs on the record and take them a little step higher, turn it up, really liven it up. And those songs, those vocal vignettes, my idea would be to really pull them off and really kill. That's what I plan to do.
ER: Very cool. You also have Charlie Giordano [E Street Band] on the record.
CK: Yeah, I had Charlie on [the songs] "Shine" and "Changing Face." He played the accordion and he did a really beautiful job. I don't know if you're aware since Charlie doesn't play piano with the E Street Band, but he's an amazing piano player. I go back to the Seeger Sessions--all that ragtime stuff that he was playing, and it's funny, but I forgot about that once I got to E Street 'cause you know E Street's a different kind of animal. And then one day we were in rehearsal, and Charlie just started playing piano, and I said, "God, I forgot how beautifully he plays piano, man!" So he may be someone that I may consider to take on that position if he's available, of course. Plus, he covers all kinds of keyboard instruments so he would be really good. So I'm just keeping all these great people in mind, and hopefully their schedules would allow them to be available.
ER: So are you thinking of just a few dates, here and there?
CK: So far, dates here and there. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I would like to get some radio play. I've also been approaching people I know in the Grammy voting pool and my song "Little Feet" has been submitted to be considered for a Grammy nomination.
You know, the excitement is still there for me in this business. I'm just a happy background singer and grateful to be a part of the scene and add my voice. It's just such a wonderful life, not to quote a movie, but it kind of is!