Bobby Womack is on the phone from the hospital, and he sounds ready to leap right out of that sickbed. "I miss the road," he rasps anxiously. "I miss being with the people."
The Los Angeles soul legend has had a rough few months: colon cancer, pneumonia, fading eyesight, lungs shutting down, then several days in a coma and surgery. And all of it comes just as Womack is experiencing an unexpected creative rebirth and putting out his first solo album in decades. "Maybe I got too excited, and that's why my body started falling apart," says Womack, 68, who expects to be back onstage in July. "I said to my doctor, 'I haven't done a drug in 25 years.' And he said, 'What about the other 25?' "
The Bravest Man in the Universe, released today, is Womack's first new album of the 21st century. It's a different kind of recording for the onetime protégé of Sam Cooke, without the horns, string orchestras or many other standard flavors of the past.
Co-produced by Gorillaz mastermind (and Blur frontman) Damon Albarn and released by XL, its nine tracks are a sultry blend of classic R&B and postmodern samples and beats.
Womack's latest chapter began the day he got a call from Albarn, who wanted Womack's voice on the Gorillaz's 2010 album, Plastic Beach. Womack's first thought: Who is Damon Albarn? "I never heard of the Gorillaz," he says. "I heard of the Monkees."
He learned quickly during the making of that album, and a subsequent international tour, even as his health began to slip. "It was very impressive to walk onstage and see teenagers who weren't even born when I started go nuts and know my name," says Womack, who first came to Los Angeles from Cleveland in the early 1960s. "They gave me the strength to overlook my illnesses and everything else, but once I finished the tour, I collapsed."
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But he wasn't finished. Womack told Albarn he was ready to return to the studio and had just written 15 songs, the most prolific burst of creativity of his career. The result was the new album, opening with Womack's torrid, wounded wail on the title song, as he praises "the one who has forgiven first." On the raw, aching "Deep River," Womack sings alone with his acoustic guitar, echoing Cooke's classic "A Change Is Gonna Come."
His "Dayglo Reflection" is a duet with Lana Del Rey amid some haunted grooves and beats. During its session in London, he knew his mother was dying (she has since passed); Albarn suggested they break for a few days, but Womack knew he needed to stay. His own life depended on it. "I said, 'Look, man, my mom would be highly disappointed if I walked. ... My mom is 91. She's lived more than her time. The best thing for me to express that is to sing in the studio that way I feel right now,' " Womack says. "And I felt bad, but I felt strong and real."
The Bravest Man in the Universe is out today. Womack will sign copies of it at Amoeba on Friday, June 15 at 6 pm.