Record of the Week: Curtis Harding’s ‘If Words Were Flowers’

Soul singer and multi-instrumentalist Curtis Harding was raised around music. His mother was a gospel singer and he learned how to sing and play the drums in the church.

His mother taught him to sing with feeling, but another lesson she taught him outside of music was about showing love and appreciation for people before it was too late. She told him, “Give me my flowers while I’m still here,” and that statement stuck with Harding. That lesson would become the theme of his third album, If Words Were Flowers.

He traveled a long journey from church to making solo albums. As a teenager in Atlanta, he got an opportunity most kids in that city would dream of working promotions for LaFace Records, the home of TLC, Toni Braxton and Outkast.

Through his relationship with LaFace, he built a friendship with Cee Lo Green of Goodie Mob and rapped on his 2002 solo album Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections. Green also invited Harding to sing backup on the road, and the two would continue working in the studio. Harding returned to Atlanta and formed a band with Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander called Night Sun, mixing garage rock and R&B. The band signed a deal with indie label Burger Records, which also released his debut solo album Soul Power in 2014.

Harding made his 2017 album Face Your Fear with Sam Cohen and Danger Mouse producing. For this new album, Harding teamed up with Cohen again, and wanted to make a record that felt a multi-act play and had social weight to it. It opens with the strings of the title track, then goes into the powerful protest anthem “Hopeful,” which speaks to social unrest around the world and to staying strong and hopeful through the turmoil.

You can also hear Harding reaching out in love throughout the album, in songs that take up topics of companionship, new experiences and solidarity. “Can’t Hide It” is an up-tempo, celebration of love and commitment with that feels like it belongs in a lost episode of “Soul Train,” and has the music video to match.

Harding’s track “On and On,” off of Face Your Fear, was featured in the closing scenes of the Marvel series “Falcon and the Winter Solider” starring Anthony Mackie. The two have since formed a friendship and Mackie makes an appearance in the video.

Harding closes the album with “I Won’t Let You Down,” a track that promises his loved ones he won’t let them down, no matter the circumstances.

He’s giving his listeners an elaborate bouquet through his music.

On the Record: A Q&A with Curtis Harding

Marquis Munson: Making this new record during the pandemic, and a lot of social unrest that you address in your music, how has this time been for you?

Curtis Harding: I think we all had a shared experience. I was lucky enough to be able to have an outlet by being able to create this record and make some music. It was tough, but at the same time I was able to reflect about the past, the future and the present. Making music helped me to get out of the present at some point. It was good, man, and very cathartic.

MM: I think a lot of people have used this time to self-reflect and just think about what their next plans were going to be. What was your thought process?

CH: Just making sure that I had the fortitude to do what needed to be done in the moment and refine what I have so the future would be bright. That’s why I think a lot of the songs on the album speak about hope. I’m a very optimistic person in general, so I just wanted to impart that through audible experience with people. Even though we were going through some dark times and we’re still dealing with some of the same stuff. But I think the message is what’s important, for people to move forward and be hopeful.

MM: So when did you start the process of making this album?  

CH: The writing started towards the end of 2019. Once 2020 hit, that’s when I started thinking about the environment, the sentiment and just refined the material. I think a lot of it was unconsciously done. As opposed to my last record, Face Your Fear, there’s a lot of space on this album. I think that’s because there was literally a lot of space in my environment in Atlanta. We were on lockdown; there was no one on the streets, so it just added to the sound of the album. But the writing process was me and my little space, my musical space, just plowing at it.

MM How did you come up with the title If Words Were Flowers?

CH: I was thinking about the correlation between roses and flowers. It’s also a statement that my mom used to say all the time: “Give me my flowers while I’m still alive.” So I was thinking about, “What does that actually mean in the sense of musical terminology? How can I portray that statement musically?”

The correlation between words and flowers, I think it’s a very interesting one. Metaphorically speaking, you can be super articulate if you want to give someone an elaborate bouquet. It can be bright and brilliant, or it could be very simplistic and singular and just give someone a singular rose. I think that plays into a lot of the writing style that I have on this album. Some of the songs like “Hopeful” required a lot of words and some of the songs require less, like the title track. It just a sense of being articulate enough to express that in a way that makes sense.

MM: You’re definitely giving your flowers out to artists that you admired throughout your career and through your music. You grew up in music outside of listening to Curtis Mayfield and Motown. Growing up your mother was a gospel singer. What were some things you learned growing up and traveling with your mom? And what advice did she give you when you started to pursue music?

CH: To be myself and to sing with feeling. I think that’s one of the things gospel music carries, whether you believe in God, a higher power or not. I think the one thing that gospel music does, being in a live, vibrant environment like church, is to sing with feeling and to always present a message of hope. If this was the last thing that put out, I don’t want to put out something that’s going to tank my legacy. I want to leave a message of hope for people. So that was my thinking, especially in dark times like 2020.

MM: You’ve lived around the country before you finally made Atlanta your home. You would get a job working promotions for LaFace Records early on. How did you get that gig? Because for most musicians in Atlanta, I’m sure that was a dream destination.

CH: Just putting myself in the atmosphere, man. Wherever I knew that Outkast and Goodie Mob was going to be, I was there. I ended up building a relationship with the guys and just meeting like-minded people that were into the same music. We ended up being on the street team. They would fly us to Miami, and whenever they would have a show, we will be out there with our posters and signs. I ended up buliding a relationship with Cee Lo and Andre. Any time that Outkast would have a show in Atlanta or at a club, Dre would let me into the back door. So I owe a lot to those guys.

MM Through those connections you had the opportunity to work with Cee Lo Green early on in your career. What did you learn from that experience with him?

CH: We were invited to the Dungeon one day by Dre after talking to him at a club. Cee Lo was in there working on his first solo record. We just happened to walk into the room and he had a beat playing and we just started like freestyling, rapping and singing. And he liked what we did. He liked our look and he invited us out to another studio that he was working at. And it just built from there. He heard that I had a voice and he was gracious enough to allow me to sing on his album and even be featured on one of the tracks rapping. It just kind of spiraled from there. When tour came around, he needed backup singers I was like, “Hey, can I go?” And he was gracious enough again to allow me to ghost him on the road and sing backup.

MM: When I listen to your albums, I hear a little bit of The Love Below from Andre 3000, mixing hip hop, rock and the psychedelic sound. Being around that musicially enviroment had to shape the artist that you become today.

CH Definitely, man. The courage and the musical prowess those guys have. Even aesthetically, their style played a part for me being courageous enough to do what I do now. Just the mixing of the singing with CeeLo, the rapping at the same time and being a master at both. How can you not be inspired from that? It has definitely played a part in my musical development. I would encourage anyone that doesn’t know about the history of Organized Noize, Dungeon Family, Outkast and Cee Lo to listen, to find that stuff and go back. You’ll have something to learn, man. You have some music that will carry you forward, because that music is timeless and it’s classic.

MM: On this album If Words Were Flowers, you are showing love to the people you care about, but there is also a message of hope and encouragement throughout the record as well. Was that your mindset when making this album?

CH Definitely. We needed it and we still need it. I think hope is all about despite your circumstances being able to have a positive outlook. Like I said earlier, if this was the last thing that I made, I wanted it to be something that was a contribution as opposed to taking away from humanity. Being optimistic can be a chore at times. But at the end of the day, if you can see your way through where you are and if you can focus on something positive, then it’s going to grow some beautiful flowers. And that’s exactly what the record is about.

MM: How would you explain the genre-blending style of your sound Slop N Soul?

CH: When I came up with that terminology Slop N Soul, you know, on the farm when you give slop to the pigs, it’s just a mixture of everything. Its funky and its runny. It was a play off Parliament/Funkadelic album Cosmic Slop. I figured if I didn’t call it something, somebody else would. It just came off the top of the head during the interview and people just ran with it. But at the time it was true to life and it’s still true. I feel like my music is just like a mixture of everything, but the foundation of it is still soul.

MM: When I listen to your previous record Face Your Fears, there’s some Motown influence on it especially on a track like “On and On.” What inspired you sonically for this new record?

CH: I wanted it to be like a play. So that’s why I opened it up with the strings and then it comes in with “Hopeful.” I tried to take each song as an individual thing. Then after I’m done with the music, that’s when I do the track list and piece everything together.

I just wanted to be as much myself as I possibly could and just create a sentiment that reflected the environment.

MM: There has been some time in between your albums. At this stage of your career, do you feel like your songwriting is starting to evolve and you’re starting to experiment with more sonically?

CH: I think so. I think it’s harder to simplify things then it is [to do] the complicated stuff. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about CeeLo Green and his writing. He was able to simplify things in such a way that I was like, “Wow, how did you even do that?” So that’s a goal of mine is just to be able to do whatever this song or mood requires. It doesn’t have to be super crazy, super articulate. And again, it speaks to the title If Words Were Flowers: You can give a singular rose, which is very simple, or you can give a whole bouquet of flowers.

MM: You’ve worked with some great producers and artist behind the scenes throughout your career, like Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen. Who did you have the opportunity to work with this time around?

CH: I did “Forever More” with Van Hunt and Curtis Whitehead, who was mine and Van Hunt’s former bass player. Sasami, who is a good friend of mine and a great artist, she added some string arrangements and sang backup on the track “With You.” She also did string arrangements on “Hopeful” and on the last track “I Won’t Let You Down.” And of course, Sam Cohen, who I did the last record with.

MM: “On and On” was featured at the end of the Marvel series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” It had to feel good reliving that 2017 track on a large platform in 2021.

CH; Yeah, it was great. I watched the series and the song spoke very well to the whole sentiment of the show. It fit really good into that last scene where everybody was just happy after all the turmoil and everything happened. They were happy and partying and whatnot.

MM: Were you a big Marvel fan prior to “Falcon and the Winter Soldier”?

CH: Yes, to this day. [Actor] Anthony Mackie [from the series] is actually a good friend of mine now. We went to Africa together recently. He’s a really good friend and he’s in the video for “Can’t Hide It.”

MM: “Can’t Hide It” seemed like a very fun video to shoot, with Mackie playing the role of Don Cornelius. The video looked like a lost episode of “Soul Train.” How did you create the groove for that song? 

CH: I wanted to make something that was fun, still edgy, and danceable. At that point, I didn’t really have anything written for the album like that. And that’s just what came out, man. I wanted to be reminiscent of old times, but still progressive.

My connection with Gucci, I was like, “Hey, I got this fashion connection, so let’s dress everybody up in Gucci and just make it seem like it’s the old late night.” It’s almost like a low-budget “Soul Train.” You know how they used to have knockoff versions of “Soul Train” in different cities? That’s what I wanted to do and I thought it would be cool to present it that way.

MM “Can’t Hide It” is so groovy and it’s up-tempo, but you’ve been releasing some heartfelt tracks this year as well. The track “Hopeful” seems like that track is meant to paint a canvas for what we’ve been going through the last couple of years, especially when it comes to social unrest.

CH: Yeah, man. Ironically enough before George Floyd, I had started writing those lyrics and it just took on a new meaning for me and for everyone. So it just made sense that we would involve the protest esthetic to the video and attach that sentiment. We have been going through a lot as Black people in America for a long time. And we know that it’s time and we’ve had it’s enough. So it just made sense, but I wanted to do it in such a way where people could realize that there’s still hope. And also, give a scope of what was happening in my city in Atlanta, Georgia. There was some real protest and some real revolutionary things happening there.  

MM: You end the album with the track “I Won’t Let You Down,” discussing unconditional support from your loved ones. What was the writing process like for that song?

CH: I wanted to write something that if you were to listen to it, or if anybody were to listen to it and wasn’t able to articulate how they felt about somebody, then they would be able to play that song for their loved ones, friends or whoever. So that’s basically what that song is about, man. We all know somebody that’s been going through some hard times. But the point of that is about unconditional love. It’s like, “I won’t let you down, no matter what you do, or no matter what you’re doing.”

MM: What do you want fans to take away from this album?

CH: I want them to know that there’s still hope, no matter what, no matter the circumstances. I want them to just keep moving forward in their life. We’ve all seen that; we’ve all lived it. Now it’s time to move on to something better, be optimistic, be hopeful and give people their flowers while they’re still here. That’s something that we’ve all learned, especially during COVID. We all know somebody that lost someone, someone that’s connected to us in our lives. So let’s give love while we can in our words and in our deeds now, while they can feel it.