We talk to Grammy nominated steel player and vocalist Robert Randolph about his gospel roots and bringing joy through music on his new album Brighter Days.
How did you get into music?
I grew up playing music in church and that's where I get the bones of all the stuff. Our church is a real rock and roll church, it's bluesy and all of that. That's where we developed our love of music and learned all the chord structures and chord changes and discipline. I saw my musical forefathers playing the lap steel and pedal steel in church, so that I grew up wanting to be like those guys.
In the Pentecostal church the steel is called the sacred steel, but you play with so much attack and aggression – how did you develop that style?
There was a big history of people playing lap steel in church, so when they documented that this was going on they called it the sacred steel, the pedal steel was always more prevalent in country music. I wanted to take the approach and be a bit more like Stevie Ray Vaughn, and having all those different styles of attack and play like a wild polished blues player. I still want to have all those people influence me [Motown, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix] and to see if I can carry this style of guitar playing to another level. It's a journey, and it's good to see that every time I write a song that people want to hear the guitar and steel sound that makes their ears perk up.
Your album is very uplifting, was the album designed to be like that?
Yeah, it's a celebration, a party, you feel full of joy, it's all that stuff. It's elements of how it was growing up and going to our church and what the music would do for the people. Everything is a celebration. It was good for me to put that feeling and sound in the songs and production, to have it simple and beautiful. Have Mercy is spiritual in sound, and it brings you into a celebratory way and knowing that there's hope when you've messed up, and that's a reason to celebrate. There's songs like Don't Fight It, which is about these moments in life where you are tempted to do something, but the traditionalists are telling you not to. It's all about not fighting the feeling and celebrating life and Baptize Me is speaking about digging down inside and trying to get the best you out of you. For this record I wanted to help people by bringing them joy through music, which is why I'm here.
Simple Man talks about what's wrong in the world today – how can we be a little more united?
I don't really think about it that much, because the more people talk to each other the more they realise things. People say “I can't believe all these racists and bigots still exist”, but they've always been there, it's just now we are at a new point where we are learning what not to do and who not to hang around and what not to be like; this is the new phase. It's [music] the one thing that brings everyone together. It's the universal language, I say that all the time. For example if you go to a Stones concert you're standing next to five different people with five different religions or none at all, but they are singing along and dancing and that's what music does. That's how we got over the hump of the 60s and 70s, because you had The Stones, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all these people using music to talk about what was going on in the world and letting people know. It's important as artists and musicians to use our gift to spread love and bring joy to people.
There's a big 70s vibe to the album, that period was obviously a big influence on you.
Oh yeah, 70s music is some of the greatest. There was a Twitter debate the other day and they were talking about what era of music was the greatest and it was like 69-79. Everything was going on then. You had all of the Motown stuff, British rock, funk bands, there was so much. We write our music to bring that vibe, celebration and love into the music.
What would you be doing if music wasn't your thing?
I'd be playing football. Or probably a professional poker player.
Have you got a poker face?
I smile a lot and that's my poker face. People were always saying “what are you smiling for, why are you looking so sneaky?” [laughs]
I saw on Twitter that you cried watching Bohemian Rhapsody, are you a Queen fan?
I saw that movie and it gave me all this new inspiration, because of the fact of how special that band was. I never understood Queen, and their music, but watching that movie brought a whole new meaning to what was going on and how those guys influenced everything. I'm still blown away by it. It was made for all the of the people that didn't understand them.