Touched by cultural and musical legends who came before him, Nigel Hall wields limitless talents with seemingly effortless panache. He’s a soulful force of nature with an unrepentant approach, a captivating performer who simply demands our attention. Keyboardist/vocalist for veteran future-funk outfit Lettuce, Nigel’s electrifying reputation precedes him, both onstage and off; he moves through life with a sizable chip on his shoulder and an even bigger beating heart in his chest.
On July 16th, the Grammy-winning Hall unveiled Spiritual, his intoxicating sophomore opus, a record that writes a new chapter in an already-storied career. The full-length LP is brimming with the musical brilliance and emotional verve his fans have come to love and expect over the past dozen years since Hall first hit the scene with the Royal Family.
Spiritual finds Hall tracing his roots back to the D.C. area, where he spent his youthful years immersed in the city’s sports and music culture. The fourteen-track release has Nigel hooking up with multi-instrumentalist/studio shaman DJ Harrison, who co-produced the effort with a back-to-basics ethos and subtle Soulquarian style.
To achieve this quintessential RVA vibe, Hall hollered at homies from Harrison’s own burly-ass funk squad, Butcher Brown, looking to flesh out the foundation for Hall’s fresh musical ideas. The contingent assisted Nigel in meticulously crafting a cohesive document that encapsulates his enigmatic artistry.
On an idiosyncratic effort that is both a sign of the times and a blueprint, too, Hall blesses us with an invigorating gumbo of his own exquisite compositions and a smattering of deep cut covers and interpolations. This latest platter is a decided departure from its successful predecessor in a variety of ways, from aesthetics to attitude to song structure/selection and, most definitely, production. Yet Spiritual maintains the high level of quality and artistic integrity for which Nigel has become known across a wide swath of projects. It also symbolically represents the end of an era, and the hopeful new beginnings of another.
The uber-versatile Harrison, drummer Corey Fonville, guitarist Morgan Burrs, trumpet maestro Marcus Tenney, and bassist Andrew Randazzo coalesced together at Jellowstone Studios in Richmond, VA, establishing their comfortable chemistry for Nigel to stretch out and do his thing throughout the opaline journey. Other special guests include the legendary R&B siren Patrice Rushen on “Baby I Do Love You”, plus longtime Lettuce comrade Ryan Zoidis on soprano sax, famed axe-slinger Marcus King, horn specialist Jeff Coffin of Dave Matthews Band, and L.A.-based backing vocalist Raquel Rodriguez. Spiritual was mastered by Sam Brawner, at Blue Dream Studios in Los Angeles.
Nigel Hall – “People in Search of a Life”
The mellifluous swag of first single “Wake Me” sets the tone near the top to the tracklist, which unspools footloose and fancy-free; a sojourn that sees Nigel stepping into his own voice while still harkening back to his heroes. Naturally, we hear echoes of the usual suspects like Donnie Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Frankie Beverly, and D’Angelo, but we also get a whole lot of unabashed Nigel Hall, too. His biggest influence, his absolute hero, the late George Duke, makes a guest appearance from the heavens on the record’s closing track, a priestly benediction from the dearly departed.
Smoked-out second single “Gotta Go To Work” rides out upon those Dilla-fied claps, and lyrically resonates with our own regular routines. “Change Directions” is a shotgun blast of attitude and righteous indignation, a knee-deep nod to the psychedelic tones of early-era Funkadelic. The stirring “A Brother’s Love” delivers a divine dedication to Nigel’s dear friend and mentor, the late Kofi Burbridge.
For this writer, it’s “People in Search of a Life” that provides the most potent strain. Arriving midway through Spiritual‘s sequencing, the track transcends time and space, reveling in a walloping emotional impact. A tantalizing take on the Marc Dorsey cut recorded for the soundtrack to the 1995 motion picture Clockers, “People in Search of a Life” sees Hall and Harrison swimming in strings while bumpin’ the boom-bap. The squadron splits the difference between Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott Heron, Nigel leaving nary a dry eye in his wake.
The hauntingly beautiful “Yesterday” is at once grandiose yet minimalist, a lovely Quiet Storm-styled track with a hint of MAZE and glorious layered backing vocals. Making excellent use of the low-fi production value, Hall offers humble serenity over a sweet Fonville break, with whistling Hammond B3 organ and ambitious ARP adventures abound.
In the covers category, Hall and company reveal a riveting interpolation of Motherlode’s seminal 1969 chestnut “When I Die”; beloved in contemporary times thanks to J Dilla’s delectable Donuts flip from 2006, followed by D’Angelo’s resurrection of the original masterpiece a half-dozen years later. Nigel does the classic justice with an elegant, respectful reading that still emanates his unicorn spirit.
Shorty before the album’s original May 2021 release date, L4LM’s B.Getz caught up with Nigel to discuss all things Spiritual. The complete, 70-minute interview can be heard in full on Episode 043 of The Upful LIFE Podcast, available on most platforms.
Listen to the complete conversation below or scroll down to read some highlights from the interview, edited for length and clarity.
The Upful LIFE Podcast – Episode 043: Nigel Hall
On the musical crew behind the magic of Spiritual:
Nigel Hall: I had the pleasure of having DJ Harrison co-produce my record, Spiritual. He’s the keyboard player of Butcher Brown. I had the pleasure of playing with them on the album. DJ, plus Corey Fonville, Andy Randazzo, Marcus Tenney, and Morgan Burrs. That was the core group. Plus Ryan Zoidis is on it, Marcus King and Jeff Coffin also are on Spiritual. And Patrice Rushen is on my record. Patrice Rushen!
On looking in the rearview mirror in the aftermath of his new album:
Nigel Hall: When I first came around, when I started playing with Soulive and doing stuff with Lettuce, I wanted to be Donny Hathaway so bad. And it was evident. First of all, you could obviously hear it, because I was singing like that motherf—er. Every night. And… I used to wear the hats, you know, and do all of that s–t [laughs]. That was a rough time in my life. But… hold on, eventually I learned how to really just enjoy it, and to be me, and sing to my experiences.
So [when] I look back on the career that I’ve had thus far… And this is not me tooting my horn at all, but I’m just really grateful to have been a part of some of the records that I’ve been on. I’ve been really fortunate to make a lot of the music that I want to. Some of them, I’m like, “Okay, I maybe could have done without doing that one.” But also, I realize those were learning experiences too.
On the emotional fabric of his sensational singing style:
Nigel Hall: I think a lot of people misunderstand that, because I get asked all the time to do vocal lessons and s–t, and I can’t teach you how to sing like me. I can’t teach you how to sing at all, because I feel… that comes from a level of experience. Meaning… experiencing things that shape and mold you, from a child up to right now. You had to have gone through some things. You had to have sat in the s–t.
Singing is like crying to me. You know when it’s real, because you just know when it’s real, and you know when somebody’s faking it. You know when somebody is really f—ing crying! You know what I mean? And it could be crying for anything. It could be crying tears of joy, it could be crying tears of pain, but to be able to express that you have to have really understood what it means to cry, and really f—ing feel it. You have to really live life. Living life is what shapes that voice within you, and you can’t really teach someone what you’ve been through.
On finding his musical identity on Spiritual:
Nigel Hall: This record is me. Spiritual is my album. Not having to be molded into… some sort of thing that I am not. And in the past, people tried. They tried! To make me go pop, and wear f—in’ suits, do this, that and the other. F— that! I don’t do that. Music is what I do. People don’t come to see me, they come to hear me. You know what I’m sayin?
I feel like when [MF] DOOM said [something like] “People have gotten so caught up on what the music looks like”… It’s not supposed to look like nothing! DOOM was right. Music is for your mind, and it’s for your hearing. For your soul. And your imagination. The music I make, that’s where I’m coming from. And the s–t that I listen to is also a reflection of that.
On the differences between 2015’s Ladies & Gentleman, Nigel Hall, and what/who we hear on Spiritual:
Nigel Hall: When you hear Spiritual, you will hear a complete departure from what my last record was. Ladies and Gentlemen was a great record. I used to be disappointed about it… in some ways… because it sat on the shelf for a long time before anybody actually got to hear it. So people had heard me playing the songs for like five years before they actually heard a record. The album existed the whole time, but it was just sitting on the shelf, until we were able to get to a place to finally put it out. Spiritual is not that record. Spiritual is some whole other s–t. We ain’t waiting around this time.
Nigel Hall – “Gotta Go to Work” – NORD LIVE
Why where ya from ain’t necessarily where ya at:
Nigel Hall: First of all, when I started making Spiritual, I wanted to make a record with some people from my geographical area, from D.C., at least regionally from [around] there. That’s why I reached out to DJ Harrison and Butcher Brown. They’re from right there in Richmond, Virginia, and they have that sound, too. I wanted to make a hometown record, a record of who I actually am.
Because now, these days I live in New Orleans, and New Orleans is the greatest city in the world! I’m not going anywhere, but D.C. is where I’m from. I’ve been to a lot of places all around this country, and the world, and D.C. is what I represent, everywhere I go. The attitude of D.C., everything that makes D.C. beautiful, everything that makes D.C. sometimes shity, too. I can be all that, too. On this record, I wanted to display the D.C. in me, and you can hear it in my attitude, and with some of the messages that I am bringing forth on Spiritual.
What’s in a name? And the album cover?
Nigel Hall: So, around that time, while we were recording, I had been yellin’ out “spiritual!” Just sorta sayin’ it. You know how we (Lettuce) used to say “spiritual hamzone”? Just naming jams and songs and whatever. So I shortened that, I changed it to just “spiritual.” Because… that’s how I was feelin’.
After we got done recording for the night, we went out. And one night we walked past this… gypsy place? You know how the gypsies have the little room, right there along the street? They got their little building, that little room, and that light, inside the glass? We were walking past that place and I looked in the glass and it was… there was just a hand, and it said on the bottom of it, “Spiritual.”
And I said, “Oh my God, it’s a sign from God.” I pulled my phone out, and took a photo.
But listen, this is not a gospel record! It’s called Spiritual, but this was a wreck, we was drinking when we did this. Okay? [laughs]. But I saw that sign, from God. And when you see the album cover, you’ll see it too. That’s the exact picture I took on my cell phone. The picture that is on the front of the album cover is the picture that I took that night. It’s a picture of the sign from God that I received, on what I was going to name this record.
On creating Spiritual for himself:
Nigel Hall: This record is also really special to me in the sense of… obviously I want people to buy it, and I want them to hear it, and I want them to dig it. But even if nobody buys this record, or nobody listens to it, I feel that I have done myself a service. I’ve done something good for myself, to know that I put something out in the world that is unapologetically me. I can sleep at night knowing that maybe one day somebody will find it. But I know that it’s there.
You know what I’m saying? I know that it’s there. So if it’s there, and if it’s good, and if God put me in the place to make that music, if God gave me the strength to run into the burning building, and grab these songs. You see? Then, I’m good.
Because being an artist, sometimes you gotta go to a dark place to get the shit. You gotta just go make people happy, make them dance and get them to learn something. To do that, you have to speak from experience. So I realized that I was an artist that had to do that. Speak from my experiences. And I know that my actions were not in vain, because I am more than happy with what we produced. And I hope people feel the same.
Miles said it best: “it takes a long time to learn how to play yourself.”
As told to B.Getz
Editor’s note: After the album was released on July 16th, Nigel publicly revealed that he was over one hundred days sober and counting. These following comments were shared on his official social media channels a couple of months after our conversation took place. It felt appropriate to include them here:
Nigel Hall: This record is a reflection of my final days as an alcoholic and drug addict. It is the most honest collection of music I have ever created, and being able to celebrate that as a sober human being is a tremendous honor. I had a lot to get off my chest and with this record I feel like I’ve been able to release those feelings and demons that were weighing so heavily on me. Now that Spritual is out in the world, I have a great sense of closure and peace around that chapter of my life. Aside from my children, this record is my proudest accomplishment to date. So as you listen, understand that this record was made with the intention to let go of certain things, so that I could grow. This record is for me.
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