Purveyor of: Light, airy, uplifting soul. Soothing daydream jams.
File next to: Ben Harper, Ray Lamontagne, Donavon Frankenreiter
Playing: Sunday, February 21st, at Wavelength Winter Festival at 8PM EST on our YouTube channel. Tune in here.
Clerel is the musical friend we could all use right now. Born in Douala, Cameroon and currently residing in Montreal, Clerel draws inspiration from his childhood home, his community, and the worlds of soul and R&B. His music just feels good for the heart. Wavelength’s Raina Hersh talked with Clerel about discovering soul music, writing with an open heart, and paying love forward.
What stories do you like to tell most through your music?
The answer to that would simply be love. Love lost, love sought, love felt. In general it’s a big driver in human behaviour, so I find what it makes us do, how it makes us feel when we perceive a lack of it, or how we celebrate it when we are convinced that we have it to be an endless source of inspiration.
With that said, especially as I grow in my practice and my journey as an artist, I feel more and more drawn to go within. To tap into the cultures that I have been a part of or that I am part of now and highlight certain parts of those cultures that may not be as commonly known in other places. Essentially, I just like to use that diversity of influences to tell a story from where I stand. From where I have lived and from where I have loved. I find myself drawn to celebrating the beauty of life. Even in its ups and downs and the struggles.
You’ve said in the past that soul music is a big influence. Do you remember how it felt the first time you heard soul music?
So, the honest answer to that is I don’t really remember how it felt the first time I heard soul music. I just remember growing up having CDs by Michael Jackson and James Brown around. But I do remember that in college, I got to take part in a mission trip in Memphis. The mission trip had as its theme: An exploration of race relations in America, as observed through the prism of Memphis. Memphis has been the theatre for a lot of significant events, and today still represents both the highs and the lows of the African American experience specifically in the United States.
During that trip we got to visit the Stax Museum of Soul. I just remember being so struck as we were taking a tour of the museum. We were shown the handwritten lyrics by Otis Redding; shown to all these rooms where Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas (just to name a couple) had come together to create this timeless sound that would become such a big part of soul music. That visit left a really, really deep mark on me. I guess because during that same trip I had also been particularly awaken to certain parts of the African American experience in the United States from slavery through present day. So perhaps because of that it deeply affected me.
From a musical standpoint, even though I’d known some of the music, on that visit I found myself really curious and interested in going to listen to more of that specific “Stax sound.” There was something about it that felt simple but also very impactful in a different way. I think I would have been around 20 years old then and it just really connected.
Within a year of that visit, I remember following YouTube rabbit holes to all this music by different musicians and folks like William DeVaughn, Curtis Mayfield, and in particular Marvin Gaye. I want to say that my encounter with his music, specifically the What’s Going On album, and watching lots of videos of him performing around that time, just really struck me. What I remember from my feelings around that time was just fascination and amazement. It felt so new and so fresh the way he sang and projected himself. The way he presented himself on stage was so different from anything that I’d ever really paid attention to up to that point. To me it felt effortless. It felt very natural and it connected to something different deep inside of me. For the first time I could project myself as a singer within this universe of soul.
What changed about the way you wrote music once you fell in love with soul?
The truth is I don’t really think I ever seriously considered writing songs until after I had discovered the genre. Once I encountered that kind of music, I really wanted to be a part of projecting that kind of beauty out into the world.
One thing soul music taught me is to trust the feeling and to not worry too much about the actual details of what you are saying. Not to say that what you are saying or how you are saying it is not important, but just letting the feeling lead the way. That is one thing about soul music that has really formed my songwriting. Otherwise, I think I would have been liable to get very self-conscious and bogged down about the ways I was saying certain things. Perhaps because it’s not necessarily how I speak in my everyday life.
So, trusting the feeling. A lot of the soul artists that I admire are people that did that well. They really brought you into their world and created this space of beauty for you to come and appreciate. You didn’t have to question their motives or intentions. That is something I try to infuse my own creations with. It is an ongoing process.
You grew up in Douala, which is so close to the water. I keep thinking about this natural ebb and flow that your music has. Do you think growing up so close to the ocean has any effect on your style or what you write about?
Well I definitely think that growing up close to the ocean had a big effect on the kind of person that I am. There’s something about staring out in a body of water without being able to really tell where it ends. Where eventually the water and the sky become one and you are aware of this immensity and mystery. There is this endless world that you don’t know of. You ask yourself: if I kept walking in that direction where would I end up? Obviously, you cannot leave so you’re just sitting with nothing to go on but your imagination. I think that can really make a dreamer out of you, and I do consider myself a dreamer. There is something about never really feeling like you are locked in to your immediate physical surroundings, just by that awareness of that immensity out there.
Often when I am writing I’m not necessarily thinking of myself as coming from one particular place or as playing one specific role. I feel very mobile and very flexible in terms of what kind of roles I can take as a singer, as a musician, and the kind of stories I can tell you. So I am very thankful for that.
On a personal level, I am the kind of person that does need to spend significant amounts of time around bodies of water. It is a very visceral need for me. And usually, I find that it is something that makes my mind work differently too. Even thinking about my last digital single “Talking About Love”: that’s a song that I wrote sitting near a fountain. There was something about the sound of that water rushing that just triggered something in me. And so I think that, like myself,, people who have grown up around the water or have lived around the water for a while definitely have a reaction to it.
In your song “My Anthem,” you express this joyful resilience and openness. It feels like you’re welcoming us into your world. Especially over the past year, when it feels so easy to be dispirited and disconnected, how do you keep that warmth and openness alive?
I don’t know if I can take any credit for that, but I feel like that’s something that I give as I receive it. I feel over the course of my life in general I’ve just been very blessed to have — from family, parents, siblings, cousins, friends — a significant supply of love and good intentions. When this is something that you received from sources like your parents, where you know you can never really sort of pay that back so to speak, I think to me the answer has been to express that forward in my disposition around the world.
There is something to do with, not to sound corny, but be the change you want to be in the world. I guess projecting what I’d love to see projected towards me as a member of society as well. The warmth that I feel and project is really the love that I received from my surroundings.
What’s to say if I lived a different life, where that love wasn’t something that I received, perhaps I would find it more difficult to be that way. So, to me it is just a way of giving an idea of where I’m coming from. This is the kind of place I come from: where people care about you for who you are. They take you seriously and take loving you very seriously. It’s an action.
You were recently on the TV show La Voix, and I gotta know — what was that experience like?
That was my first TV experience and I was just very impressed just to see everything; all of the moving parts that have to come together and move in sync in order to get that final result that everyone sees on their TV. It also gave me the opportunity to watch some other great singers, within the expression of their arts. It allowed me to see the diversity. Not just how they sing but also why they sing, where they come from. You have as many different stories as you have candidates, which I found from a human perspective very interesting. I enjoyed the experience.
Being that I had never been a part of anything like that before, I had hesitations going in. Having done it now, I can say that I am proud and happy that I got to be a part of that last season of La Voix. I think being on La Voix also gave me a good opportunity to introduce myself to an audience that may not have heard about me otherwise. So I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to be on it.
Raina Hersh is a broadcaster, writer, and lover of the Toronto music scene. Curious about the creation of her favourite songs, she began interviewing artists in 2014 and hasn’t stopped since. Currently you can find her hosting The Interval on JazzFM91 weekdays from 1-2pm. Twitter: @RaiOnRadio
The Wavelength Winter Festival 2021 is all online, all ages, and entirely free, running now until February 27th. Don’t miss Clerel’s performance this Sunday (Feb. 21), at 8PM EST on our YouTube channel. Tune in here!