The Gospel According to Curtis Harding
We meet singer-songwriter and actor Curtis Harding whose nomadic childhood in the church had a profound impact on his eclectic take on soul.
‘When we were picking up and moving as much as we did, I realised that this isn’t a normal childhood but that’s all I knew’, says Curtis Harding (he/him) from his home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Curtis spent his early years travelling across the United States with his gospel-singing mother and musical church-going family. ‘My mom and dad would go around and set up churches in all these different cities across the U.S., so we were never in one place long’, he says.
Curtis was just eight years old when he began playing drums and singing at church, often performing with his family on the gospel circuit across the country. It was only after his family settled in Atlanta when he was 14 that Curtis found a city he could call home.
He arrived at a pivotal time in Atlanta’s musical history, with the birth of the Southern hip-hop of OutKast and the Dungeon Family collective. ‘That whole thing was really in its infancy and it was such a great time to be in the city in the heart of it all’, he recalls. Curtis threw himself in, becoming a member of the hip-hop group Proceed and touring with CeeLo Green.
While forming the garage soul group Night Sun with Cole Alexander of Black Lips, Curtis began to write the songs that would become his debut solo album of 2014. Infused with the spiritual force of gospel, the deep intensity of vintage soul, and the raw edge of garage rock, Soul Power was a rich musical gumbo that Curtis named ‘Slop ‘n’ Soul’.
Although Soul Power was indebted to music that had gone before, Curtis has never been one for nostalgia. On his 2017 follow up, Face Your Fear, he joined forces with experimental hip-hop producer Danger Mouse for a 21st century alternative-soul opus. ‘It’s important for me to always try new things because I get bored doing just one type of music’, he says.
With a voice and lyrics that move through contrasting emotions – from pain to pleasure and strength to fragility – Curtis responded to the isolation and fear of lockdown with If Words Were Flowers, a collection of songs about love, togetherness and resilience. These songs are at their most powerful when Curtis is up on stage doing what he has always done. We meet him a few days after his return from a European tour and begin by going back to his roots.
‘Gospel was the beginning for me.’
‘My first musical memories are of my mom on stage in church singing with the choir and then also hearing her play Mahalia Jackson records around the house. That was my introduction to music so gospel was the beginning for me. It was the foundation for everything that I would go on to do.’
‘I think the negative part of travelling from one place to another was that I had to leave friends that I would make in these different cities. But on the flip side of that having to make new friends all the time made me open to new experiences. Every city would have its own energy and vibe so I think that plays a lot into what I do with my music now. I think that travelling around helped me become the artist I am today.’
‘Hip-hop was everywhere when I was growing up but it was only really after finding out that my sister was into it as much as she was that I gained the courage to explore it myself. It’s always good to have older siblings who can introduce you to things. That was particularly important back then because we didn’t have the internet.’
‘A group of close friends and I were fortunate enough to be recruited as promoters for LaFace Records, opening the doors to a world filled with exceptionally talented Atlanta artists. Being in their presence, even as a young individual, left a mark on me. The opportunity to mingle and connect with these incredible minds became an invaluable influence, shaping my perspective and ambitions in ways I could never have imagined.’
FINDING HIS VOICE
‘It’s just about being yourself. A lot of people today, especially in rap I think, look at what’s popular and try to ride that wave. But when I was growing up you would get beat up by copying other people. You had to have your own thing going on and your own personality. It was very important to be yourself and find that. And that is still a part of me today. I have to be an individual. That is always the point, to learn how to express yourself.’
‘I have to be an individual. That is always the point, to learn how to express yourself.’
SLOP ‘N’ SOUL
‘It really comes from Parliament-Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop and just describes the funk and the flow of my music. It’s also about the mix. It’s not something that’s contrived; it’s just what I love to do because I love so many different styles of music. As far as the soul goes, a lot of times when people hear the word they think it’s just about the music. Before you even get to the music acquiring that soul takes living. You can be into punk or dream pop and still have soul.’
‘Sly Stone was huge for me as were Funkadelic and David Bowie especially for the way he went through so many different phases. Then all the Atlanta guys like OutKast and CeeLo who continue to influence me today. But even my mom is one of my style icons. And other people who were close to me like my uncles. A lot of the time people look to those who are famous as style icons but it can often be people in your neighbourhood and right next to you.’
‘I’ve also been writing scripts with friends and done some acting. I was in a Netflix series called Hap and Leonard and in a movie called The Gateway where I played a preacher. Whether it’s music, film or photography, all of this stuff informs each other. You shouldn’t put limits on yourself.’
‘I think ultimately I’m always going to make music. I don’t know if I’m going to be touring as often as I do now but the creation of music is something that will never go away. I want to work more with other artists and also big choirs. I am really into the curation of music and I see myself moving forward through collaborations. I would also love to score films. But who knows? Maybe I will be like B.B. King, God rest his soul, who was touring at 80 years old.’
Who is your favourite gospel artist?
What was the last record you bought?
Glorious Game by El Michels Affair and Black Thought
What is your favourite Atlanta restaurant?
My favourite restaurant Chanterelle's closed but I also love the meat and three at a place called Eats
Do you have a favourite item of clothing?
I love old vintage T-shirts
Where would be your perfect gig?
It has less to do with where and more to do with who is there. Just playing to the biggest melting pot of people all having a good time. Music is the universal language and it brings us together.
Words by Andy Thomas
Curtis Harding wears the Autumn Winter 2023 collection for COS.
Photography by Daniel Jackson.
Styling by Jane How.
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