Simply calling Curtis Harding a “soul man” feels reductive. Yes, his music is undoubtedly soulful and his songwriting is both evocative and provocative, but there’s more to his music than the stock imagery the label conjures. Harding’s voice conveys pain, pleasure, longing, tenderness, sadness and strength—a full gamut of emotions. Yet still, “soul man” seems too simple a description for musician like Harding, a man who has lived multiple lives as a musician, participated in different scenes, and brought all those varied sounds and experiences together to carve out his own unique niche. The culmination of his experimentation is his latest masterwork, Face Your Fear.
To understand Curtis Harding, the singer-songwriter, drummer, guitarist and producer, one must first understand his musical origins. For Harding, it all began in his birthplace, Saginaw, Michigan. It was there that his church-going mother, a singer herself, first exposed him to the sound and spirit of gospel music. He sang and played drums in church with his family, and songs like Mahalia Jackson’s stirring rendition of “Elijah Rock” left an indelible mark on him. While his mom’s gospel records praised the sacred, his big sister’s rap tapes showed him the beauty in secular music. He looked up to his big sis, an amateur rapper herself in the vein of MC Lyte, and before long young Curtis Harding was writing his own rhymes. After a nomadic childhood of moving Harding put down roots in his adopted home of Atlanta — the perfect place for an intellectually curious young man to broaden his musical horizons.
Embracing his surroundings and fearless in his exploration, Curtis the rapper and rhyme writer would eventually become Curtis, the songwriter and back-up singer for ATL icon CeeLo Green. “I learned a lot from that dude,” says Harding, recounting the valuable lessons the Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley member taught him about singing and songwriting. “He used to say, ‘You ain’t gotta commit murder [on a track], you can do a simple assault.’” No need to overdo it to get your point across. The singer’s task is not to prove that they can sing but to get the audience to feel. For Curtis, it isn’t enough for him to be a proficient performer, his voice and his words have to serve a purpose.