Jalen Ngonda has described his music as modern soul and R&B, while trying to fit the Beach Boys and the Beatles somewhere in between. The DC-born, London-based singer-songwriter’s music could sound like a call back to the days of Motown and Stax Records and you can hear those elements on his debut album Come Around and Love Me. But it wasn’t digging through crates or going through his parents’ record collection that helped him discover the music that would later influence him.
His parents’ music collection was of the time, and they listened to a lot hip hop and R&B. They had a couple of Motown CDs like “Let’s Get It On” from Marvin Gaye or a Stevie Wonder album. But it was watching a television miniseries about a legendary Motown group that opened up his musical canvas.
“I got into Motown while watching The Temptations movie,” Ngonda said. “We bought the DVD because my dad wanted to cherish that, because it’s a movie a lot of us grew up watching. He didn’t think that it would blow my mind because I wasn’t even into music. All I cared about was playing Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart. I didn’t listen to music then. When that happened, it blew my mind. It changed my worldview musically.”
Ngonda’s parents would start buying CDs and he would not only study the music he was hearing but also read the liner notes in the CD booklet to discover the musicians in the background and this label called Motown. A trip to his aunt’s house expanded that knowledge even further when she had the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” documentary in her house.
“That’s what introduced me to the world of Motown,” he said. “Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, that’s when I really got into it. Whenever I would go to FYE, which was a place called For Your Entertainment — I’m pretty sure you know about it — I would look for other Motown acts. It was every six to eight months, there would be a new CD. By the time I was 14, I had a bunch of Motown and Stax Records CDs. That’s how it all began, it was just an adventure that I had throughout middle school. I just geeked out on it. At the same time, I was learning how to play guitar and attempting to write those songs but in different lyrics.”
His musical inspirations would expand to outside of soul music from Motown and Stax Records, but he would remain in the same era as he was discovering genres.
“The first rock band that I fell in love with was The Doors,” he said. “From around 2008 until about 2010, there was a radio station in DC, and I think they just called it ‘Golden Oldies.’ I liked it because I discovered so much music from the ’60s on that station because I would tune into it all the time. Every day after school, I’ll go on the oldies station and they’ll play bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, The Turtles, The Kinks, The Who, the ’60s rock era, the flower power and everything. I would say the Motown stuff that was inspirational, that was what I was listening to in my early ages. But when I was in high school, I started listening to more of the rock stuff. That influenced my writing as well. To this day, I listen to a mixture of all of them. I think right now it’s more rock than soul at the minute.”
In 2014, Ngonda moved to the U.K. to study music at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. It was a decision to move far away from home, but his dad was persuasive and thought the school looked like a good opportunity for Jalen to pursue his musical aspirations.
“He knew that I wanted to go somewhere to do this music thing,” he said. “I always had my eyes on New York City because it’s not too far away. But I was in community college, and I found out about this school in Liverpool, and they seemed to be interested. I just sent them an email asking if I could get a magazine or a brochure to learn more about the school. They replied and said, ‘Hey, thank you for reaching out. We took the liberty of checking out some of your music on SoundCloud,’ the stuff that I had on it at the time. They said, ‘We strongly recommend that you apply for this school.’ When I got the brochure and the information about the school, I read about it and it just felt right to go there. I still doubted that I would go, but it all happened, and everything fell into place.”
Jalen got his passport, applied for a student loan, and he was off to the U.K. But at the time, he didn’t know it would become his permanent home.
“I didn’t think I would stay here,” he said. “I just saw it as a cool experience, and I’ll probably come back to Maryland and continue living. Here we are now and I’m Zooming you because I’m over here in the U.K. I moved here not thinking I would be a performer. I was just playing guitar and piano and it just turned into this whole thing. And now I’m here. It’s home now.”
He would go back and forth trying to figure out whether he wanted to be more of a background artist or be THE artist. In high school, he was trying to impress girls by singing, like a scene on the Temptations movie he watched growing up where Otis Williams was walking a girl home while singing a sweet tune. But he would also play piano because he would hear someone playing a nice chord and he needed to hear it again, so he would learn how to play that chord on his Casio when he got home.
Around the age of 18, Ngonda channeled a real desire to be an artist. But he didn’t see himself as a performing artist. For a short time, he just wanted to make music and put it on SoundCloud. But while attending school in the U.K., he flirted more with the idea of being a more fully-formed artist, writing songs, sharing songs and playing them live.
“When I moved to Liverpool, I was thinking maybe this time I’ll just be a background musician,” he said. “I think because of all those changes, it was sort of an artistic personality trait, wanting to just adapt to where you are. I would say I’ve always saw myself as an artist. Because I used to draw as a kid, and I used to make up stories and mini books about geek stuff…I didn’t know at the time how I wanted to do the music thing. Because I admired the Funk Brothers and Burt Bacharach, the people behind the desk. I looked up to them, so I wanted to be them. But at the same time, I would see The Beatles and Marvin Gaye, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I want to be them.’ I was always torn between the two.”
Attending the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, founded by Paul McCartney and Mark Featherstone-Witty in 1996, would provide Ngonda with a crash course in some of the greatest songwriters of all-time: those making up Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building sound, Lennon-McCartney, and Holland-Dozier-Holland.
“I remember the course would be like, ‘Try to write something about this,'” he said. “When it came to other musicians, my peers, we were all playing in bands together. We were all playing indie, soul music, and the blues. Liverpool has a very rich history of rock and roll music. That influenced my drive to write songs and trying to write catchy songs. Even though I like the music that I have out right now, it’s very soulful. Whenever I’m writing, I try to think about the structured stuff that they did. What Carole King did, or Lennon-McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Hal David. I try to think about what’s happening in the verse and what’s that line in the chorus. Those conditions in Liverpool influenced my songwriting in a way.”
In 2019, Ngonda linked up with his manager and started looking at U.K.-based labels. He recalls label reps thinking they shouldn’t take him on because they didn’t want to be put in a niche market with his style of modern soul and didn’t think they could sell it. But Ngonda’s manager knew a few labels that could facilitate the songwriting he was so skilled in, and one of those labels was Daptone Records.
“[My manager] knew someone that knew Neil Sugarman, co-owner of Daptone Records, and he passed my music on to him,” said Ngonda. “I think Neil was probably like, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty cool.’ Found out I was playing in Zurich where he lived. He came to check it out and he was impressed, that’s when he told me to send some demos over. He was like, ‘You write songs, do you write all the time?’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and that’s how it happened. And then COVID happened, so we had to wait a year to get over to New York and record. But it was all for the best.”
Due to the pandemic and the uncertainty happening across the world — fearing that his Daptone deal had faded away — he continued to write music.
“The world had changed, and I didn’t think they were worrying about another person trying to get on the label,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, that would have been great.’ But I kept moving on, I kept playing, and I continued writing. I wrote “Just Like You Used To” with my friend Sam. He just played a beat on the drums, and I had started playing the chords and the melody. He had some ideas with the breaks. That song came together while just hanging out at his crib. We wrote another song the next day, “What a Difference She Made,” which is the B-side of “Just Like You Used To.” I remember Neil got in contact with me and was like, ‘Hey Jalen, I just wanted to see how you been and please don’t hesitate to share any music that you’re writing.’ I sent him demos of those two songs.”
Neil would pass these demos off to Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth, producer and co-founder of the Daptone label. Roth would call Ngonda about turning those demos into singles for the label.
“I was just like, ‘Yeah, that would be amazing,'” he said. “I saw those two songs as fun activities and cool songs, but they really dig it. The only trouble was always getting to New York being in a different country. We sent over the stems, and they duplicated my arrangements of those two songs. They added a Marvin Gaye beat to it because the demo doesn’t have that. It has more of an Amy Winehouse ‘You Know I’m No Good’ kind of beat.”
Almost a year after those two demos and a third track made in 2020, “What a Difference She Made,” he was finally able to get to New York and work with Daptone’s team of musicians. The first song they wrote together was “It Takes a Fool” followed by “So Glad I Found You,” “If You Don’t Want My Love,” and “That’s All I Wanted From You.” With the song-a-week approach, they made enough music to create a full body of work that would become Ngonda’s debut album Come Around and Love Me.
“Daptone was like, ‘Wow, these guys are writing at a really fast speed,’ might as well just do an album,” he said. “I think once we realized that would make an album, we wanted to make it sound sonically the same. We thought about the tone, the mix, and arrangements of the strings on certain songs. Just trying not to make it sound like a bunch of songs compiled together. I dove into the lyrical mood of it. On the album, the mood is in the lyrics.”
From watching actor Leon portray David Ruffin in the Temptations TV miniseries, to channeling his inner David Ruffin on the song “That’s All I Wanted From You,” Ngonda has used his musical and creative influences to create his own soulful short story. In support of this debut album Come Around and Love Me, he will be hitting the road this fall and stopping at The Basement East on October 22.