[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
If you wandered into the Dr. Robbin restaurant in Koreatown and were asked to select the R&B singer in the crowded room, you'd intuitively gravitate toward Anderson Paak.
The 27-year-old soul man sits dapper in the corner, clad in a wool knit beanie, vintage designer glasses, a military-style black jacket and burgundy skinny jeans. The half-black, half-Korean crooner seems straight out of GQ central casting for a spread on “How to Look Cool but Stay Warm in the Southern California Winter.”
The giveaway of his musical background comes from a tiny Ringo Starr pin on his chest. Paak pays tribute to his favorite Beatle by drumming and singing on a rendition of “Blackbird,” which appears on this month's Cover Art, an all-covers free EP. (Full disclosure: I co-host a podcast with Nocando, who runs Hellfyre Club, the label that digitally released Cover Art.)
“I'd been watching documentaries about early rock where white artists took 'race records' from blues and soul musicians to achieve mass appeal,” says the Ventura County-raised Paak (full name: Brandon Anderson Paak). “I wanted to flip that and do an EP covering only white artists. These are all soul songs that mean a lot to me, but I wanted to add more grease. The goal was to hold its weight or be better.”
I admittedly rolled my eyes when first told about an album of R&B interpretations of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Postal Service, Neil Young, Beatles and White Stripes songs. But the work itself dispelled my cynicism.
Paak re-envisions the songs as warm-blooded funk tracks that wring visceral emotions out of familiar music. It also sustains a tradition of soul covers of soft rock. Dig through the Isley Brothers and Donny Hathaway catalogs and you'll find time-collapsing covers of Neil Young, James Taylor and Carole King.
Paak's vision of R&B fits more comfortably alongside peers Frank Ocean and Miguel and their immediate predecessors, D'Angelo and Sa-Ra. In fact, Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra served as both mentor and life raft when Paak fell on hard times in 2011.
Paak had previously helped run a pot farm in Santa Barbara, handling football fields worth of product. But when its owner let him go without warning, he suddenly was homeless with a wife and an infant son.
“I'd blown through 50 grand. No car. Nothing to show for it but ugly shoes, purses for my wife and the makings of a dope album,” Paak says. At the time, he'd just begun working with rapper Dumbfoundead and earning acceptance in the L.A. underground music world.
“I didn't even know [Husayn] that well, but he still helped me out when no one would. We all stayed in his house in Eagle Rock until I figured things out,” Paak says. “I was his assistant, videographer and video editor. I helped him write and produce. I cooked and chauffeured. And I finished my album there.”
Around the time he finished his debut, last year's O.B.E. Vol. 1, Paak scored a gig drumming for American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart. It allowed him to get back on his feet, land an apartment and a manager and continue recording.
The follow-up to Cover Art, a full-length of all-originals, is due early next year. In the meantime, he's about to depart on a monthlong tour with Dumbfoundead and Wax.
“I just want people to be affected by the music,” Paak says. “I'm really affected by my surroundings and put everything in my music — what I'm not getting and what I desire. I want it to be uncompromised … almost a spiritual thing.”
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