Dan Auerbach is best known as one half of the arena-filling rock and roll outfit The Black Keys, but these days his real strongpoint is signing talented artists to his label Easy Eye Sound and lending his masterful skills as a producer to the albums it churns out on a regular basis. The latest example is the solo debut from Aaron Frazer, who is normally a member of vintage soulful rockers Durand Jones & the Indications. Recently released via Dead Oceans and Easy Eye Sound, the aptly titled Introducing… is about as strong a debut as any artist can hope for, displaying Frazer’s massive talent as a soul vocalist alongside impeccably produced arrangements.
Kicking off with the dangerously smooth “You Don’t Wanna Be My Baby,” it’s immediately clear we are in for a hell of a ride. Frazer’s distinctive falsetto exudes the kind of cool vulnerability that would make Curtis Mayfield smile ear to ear. Auerbach complements his vocals with an orchestral production that features rich layers of tight arrangements courtesy of an all-star lineup of session players including members of the Memphis Boys (who played on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of A Preacher Man” and Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”), symphony percussionist Sam Bacco, and several members of the Daptone-Big Crown Records universe.
Blending 70s soul, disco, gospel, and doo-wop, the album finds Auerbach proving once again why he is the most underrated producer out there and his Easy Eye Sound is the MVP of indie record labels. He is also lucky to be working with a vocalist who can seamlessly merge an old soul sensibility with a modern freshness that makes Introducing… an album with one foot in the past and one in the present. The music and lyrics carries a timeless vibrancy and each song feels ripe for hip-hop sampling, which is almost certainly intentional. Ultimately, the album manages to skillfully avoid any of the soul and funk cliches that seem to plague so many artists trying to capture a throwback sound.
Recently, Aaron Frazer took some time to chat about the decision to record a solo album, connecting with Dan Auerbach, working with legendary session players, the soul music that inspires him and more!
What motivated you to step out on your own with a solo album?
It really came down to being presented with the opportunity to work with Dan [Auerbach], someone I’ve been a genuine fan of for years. I’d released a gospel 45 in 2017 that really resonated with people, but I figured I’d just trickle out solo singles indefinitely since I stay so busy with Durand Jones & The Indications. But when Dan called me up and said he wanted to make a full record, I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up.
How did you connect with Dan Auerbach?
I got a call from an Ohio phone number while I was frying plantains in my kitchen. He told me he’d heard “Is It Any Wonder”, the first song I sang with The Indications, and said he wanted to do a whole falsetto record.
What did Dan bring to the table creatively that shaped the sound of this album?
Besides being an incredible writer with a world class ear for catchy tunes, Dan is also a great facilitator – he put together the whole band for the record and struck such a great balance of young players and veterans, soul and not soul. Every single person he brought in to contribute were all there to serve the song above all else; no ego, just an amazing roster of thoughtful collaborators.
You have said that you are something of a perfectionist. How much of the music and songs did you already have mapped out before you entered the studio?
Hahah that’s true. I think making music that’s rooted in classic sounds means you know exactly where the bar is. You know who are some of the best to ever do it, so you can tell pretty easily where you’re falling short AND where you’re nailing it. Some parts, like the horn stabs in “Can’t Leave It Alone”, or the kick-bass pattern on “Done Lyin’” were mapped out precisely before we got to recording. But other things – flourishes like the cascading piano during the breakdown of “You Don’t Wanna Be My Baby”- were a function of leaving room for me and the band to be playful with it. We tried to strike the balance between cerebral and intuitive on this record and I think we got there.
Can you talk about some of the session players on this album and what it was like working with them?
Absolutely. I feel like the number one feedback I get about the band is “who the hell is playing bass??” And that would be Nick Movshon aka Movshon The Monster. You’d know Nick from his playing with the Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, Lee Fields and tons more. His knowledge of soul music really helped me anchor the rhythm section where I wanted it – at an intersection of soul and hip hop. Another great young player is a keyboardist named Ray Jacildo, Ray plays with modern rockabilly legend JD McPherson, so he knows American roots stuff, but can also get nasty in the Wu Tang kinda way. A more veteran player on the session was Bobby Wood, who, as a member of the studio band The Memphis Boys, played with so many legends over the decades. He’s a country-soul dude at heart, but when I explained Dilla swing to him he immediately understood. I love so many different styles of music, so to have people who can move so fluidly with me was crucial and a huge blessing.
In terms of your own tastes and style, are there specific artists, albums, or even eras of soul music that inspired you?
Oh man, so many. But I particularly gravitate towards the early 70s sweet soul stuff, largely coming from mid-Atlantic and Chicago. They were drawing on 40s-50s doo wop influence, but the drums were still heavy coming out of the 60s. They also brought in more sophisticated orchestration – strings, horns etc., but were experimenting with interesting studio production techniques in a post-Beatles world.
How did you get into singing? Did you grow up with formal training?
I was so embarrassed to sing in front of anyone until I was like 19. But I didn’t even really allow myself to try singing at all until I got my drivers license and I could be in the car – a private place where I could experiment without feeling self conscious. I didn’t realize I could sing falsetto until probably 21, when I was tracking a guide vocal track for Durand to use for “Is It Any Wonder”. I laying on the couch feeling very relaxed while recording and what came out was the vocal take that went on the actual record. I hurt my voice like a year and a half ago and had to go on vocal rest, and that was very scary. So when I recovered, I started taking vocal lessons to try and merge my self-taught approach with a smarter, less taxing technique. The voice is a really interesting instrument because it changes over the course of your life, and even day to day based on your lifestyle, environment, etc. It’s a delicate thing ya know, so I try to take good care of it.
As a songwriter, do you draw from current events and personal experiences?
Definitely. The artists I admire most, people like Carole King, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron- they all drew from personal experience, current events and also found room for fantasy. I think we all deserve that space to keep some parts of you on the ground, and some in the clouds.
Is there a central theme or philosophy that links all of these songs together?
I’m many things, and I want to be able to show people the full dimension of myself and not worry about labels. I want everyone to feel comfortable to do that in their own lives, whether that’s in their art, the music they love or anything else. Putting people or things in boxes feels natural in the world we grew up in, but I think we’re entering one that’s moving a bit past it, and that’s beautiful.
In post-pandemic world, can we expect you to tour behind this release?
Yeah! And also I’m sure if you come to a Durand Jones & The Indications show, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a cut or two.
Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen