An Interview With Acantha Lang

In his POW debut, Fraser Morris speaks to Soul singer Acantha Lang about finding her voice, the significance of her move to New York, her debut album Beautiful Dreams and more.
By    August 7, 2023

Image via Katy-Rose Cummings

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Fraser Morris is a Soul music enthusiast who’s also fond of coffee, Korean cuisine and Middle Eastern history.

Acantha Lang looks to her left, beckoning to her living room wall where a mural of her most revered soul singers sits. Aretha Franklin. Mavis Staples. Nina Simone. Gladys Knight. Etta James. There are placeholders for Millie Jackson, Betty Wright, and Ann Peebles. The display serves as Acantha’s homage to the seminal African American female musicians who influenced her, and a reminder of the legacy she aspires to.

Raised in New Orleans but now based in London, Acantha is categorical about the type of singer and artist she wants to be. She describes it as soul singing “from the hip” – raw, emotive, uninhibited. She doesn’t sing with the gospel-honed melisma of some of her idols; unlike most of the above, she wasn’t raised in the church. But with its deep hues and throaty textures, her voice has the capacity to both soothe and sting. With music that evokes the golden era of soul, she forms part of a wider revivalist movement alongside Durand Jones & the Indications, Lady Wray, Thee Sacred Souls, and Jalen N’Gonda.

Ater cutting her teeth performing blues shows in Harlem, New York, Lang was recruited to be the house singer and emcee at the exclusive NYC nightclub, The Box. She moved to the UK to take over the emcee role at the London branch of The Box, reveling in the venue’s burlesque madness. But the 4 a.m. finishes began to grate on her. What she really wanted was to write, record, and perform her own music. So she resigned, embracing the precarity of the independent soul circuit. Low pay, disinterested audiences, and countless covers of “Proud Mary” followed.

But soon enough, Acantha began gaining traction. I first saw her at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club, one of London’s most esteemed jazz clubs where the likes of Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Van Morrison have performed. Her set was comprised primarily of her original tunes, several of which would, years later, appear on her debut album Beautiful Dreams. I was struck by Acantha’s personal storytelling, the texture and grain of her voice, and the ease and familiarity of her melodies.

She also honored her soulful influences with unexpected covers of Candi Staton’s “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool),” Millie Jackson’s “It Hurts So Good,” and Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released.” My affections were secured when she roared through my favorite soul song of all time: Aretha Franklin’s “The House That Jack Built.”

The independently released, Beautiful Dreams, is the culmination of Acantha’s toil. Lead single “He Said / She Said” is an excoriating take down of fake news and social media, demonstrating a more aggressive edge to her vocals. What could easily be saccharine in less capable hands is riveting and uplifting here: from the brassy “It’s Gonna Be Alright” to the propulsive “Ride This Train.” You can hear shades of Lang’s soulful influences throughout: “Whatever Happened to Our Love” evokes the laidback grooves of Dorothy Moore and Bettye Swann; the title track has an air of Al Green to its melodic cadences; “Sugar Woman” is the sort of folksy lullaby you could imagine Nina Simone writing.

In the wake of its June release, we sat down to discuss Lang’s upbringing, her journey from New Orleans to New York and then London, classic soul, and Beautiful Dreams.

You were raised by your mother in New Orleans. What music would she play in the house when you were a child?

Acantha Lang: Music wasn’t a big feature in my house, believe it or not. I didn’t grow up in a traditional Black gospel Baptist Church, like how Aretha and a lot of soul singers cut their teeth when they were young. I didn’t have any of that. My house was really quiet – when there wasn’t a lot of drama going on. That’s another story! Music was a big thing in the city, so I was exposed to jazz funerals and blues bars on Bourbon Street. But not in my house.

How did your musical tastes evolve as you grew older?

Acantha Lang: I had an older sister who was into whatever was on the radio at the time, and so she exposed me to some artists like Anita Baker and Sade. When I moved to New York, that’s when things started really taking shape for me.

Before you moved to New York, were you playing locally in New Orleans?

Acantha Lang: No, I wasn’t into music in New Orleans at all.

So, what took you to New York?

Acantha Lang: I moved to New York because I wanted to leave the little town [I grew up in]. I wanted to see something different. I went to college [in New Orleans] for two years, and I was majoring in computer science and business. And I was just like, “this is not for me.” And then I started waiting tables. One of my best friends had moved to New York with her boyfriend; she was pursuing dancing, and he was an actor. And when she got out there, she was like, “Oh, my God, New York is amazing!” I had visited once or twice. It was never on my radar to move to New York, but I felt like I needed a change. She was like, “you can come stay with me, I’m in Brooklyn, we got an extra room.” I was like, “that’s it. I’m going to pack my bags and go and just see what happens.”

You’ve said in a previous interview that you didn’t find your voice until you moved to New York City. How did you find your voice?

Acantha Lang: I started singing in the jam nights in New York. An ex-boyfriend who I was dating at the time was really helpful in helping me break through stage fright. I don’t know why, but he took an interest in pushing me. So we went around to all these jam nights. And one of the jam nights we went to was where Jimi Hendrix used to play – Café Wha? in the East Village. I would go in there and sing the same song and just really try to work through my stage fright.

It all came together when I discovered a blues CD in one of the record shops [in Harlem]. My ex-boyfriend at the time had a restaurant – the Harlem Grill – and we came up with this idea to put together a show called Monday Night Blues. I would just sing twelve bar blues and traditional blues, and that’s where I really started shaping the sound that you hear now. It really came out of the blues in Harlem, New York, which is crazy, because you would think that would happen in New Orleans. I discovered Koko Taylor – the Queen of the Blues – with her raw, raspy tone, and BB King and Little Walter. All of these blues voices had this smoky tone. And I used to try to mimic them. That’s where the deep tones in my voice started developing.

When you performed at the Harlem Grill, did you have a house band that you were a part of?

Acantha Lang: Yeah, have you heard of Fred Cash from the Impressions? So, his son, Fred Cash Jr., was my bass player. And then I had Michael Campbell, who has now passed away. He was a fierce guitarist who did some musical directing for Prince and various big artists. And then Fred McFarlane, on keys, who’s also deceased now. He produced “Somebody Else’s Guy” with Jocelyn Brown and wrote a lot of the big R&B hits at the time. He was my keys player. And then I had Vincent Henry, a saxophone player who played on Amy Winehouse’s stuff. The list goes on and on. It was amazing.

This booking agent saw my show at the Harlem Grill, and so he started booking me at all these festivals abroad like Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival, Jazzablanca, and the World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal. So, I got to travel as an unknown blues artist. I even did a show in Guadeloupe opening for Salif Keita.

You were then headhunted for The Box. I’ve never been to The Box, either in London or New York. And when you look at The Box website, it’s very mysterious and very unclear what happens inside. So, what on earth happens in The Box?

Acantha Lang: The Box is one of those whimsical places where you can’t really explain what goes on, you have to experience it. But I’ll try: it is like a combination of Studio 54 – a hedonistic kind of thing – meets cabaret, meets variety show, meets nightclub, meets shock, but it’s all done high end. So, the tables are like £1000 or $1,000 minimum. It’s decked out like an old school theatre. And basically, it opens up, the DJ is spinning, and it’s all bustling. And then at some point, the lights go down. And then the curtains open, and there’s a host, an emcee of the night, who is this larger-than-life character. And the host guides everybody through the experience and introduces maybe three to four acts in the first half of the show. And this can range from circus acts to shock acts to singers to dancers to dogs to whatever it is, but it’s variety. There’s a short break. And then the second act, same format, different acts. And then the DJ comes and then you party until three or four in the morning.

I started out as the house singer. Somebody saw me at the Harlem Grill, and then they were like, “Oh, we have this new nightclub, we’re looking for a singer with stage presence who could come in”. At the time, I didn’t really know what The Box was going to be, but it came at the right time. So, I went in, auditioned, got the job, and it was just life changing. It became the place in New York City. And I did that for a couple of years.

The then-host of The Box ended up coming to London when they opened up the London Box. And so they needed somebody to fill in for New York. And he came to me and he said, “I pitched you for the first female emcee to take over the night.” I took it on and became this larger than life character in The Box, and performed for anyone from Simon Cowell to J. Lo to John Malkovich, and all these people would come through and knock on my dressing room door.

What did you learn from The Box?

Acantha Lang: I was on stage five nights a week, for seven years straight. So, looking out into the audience and having to perform for the “who’s who” in entertainment and make people feel like spending £3000 on the table was worth it – that’s high pressure! But the time that I spent on stage made me so comfortable. I had to adapt if something malfunctioned behind the curtain: I had to extend my intros, extend my outros, perform for this person and that person. So, I became a very, very seasoned performer on stage as far as stage presence and stage craft. That’s what The Box taught me.

So you moved to London to take over the emcee role in 2012. Did you have any reservations about moving to London?

Acantha Lang: I did. I had spent many years in New York, my life was there. I had two cats, all my friends are there, London is far away from my roots. But like when I left New Orleans, I felt I also needed a change from New York as well. So, I took it, and I’m happy I did, because I was only supposed to come over for 3 months. And then I kept extending, extending, and then, yeah, I’m still here.

Why did you eventually leave that well paid job at The Box?

Acantha Lang: I had reached my capacity for late nights. I had been this house singer of The Box from the very beginning, when it was special, when it was fresh and new in New York City. I became the first female emcee, and became the queen of The Box, in New York and in London. And when I moved to London, I decided that I was going to really try to start building my artist career over here. So, while I was working at The Box, I was also networking with Bruno Major, and I started songwriting with him. I was really trying to start shaping my artist career, and The Box was really not serving that. I was tired of being up at 4am. And also, I had just done it. Every time I looked at the call sheet and the show flow, I was like, “I’ve done all this.” I just got bored. And I really wanted to see my artist thing through. So, I just took a leap of faith. Sometimes you just got to f*cking do it.

How did you make that transition to become a solo artist?

Acantha Lang: Well, it was a leap of faith. It was scary. I just went to loads of jams, I started networking. I started singing in wedding bands and function bands and wherever I could get a gig. I was performing for £50, it was a nightmare. But I started from the bottom, and just kept working my way up. And what I did was I just said, “I need to work smarter, not harder.” So, I just started saying, “that’s not working, that’s too much, that’s too far in Wales or whatever for £200.” I really had to learn about asking about postcodes, because people were roping me into gigs, and then I’d be in the car for five hours for £200. I was like, “where the hell are we going?”

I first met you, not in your capacity in The Box, but in your capacity as an independent soul artist. And I saw you at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club back in 2019. Your set was largely your original material, some of the songs we’ll discuss later. But you also included some unexpected covers. You did Candi Staton’s “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart,” and Millie Jackson’s “It Hurts So Good.” Why those songs and not “Proud Mary” or something else?

Acantha Lang: When you do the “money gigs” for private events and weddings and stuff, the whole set is filled with those crowd favorites because you can’t really go with deep cuts because you’re trying to entertain people. But when I’m performing my set as an artist, I want to have an artist’s approach to it and try to interpret a song that people may have not heard, and introduce them to that. And also, it’s more interesting, more fun. Who needs to hear “Proud Mary” again? No one.

I very much agree. Let’s just deep dive quickly into one of those artists. What does Millie Jackson mean to you?

Acantha Lang: I was introduced to her music at the Harlem Grill. And believe it or not, my ex boyfriend’s stepfather used to be her attorney. And he used to tell us stories about how Millie was just so crazy. She’d just come in and just cuss everyone out. And she was just raw and unhinged. And she sounds a lot like Gladys Knight to me, except with this crazy, raw edge, of course. But Millie has such a knack at storytelling, some of her monologues that I listened to were so outlandish. But she didn’t care. She just was like, “I’m going to tell you all a story.” It just was so good. I love when a woman just says what’s on her mind. And then that voice, that smoky tone, it speaks to me.

I have a little picture wall of all my inspirations. And when I look at it, there’s Etta on there, Aretha, Nina, Gladys, Mavis Staples. As an African American woman soul singer, I look in their eyes, and I see myself in them. And I really want to carry on the legacy, because, of course, these legends are getting on in age, so who’s going to be the next generation of these kind of soul singers? I’m not talking about 90s R&B, I’m talking about 60s and 70s soul singing “from the hip,” that’s what I call it, with a live band, no backing tracks. I want to make sure that we do not forget where this music came from, because it’s amazing.

You’ve just released your debut album Beautiful Dreams. Congratulations! Firstly, let’s talk about it sonically. What did you want it to sound like?

Acantha Lang: First of all, I wanted you to feel the blues in it. It had to have some blues foundation and Emlyn [my partner and guitarist] was amazing at getting that. So, when we set out to record the songs we wanted to make sure it said “blues,” that it was soulful, and that there were real musicians playing on the record. We just wanted to write the songs, have the musicians play it, just organically, all in the same room like they did back in the day, and not overthink it and overproduce it too much. We really just wanted it to just come from us. It’s very intentional.

And what did you want the album to say?

Acantha Lang: When I write, people always say, “Oh, I have this song written for you.” I don’t really want to speak anybody else’s words at this point, because I have a lot to say. And I’ve been through some things in my life, and I have family and friends who’ve been through some things. And I just wanted it to be a collection of my thoughts and emotions about how I see the world, to give hope and inspiration through the songs. I like writing positive songs. “Things may be a little bit rough, but it’s going to be alright. I can’t open my eyes, I can’t get out of bed, but keep on.” These are songs on the record. “Ride This Train” is all about following your dreams, seeing it through. These are things that I say to myself every day, because life is crazy, it’ll throw you some shit, even if you’re high one day. We all go through something, and it’s a human experience. And I just wanted it to be something where people can put it on and say, I got through it. And that’s happening. I get messages like, “your album is just what I needed… Your songs have made me get out of bed.” That kind of thing. That’s amazing.

Some of the songs are really personal and confessional. “Lois Lang” is your ode to your mother. How did you write that song?

Acantha Lang: I always thought my mom’s name, Lois Lang, was an interesting name with the Superman reference. And I told Emlyn, my guitarist, “I think I want to write a song about my mom, because ‘Lois Lang’ is screaming for a song.” And also, it will be a great tribute to her, and I think I could hopefully tell a story. And so, I started writing the lyrics, and tried to tell a story in 4 minutes, which was high pressure. I love the way it came out.

How did your mother react when she first heard it?

Acantha Lang: When she first heard the song, she teared up. I performed it live for her. I flew her over for my first Pizza Express gig in Soho, London. It was a big deal because I always wanted to play there. I told my mom, I said, “you’ve never been to London. I got this big show at Pizza Express, and I’m going to fly you over,” because she’s never been here. And it was the first time we ever performed the song live in front of her. It’s on YouTube. You could actually hear me introducing it, and her waving at the crowd.

I want to ask about my favorite song on the record, which I’ve been waiting to hear the studio version of for a few years: “Come Back Home.” It’s your olive branch to your estranged father, right?

Acantha Lang: I had that song written already, it was a piano ballad at first. We really had to do some work on it, so that it could fit [with the album]. But I wrote the song because it’s my truth. I just needed to say what I had to say. All of these things are a little bit personal, some of them a little bit painful, but I had to purge it. And I’m not afraid to say that the good, the bad and the ugly is what makes us human and who we are. And I’m proud of where I’ve come from, and the things that I’ve been through. So I just had to sing about it.

What does Acantha Lang have in store for the next year or so?

Acantha Lang: So now that this album is out, Fraser, I am officially an artist with a body of work, which is huge for me. So, building on that, it’s letting people know that I’m just beginning, I’m getting on the road and performing these songs live around the world, under my own name, and building a career that is sustainable, where I could actually start making some money. Because as you know, the music business is so crazy, it’s hard to make money.

I want to be able to just focus on my career: 100% Acantha Lang gigs, doing my own music, and more albums, more collaborations. And yeah, just writing songs that are evergreen, and making classic albums.

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