Aloe Blacc has long been a staple of the L.A. music scene; the former Stones Throw-signed singer has co-hosted his Sunday daytime dance party The Do Over since 2005. The O.C. native's career found traction in 2010 when his soul-influenced “I Need a Dollar” became the theme song for the HBO series How to Make it in America.
But things have really exploded for him since appearing on megastar DJ Avicii's hit single “Wake Me Up”, which debuted earlier this year and has gone number one in dozens of countries. Now signed to Interscope, the 34-year-old singer is currently in Mississippi shooting his role in the upcoming James Brown biopic and will release his third LP, Lift Your Spirit, early next year. We spoke with Blacc about being the voice of one of the year's biggest songs.
How did you get involved with “Wake Me Up”?
I received a phone call from my record label asking if I wanted to record a song with Avicii. I said it'd be interesting. Avicii had been in the studio with Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park. I've never met Mike, but we know each other through a mutual friend named DJ Cheap Shot who I used to work with as a hip-hop artist back in the '90s.
Anyways, Avicii was with Mike Shinoda showing him a song written by Mac Davis, who is an old school legendary songwriter who used to write for Elvis Presley and other folks. Mike Shinoda suggested that he get Aloe Blacc to sing the song. So that's why Avicii ultimately contacted me.
And then what?
A couple weeks later I went to Europe to do some shows and other things. This was this past January. On the flight home from Geneva I was writing lyrics. The initial lines “wake me up when it's all over/when I'm wiser and I'm older” came to me on the plane. When I got back, I had time set up to go back into the studio with Avicii and finish what we had initially started writing, but he calls me and he says, “I know we have a recording date, but I'm over here at [Incubus member and “Wake Me Up” guitarist] Mike Einziger's house and we just started on some music that sounds great. We'd like for you to come finish the lyrics and melody with us.”
By 8pm I made it to Mike's house. As he played the chorus on guitar, I thought to myself, “The lyrics I wrote on the plane are really strong and probably the best thing to deliver here, because I don't want to walk into this room empty handed.” I respect Mike and Avicii, so rather than wrestle around trying write something brand new, and knowing that my wife would want me home within a few hours — she was in the early stages of pregnancy — I started singing the lyrics, “Wake me up when it's all over.”
Once we knew we had the chorus right, all I had to do is finish the lyrics. Then I went into the booth and recorded the song over the guitar Mike had just recorded, and that's the version I went left with. I made it home by midnight.
Did you know it would be huge?
I didn't know it would be a massive hit. I knew people would like it. I really liked the lyrics I wrote, and I knew I was in a room with two really good artists in their respective fields, so at least our fans would like the song, and maybe collectively that would allow it to be popular, but we didn't know if it was a hit.
But then it was.
It was confirmation that I am finally using my voice and songwriting skills in the right way. My name isn't presented on the dance version, so for people to like it, to me is just confirmation that my voice and lyrics are working. It doesn't matter that it's me. It also sort of confirms that people are fans of songs and it takes them longer to become a fan of the artist. If you have five really good songs, you might possibly have a fan. I think I'm two songs deep now.
What's your take on working with Avicii, who's ultra mainstream?
Avicii I think is mainstream because he taps into some of the elements that work for a popular audience. He started basically the way I started, in the bedroom honing his craft. I've seen how other people make music, and he's actually involved in the production. At some point, it's cool that you get a chance to do something that everyone really loves. I wasn't really trying to make a hit with “I Need a Dollar,” I was just writing a song that made sense for me at the time after losing my job. I don't think he was necessarily trying to make a hit with “Le7els,” it just worked.
What's he like?
He's a technician. He really sticks to the craft, and for me meeting him, a regular guy and a nice kid. I imagine him to be a guy who's always working; if he's not at his computer making music, he's probably thinking about an idea.
Is “Wake Me Up” a country song, a folk song or a dance song?
It's definitely a folk song.
When did you make the jump from Stones Throw to Interscope?
I started with Stones Throw in 2005 and released a single and an album in 2006. Between 2006 and 2009, I was making a lot of music, turning it in and trying to release my next album, because I signed with them for only two albums. By 2009, the owner of the label [Peanut Butter Wolf] wasn't really interested in anything I was turning in. He thought it sounded too commercial. I guess in a way the label likes things a little bit gritty and underground, and it didn't sound underground enough. At that time I was recording at professional studios.
The manager of the label told the owner of the studio, “Let me take over Aloe's project so we can get something that the label wants.” They sent me to New York to work with a soul music production team, and I ended up recording Good Things with them. When I brought it back to L.A. to play it for the owner of the label, he said, “No, I don't want to release this music.”
That's a bummer.
I thought, “Well it's been three years since I released anything. I'm an underground independent artist. This is how I pay rent, and until I release something, I'm going to be basically struggling.” It was just really a push and pull between Peanut Butter Wolf and the manager of the label at that time, Eothen Alapatt, or Egon, who has since left Stones Throw. I don't know if they've repaired their relationship, but it was a lot of “I don't like your idea, so I'm not going to let it happen,” and I was caught in the middle of it. I had to have a heart to heart with Wolf and say, “This is my livelihood and I've got to release music, and if you won't release anything, at least let me off the label or something.”
Then what happened?
Eventually he relented and released Good Things and “I Need a Dollar” [in 2010]. Luckily, we go the attention of the music supervisor of How to Make it in America who wanted to use “I Need a Dollar” for the theme of the TV show. That gave some traction and movement to the album. Stones Throw never asked to option another album from me.
In 2011, I ended up siging with Interscope. In the years prior, Stones Throw never approached me and said, “We had success with Good Things, would you like to come and record another album with us?” which would have been great. I probably would have, but I think they waited a little too long.
How has that been for you?
Really beneficial. They've been wonderful, still letting me have creative freedom, and they have the infrastructure to make it work really well in the U.S. I think Stones Throw, as an indie label, didn't really have that kind of infrastructure.
Are you going to earn a ton of royalties from “Wake Me Up”?
You definitely earn royalties when songs get played on the radio, when people are purchasing the song and when it gets played on TV. For me, most of that comes from Europe, because “I Need a Dollar” didn't really get that chance to have a life on U.S. radio because of the climate of U.S radio. It's very difficult ot get airplay if you don't play the radio game, and I'll just leave it at that. It's very hush hush and political [in the U.S.]. In Europe they play music based on merit and whether it's good and not what you can do for them.
I had a great run there, and yeah, royalties are good. So my life is good. That's what “Wake Me Up” was really about. I'm flying home from Geneva and I'm in first class and wake me up when it's all over, because this is a dream. Seriously.
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