Image via Katy-Rose Cummings
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Fraser Morris is a Soul music enthusiast who’s also fond of coffee, Korean cuisine and Middle Eastern history.
Acantha Lang looks to her left, beckoning to her living room wall where a mural of her most revered soul singers sits. Aretha Franklin. Mavis Staples. Nina Simone. Gladys Knight. Etta James. There are placeholders for Millie Jackson, Betty Wright, and Ann Peebles. The display serves as Acantha’s homage to the seminal African American female musicians who influenced her, and a reminder of the legacy she aspires to.
Raised in New Orleans but now based in London, Acantha is categorical about the type of singer and artist she wants to be. She describes it as soul singing “from the hip” – raw, emotive, uninhibited. She doesn’t sing with the gospel-honed melisma of some of her idols; unlike most of the above, she wasn’t raised in the church. But with its deep hues and throaty textures, her voice has the capacity to both soothe and sting. With music that evokes the golden era of soul, she forms part of a wider revivalist movement alongside Durand Jones & the Indications, Lady Wray, Thee Sacred Souls, and Jalen N’Gonda.
Ater cutting her teeth performing blues shows in Harlem, New York, Lang was recruited to be the house singer and emcee at the exclusive NYC nightclub, The Box. She moved to the UK to take over the emcee role at the London branch of The Box, reveling in the venue’s burlesque madness. But the 4 a.m. finishes began to grate on her. What she really wanted was to write, record, and perform her own music. So she resigned, embracing the precarity of the independent soul circuit. Low pay, disinterested audiences, and countless covers of “Proud Mary” followed.
But soon enough, Acantha began gaining traction. I first saw her at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club, one of London’s most esteemed jazz clubs where the likes of Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Van Morrison have performed. Her set was comprised primarily of her original tunes, several of which would, years later, appear on her debut album Beautiful Dreams. I was struck by Acantha’s personal storytelling, the texture and grain of her voice, and the ease and familiarity of her melodies.
She also honored her soulful influences with unexpected covers of Candi Staton’s “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool),” Millie Jackson’s “It Hurts So Good,” and Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released.” My affections were secured when she roared through my favorite soul song of all time: Aretha Franklin’s “The House That Jack Built.”
The independently released, Beautiful Dreams, is the culmination of Acantha’s toil. Lead single “He Said / She Said” is an excoriating take down of fake news and social media, demonstrating a more aggressive edge to her vocals. What could easily be saccharine in less capable hands is riveting and uplifting here: from the brassy “It’s Gonna Be Alright” to the propulsive “Ride This Train.” You can hear shades of Lang’s soulful influences throughout: “Whatever Happened to Our Love” evokes the laidback grooves of Dorothy Moore and Bettye Swann; the title track has an air of Al Green to its melodic cadences; “Sugar Woman” is the sort of folksy lullaby you could imagine Nina Simone writing.
In the wake of its June release, we sat down to discuss Lang’s upbringing, her journey from New Orleans to New York and then London, classic soul, and Beautiful Dreams.