Charles Bradley Is the Last Great American Soul Singer

Charles Bradley is what music publicists’ dreams are made of. A 67-year-old soul singer who’s survived homelessness, heartbreak, his brother’s murder, a nearly fatal illness, and many years of struggling at odd jobs while moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator. A man blessed with a searing, unforgettable voice that’s beguiled music bloggers for the last few years, making him a late-blooming success. He’s no mere revivalist; he’s the genuine article, discovered decades later. The press releases write themselves.

What’s more, when he speaks, Bradley pulls no punches. And after years with no platform for his voice, he’s got a lot to say. While his sophomore record, 2013’s Victim of Love, captured the hard-knock narrative of a man done wrong, his latest, Changes, is the soundtrack of a world done wrong. Touching on everything from corrupt leaders to heightened racial tensions, he sings for humanity as passionately as he does for his romantic muses.

In a recent chat with Sharp, he sounded off on Donald Trump, police brutality, and what in his opinion is the impending apocalypse. His underlying message: if he can change, then you can change, and everybody can change. Yes, that sounds like something out of Rocky IV. But you know what? It fits. Because Charles Bradley is a goddamn fighter.

SHARP: The title track of your new record is a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.” You a big Sabbath fan?

CHARLES BRADLEY: Well “Changes” was really recommended to me by [Daptone producer] Tom Brenneck. And I did not know who [Black Sabbath] was. He was like, ‘Charles, you gotta do this.’ But I was going through some hardships in my personal life and when I read the lyrics, I was like, ‘Wow, some of these lyrics, they could be my own.’ I was going through some deep down talk between me and my mom, who was sick. And when she passed away, something about those lyrics stuck to me. I can hear a part of me in that song.

Changes could obviously have a broader context too. America’s going through changes.  

Yes, all of that. It’s about all the things you hear in the news today. We’re going through changes. These are things I am seeing in life today. I’m seeing the police coming down on the neighbourhood. You watch these things. I tell all my friends, you won’t see me on the streets anymore unless there’s a positive reason to be there. I don’t hang out. I’m either doing my music or I’m in the house doing something positive. But just to hang out? No. I need to be making a difference.

You start the album with an ode to America, saying it’s been really kind to you. But America’s also been really hard on you. You were homeless, your first band was conscripted to the Vietnam War, you lost your brother to street violence…

America has been bittersweet to me. But it’s the only country that I know, where I was born. And I’ve seen a lot of bad things, but that’s the way the world is. That’s why I’ve never really trusted nobody. That’s why I’ve always stayed in my own little space, my own little cocoon. When I first met [Daptone execs] Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, I thought, ‘They must want something from me.’ I wasn’t used to nice people. But now that I’ve started getting out and opening my wings again to meet new people, I’m starting to realize the world is not so bad as it looks, but you’ve got to get in the right circle of people who care. With the things I’ve been through, a lot of people would quit. But in my mind, I’m like a donkey. When a donkey don’t wanna walk, it aint gonna walk. When it wants to walk, it’s gonna walk. And that’s just the way I am. You try to make me stop, I ain’t gonna stop.

What made you keep going for all those years? You struggled for five decades.

I looked at my life, I looked at my past, and there was nothing to stand still for. And all I saw was frustration, hatred, and dishonesty. You can’t trust nobody. I never saw a space in my life where I could say, ‘Wow. This is it for me. I like this.’ No. So I just kept pushing. And it’s the same today, with this opportunity I got. I need to show that I really want this. This is something I’ve wanted for a long time. My main goal is just to get out into the world, do these concerts, and open up to these people so they can see me. Not only as an artist, but also as a person with them.

What are your thoughts on the state of America today?

I’m afraid. With the things I see going on. With the police force and the young kids coming up today. There are a lot of things that I look back at that I’m seeing starting all over gain. It’s too much — we’re in modern days, but we’re going back to that segregation thing. I think we’re going to need some soul searching before we do something crazy. I’ve never seen presidential candidates fussing and fighting like they are today. They’re not really putting their soul and spirit into it. But if they let this one guy win I know I’m going to move out of the United States. You know who I’m talking about.

Donald Trump.

[Long sigh.] Yes. I think the guy’s a lunatic. I really do. There’s something about the guy. He’s always going in everybody’s face saying, ‘I’ve got $8 billion and I’m gonna lead the country.’ When you’re down with somebody trying to push their own plateau up, you’re not doing anything for the country. It’s very self-serving. I don’t like what he’s doing. I’m only one individual but I speak the way I feel. I like Hilary. I know nobody else likes her. But I think it’s time for a lady president. We’ve had male presidents for generation and generations. We got a black president and we’ve seen what he can do. Now give this lady a chance.

In the song “Change For the World,” you say “Revelations” is here. Are you talking about the Book of Revelations?

Yes, it’s exactly like I say in the song. Revelations, we’re living in. Am I dreaming? Who is gonna protect us now? Rap back to color. Blacks depreciated. If we’re not careful, we’ll be back segregated. And that is true, with the way things are going on nowadays.

You think the Apocalypse is happening?

I think we’re in the Revelations. I think we’re going through Revelations right now.

That’s scary shit.

It is scary, but it’s what’s true. You can see the truth when you live. If you look back at your childhood, I know your mind and heart carry a lot of things up to this point. As I talk with you now over the phone, I do believe you can see a lot of the things inside you. If you are an honest person looking for truthful things, you can look at the world and watch your own inner being unfold in front of you, watching the way the world is going. And the way the world is going is not really a good sight to see. But when you see a good sight — people trying to really keep the world going — you’ve got to respect those people. I don’t care if they’re rich or poor. You’ve gotta respect honesty and truth. And that’s what America’s forgetting about. The only thing they think about is what they got.

Earlier, you mentioned your cocoon. When you see all this turmoil in the world, doesn’t it make you want to retreat back into it?

It makes me want to just get up, go to a different place and not see all those bad things. Sometimes, I walk out my door, I look in people’s eyes and I say, ‘Oh my god.’ You can see the turmoil in their faces. And sometimes you just don’t want see it. But I’m in the world. What can I do? All I can do is try to make a difference in myself. I thank God I’ve got a chance to open up my heart, because back in the day, I was afraid to say what was on mind and in my heart. I was scared I would lose my job. They would say, as long as you shut your mouth you can keep your job. That’s how it was back in the day. I had to. I didn’t want to live back on the streets. So now I’m just trying to show the world who I am. And hopefully other people will be able to see things inside themselves too. First thing’s first: change for the better in your soul first. And the world will follow.

Charles Bradley will be performing at Toronto’s Field Trip Festival on June 5th.