Even if the name and face are unfamiliar, chances are you’ll recognize the voice. Aloe Blacc’s vocals star on “Wake Me Up,” the global hit he co-wrote with Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger and the late house DJ and producer Avicii. It’s one of the most pervasive hits of the last decade and stands alone as the commercial pinnacle of Blacc’s 20-year, Grammy-nominated, multi-genre musical career.
Sprawled across a sofa in an unglamorous green room at Vancouver’s Science World, Blacc is feeling the strain of a long day. He’s in town for the Canadian premiere of his latest project, America’s Musical Journey, a short IMAX documentary taking a tuneful road trip across the States, seeking out the origins of jazz, soul, country, rock n’ roll, and hip hop: the sounds that conquered the world. In Vancouver, that means adding some soulful sparkle to the proceedings with an acoustic concert for the assembled VIPs on Science World’s central stage. For an artist as driven as Blacc, even a small private concert warrants a supreme effort. This particular show ends with him parting the crowd, providing the floor space for enthusiastic couples (and at least one waiter) to dance down musical memory lane with a recreation of the iconic Soul Train Line.
“I enjoy reminding people about music history,” he explains, fighting through a warranted post-performance wave of exhaustion. “It’s part of my job. I want to continue the love and spirit of music.”
That passion is evident throughout America’s Musical Journey (which played at Science World from March through May 2018), even as Blacc explores the genesis of country—a genre that, at first glance, would be lightyears from his roots as a soul singer and rapper. “I didn’t know the full story of how country music began,” he admits. “There’s a combination of African and European influences. I like lyrics. When stories are told in very crafty ways, those are the things I love the best. Country music doesn’t stray in terms of chord progression or rhythm. That’s why the creativity has to be put into the words.”
That influence goes beyond mere appreciation. “Wake Me Up” may appear to be textbook electronic dance music, but a closer listen reveals a distinct country flavour. “Mike Einziger’s wife Ann Marie [Calhoun] is a fiddle player who plays a lot of bluegrass. That was his inspiration,” recalls Blacc. “He played a bluegrass strum and I ended up singing in a country twang with my lyrics. The rest is history.” Acutely aware of his own legacy (in his words, “philanthropy, songwriting, and storytelling beyond music”), Blacc appreciates that “Wake Me Up” propelled him to unforeseen heights.
“Everything changes once you have a hit like that. You become more visible. You want to have a constant presence that will warrant more accolades, but at the same time, I have rules,” he says. “I have a schedule that puts me in the studio to write songs. I can’t weaken my product. I can’t skimp on the lyrics or the musicianship. It has to be a sound piece of work. My goal isn’t to win an annual popularity contest. My goal is to be in the songwriters’ hall of fame. You don’t get there by trying to write something that works for this year. It has to work forever.”
Blacc is also intensely mindful of his responsibilities as a musician. America’s Musical Journey is funded by Brand USA, an organization responsible for promoting the country as a travel destination. In the current political climate, it’s a tough sell. “I feel like we’re still a country of immigrants and they are still opening their arms and hearts to people who want to travel and visit or stay and contribute. But I don’t feel musicians are doing their part. Not enough of the media is,” he says. “People in a position to use their influence in a way that serves humanity should do it. You can’t stay silent or impartial.”
In the fight for heart, mind, and soul, Blacc understands that art remains a potent weapon. Much of America’s greatest music sprung from the hardest of times, and he is undoubtedly ready to follow in those footsteps.