Captivated by the organic authenticity of analog sound, Ben plunged into soul in the company of Otis Redding and the stars of Stax & Motown. His one-way trip led to an EP of offbeat covers, Soul Wash, followed by a first, eponymous album that bucked the trends with its retro brass and vocal harmonies.
The single “Soul Man”, began to gain a following. “Friends told me they’d seen my clip on TV and heard my song at the supermarket, on the radio. The list of tour dates started to grow. We performed all over France, then in Europe, Japan, Russia, French overseas territories and districts, and the United States. 350 dates, two and a half years on the road. You don’t even try to understand, you just do it,” Ben remembers with a smile.
Success was at hand. A Victoire de la Musique award (Live Revelation), more than 450,000 albums sold and media excitement. And then a black hole. Ben was ready to throw in the towel if he lost the hunger. “You have to recover the taste, the desire, the impulse. If not, you flounder. I wanted to travel. And then I discovered a group called the Monophonics on the Net. I thought it was a 70s album until I saw 2007 in the credits. The last thing I expected was six white guys from California. I felt an immediate rush.” Luck or fate? A few months later, Ben heard that the Monophonics were appearing in Paris.
“I went and they blew me away for two hours. After the gig, I talked to them. The sax player told me that when I was in a show with Sharon Jones in San Francisco, his parents were there and bought my vinyl, so he knew me. There was a good connection. At the time, they were playing a Meters cover that I wanted to do live, so that connected us, too. I told them I’d like us to make a record together.” Just another routine conversation in the often insincere music biz, the kind that usually goes no further. Except that this time, it was the real thing. Ben bought a ticket for San Francisco and entered the Monophonics’ lair. He could not believe his eyes. “They had a studio in their bunker, equipped over the years with old mikes, amps and instruments, to the north of San Francisco in the village of San Raphael, lost in an industrial zone. It was like a secondhand store!” In that analog Neverland, they roughed out the first version of À Coup De Rêves (With Dreams), the proverbially difficult second album.
The hostilities open superbly with “Walk The Line”, a magnificent ode to freedom (“No chains strong enough to bind me”), which sets a cinematographic tone that continues all through the album. On “Hallelujah !!! (J’Ai Tant Besoin De Toi)” – Hallelujah (I Need You So Much) – the first single, we find ourselves plunged back into the festive, brassy soul and unstoppable groove that were such a success on the first album. “It was one of the first tracks we laid down at the Monophonics’ place. We put it together in the first session. We didn’t have a chorus, but then a friend told me that in the verses we’d already written, he got the impression that I was seeing love as a religion. He came out with the word ‘hallelujah’, and it all fell into place.”
“Ailleurs” (Somewhere Else) is one of the album’s pivotal moments. “We were jamming in San Francisco. It was really deep and I loved it straight away, but it frightened me, too. I didn’t know if could actually write words to the music, it moved me so much. I got down to it at the last minute, and asked Merlot, who I’d got on well with, to help me. He liked French, too, adapted to African-American beats. ‘Take me somewhere else’ was a phrase I had going round in my head. I was afraid I was being shameless. I wondered why I was baring my soul like that. But the song is important to the album.
Also very personal, “Si Loin De Toi” (So Far From You) tells of love and distance (“Love is my loss and I’ve learned all about fading desire”), while the sunny “Attends-moi” (Wait for Me) speaks of naked passion, backed by a gospel choir and strings as languid as the words are sensual. Finally, “Quelques Mots…” (A Few Words…) is a discreet tribute to Ben’s grandfather, who raised him (“He never talked much, but gave me guidance in so many things”). The song has a strong beat and melancholy shines through the soul harmonies.
On À Coup De Rêves, French and English unashamedly join forces. The album’s title song has a remarkable back story. “I was thinking of calling the album Walk The Line, and then that phrase came to me, like an expression that didn’t really exist. I worked myself up into a terrible state writing the song. In the lyrics, there are figures who helped me move forward in life, like Mohammed Ali. He’s in the song, with his fists and smile. For the title, I was hesitating between “Relève-toi” (Get Back Up), “Ton Rêve Avance” (Your Dream Goes On) and “À Coup De Rêves”. Then I did a concert in Geneva. After I performed the song, I asked the audience which one they preferred. They all said, ‘À Coup De Rêves’!
The cover of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”, performed with Keziah Jones, is a meeting of two artists on the same quest for truth in sound.
The limited edition of the album also has an alternative version of “Hallelujah !!!”, produced by 20Syl (Hocus Pocus / C2C), and an amazing cover of “Don’t Set Me Back”, a song by an obscure artist named Diamond Joe. “He released an album in 1973. It’s southern soul where he replays a scratched record live. For me, that was the start of hip-hop. It’s an incredible, original thing, totally modern in its message.” A soul bonus track for a complete, mature record.
Harmonizing all these melodic jewels is the invisible but essential hand of Renaud Létang (Souchon, Jane Birkin, Rocé, Saul Williams, Emilie Simon), who has provided Ben with a balanced mix that underlines the musicians’ work.
Ranging from the epic to the intimately expressive, the 11 tracks reveal the newfound maturity of Ben L’Oncle Soul, an artist who is here to stay. Where some have “swag”, Ben simply has style… along with a natural talent for deep emotions and soul beats. Hallelujah!
US TOUR DATES
12/05 @ Je Suis Soul, Apollo Theater – New York, NY [tickets]