Worth Some Good Trouble
by Jay S. Jacobs
“Let’s get it on, it’s time to get down.” Those are the only lyrics in the classic Philly soul instrumental “The Sound of Philadelphia” by iconic studio musicians MFSB (though the actual words were a guest shot by the vocal group The Three Degrees.)
Mutlu Onaral (who performs under his first name Mutlu) understands the sound of Philadelphia. He grew up steeped in Philly soul, and has put together a pretty impressive career gigging around the city and touring internationally with some of the biggest names in rock and R&B.
With his sweet, sticky vocals – “Caramel,” as one of his old crowd favorites puts it – and his spare subtle instrumentation, Mutlu has been a big part of a new generation of singers who have brought the Sound of Philadelphia into the new millennium.
The last time we ran across Mutlu was when he was releasing his major label debut, Livin’ It, about a decade ago, which was produced by the late, great T-Bone Wolk of Daryl Hall and John Oates’ band. In fact, Hall contributed vocals to the first single “See What It Brings.” This led to a long collaboration with Hall and Oates; Mutlu has opened for the duo many times in concert. Mutlu has also appeared on Hall’s internet and TV series Live from Daryl’s House multiple times.
Mutlu also wrote his current single “Nothing in This Whole Wide World” with Oates, who also shares vocals. It is a part of Mutlu’s fun, funky and topical new EP Good Trouble, which offers seven slabs of soulful ecstasy, a mixture of the political, the passionate and the profane.
A few days after he had his hometown record release party for Good Trouble, we caught up with Mutlu to discuss his music, his beliefs and the sweet seduction of Philly soul.
We discussed this last time I interviewed you, but I’ll ask again. What is it about Philadelphia that you think has spawned so much great soul music?
I think it’s just the character of the town. It’s a hard-nosed, blue collar town. Yeah, there is a component of love songs and all that, but a lot of great soul music that comes out of struggle. When you think about Philly soul, a few of the components that make it so special are beautiful melodies and lush string arrangements, but underneath that you have songs about social change. You have songs that deal with political issues. Social issues. They have grit in the performances. When you think of someone like Teddy Pendergrass, you know? It’s that dichotomy that you hear in Philly soul music. It represents the town. There’s a grit and a toughness here, but it’s also an incredible area for creativity and the arts. I think that’s why the brand of soul music came out of here is kind of singular.
I noticed some of the songs were significantly more political than your earlier work, in songs like “Not Escapable,” “95 to 5” and “Lifeline.” What made you take this turn in your music?
It was important to me because I hadn’t really gone there before, but it’s something I’ve always cared about. Especially these last two years, with everything that has gone on in this political climate that we’re in. I’ve reached out a lot and posted a lot online. There’s some pushback to that sometimes. (laughs) You know, I’m definitely very progressive, liberal. Online I had some fans who were Trump supporters who got kind of angry with me for it.
Did they have a problem with the “angry orange baby” reference in “Not Escapable?”
(laughs) You know, I thought I would hear [about it]. Because like I said I’ve done a lot of political posts. I should say that there are a lot of people that really appreciate that I do it. I think the majority of people that are in my ecosystem do appreciate it, and value the fact that I speak out. But yeah, there was some pushback, especially when I first started doing it, from fans that were Trump supporters. But you know what is interesting? I thought I would get some pushback on that stuff [in the songs], but I haven’t, thankfully. Maybe I will. There’s still time. (Laughs again)
I was interested to hear you say in the concert that the song “Lifeline” was inspired by Congressman John Lewis. How did he move you to write the song?
Just his message, that I think is really important. He’s someone who spent his life in the battle for social justice. Racial justice. Economic justice. From a young age he was a civil rights hero. He’s been in Congress for years and years in Georgia. He has a perspective that is valuable, because in this 24/7 Twittersphere we’re in… I succumb to it all the time… this day in, day out anger cycle that we’re in, it’s hard not to see the long view sometimes. His message is the pursuit for equality, the pursuit for justice. That’s a lifelong push. I thought that was a valuable perspective in this climate, where we’re all so caught up in the day to day of it. Especially the term – the particular lyric in the song, “Truth and love is well worth the struggle. It won’t come easy, but it’s worth some good trouble.” That’s a term that he uses a lot.
That resonated with me in a way of validating my feelings. I’ve had some people say, “Be careful speaking out politically. You’re an artist, you’re going to divide your audience. You’re going to anger people.” I’ve experienced that, but what I take from that term is that you have to be willing sometimes to say what is important to you. It is important to speak out sometimes, to be willing to do that. That’s something that I’ve committed to; just that notion that if you want to speak out for social change, political change, you need to be ready for the pushback. It’s a positive thing overall. Good trouble, not bad trouble.
Well, as it says in the song, we all need a lifeline in life. What is yours?
So many things. My family. My friends. But as much as anything, it is music. I can’t picture doing anything else with my life. I’ve been doing it straight through pretty much since I graduated from college. It’s afforded me the opportunity to tour all over the US, all over Europe. Just to meet people and be in situations I couldn’t otherwise be it. Just the joy of going onstage and connecting with people. Writing a new song. Music is always my lifeline. It’s always the thing that keeps me connected, having a purpose.
You did a video for “Lifeline” which was filmed all around Philadelphia. Was that fun to do?
Absolutely. That was so much fun. We wanted to get some of the golden light, so we were up early. The guy who directed it, Joe Grasso, he is a great videographer. It was really cool. We made a checklist of spots that we wanted to go, like City Hall and Roosevelt Park… FDR Park. Just being down on East River Drive… Kelly Drive… it was really, really cool. On the one hand, the message of the song is this uplifting thing, but visually I wanted it to be something that did pay tribute to Philly. Joe did a really great job of scouting the locations and making sure that the city was the star of the video as much as I was.
In the time since I’ve last interviewed you, you have toured the world. What keeps you coming back to Philadelphia?
It’s home. Just for being an artist and doing what I do musically, I draw a lot of inspiration from it. I feel like there’s a great community here. There’s a great scene. A very diverse scene artistically. I don’t know, I just feel like I always come back to it because when I cross paths with other artists that are working nationally, when you come across the Philly people, there’s always this kind of kinship. The two acts that I’ve toured with most successfully for years now are Hall & Oates and Amos Lee. Definitely there is a Philly connection there. Musically, our love of the city and that influence. It’s just a huge part of who I am. It feels good to come back, especially after I’ve been on the road for a while. It’s good to get out sometimes and travel, but it’s always nice to come home, too.
You have worked with Daryl Hall and John Oates a great deal over recent years. In fact, “Nothing in This Whole Wide World” was co-written with John and was also part of the recording. And I believe I heard that you are the artist who has appeared most on Live at Daryl’s House. They are such Philly soul legends, how crazy is it to you that they are now friends and associates?
(laughs) It’s amazing, man. It still feels surreal on some level, as much as I’ve worked with them. I’ve known them for over a decade now. I’ve opened a lot of tour dates for them. I’ve been on Daryl’s show multiple times. John and I wrote the tune together. Daryl sang on [Livin’ It]. I have a very extensive touring and collaborative history with them. But it’s still amazing to me, because they are among my musical heroes.
I’d imagine so…
I think the thing I take away from them – I’ve learned so much just from being around them, watching how they do what they do – but they are in it for the love of the music. They still love to go out and perform. They still love to write songs. They still love making records. Daryl has this great TV show. He has a club now, that I play regularly. They’re still just passionate about music. That’s what it’s all about for them. All the accolades and the fame and stuff, I think that’s secondary to them. Their true passion is just the joy of being artists and making music. The fact that they have been doing it this long and that they are still so connected to that, that’s inspiring for me. It’s a tough business, no matter level you’re at. Staying connected to that joy of making music – it’s all about that creative side. The business comes in and you deal with it, but always staying connected to that, that’s inspiring to me.
And they’ve had so many hits. I’m always blown away every time I open for them you go down the setlist and every song is a hit, you know? They don’t even get to all of them, they can’t even get to all the hits they’ve had in one show. It’s amazing. I feel really grateful. They’ve both been so great to me, so supportive and encouraging from the time I met them. I feel very grateful for that.
I’m sorry to bring up a sad subject, but when we first talked around the release of Livin’ It, T-Bone Wolk was producer and really pushing your music. (Wolk was also a long-time member of Hall & Oates’ band.) Sadly, since then T-Bone has passed away. What was he like to work with and how hard was it to hear that he was gone?
That was just heartbreaking, man. He was great. He was just a great friend and a true mentor to me. That’s how I met Daryl and John. It was through T-Bone. I still remember getting the call. It just crushed me. [I learned from] our friend Pete Moshay, who used to be the production manager for Hall and Oates and has worked with them in the studio. [He] engineered and mixed the Livin’ It album. He actually now runs all the production and audio at Daryl’s House… he records and mixes Live from Daryl’s House. Pete’s been a long-time collaborator with them. He’s been in their organization for a long time. I remember he called me the day after T-Bone passed and told me. It was devastating. I had just spoken with him a week or two before. We were talking about at that point he was getting ready to start going out and doing some of his own shows – solo T-Bone Wolk shows. We were talking about doing tour dates together. There was still a lot to be done.
He was incredible. I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to be around some extraordinary musicians. To me, I’ve never met a musician quite of the caliber of T-Bone. He could just pick up anything. He was phenomenal. He was tasteful in the way he played. He was soulful. Making that record with him was such a turning point for me. He really gave me a lot of confidence in myself; what I was doing with my songwriting, with my singing. I’d never had the level of confidence, especially in the studio, that I have since developed thanks to him. He was just such an inspiring guy. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone almost ten years now. He was really one of a kind. He’s a legend. His legacy, so many people from so many parts of the business, if you mention T-Bone, he was so well loved and respected. That’s a tough thing, but I am grateful for the time I had to know him and work with him.
This album was very much a team effort with you and Darius Amendolia, who co-produced and played many of the instruments. How did you start working with Darius and what do you feel he adds to the process?
He’s just a very versatile musician. Actually, I’ve worked with him on my previous two EPs. On the Caffeine & Whiskey EP and the Hypnotize EP. We just have a great synergy together. We learned a lot from those first two EPs, as far as the process of taking the songs from the raw form and how we want it to make it happen on the record. We had a little bit of trial and error. I’m really proud of those first EPs, but I think we’ve taken it to another level on this one.
This time what we did was, we were very meticulous in the pre-production. We really had the road map for every track mapped out before we recorded a note of music. Literally, the instrumentation of section of every song; how are we going to approach it? It made it so much fun when we’d go into the studio, because it wasn’t like a guessing game. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. When you collaborate with the same person multiple times over, you start to learn how to work efficiently together. The one thing we did this time that I think also helped to take the record to another level was previously Darius had mixed two CDs, and he did a really good job, but we wanted to get a top level mixer for this record, so we brought in Phil Nicolo out here in Conshohocken.
Sure, from the Butcher Bros.
In a few days he mixed the record. It just sonically helped take our recording to another level. He also mastered it as well. So, I think we have just a really good synergy and now we’ve learned how to work in a way that is really, really efficient. Having a real game plan before we get into the studio.
It was recently announced for the first time since like the mid-80s, vinyl will outsell CDs.
Do you prefer the sound of vinyl or digital? Is Good Trouble getting a vinyl release as well?
I absolutely 100% prefer vinyl. Nothing, to me, sounds better than vinyl. I’m still debating on [whether to release it on vinyl]. I wanted to, I thought about it, and then we just had a lot of other things that had to get done that were more pressing with the record. I’m still thinking about printing it up on vinyl, the tough thing is that there aren’t that many places [that press vinyl], and when you do there is usually a pretty long turn-around time. But I still have the mindset to do it. Maybe if it’s got a little delayed, we’ll still do it. I’m eventually going to launch an online store, so it would be cool to have that available for people.
I know as a listener, for me, nothing sounds as good as vinyl. It’s not even close. The nuance you hear, just the way you hear the low end in vinyl – there is a reason why CDs have totally become obsolete. Vinyl has had the resurgence. That’s a real experience. People who are audiophiles particularly like to seek that out.
At the show one of the crowd favorites was “Board Games,” which I remember made the audiences go nuts years ago, too. Yet I don’t believe you’ve ever recorded it officially. Any chance that you will ever do that?
It’s a great performance piece. It’s out of print now, but for a while I had a Live in Concert EP that I was only selling in shows [which included the song]. And there are so many YouTube versions of it, just like fan videos. But, you know, maybe at some point I will. It’s funny, I wrote that with my friend Will Blair years ago. It’s funny how you write a song as a total joke, as a laugh, and it has become such a staple of my show. (laughs) I couldn’t get away with not playing it. But, yeah, it was on that EP. It’s possible I could make that EP available for digital release. The version that’s on there is a live version, because that’s the best way for people to hear it. I wouldn’t rule that out. That’s a staple song for me at this point.
You have often covered soul classics in concert and on YouTube. What do you think are some perfect soul songs? What are some of the songs you most wish you had written?
Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Okay, well, “What’s Going On?” [by Marvin Gaye], I’ve got to start there. That is just an amazing, transcendent song. Then, let’s see, Stevie [Wonder]… well there are so many Stevie songs, but I would say “Superstition.” Another one is “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Man, I love that song so much. I used to do an a capella version of that one. I would say, “Nothing Can Change This Love” by Sam Cooke.
Yeah, that’s a great song.
There’s so many. Let’s keep going through the list. I would probably have to say take any number of songs from the Philly soul catalogue. Let’s say “Backstabbers” [by the O’Jays], that’s an unbelievable tune. “Wake Up Everybody.” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with Teddy P. [Pendergrass]. The list can go on and on. I do actually plan in the next week or two to put together a whole Spotify playlist of Philly soul classics. I’m going to try not to go with the obvious ones, necessarily. The one we played the other night, I’ve got to say, too, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” [by Major Harris].
Have you ever considered doing an album of soul covers?
It’s funny, I was just thinking about that today, because I was like, “Man, what should the next thing be?” I’m thinking about it. I’m trying to find a cool way to do it. You have to be careful with covers, because these are great classic songs. You’ve got to find a way to make it your own. Make it unique. Make it fresh. That’s something I plan to do. Who knows? It could be the next record, or if it’s not, maybe the record after that. I think it’s something I plan to do, because I notice when I do my little Instagram videos and stuff like that, where I just do a capella versions of songs, people really seem to connect to my interpretations of some of these tunes. That’s something to be said, too. An amazing song doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles. A great song holds up with just voice, or just voice and guitar. I’m always looking for that. I think the really, truly transcendent songs, they don’t require a lot of accompaniment. It’s all there in the melody, and the lyric, and the message.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 8, 2019.
Photos by Jay S. Jacobs © 2019.