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Harrison Smith
11:00 9th August 2021

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As comparisons to other artists go, Joel Culpepper isn’t too perturbed by a recent one his own mother made. “That was so funny! I did an interview with Ricky & Melvin on Radio 1XTRA and my mum and I were tuned in to the station later on and she was only half-listening. They played a track by D’Angelo and I could hear her muttering ‘Is that... is that Joel?!’ I just burst out laughing. It was the biggest compliment!”

Culpepper - a name that conjures up a great many things, from West Indies sunshine to the streets of his hometown in Catford, South London. It’s a name that delightfully bounces off the lips. Its origin, however, has eluded the artist. “Both my parents are from Barbados and I’ve got a vague understanding of my family being herbalists, but other than that I’m not sure where it comes from. Then one day I woke up and thought ‘ that name made up? That’s sick’ I lucked out with it.” Since his arrival on the scene in 2009, Joel Culpepper has had a prolific journey. Regularly releasing EP’s and singles to acclaim from fans, bloggers and mainstream radio alike he is confident that now is the time to answer the questions - ‘Who is this guy, and what is he all about?’

Culpepper got started in music by singing in a local church as a young boy, but his eagerness to create and play began to appear during his school days. “I have a memory of me in a maths lesson and banging on a desk as if it were a drum kit, and the teacher screaming ‘Culpepper! This isn’t music class!’ I realised that maybe maths wasn’t the time to be doing that but it went beyond people saying ‘stop doing that’ and allowed me to focus on what I really could and wanted to be doing which was music”.

It was when he attended Croydon College and discovered neo-soul and its loose-swinging beats that his talents started to flourish. “That genre was such a tool for me to find my sound. Soul and hip-hop both laid the foundations for my love of music. I started recording demos and people started to realise that I was serious about it.”

Last year left him in a similar predicament to so many artists, with the pandemic forcing him to hit the brakes on releasing music and touring. “Not having the gigs to support the songs has been tricky but I’m one of the fortunate ones who has found a way to get the music out there for people to hear and feel”. With so much free time to spare, Culpepper got to work on finalising his upcoming debut album, the cleverly named Sgt. Culpepper, a title stemming from a long-held joke with himself and a pun hinting at the leadership he was wary of embodying. “Thankfully, the main creative process of the album was completed in 2019. During last spring we were able to send the tracks back and forth to each other and complete them remotely. It was my way of staying busy!”

Nevertheless, there were challenges of creativity to overcome with day-to-day life coming to a sudden stand-still. “Not every day I could be productive. I think people assume that if you’re a musician and a songwriter that you have plenty of time to be creative but the key element to be able to write songs is to live and to experience things.” It’s clear, too, with a show at London’s Lafayette scheduled just after the album’s release this July, he is itching to get back onstage. “Only recently have I been able to look back at footage of me performing live. For me, a show is a unique moment. When I’ve toured, although it’s the same set, it’s never the same show from gig to gig, it varies. I was devastated that it was gone but now having the gig at Lafayette in the diary I’m excited and privileged to have people in front of me again”. Of his live shows, Culpepper has described them as “an unforgettable moment. Immersive and almost spiritual”.

In preparation for the release of his album, he has been pondering on how the music industry has changed since he kicked things off over a decade ago. “The listener’s experience has shifted away from going to a record shop on a Saturday and listening to the album of the week on some headphones. There’s a nostalgia in that for me. It’s a visceral experience that I was attached to in understanding the artist, looking at the artwork and wanting to be a part of that world. I think how the listener digests music today is very different. There are highlights in terms of accessibility and how it allows my music to be heard all around the world but I think the digital platforms are there to be used as a tool and not to replace vinyl. It’s important to understand that you’ll never get the quality of vinyl on your phone”. 

An artist of diverse creative choices, it’s apparent that Culpepper is considerate and conscious of all aspects of his image. In this instance, the crucial formulation of an engaging album cover is “just as important as the music for me. In a record, you are telling a story and I think that comes across in both the songs and the artwork. You learn a lot about an artist via their choice of image on the album sleeve. I gravitate towards the artists that leave cool easter eggs within the artwork”. With such importance behind this, Culpepper ponders on the album covers that have inspired him when devising his own. “Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life comes to mind when I think of the word “record”. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper - there are so many stories behind it. I’m drawn to the simplicity of the typical soul-crooner album covers too, where the artist is lying down, wearing a suit with their shirt open, some chest hair and a gold chain - it’s just classic! It epitomises soul from Al Green to Teddy Pendergrass to Lionel Richie, they’ve all done it”. 

Similar, then, to the slick crooner vibe depicted on the artwork for his recent single ‘Thought About You’. “I grew up with my mum listening to albums by Luther Vandross, Alexander O’Neal and Freddie Jackson - crooner after crooner. It had a massive influence on me and it’s what I’ve drifted towards when creating my artwork”. But with such a diverse and legendary musical upbringing shaping his sound, Culpepper still feels that he has a lot to learn. “Two artists that I still feel like I could get so much more understanding from about life, music and being a young Black artist are Prince and Stevie Wonder. I feel like I want to learn more from artists that are saying things that aren’t always in their music”.

With the artwork decisions for the album sussed, what then of his creative process? “I think the challenge in making an album is how do you keep that continuity? How do you maintain that consistency running through when you are working with different styles and different producers? It was a big factor when making the album. Recently, I’ve been just getting on the microphone and running with whatever the first thing that comes out, allowing the instinct to direct me. There are songs that I do think about a lot more. Often, I watch films and think about visually what my music is trying to say. It helps to encourage a narrative. I’ve experienced a time when I didn't want to write but what pulled me out of it were other artists and songs and I want to try and use some of the things they’ve used to write my songs. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, for instance. I was blown away by how thoughtful he’d been in writing that album. He poured his soul into that and it made me consider how I would do the same. It’s the deliberate execution of the message and the identity of the song. These things make you want to revisit an album as it feels reflective of life; of a world that you may not even know but feel familiar with and want to learn more about it. The greatest albums embody that. I get easily lost in deep thought about what songs mean”.

Soul, in all its manifestations, is the basis of Culpepper’s sound. “It’s a foundation for me but I feel just as kindred to psych-rock, the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald. I just want to keep exploring how I tell stories through my music. The artists and producers that I’ve worked with vary a lot and it helps expand the different sides to me”. Is he concerned that he may become pigeon-holed in a specific genre? “It’s a really fine line - I wanted to nod to things that had influenced me, but it also needs to work on radio in 2021”.

This continual switch of style and sound from track to track has awarded Culpepper plenty of freedom to experiment and shake things up. Having worked with Tom Misch, Redinho, Kay Young and Guy Chambers, Culpepper is fervent to keep things fresh but still inherently him. Distinctly so on recent single ‘Black Boy’, a touching observance of a child from Culpepper’s past and an unabashed celebration of growing up unique - “I worked in a school for four years. I worked with children with challenging learning difficulties. There was a boy who was similar to me when I was younger. A little bit off the beaten track and needed an arm around him occasionally. But he was confident and had sussed life by ten years old. I admired that about him”.

The result of two years of collective rapport, solo craftsmanship and an abundance of fun Sgt. Culpepper, out 23 July, is a truly collaborative and joyful effort. “I value relationships. On Sgt. Culpepper there are ten producers, and it was a difficult task involving that many different people. They didn’t know each other before but it happened that way because of the relationships I’ve formed separately with them”. With such a team effort etched into the makeup of the album, Culpepper is hopeful that listeners take note of its adventurous and authentic characteristics. “What I want people to take away from the album is the knowledge that soul and funk are still formidable forces within the music landscape and I want people to know I did it my way”.

An infectious swagger and a natural charisma partnered with astronomically-impressive vocals cherry-picked from an era gone by, Culpepper has the allure, the vigour and moxie for a fascinating and exciting future. Following his debut album’s release, it doesn’t appear to be his style to kick back and relax. “I’ve started making my second album! Sgt. Culpepper was the beginning of something and this second album is going to be a continuation. I know what it is that I want to do”. With unmatched confidence, boundless fiery energy and an inspiring passion to create, Joel Culpepper has arrived and has plenty to say.

Sgt. Culpepper is out now.

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Photo: Anita McAndrew