London’s Joel Culpepper discusses his smoldering and soulful debut album ‘Sgt Culpepper,’ a sweeping introduction full of fire and heat, vulnerability and grace that unapologetically aspires to be (and very well might become) one of the greats.
Stream: ‘Sgt Culpepper’ – Joel Culpepper
I’ve taken from this whole experience that the time of being afraid has passed. The music is the only thing that matters.
Music can fit all types of moods and moments, but nothing quite compares to those songs that light a fire deep inside: The art that shakes us, awakens us, and inspires us. There’s a reason we continue to celebrate albums like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Ramones’ self-titled debut, and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton; these records were revolutionary, born out of love, passion, and a strong vision that, for each of these artists (and many more), has continued to withstand the test of time.
It is upon these shoulders that South-East London’s Joel Culpepper stands, and it is in this tradition of visionary artistry that he makes his own music. Smoldering, cinematic, and soulful, his debut album is a stirring work of art – and one of the past year’s undeniable highlights: A sweeping introduction full of fire and heat, vulnerability and grace, Sgt Culpepper aspires to be one of the greats, mixing stunning soul and deep substance into an irresistible tour de force.
Unashamed, thinks he’s famous
Style is dangerous, nobody’s taking his shine
A leopard coat, don’t watch folks
A pink lunch box
Said It’s cold but he never wears socks
And he fights every single day
Tryna find all the words I can to say to you
Doesn’t care what the people say
It doesn’t matter anyway
The kid has got his own
You give me joy, Black boy
I see the way you walk
I hear the way you talk
You give me joy, Black boy
I wonder if you know
You give me hope for tomorrow
– “Black Boy,” Joel Culpepper
Released last July on Pepper Records via Mr Bongo & Believe Music, Sgt Culpepper is an enviable debut, and one that puts Joel Culpepper on the map for good.
Culpepper’s first LP arrives four years after his Tortoise EP, and whereas that record provided snapshots of greatness, this full length sees Culpepper’s full potential unleashed. Emotional, unapologetic, and uncompromising, the British artist meets the moment culturally while delivering eleven seductive upheavals from within.
“‘Feel the fear do it anyway’ became the motto [in making this album],” Culpepper explains. “I hope it captures some urgency, with funk being the pallet of choice. For people to feel uplifted and challenged by it. I hope it introduces me as an artist who cares. I want to live up to the legacy and significance of soul, but also do it my way. I want people to remember that soul and funk are still formidable forces within the music landscape in 2021.”
A cavalcade of exceptionally expressive songs preceded Sgt Culpepper‘s release, each as catchy and cathartic as the last. The double-single “Return” and “W.A.R” reintroduced Culpepper’s singular voice in late 2020: Writing at the time, we described them as a dynamic, unapologetic, and urgent: “an enthralling listen that seamlessly captures the tension of 2020,” with one stunningly soulful song and the other a dramatically intense outpouring. Culpepper followed with last January’s gorgeously tender “Poetic Justice,” a sweet moment of self-expression immersed in an intimate, jazzy setting. As much a love song as it is a resounding statement, “Poetic Justice” explores trauma and justice, forgiveness and healing.
Successive singles – from the intoxicating funk “Thought About You” to the vulnerable, confessional unveiling “Black Boy” – are as provocative as they are simply breathtaking. Culpepper’s words are poetic and honest; his performances are intimate and intense; and his music is radiant and resonant. Combine all these songs and more into one arresting collection, and you’ve got a classic in the making. Like The Beatles album it’s named after, Sgt Culpepper is a concept album. “It’s how I wanted to present my record,” Culpepper says, “As a story, with chapters and a journey the listener could take in understanding the identity of the artist.”
Each of Sgt Culpepper‘s eleven songs is its own elegant musical masterpiece: A world of fiery feeling and searing, soaring sound all in one.
From the groovy opener “Tears of a Crown” to emphatic, feverish highlights like the poignant, gutting “Dead Bodies” and the immersive reverie “Remember,” straight through to the defining closer “Black Boy,” Culpepper ensures not only a good time, but also a meaningful time for all. Whether we read between some of his lines or take him at face value, listeners are sure to leave Sgt Culpepper with a spark in their hearts and a fire in their souls. It may have been released in 2021, but this album will surely live on for years to come – marking a definitive start to Joel Culpepper’s story, his artistry, and his legacy.
Atwood Magazine caught up with Joel Culpepper toward the end of last year to discuss the influences and inspirations that went into his debut. Dive into Sgt Culpepper below and stream it wherever you get your music!
A CONVERSATION WITH JOEL CULPEPPER
Atwood Magazine: Joel, I’ve long loved your musicality and style. I really appreciate your time today and I can’t begin to tell you how honored and excited I am to finally make this happen! So personally, hand to my heart, the way I started writing songs was through poetry - I had this book of poems at age 12, and I started hearing music behind them and could hear it all in my head. I got my first mini voice recorder, and the rest is history. Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Joel Culpepper: Nice! I also started writing songs through poetry. In college I found Tupac’s “The rose that grew from concrete.” It really inspired and helped me express myself. First song I wrote was called “you make me smile.”
Everyone’s musical journey is special and unique. Who are some of your earlier influences, and what/who inspires you to make the music you make now?
Joel Culpepper: My early influences range from Teddy Pendergrass to Heavy D and the Boyz. I seem to remember both my mum and older sister playing those kind of records. My music now is driven by my observations of life and sometimes my own participation. (laughs)
I get that. Turning now to your own music, how do you separate your first two releases? What, for you, were your EP Tortoise’s big takeaways, and what transpired to inspire your new music following that first release?
Joel Culpepper: I was too scared to put [an LP] out, in all honesty. The difference is me taking a leap with Sgt Culpepper to do a LP in a considered way of grown up appreciating. Feel the fear do it anyway became the motto.
Can you share a little about the story behind your new record?
Joel Culpepper: It’s a concept album. The nod to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club came from it being widely known as the first concept album. It’s how I wanted to present my record – as a story, with chapters and a journey the listener could take in understanding the identity of the artist.
What was your vision going into this record? Did that change over the course of recording this?
Joel Culpepper: The vision very much felt aligned with the outcome: To record in a fashion that the greats left a blueprint for us to follow. From Quincy to Berry Gordy, we attacked the process by following their process and doing our best to translate that for today.
How do you feel Sgt. Culpepper introduces you and captures your artistry?
Joel Culpepper: I hope it captures some urgency, with funk being the pallet of choice. For people to feel uplifted and challenged by it. I hope it introduces me as an artist who cares.
“No man knows my sacrifice,” you sing in “Tears of a Crown.” Why open with this song, and what does the metaphorical crown represent for you?
Joel Culpepper: I think we all have our personal battles. I hope with that line, people see and hear themselves and strive on. The crown is something we all have to wear at times; to be the head of something isn’t always easy but necessary. That was the meaning, anyway.
Riding out of the night alone
Wondering if I’ve gone to far from home, home
Every gangster’s got a claim
Every man wants his name and place, the fame
I lived through a lot of pain
The air is thick about to break and change, for me
I’m not worthy
But I stuck around,
Tears of a crown
Better men have gone before me
Wanna pass it down,
Tears of a crown
The first time I heard “Return” and “WAR” I was transfixed. Why make them the record’s lead singles?
Joel Culpepper: I think they both take no prisoners. Very arresting in subject matter which I think in today’s landscape (sonically too) is different. I wasn’t sure if these were strong singles but it felt right.
As a lyrically forward artist, do you have any favorite lyrics in these songs?
Joel Culpepper: “I nearly missed this, poetic justice” and “I was in denial, for you… I should of exiled.“
Your song “Dead Bodies” is a particularly stirring part of this album. Can you share a bit about this song’s creation? It feels very communal and intimate in nature.
Joel Culpepper: “Dead Bodies” is a personal favourite. It was produced by Kay Young and co-produced by Swindle. It also features a guitar solo from Tom Misch at the end, and a voice note from my mum, so it really does have a sense of community layered in the music.
Hey Lucy you’ve been messing round with my mind
Clear as photo posts with enemy ties, uh
Cause when you betrayed my heart hit the tracks
My mother told me never to look back
Don’t look at the bodies all around
All the dead bodies on the ground
Don’t look at the bodies all around
All the dead bodies on the ground
Don’t look down cause you might get shook
From the people that stood by and looked
Don’t look down cause ya might get cooked huh
From the evils on the ground
Told you they were down
I love your blend of chest voice and head voice in your music; how some songs, you go all into that falsetto, but every song is its own entity with its own script through and through. Does anything drive you toward one register versus another? How have you cultivated your falsetto over the years, and do you find you try and save it for special moments?
Joel Culpepper: I think for me I’ve always just tried to interpret what I feel the music wants to hear. Sometimes that’s me singing in a high register as it feels like a sweet spot and sometimes it needs something more direct and stern. I tend not to overthink which parts should sit where, but let the music direct. Practice practice practice, there are some great leaders of the falsetto world that I have defo listened to over the years. Maxwell, Prince, D’Angelo, Phillip Bailey to name a few.
“Black Boy” and its message of joy makes for an especially meaningful and powerful ending. Why conclude the album with this song? Did you always know you wanted this track to close?
Joel Culpepper: “Black Boy” is me and I am him. It felt a fitting end to the record. The end of the second verse was a real attempt to talk about my own experiences. I wanted to see myself in this kid and hope people got the connection. It was always a closer.
Underrated, but hair is faded
Don’t need no savior
He’s his own friendly superhero
He can flex with the best
No you can’t take the shine from the son
Still I fight every single day
Trying to find the words I could say
Just to you
But it don’t matter (doesn’t matter anyway)
Oh had I been told
You give me Joy
Do you have any definitive favorites or personal highlights off this record?
Joel Culpepper: “Dead Bodies,” “Return,” “Break,” “WAR”… it changes all the time though.
What do you hope listeners take away from Sgt. Culpepper? What have you taken away from creating it and now putting it out?
Joel Culpepper: I hope they got a piece of soul, a love letter to the genre and a reminder how much this music can feed our spirits. I’ve taken from this whole experience that the time of being afraid has passed. The music is the only thing that matters.
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