With a voice that harkens back to music legends like Otis Redding and Al Green, Anthony Hamilton has been a lone beacon of southern soul in 21st century R&B. The platinum selling singer/songwriter behind “Charlene,” “Can Let Go,” and “Do You Feel Me” has filled a void that’s been missing in Black radio for a long time, but he’s refused to be confined to that sound. Hamilton has done more than just sing that Delta sound that is tailor made for his voice; lending it to rap hooks, gospel royalty and rock and roll legends. His 2011 album Back to Love was a potent melding of down home soul with a sophisticated pop execution. With a new album, What I’m Feelin’, dropping this month and a co-headlining tour with Fantasia coming this spring, Hamilton is poised to continue to touch hearts and heal souls with his voice, but on his terms.
Let's start with your last album, Back to Love. You worked with big producers like Salaam Remi, Jerry Wonda and Babyface. What was the sound you were going for?
That particular album I wanted to reach out and collaborate more, rather than just do it all on my own. And to take the experience of Babyface as a writer and producer and all he's seen and put it into my music. Jerry Wonda brought a great energy, with Keri Hilson. It was more of a collaborative album.
As a songwriter yourself, what were some of the things you picked up from working with Babyface?
"The song 'Pray for Me,' I had it in my head totally different. [He sings alternate "Pray for Me" chorus]. He brought it back the next day [sings the final version of the chorus] and it had that melody. He took the idea that I had, which was a groove, and made it unbelievable."
Back to Love was the first time your long time producer Mark Batson didn’t contribute any producing or composition.
He’s always there. It’s just that he does a lot of work with Dr. Dre and 50 [Cent] and works with tons of people. So it’s all about scheduling. That particular album I wanted to try something different. Everybody’s like, [we want] “Charlene!” “Comin’ From Where I’m From!” I wanted to do something that felt like that but felt new at the same time.
Together, you and Mark made your best known songs – "Comin’ From Where I’m From,” “Charlene,” “Can’t Let Go.” Tell me about your working relationship.
Mark is a very, very brilliant producer/pianist who can play anything and play it well, from classical to rock to hip-hop. He understands the music and he knows how to fuse it together to bring what we need to the music we do. He understands me, musically. Just having similar tastes in what you want to feel in a song, what makes the song stand out to you. We’re pretty parallel with how we’re feeling. We don’t have to say much; we just go in and there’s a silence fact that we know that what I write, I’m going to sing my ass off, and when he plays it, I just sit back and know he’s going to embellish the music and I’m going to be super excited about it. It’s a gel we have; a musical brotherhood.
Now he’s back in a big way, producing all but two songs on the new album. Do you feel like you have to compete with the sound you two developed in the past?
No, we never compete with it, and that’s the beauty of the working relationship; we don’t really compete. We want to make [the fans] feel as good as they did when they heard “Charlene” with this new song, we want them to feel that same way with whatever we do. In terms of competing, I think that’s a waste of energy and time. I just want it to be great, but in its own moment.
You did a cover of Jodeci’s “Freek’N You” that went viral last year. A lot of people were surprised. I think most fans think you’re only inspired by older singers.
Jocedi’s my favorite group of all time. I have Chris Brown records, August Alsina. I listen to everything. I like finding new artists that are great. Andra Day; we just did the White House together and I really like her. Little Leon Bridges, he’s on his way. He’s getting older and older. He’s going to be alright; he’s a talented cat. Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes, and I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar real hard. A$AP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak. BJ The Chicago Kid is a talented brother.
Because your voice is so distinctively soulful, do you think you've been pigeonholed to one mode of music?
Only with our people and our radio, Black radio. But I've done country songs, rock song with Carlos Santana, I've done a gospel song with Shirley Ceasar and John P. Kee. I'm on over 50 rap records, blues. I've done everything, every genre almost. I've have those outlets. In terms of my own album, there's always heavy critiquing from the labels and people who want me to have it a certain way and be formatted.
Your music has melded gospel and hip-hop and soul. How have you been able to balance that?
I am that. I am of the church; I am from the streets; I am from country music. I am from all these places but they come together, and that’s just me being me.
Is there a bridge between church and hip-hop?
I think it all stems from the spirit of who we are as people and the experiences we have; that hip-hop has, that true voice. What soul music has, the truth behind. It’s spirits that live in it. We’ve all felt it. It plays an important part in what you feel. It’s a certain vibration; it’s an energy that comes with those experiences when you’re singing, when you’re rapping, you get a Kendrick [Lamar] spirit that comes to speak to you. You can only feel what those two things bring.
Speaking of Kendrick, social commentary in music is increasing. You’ve done some of that throughout your career. Can we expect more on What I’m Feelin’?
Nas just finished up a part on a song called “Down So Long.” It’ll be added to the digital release because of the timing. It’s socially conscious. It’s an urgent thing that’s happening right now, people getting incarcerated and wrongly accused; just being in a place when on your best day, pain in normal, when it’s not. The injustice of that which goes on, we speak about it.
Social songs haven’t being getting attention in a long time. Why do you think that’s changing now?
Before, money was plentiful, jobs were plentiful, and certain people didn’t have to worry about those issues. When stuff around you starts to change and the comfort of your living is threatened, you start paying attention to what’s going on socially. Now, they need those songs to remind them it could be worse than this, or it could be better. I just think it’s where we are now.
This upcoming tour is with Fantasia. What can we expect?
You can expect a whole lot of damn singing [laughs]. You can expect great singing and the spirit of God, family, good times, celebrating, there’s some hurt, and I a lot of great background vocalists and musicians. It’s going to be a real tour. It’s going be like Al Green and Aretha Franklin on tour together. I’m real excited about it.