Random Soul man Husky is about to release his second solo album, and it's a defiantly all-vocal affair…
The coronavirus pandemic has, it's fair to say, affected all manner of things in all manner of ways. In terms of dance music, its most obvious impact has been the devastation lockdown has wreaked upon the nightclub and festival industry, and the knock-on effect that's had on DJs' ability to earn a living.
But is lockdown also affecting the actual music that's getting made? Could the fact that the world's producers have spent much of the past six months cooped up indoors, see a shift away from instant, Pavlovian dancefloor thrills, and towards a slightly more thoughtful approach to music-making? Perhaps even house records with (whisper it) actual lyrics?
One man who's hoping it might is Husky, known to the taxman as Lawrence Huskinson, and to soulful house lovers as one-half of successful Australian duo Random Soul. He's about to release his second solo album – and while Go Don't Stop finds him exploring slightly tougher musical territory, perhaps, it's also a very vocal-centric album, its 11 tracks featuring no less than nine different singers.
That's quite a brave move, at a time when vocals have been largely out of favour on all but specialist dancefloors for much of the past 10 years or so. The release of Go Don't Stop will also mean Husky's actually released more solo albums (two) than Random Soul albums (one), which is also quite unusual.
Needless to say, we were intrigued… so we got him on the phone to find out more.
Let's start with the album… Yogi plays keyboards on it, so why is this a Husky solo album rather than a Random Soul one?
"Well, as Random Soul we just sort of truck along: we love working together and we have our label as well, which we put a lot of work into. But when it comes to Husky, I'm doing a lot of solo gigs here in Sydney – well, it's all changed now because of Covid, of course, but I was doing between four and six gigs a week. And I'd often find myself playing quite different music, all the way from funk and soul through to tech-house and clubbier stuff. So I like to do stuff that touches on all those bases, whereas Random Soul has more of a defined sound, which is largely soulful deep house.
"With the personal stuff, I enjoy things that go a little bit outside the box, things that are a little bit different… although having said that, when I listen to the album now, I'm pretty sure if you played it to Random Soul fans and said it was a new Random Soul album, they probably wouldn't know any different!
So Random Soul is soulful house plus straight-up soul and jazz-funk, whereas Husky is soulful house but then veering the other way, towards slightly tuffer, techier house?
"I think so, yeah… it's definitely more energetic, more dancefloor-focused maybe. Although I say that, but there are Random Soul records I play out more than my own! I actually don't play a lot of my own records when I'm DJing, because quite often by the time you emerge from the studio, you've heard that record 7,000 times already and you're not in a rush to hear it again.
"But yeah, I'd say my solo stuff is a bit tougher. But really it's not that different, it's just mine – things that I started working on at home. With Random Soul we have a slightly more set way of working: Yogi enjoys making sounds, so instead of going through patches on a synth, he'll make a sound, whereas working on my own I can whizz through hundreds of different sounds really quickly. It's just a different way of working, a different work flow.
"I like working with someone else, but it's also quite nice to have your own thing and work at your own pace. With this particular album, I just started working on a few things here and there, and there were one or two I quite liked and wanted to work on a bit longer. That's basically how I made the first Husky album – I started working on a few bits and after a few months it was like, 'Oh, I've got four or five tracks now, perhaps I should do an album'. And it was pretty much the same this time around."
And the title, Go Don't Stop – is that coronavirus-related?
"Good question! But no, Go Don't Stop is just the name of the second single, it comes from the lyric. But the more I thought about it, the more that sentiment of 'go, don't stop' seemed apt for my life, especially for these past few years, because we had a son two years ago, and if you add a kid into a busy lifestyle of running a record label and going five or six gigs a week… that's pretty much my ethos right there! Go, don't stop.
"And I always seem to take on more, which is just a bit stupid really! Like, now the album's finished I've started working on a whole bunch of collaborations. So Go Don't Stop is really just the name of the song, but it's kind of my life, as well."
I wanted to talk specifically about We Rave Tonight with Mr V, because it's a good example of the Husky material ranging a little wider – to me, that's like the closest we'll ever hear to a tech-house record from you…
"Yeah, I've been playing a lot of that sound that's a bit deeper, but it's still got a vocal and still got a groove. Those are the records that are connecting on the dancefloor now. Gone are the days when it was just about banging tribal drums, a big bassline and a two-second sample – I think people are getting a bit more back into soul.
"So I wanted to put something on the album that was a bit tuffer – well, I don't know if tuffer's the right word, edgier maybe? And I actually wrote that vocal and had it on another track but it just didn't sound right, because the song was talking about raving tonight and I had it on this nice mellow deep house track, which didn't really make any sense! But I'd also been working on an instrumental track, which is now the basic groove for We Rave Tonight. I'd sent that to another vocalist but he wasn't really feeling it, so I thought okay, why don't I take that idea, but put it on this track?
"I'd worked with Mr V before and I thought he'd be perfect for it, so I sent him just the track at first, without any lyrical ideas. And he said, 'Love the track, what would you like me to do?'. So I told him my idea and then let him put his own spin on it, and when it came back, he'd taken my idea to a whole new level. And basically everything fell into place from there: I got the vocal back from him and really just chucked it onto the track! I didn't have to do very much to it at all, bar a few minor edits and stuff.
"It's so nice to work with a seasoned veteran like that – you know, you send stuff off, you get the files back and they're pretty much perfect. It makes the whole process of collaborating so much easier… and much more fun."
The album features a lot of different vocalists – in fact, there's very nearly a different vocalist on every track…
"Nearly! There's a couple with Shyam P, he's a vocalist I've worked with on quite a few tracks. He's a good friend of mine who's based in Dubai, and he's worked on quite a few big records by people like Yousef, Ferreck Dawn and Truetopia.
"And then the other vocalist I've got two tracks from is Red London, who I've never worked with before. Her real name's Reigan Derry and she's a career singer: she did really well on one of the talent shows over here and got a publishing deal and stuff. So how she's basically got an acoustic Reigen Derry career, and then she becomes Red London when she's being a featured vocalist on dance tracks. I'd done a few gigs with her in Sydney and she's a proper diva, just the most amazing voice. So I sent her a few tunes and asked her if she'd be interested in featuring on the album and she said yes, so we got together in the studio for a couple of days and wrote a couple of songs."
What was the impetus to work that way, though – to work with multiple vocalists rather than just one or two for the whole album?
"Well, funnily enough, if I'd done that I'd probably have got the album done a lot quicker! But I quite like working with people who aren't necessarily always in the room. Don't get me wrong: when I've worked with people collaboratively before, sitting down in a room together and writing a song… I think that process is a lot faster, and you often get closer to a product that you're both happy with from the get-go, without so much back-and-forth.
"But I've also got a really good working relationship with people like Shyam, where I send him a track, he sends me some ideas back and I'll say yes or no. That's basically how we work. That process of sending someone something, they put their vibe on it and send it back to me… it takes me out of the process a little bit. I'm honest with myself that I've got musical limitations, so for me, being able to work with a lot of people and have their input takes the record into a different space than if I was there pushing people in this or that direction.
"But then that said, if I look back… my most successful records have mostly been those where I was actually sat writing with someone in a room! So I'm hoping that might be the case with these Red London tracks, because I really like them.
"The whole process is very strange, really. A lot of these singers I've never met face-to-face! People like Elliott Chapman… or even Alyson Joyce. I mean, she's actually based in Australia, and I've written about four tracks with her over the years, but we've still never met! I was supposed to record her for the last album but then a gig came up and it didn't happen. And now I've been working with her for about ten years and we still haven't met."
Also on the vocalist front… it's good that they're all credited! There's been a lot of discussion lately about dance music's less-than-illustrious history when it comes to (especially) black women's vocals being used on tracks by white men and not getting credited… was that on your mind, or would you always credit vocalists anyway?
"Well, for me… because of what we've just discussed and how much input other people have into these tracks, it would never occur to me to not to credit them! In fact I've sometimes been surprised when it's the other way round, when I've worked with someone and they didn't want their name on the record.
"So I have no problem crediting people: to me it enhances the record, and it shines a light on them. Music's so hard to make a living from, and with some of these artists… I enjoy working with them and I'm always happy to pay them and pay for the studio time, because that's the cost of doing business. But I feel like a lot of singers are doing stuff to get their name out there, and they're not getting any money from it. So having their name on stuff should be the bare minimum.
"Writing is obvously different – once people start helping with the production and contributing melody ideas and stuff they should definitely get a songwriting credit and a cut of the royalties, that goes without saying. But even if it's just them performing a song I've written entirely myself, I'd always credit the singer – unless they've specifically asked me not to. But that doesn't happen very often."
That raises an interesting point, because a lot of record companies are changing the credits on new pressings of those tracks – but are they now getting a writing credit (where appropriate) as well or are they, effectively, just getting their name Letrasetted onto the sleeve?
"Yeah, there's not enough transparency. Some of the download sites don't even let you enter in the label copy – even if you look at tracks on Traxsource and Beatport, there's often no information about the song itself at all. Some labels include that but a lot don't, and I like to see that – in fact, that's often how I find new vocalists.
"So yeah, it's definitely a bit disappointing that a lot of the time singers and songwriters don't get the credit, or the financial rewards, that they really deserve."
And talking about the undervaluing of vocal contributors leads us nicely to the subject of song-based dance music, and how it's been marginalised over the past 10 years or so…
"Yeah. I mean soulful or song-based house music hasn't gone anywhere, it's still out there, but it's definitely not as popular as it was. I think the biggest thing is DJs being able to play songs now, because there was a period there, as any touring DJ will tell you, where if you played a vocal record the energy in the room just dropped. And no-one wanted to be 'that guy'.
"I went through it myself. It wasn't until I went to see Frankie Knuckles play at ADE, just before he died. I'd never heard anything like it: he was playing disco, soulful house, techno, tech-house – it was the full spectrum, and I just thought, 'This is DJing, this is what we should be doing!' You know, we shouldn't be afraid of having a breakdown, of playing a song… these are the moments that make a set memorable. And it kind of realigned me, made me worry less about energy levels and focus more on picking the right track at the right time.
"And as a producer I kind of wanted to get back to that, because… don't get me wrong, there are some great tech-house records out there that work really well on the dancefloor. But I don't want to listen to those records over and over and over again. So I looked at the records I'm still playing after 10, 20 years, and they're all vocal tracks. Those are the kind of records that people keep coming back to."
"Another thing that's going on at the moment is there's a big resurgence in the classics, because a lot of labels are re-releasing their back catalogues, but getting new mixes from the hot producers now. So those records are getting reinvigorated and refreshed and given a bit more of a modern touch, while still keeping that soulful element. And I think that's been really integral to bringing songs back onto the dancefloor, and in changing people's perception of songs, back to where instead of sapping the energy in the room, songs actually create those special moments on the dancefloor."
It does seem to me that, when minimal happened and house went in a sparser, tuffer direction, we kind of threw the vocal baby out with the 'funky house' bathwater. But talk of a soulful house revival now seems like a bit of a backwards step… I'd like to see producers who've been making those tuffer sounds bringing vocals into that. It doesn't have to be either/or, does it?
"Absolutely, 100%. But I think the hardest thing that producers face at the moment is, it's just so hard to make any money from music. Especially if you haven't been in the industry fo long and you don't know the ins and outs of publishing, it can be a minefield. So to be able to hire a decent singer, and put in the time on songwriting sessions and stuff… it's a big ask, and it's a big risk.
"I've seen a lot of big producers saying, why are people putting out a record every week? Why aren't they spending a bit more time crafting something that's really special? And that's easy enough to say, but if you're an up-and-coming artist and you've spend five grand you don't have on booking a vocalist and hiring a studio and all the rest… okay maybe you get lucky and get the track signed to a halfway decent label, but if that record does nothing, where are you?
"It's a lot to ask of young producers, expecting them to put in all that time and effort and money when there's no guarantee it'll pay off… it's often much cheaper, quicker and easier to turn out a banging tech-house drum track using samples, and they'll often do well on the charts, so who can blame them?"
"So I understand why people might not feel they want to delve into making these kind of records. But then if people aren't making them, all we've got is rehashes of old stuff, so I think it's important that there are people out there who are still willing to give it a go. That's all I've ever done, really – just give it a go. I've written a few songs, and if they do okay and I've had fun making them, that's great. I'm not out here trying to be the next MK!"
It'll be interesting to see how lockdown affects all this, too. With most of the world's dance/electronic music producers having spent much of the past six months sat at home, which does tend to make people a bit more introspective… will that lead more people to think, 'Y'know what, I'm going to write a song'?
"I think it will. I was speaking to a friend of mine who I co-wrote one of the tracks on the album with: he's got a couple of popular, influential playlists on Spotify and he was telling me he's just started a new one that's more oriented to deeper, more soulful sounds because that's what he's been getting into. I think everyone's slowed down a little bit: we're not so caught up in the rat race. So I hope a few producers are turning that into exploring a bit more, writing songs instead of just knocking out bootlegs and re-edits.
"That said, the first few weeks in lockdown I really struggled… I hit a bit of a creative block. I don't know if that was just because of all the worry about health and money and stuff, but I do wonder how many other people were in the same boat. But hopefully there are some people out there who've been making lemonade out of the lemons life's given them, and maybe we'll hear some amazing new music over the coming months."
Let's hope! Anything else you want to say about the album before we go?
"I don't think so. I'm just really happy with the album, it's taken a bit of effort to get it where it is, so I'm stoked that people at least seem interested in hearing it! I feel like there are some good songs on there, and hopefully they'll connect. It's definitely been a more difficult album to make because of the lockdown, and also studio time is precious these days – now I'm a Dad, I can't just lock myself away for hours on end like I used to. So it's been a bit of a gruelling process, but I'm glad that I've done it, and I hope people enjoy it.
"Oh, and one thing we haven't mentioned is that the album is on my own label. Because that's something I have really enjoyed during lockdown – running the label and working with other artists. I've started to really enjoy the A&R side of things, and working with artists on a regular basis. So that side of the industry has become a bit more attractive to me during this weird time… but at the same, I'm hoping things change soon, and looking forward to getting out there again, travelling and seeing different countries and meeting new people. Because that's definitely the best thing about the job."
Words: Russell Deeks
Go Don't Stop is out on Bobbin Head Music in October