Despite not being known as a mecca for soul and funk, Timmion has quietly released some of the most glowing records out of Finland, artfully honed and respectfully crafted to the originators that came before.
“If love’s a gamble, why not place a bet?” begs Carlton Smith on “Remember Me,” a rhapsodic cut off his recent long player, 1634 Lexington Avenue. Since seeing James Brown at eight years of age, Carlton has traveled the globe, bringing Harlem heat to Shanghai for a decade before fatefully crossing paths with Helsinki’s premier soul troupe, Timmion Records.
Says Carlton: “The vibe between Timmion records and I has literally been great from day one. Tuomo Prattala, a great Finnish Soul artist, was kind enough to take me over to the Timmion offices and we all started talking about music. At some point the guys played some tracks and began to sing along. They turned the machines on and the results became 1634 Lexington Avenue.”
The album’s ten songs are soaked in Carlton’s croons and emotive wails, lyrics of heartache and isolation anchored by a stern presence culled from his acumen as a live performer. The music, provided by Timmion’s in-house maestros, Cold Diamond & Mink, are bound with spruce drum breaks and simple yet effusive arrangements; soft melodies and hard horn stabs wrapped in harmony, equal parts Daptone and Curtom, lively when it wants to be or suddenly solemn.
“I am so proud of what we created,” says Carlton, who also dabbles in acting and theater in addition to songwriting and singing. “Working with Timmion is amazing because they send me tracks. I write to them that same day or night and send them back and then I come in a day or so later and we record. It’s like being at Motown or Philadelphia International.
Talk about growing up in Spanish Harlem and how that impacted your notions of music.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem was great and while it introduced me to Salsa and the glorious Puerto Rican culture…it was James Brown that impacted upon me greatly.
James Brown influenced, inspired and ignited my love and my passion as well as my notions of music. He showed me what it could be, what it should be, and what it will be.
Tell us about your mother and how she introduced music into your early life. Was there a point when you knew you wanted to make music?
I genuinely think that no matter where I grew up it would have been wonderful because of my mother. She hipped me to music and from sun up to sun down she played nothing but great 45s in our home. She was my hero, my confidante, my nemesis, my one true love, she was my everything. She was also my DJ.”
I am proud to say that I still have all of her 45s and LP’s as well as her 8-tracks!
Tell us a bit a bit about your time in theater. How was working with Cindy Lauper?
I haven’t done much theatre aside from the play. It was written by David Henry Hwang and it was called Largo. It was about the famed composer Antonin Dvorak. I’ve written a one-man play and I’m producing it with Two Penny Blue, a production company from England. Let me just say this about Cyndi Lauper: she was absolutely fantastic to work with and to just be around! What a sweetheart.
I read that you performed in China for many years. 10 years to be exact. What was the Chinese reaction to soul music?
I lived in Shanghai, China and what I learned there is that language barriers and cultural differences aside, people just want to be entertained. As long as you can entertain an audience and make sure they have a good time, they will always return to see you.
When was your first time in Helsinki? How did it strike you?
My first time was in 2006 and I remember being surprised by all the heavy metal music I encountered. It was good and played very well by some excellent musicians…but there was a lot of it. The people struck me as incredibly polite and well mannered.
Talk about James Brown. When you heard him? His impact on you?
James Brown and his music as well as his philosophies from the ‘60s, ‘Get an education, ‘stay in school,’ and ‘dress well and be respectful,’ changed my life. Having lost my father at an early age, James Brown became a surrogate father figure to me and it was my supreme honor to be the first man to portray him on the silver screen. I played 1954 era James Brown in a Barry Levinson film Liberty Heights.
Are you a fan of Daptone? What are your thoughts on modern soul music, what Daptone has done, and how it is to be a part of such a rejuvenation.
I’m a major fan of Daptone and everything they represent. For a time they were the only link to the type of music that is near and dear to my heart and for me to be associated with them in any way is an honor and a blessing. For me to be amongst some of the great cats out there now doing their thing means the world to me. I look forward to the chance to take it to the stage and we all do our thing. It would be the hottest ticket in town. In the world! Daptone showed the world that soul music and rhythm and blues is still a viable life form and serves a far greater purpose than as a breeding ground for samples to be used in hip hop. Soul music moves men’s souls and therefore it can change the world.
You mentioned Tom Waits among a list of artists who inspired your own work. Talk a bit about Waits.
Tom Waits is one of the great American songwriters. He has written some brilliant material. In fact I did an entire album in which I covered his music R & B style. I will have it released one day. I first became aware of him in 1977 when I read a review of his album Blue Valentine. I immediately went out and bought it, put it on and realized within seconds I’d never hear anything like it before. I became a lifelong fan. I have so many favorites, Romeo Is Bleeding, On The Nickle, Shore Leave, Hang On. St. Christopher. I could go on and on. The entire Real Gone album. He impacted my work much like Bobby Womack did. They both inspired me to tell the truth about whatever I was feeling. Tom came at you in a very witty way and you had to take a second to decipher and other times he hit you right between the eyes. Bobby was more like an uncle at a family barbecue, but both of them told the unvarnished truth.
Tell us about your songwriting process. What’s step #1?
Unless I’m the one creating it, the first step is hearing the track and then I’ll start writing to it immediately. After that I’ll put down a guide vocal on my computer and send it to the co writer. The fact of the matter is it doesn’t take long at all. For me it’s a same day process.
Talk about the new album. What was the process of making it like? Where do you think it ranks amongst your previous work?
This album ranks very highly amongst my previous work because it was so organic.
The music that Cold Diamond and Mink created forced me to write in another fashion and it brought out another side of me, one I’m very proud of. We have already recorded about seven songs for the next album! They send me tracks, I write to them that night and then I come in the next day and we record them. It’s sort of like Motown! I love working with them.
What can we expect from you in the future?
A few more albums, a one man play, and a major exhibit and concert featuring items from my authentic, vintage R&B Soul memorabilia