Question in the Form of an Answer: Charles Bradley

Art by Simon Laroche It’s now ten months since Passion of the Weiss’s Aaron Frank interviewed Charles Bradley. Since then, the sexagenarian has gone from blogosphere curio to mover on the modern...
By    March 5, 2012

Art by Simon Laroche

It’s now ten months since Passion of the Weiss’s Aaron Frank interviewed Charles Bradley. Since then, the sexagenarian has gone from blogosphere curio to mover on the modern soul scene. Before his return to Australia this month, I chatted to Bradley about how life’s changed since the release of his epic debut album No Time For Dreaming in January of last year, and the ways he’s been handling his newfound stature.

It was possibly the worst phone line I’ve ever encountered, and at times I think Bradley reverted to script. But as his publicist commented to me in an email, “Charles is good talent”, and his stories were indeed worth deciphering from a pile of shitty static. The interview was originally conducted for a Scene Magazine feature story, but is reproduced for Passion in Weiss in its entirety. – Matt Shea

It’s a year now since No time For Dreaming. It probably doesn’t feel like so long. How much has your life changed over the past year?

Since 2010, I would say that for the first time in my life things have started coming true. I’ve been looking for this opportunity for a long time – since I was about 15 years’ old – searching for my dreams. I’ve been on my own since I was about 14. And God knows, man, that it’s been a long, long fight trying to find some people who really believed me. But I thank God and I thank the ones who have found me and opened the doors for me so I can show the world what I really know and what kind of person I really am.

And how has music changed for you – the performance of music, it’s meaning – since late 2010? Do you get any more or less joy from it?

It’s just meant more and more now. I’m glad, because nowadays I really feel that people out there are looking for something that’s real, something that’s concrete, someone’s that’s going to speak out and say what’s in their heart. It’s one thing to get up onstage and look nice and sing a great song, but when you’re singing it from your heart people really connect to it. Because the trials and tribulations of this world and day, folks need real people to step forward and say what they really feel. When you sing from your heart people are going to relate to that, and when they see that you’re strong in your love and respect for music, they’re going to want to hear more of you. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.

There’s this great quote of yours on Soundcheck from a couple of months ago: “Don’t just have kids because you can have them. Have them because you know you can give them a good chance in life.” Makes me wonder if you have kids, Charles?

No, I don’t have any kids. I’ve been on my own since I was 14 and had such a hard life, and I watched all of my brothers and sisters get married and separate and marry and separate. And they’ve got kids and their kids aren’t growing up in stable situations. I thought I couldn’t live that life – why should they suffer? The young come into this world and shouldn’t have to struggle like that. I never had a good childhood myself, so I didn’t want to bring another into this world to suffer in the same way.

But I fall in love with my music, and fall in love with the people I meet out there, and open my heart and show them the true person that I am. I have been to hell and back, but I’ll say one thing: I was very truthful and honest in my dreams. And I would never have kids at the age that I am now, but I just keep on tryin’ for my dreams.

Does music help in that regard too — knowing that you’ll leave a legacy in another sense?

That’s what I’m going to do. Anybody’s who out there who has watched me or saw me knows that I don’t have a bad bone in my body. If I can help you and show you the love to help you grow greater within yourself, and give direction to your soul, I’m gonna do that. If I can give somebody something that’s good to help them go forward, they’re going to say one thing: “Charles Bradley – he shows you his heart.” Everything has always come from the heart, and now I’m at the age I am, I can’t change.

You’re in your early 60s, Charles. Do you think coming to this older helps you handle the success?

I have always felt sure and at peace with myself. That’s what gave me the strength to keep going. Because I remember when I was living in the streets and they’d ask me, “How do you stay so calm?” I get asked that question many times: how did I stay so calm when I was living on the streets? I used to ask my grandmother, “Why is there so much pressure and so much animosity in the world?” She would pick up a piece of coal and say, “Son. See this charcoal?” I’d say, “Yeah, grandma.” “Alright,” she’d say, “If you put this coal under pressure for millions of years, that same piece of charcoal is gonna turn into a precious diamond. Any time you’re going through changes and life’s abusing you, just remember to keep your mind like that precious piece of coal, and one day it will turn into a diamond.” I’ve never forgotten that; that’s what my grandmother gave me a long time ago, and it’s been in my thoughts all along.

Did that build up of frustration help in a sense? Would you sing with as much passion and intensity if you were doing this when you were younger?

I’ve always been a person that has been very humble. And I think I always had something to say. But coming up, I was afraid to say what was on my mind, what was in my heart, because back in those days, if you said anything, if you had anything, it would be taken from you, and I knew I had to survive. So, as long as I stayed quiet I had a real job, and if I opened my mouth – right or wrong – I would lose my job. So I came to these crises and trials and tribulations knowing that I needed a place to stay, I needed money, so I was afraid to open my mouth and lose what I had.

As I grew up and life started changing, now I don’t know how I came out of it, but I’m really starting to speak up. Now, I’ve got an opportunity I’ve been looking for all of my life, and I don’t want to lose this opportunity; I want to be able to open my spirit and grow and let people hear what I have to say, because I want to help someone with my music so they might be able to understand the life within themselves. Since I started travelling and touring, I had a lot of people come and talk to me. And a lot of people come up to me and shake my hand. I had a guy and he was about 64 years old, and he came up to me and said, “Brother, you have changed my life. I just wanna thank you. When you get up and do what you do onstage, I know that I can keep going.” Saturday just past I had two guys approach me and I spoke with them, and one of them said, “Charles Bradley: You don’t know how much you moved me; how much you’ve touched my soul.” I said, “Thank you. I just try to do what I do best, and I’m thankful people take so much from it.”

Your new band, The Extraordinaires: what can you tell me about them?

They’re young guys and they are eager to play. They are nice, warm young men that really want to play with me and they show me that they’ve got love. I will say, yes, that they’re not as strong playing for me as the Menahan St Band, because they [the Menahans] were the group who wrote the music behind me. But these young guys, they’re determined, they want to play with me, I’ve been on tour with them, and they’re very, very good. I can feel a lot of improvement, but I think the more I’m around them, the more they start to grow into what they already know. They’re a little hesitant, a little afraid; because they sometimes don’t know how I’m gonna come out when I’m on that stage. And they have to try and stay up behind me and give me that dynamic that I need. Because once I’ve got my spirit open, I’m expecting the band to be 110 percent behind me. My spiritual moments, my joyous moments, my hurt moments: I put everything out on the table, and I want the band to be able to say, “Wow. Charles is in his moment. We’ve gotta be there with him!” When I say to break it down I want them to break it down and gee things up. If I say for them to stop on a dime, I want them to stop on a dime. And then sometimes I want to hear just the beat so I can hit my heart and really talk to the public. I sing the songs the way the audience want to hear it, then I break it down and that’s when my spirit comes up to let them know where I’m at.

MP3: Charles Bradley-”No Time For Dreaming”

MP3: Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band – “Stay Away (Nirvana Cover)”

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