LIVIN’ ON PHILLY SOUL
by Jay S. Jacobs
On a recent afternoon in the up-and-coming Philadelphia neighborhood of Northern Liberties, Mutlu Onoral and I are sitting in a little sandwich shop. We’d originally planned on hitting a trendily seedy local Spanish joint called Bar Ferdinand, but it was too late for lunch and too early for the beautiful people to get buzzed up on mixed drinks. Since all the other local bars seemed to be closed as well, we end up here, nestled between Boar’s Head signs, blocks of cheese and what looks like 1,000 different kinds of beer in a wall of refrigerated vaults more complex than you see in most local banks. While we wait for our lunch (roast beef for me, tuna salad for Mutlu), we’re talking Philly soul.
Why is the City of Brotherly Love so well known for soul music?
Going back to the 50s you have the old Cameo/Parkway songs of Chubby Checker, DeeDee Sharp and The Tymes. In the 70s the Sound of Philadelphia spawned the likes the O’Jays, the Stylistics and Patti Labelle. Recent years have brought rappers like Will Smith, G. Love and Cypress Hill. Also in the 70s and 80s, the blue-eyed soul of Hall and Oates shone an international spotlight on the Philly scene.
“It’s the scene, I guess,” Mutlu says. “It must be in the water – the soulful thing. You hear that soulful thing even in the rock bands or singer/songwriters. There must be something about the different elements of this city that just make it conducive to that. It’s a good town to come up in, because you’ve really got to be doing something here. People won’t just hand it over to you. You really have to be putting something on the line that’s substantive and worthwhile. But it’s a good place to cut your teeth. Once you start getting on the road, you kind of wear that like a badge of honor. I’ve found traveling around that people know what’s going on with Philly. It’s got a thing. It’s a brand, almost.” He laughs.
Mutlu is just one of the names who are pointing Philly soul into the new millennium. He is a vital part of a musical community which is known for its closeness and collaborative vibe. On Mutlu’s full-length debut CD Livin’ It, many of his friends and peers pop in to help out. There is Amos Lee, one of Mutlu’s first strong supporters. He also works with hip-hop icon G. Love, local songstress Sharon Little (who has just released her own major-label debut), former Wanderlust member Scot Sax, local favorite Ben Arnold and one of Mutlu’s heroes, Daryl Hall.
“That’s probably my favorite aspect of music,” Mutlu says, “the element of collaboration. That’s the element of hip-hop that I like. I wanted to bring some of that into this more sort of acoustic soul singer/songwriter album. These were all people who I met out of context, just being out in Philly. Amos was one of the first people I met. When things started taking off for him he started bringing me on the road, opening up for him, then he produced [my] second EP. He’s always been one of my best friends in music.
“G. Love, same thing – I met him just hanging around Philly and then opened for him. He had a Coke commercial that he did a few years ago and had me sing on that. We just crossed paths. Even though he was really busy – he was getting ready to go on the road, I was able to catch him at a time when he had a few days to spare and he did his thing and just laid it down.
“Everything was really easy. Everyone who collaborated, Sharon, Scott, Ben Arnold – both songwriters and vocalists, it was all very natural. As soon as I came up and saw somebody, they knew what to do. It just kind of clicked.”
Hall, on the other hand, came into the project through the album’s producer. T-Bone Wolk is a long-time member of Hall and Oates, as well as being a respected gun-for-hire for the likes of Elvis Costello, Robert Palmer, Billy Joel, Marc Anthony, Carly Simon, Roy Orbison, Shawn Colvin and Des’ree. In recent years, Wolk has been branching out into production, producing recent Hall and Oates music, Willie Nile, M2M, Karen Savoca and another Philly-area favorite, John Eddie.
Mutlu felt an immediate rapport with Wolk.
“It was great,” Mutlu says, enthusiastically. “It was really fantastic. I met T-Bone through my manager. They had worked together on a few projects previously. We just hit it off as soon as we met. Then once we got in the studio, we were just very innately on the same wavelength. He’s just such a phenomenal musician. Multi-instrumentalist. Then of course, Hall and Oates have always been one of my favorite groups.”
This, of course, led to the introduction to Hall. Mutlu was pleasantly shocked when the classic Philly blue-eyed soulman offered to sing backing vocals on Mutlu’s song “See What It Brings.”
“Daryl is one of my heroes. So it was cool how I got to meet him, because we ended up cutting some of the record at his studio. The first time I met him, it was just kind of low-key. Since he was there we talked for a while. We talked about Philly, talked about getting started here, the early days…. Then there was another session we had – both he and T-Bone were doing a string rehearsal for the next Hall and Oates tour. They had a string section and we had our session booked right afterwards. We asked Daryl if he wanted to stay and hang and he said, ‘Yeah.’ He listened to the stuff. He dug it. It was just like clockwork. It was very natural and organic.”
Hall was also so impressed by the new singer that he invited Mutlu to join him on his new internet series Live at Daryl’s House. Hall recently talked to PopEntertainment writer Ken Sharp and said about the series, “I’m very interested in new artists. I really like working with new artists and that will never change.” Other artists who have appeared on the series include Gym Class Heroes, KT Tunstall and Finger Eleven. Mutlu had a blast doing his episode – in which he played with Hall’s band (including Wolk) on his own “Livin’ It” and “See What It Brings” and the classic Hall and Oates songs including “Maneater” and “You Make My Dreams.”
“That was really so much fun,” Mutlu says. “It was really exciting to do. We did a couple of things. He invited me down to Austin for South by Southwest. We did one that was for DirectTV, which was a live audience. I got to go up and we did a few of his songs, a few of my songs. Then we did another taped thing the next day, which was for Live at Daryl’s House. It’s really exciting for me, because we were working on the record just as he was getting this thing going, so to get to be one of the first guests was just such an honor. I really think it’s taking off now. It’s constantly progressing. I think there were like ten-twelve episodes in now. It was definitely one of the defining moments for me.”
Of course, it is hard to define Mutlu’s music – which is one of the things which makes it so intriguing. He prides himself in the fact that he can bring many shades and colors into the music – touching on soul, folk, hip-hop, rock, even sitcom themes. He doesn’t exactly fit into a box, which may make him harder to sell but also makes him more consistently interesting than so many artists.
“I love all different kinds of music, so I try to find a way to incorporate every different thing that’s inspired me – soul, rock, reggae, hip-hop, jazz,” Mutlu explains. “I’m always looking for ways to kind of conglomerate everything, but still make it cohesive. Make it my voice. I think there’s always a soulful underpinning, regardless of what style I go into, but it is something that I consciously do – to try to pull in the different styles. A lot of artists that I like the most, that’s what they do. They find a way to make that mix of styles work. It’s not just for the sake of doing things, it’s something cohesive, you know?”
This love of different genres stems back to his very first performance experience – which was in stage musicals.
“Sometimes when I tell people that, they are kind of surprised,” he chuckles. “I used to not really mention that, but now I feel like I’ve got to be honest what my path has been. Some of the greatest songs ever have been written [for musicals]. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gershwin. That’s the original pop music.”
Even his stage name is somewhat inscrutable – many people don’t get that it is just a relatively common Turkish first name. He laughs about the confusion, acknowledging that having an unusual stage name is both a blessing and a curse.
“I think what it does is – it’s always a conversation piece,” Mutlu says, smiling. “People wonder – whether they think it’s made up or people think it’s a band rather than just me. Or I’ve been in that situation when I’ve been on the road and people come up to me after the show and go ‘what is that?’ I tell them it’s my name and they still don’t believe me. I think it’s kind of this weird built-in marketing thing. It piques people’s interest. They wonder what it is. It’s sort of exotic, I guess.”
One thing that is noticeable right away about his music is its generally sunny lyrical disposition. In a world full of sad songs, Mutlu prefers to take a more inspirational look at the good points of life.
“Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers – the music that I think moves me most – tends to have a positive underpinning. Even though it can be serious, it doesn’t have to be cheerful. But that’s definitely a conscious thing. I thought ‘Livin’ It’ was a good way to kick off. That’s the kind of trend we tried to keep. Because you’re right, there’s so much negative, miserable, dark, depressed music out there. I’d like to just try to do something that’s a little bit more on the cheery side.”
Even on songs that are more serious have this ultimately uplifting feel, like the gorgeous story song “Marilyn,” which looks at the lonely life of a woman who is trying to move past a relationship which no longer works.
“My friend McGowan and I – he’s a Brooklyn-based artist and songwriter – we sat down one night and just wrote that song,” Mutlu says. “It was a conscious thing. We said; let’s write a song that’s a story. It’s almost when you read the lyrics it’s like a mini-film. You can see her leaving the house. You can see her going to the city. We wanted to make a little short story, so we sat down and just wrote it.”
This kind of intricate genre-hopping seems to make a certain amount of sense from a guy who says his favorite movie is the good-hearted stoner comedy The Big Lebowski,and yet his favorite book may just be the notoriously downbeat social criticism 1984 by George Orwell, which looked at a future when the government takes all personal freedoms from the citizens.
“I remember that really had a very powerful impact. And I kind of feel like in a way it’s not so far removed from where we are now. I kind of had a feeling that there is something very real about this book. Now, when you look at our society, maybe it’s not so far off.” Mutlu laughs.
Which brings up an interesting point: in 2008, the United States has a big election going on. The country seems split deciding who will lead us – Barack Obama or John McCain. Is Mutlu getting involved?
“I would like to be more involved,” Mutlu says. “I’m hoping in the next couple of months. There has been talk of different events – a big show or something to support Obama. Nothing’s taken shape, I’m hoping these next couple of months something will come together. I really feel strongly about Obama getting into office. I feel like that would be a huge turning point that would be a step in the right direction. That would prove that our system here can be self-correcting. The right people can get back into power. I think he’s really that once-in-a-generation kind of guy who can connect with a broad base of people. I feel good that he’s gonna get it. There’s just a movement. There’s an intangible thing that’s happening behind him. There are people getting into it, younger people, who I know are going to get out and vote. [People] who probably never even cared before. He’s inspiring people.”
In the meantime, while Mutlu is waiting for a change he can believe in, he is enjoying the feeling of his CD being out there, performing shows around the country and reaching out to fans through his website and MySpace page.
“Once I started going on the road, the MySpace page was imperative,” Mutlu says. “You play a show and the next few days, the next week, you’re in touch with people. Whether you met them or not at the gig, it’s just a great way to stay connected to fans that you build. And also the mailing list, and so on…. I think those social networking sites have kind of revolutionized it that way. It builds a more direct connection to artists.”
He also has a stockpile of songs built up that he hopes will see the light of day – both songs for himself and also for a special soulful side project he has going with friend Amos Lee.
“It’s sort of like this tongue and cheek sort of R&B thing we do,” Mutlu laughs. “A few different songs. We might do covers, but there is this song called ‘Caramel.’ There’s this song called ‘Teddy Bear.’ When I’ve been on the road with him in the past, some nights he’ll bring me up and we turned it into a whole performance piece. It’s just something for fun. Just to have a laugh… we’re serious musically, but the songs are just kind of silly.”
Another of these songs is a concert favorite called “Board Games,” which uses old childhood games as a metaphor for seduction.
“I think that I’d ultimately like to find a separate outlet to get those tunes out there,” Mutlu says. “For this record, I probably had about 25-30 songs. When I first met T-Bone, we just started whittling it down to what we feel was a real statement. There were still a handful of songs I’d like to revisit that I thought were real good tunes, but they just didn’t end up fitting into the context of this particular bank. It’s definitely a process, but having a guy like T-Bone who has been working in the studio with tons of songs for years helps you get that objective sense of this song works, this song doesn’t work.”
The songs which made the Livin’ It CD certainly do work. With his silky smooth voice, good sense of tune and intriguing songwriting touches, this will undoubtedly be just the first step on a consistently fascinating musical road. The whole point is that Mutlu should not have to define himself and his music. That is just selling him short. The guy has wide interests and lots of talent and doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed.
“Sometimes people wonder – are you more of an R&B singer? Am I more of a singer/songwriter? People sometimes want to define what it is that you do in such a concrete way. Some people can’t quite make out where it is I’m coming from. I’m coming from both places. I’m just trying to do something that integrates everything. Sometimes I think people have a need to want to put something in a place. I guess my approach is to feel like I’m trying to bridge a gap. Not necessarily one or the other – because it’s all music at the end of the day.”
Instead, Mutlu hopes his music “represents a community and a scene, in a way. That’s why this first album is great. I’m a product of a certain sound and a certain community. I’d really like them to take away from it that positive element. It’s the kind of music you can listen to at a party. You can have it on your iPhone. I’d like to think my music is versatile and that it can work in a lot of different contexts. It’s the kind of thing that makes people forget whatever ills or worries they have for a while. They can just lose themselves in it. That’s the goal. To make people feel good.”
|#1 © 2008 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.|
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 20, 2008.