UTG INTERVIEW: Ron Littlejohn & The Funk Embassy

ron littlejohn

After already impressive careers gaining achievements such as opening for James Brown and The Roots individually, Thierry Matrat and Ron Littlejohn came together with a similar mission: to provide the masses with much-needed funk and soul.

With a brand new album out as of last month, the two took some time to speak with UTG extensively about their newest efforts, the history of the group, and what else they have in store for the future. Read through the break and get familiar with Ron Littlejohn and the Funk Embassy in this fun and exclusive UTG interview.

This whole thing started due to finding one another through Craigslist which seems to be a more common occurrence for musicians these days, but you have so many collaborators with this project at this point, how do choose who to work with and who to include?

Ron: I was actually on Craigslist trying to locate a pair of Levi Strauss Co 501 jeans aged over 115 years old which were sold to a collector in Japan for $60,000 through eBay in 2005. I stumbled on an add looking for a soul singer. I never did find the jeans.

Thierry: [Laughs] Let’s be very clear, I don’t know that guy!

First of all, the most important thing was to find people with the musical skills and a true knowledge of the Soul-Funk genre. You can very easily imagine how easy it is for a producer/songwriter when the people you’re talking to speak the same language. When you say, “Hey, d’you remember that awesome string part on Millie Jackson’s version of ‘If Loving You is Wrong’?” and the guy in front of you starts playing or singing the whole Caught Up album, you know you’re in good hands. This was very important to me, since I don’t think you can get an authentic sound, with the feeling of the Golden Age songs, without a true understanding of this musical current.

Once our needs were defined for each song, networking did the rest. This was the best option, since when I was recommended a new musician, one member of the project already knew him and endorsed him. When I needed a few horns on “Light Me Up,” I asked Ron, who recommended two top players in the Toronto area, Kevin Turcotte and Steve Donald, who he had worked with for long.

Same here in Montreal with the musicians; each one had already worked with the others, so it was easy to find someone. The only exception was Alana Bridgewater that nobody knew. We were looking for a woman’s voice with a strong background in gospel and funk for “Light Me Up” and “Shining On.” Ron just asked his friends on Facebook, “Hey, who knows a great female singer in Toronto?” and five people shot the same answer: “Alana is the one you’re looking for.” They were right, she was THE voice we needed for the songs

Thierry, you were originally involved more so with hip-hop, right? Do you feel that those roots and influences still play a role in this project?

Thierry: To be honest, the evolution of the project led me to something very different than the original plan, which was writing soul and funk songs for rappers. It drove me back to the roots of hip-hop in fact, soul and funk. This said, I liked the idea to keep a slight touch of hip-hop on a few songs, with a few turntablism here and there. Finally, I’m very happy to think that our songs may be sampled one day by rappers for their own projects. So the loop would be closed.

Are there any specific artists in hip-hop that you would like to collaborate with?

Thierry: Oh, definitely. You know, hip-hop has had its own Golden Age — let’s say between 1991 and 1998, seven years of intense happiness for a musician like me. So many great albums were released, so many great artists emerged. It is virtually impossible to name all the artists I’d like to work with. From the period I mention, you won’t be surprised if I name hip-hop veterans who wrote the rap history. I’m a great admirer of DJ Premier’s works, Nas (Illmatic period), Rakim, RZA, Q-Tip, The Roots, Pete Rock, Chuck D, Eric Sermon and so many others.

Ron: Dr. Dre, Chuck D & Speech from Arrested Development.

As you’re doing it, you obviously feel that funk and soul are still alive and well in this day and age but do you find it more difficult to reach a fanbase or get connected with listeners these days in this genre?

Thierry: Absolutely not, and that has surprised me recently. Funk and Soul are still alive, I am sure of that, but when I released the songs, I was far from thinking that so many people would instantly support the project, in particular in our context where playing live is not a short-term option.

It made me realize that there was still place for ‘authentic’ music, with consistent lyrics, melodies, arrangements and real instruments. Of course, when I played the CD in front of the young generations, I’ve heard a few times, “yeah, that’s cool, but it sounds a bit old. And the singer’s voice is weird. There’s no autotune, is it normal?” Finally, it just confirmed that it’s not so complicated to reach people, as long as you have good songs, a plan to promote them, an ability to use internet wisely, and most importantly, you have to be patient.

Ron: Yes and no… it is actually easier thanks to YouTube. Yet everybody and their aunt are on YouTube. I would have to say easier I guess. Years ago I used to actually PHONE everyone I knew to come to gigs. Now we can post some image of a naked woman with a horse online and everyone is drawn to it.

Thierry: Or ‘kittens with mittens’ YouTube videos. Awesome hit rate too [laughs].

All of your noted influences are the biggest and the best in the game. Are artists like Marvin Gaye and James Brown what originally piqued your interest in being involved with music at all?

Ron: I got involved to meet girls. If anyone tells you they got into it for any other reason they are lying.

Thierry: Well, I was too young for girls, and even if I wasn’t, you don’t know my mother. Anyway…

Being involved in music has been something very natural. I remember that day at an end of school year party, I was not more than 6 or 7 years old, there was an organ player playing jazz standards; I was speechless. I knew that one day I would play music too. I didn’t know what kind of music I would play, when. But I knew it would happen. And I was fascinated by electronic keyboards. I had to wait a couple of years, though, since organs were expensive and my parents didn’t have the money to purchase one before I was 14. Then came my first shock, I don’t remember when it was exactly, probably somewhere in 1975 or 1976, when I first listened to “Jungle Boogie,” with Donald Boyce’s incredible vocal, and THAT groove. This particular song sent me into the stratosphere of Funk. Marvin Gaye, James Brown came a bit later, but they were major influences on my being involved in Funk and Soul, obviously, as well as Curtis Mayfield’s works. Super Fly spun on my turntable MILLIONS of times.

So let’s talk about your new album, Shining On. What can you tell us about the variety in sound and the themes in your lyrics? How would you say the album differs from your previous work?

Ron: This is the most freedom I’ve ever had. And probably the project I am most proud of.

Thierry: Same here. This project is the one I have been the most excited for, EVER. “Freedom” is the proper word. We did exactly what we wanted, we never asked ourselves that stupid question: “it has to sound like this.” With nobody in the landscape to tell us what to do, we had complete freedom to create the exact musical pieces we wanted.

When you listen to the songs, there are many influences, for sure. I didn’t realize it at first. I didn’t want to write funk songs because it had to be funky, or because I chose ‘Funk Embassy’ as a name, or because we tried to impose an artificial unity on the album. Blues is a major influence to me, as well as Rock. So it had to be somewhere on the album, and it was with “Emma Lee.” Some people who reviewed the album saw some Pink Floyd influences in “Shining on,” the first song that opens the album. It didn’t strike me at first, but I can’t deny I listened to them a lot for years, and it must have left something on my songwriting process, even if I don’t realize it. This EP is the sum of all my musical influences.

How would you describe the recording process for this album? I imagine it being rather hectic with so many artists involved.

Ron: My vocals were done in six hours. The songs I sang with Alana were done in one take but we did a few extra just so I could sing with her a couple more times. We used the first take for everything.

Thierry: Not at all, surprisingly. You know, there’s another secret in this project. I dealt not only with great musicians, great people, but also with great professionals. Twenty persons were involved in the project at different stages, including fifteen musicians. That’s a lot for an independent project. The eight songs were recorded in five days. Three days in Montreal for the bass, drums, guitar, percussions, flute, deejay scratches. Another two days in Toronto for the vocals and the horns.

That’s my advice to songwriters who have many people involved in their projects. Be organized, know exactly what you want before entering the studio, give clear instructions, send your guys a demo recorded at home with the correct structure a few weeks before the session, hire pros, and that’s it. All the instrumental parts were recorded in one take, two takes at most. It was a pure pleasure working with these guys. I’ll never thank them enough.

Have you been touring at all in support of the album, or have plans to?

Thierry: Not for now, since this was more of a recording project. I would love to have songs played live, but having half of the team in Toronto and the other half in Montreal limit opportunities, in particular when, like me, you have a regular job. We’re currently thinking of having one full team in Toronto, another one in Montreal for very specific events, for which I’ll ask Ron and Alana to join us. That would be a very exciting project to set up in 2014, definitely.

Despite the distance between members as you mentioned, how permanent is this project for everyone involved? Do you all have other bands and projects outside of this?

Ron: This is my focus right now. This and being a dad.

Thierry: This is my main project too, and it’s permanent. I know the other guys are working on tons of projects.

Now that Shining On is completed and released, have you began working on any new material?

Ron: Not yet…I’m still wiping off the sweat from this one!

Thierry: I’m too involved in the promotion work today with the precious help of James Moore, to write new material. That’s the drawback of an independent project. The more you get involved in the non-musical process, the less time you have to write songs. But I am very optimistic for the close future. When I’m listening to the songs I started to write months ago and didn’t complete, there is material for at least three soul/funk/rap albums. With Ron, Alana, and a world-class rapper, that would be something!

What are the Funk Embassy’s plans for the short remainder of the year and 2014?

Thierry: As I said previously, this project is a 100% independent project. We had to start with the foundations, find the right people for the project, record solid songs, release the album. Now the most important thing is putting a lot of effort on promotion so we can be “on the map,” and keep on grabbing the music fans’ attention. That’s already a lot of work for the last weeks of 2013.

A music video is also in progress and should be completed very soon (“Shining On”). Another one should start by March 2014. As I said, I hope we’ll also find a way to play live next year, and I’ll more than probably start writing new material for the next album.

 

Written and conducted by: Brian Lion – Follow him on Twitter

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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