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Interview With Diggs Duke: 'People Need To Slow Down Their Listening'

09/09/2014 15:42 BST | Updated 07/11/2014 10:59 GMT

"There's a big difference between an artist who's trying to be seen, and one who's trying to be heard," says Jonathan Meacham, a singer-songwriter who's currently causing a bit of a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. Signed to London-based Brownswood Recordings - a label that focuses on music, its makers and its makers' futures - he says he's "interested in the place where the science of music meets with music's emotional and spiritual aspects. I consider myself an arranger, in the Don Renaldo or Quincy Jones mould".

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Jonathan, aka Diggs Duke, was born in Gary, Indiana and now lives in Washington DC and possesses a sound and bearing similar to a young Teddy Pendergrass or Marvin Gaye circa 1971, blended with the rarer grooves of Weldon Irvine and Corky McClerkin. At 29, he's at that age when he's leaving behind the musical experimentation of youth for a period of serious establishment.

The clue's in the name, he tells me: he digs Duke Ellington. This he does when other black American artists are perhaps ineffectually mining an exhausted musical seam having dislocated themselves from the very heritage from which they sprang, that wealth of wholly American talent that glittered upon the musical vine. Pioneers like Robert Johnson, Billie Holliday, Marvin Gaye, Thelonius Monk and Coltrane are some of the rocks upon which Diggs Duke has built his house.

"It's a hard business, especially if you really like doing it, so I want to make sure I don't start hating it. I'm learning what it takes to do the best that you can do in the moment." And evidently, not over-reach himself. "I started out trying to be a pure jazz drummer, so it's been a real progression for me. Even though I'd played drums my whole life, I felt that I should be amazing by now, you know, after 20 years of playing... but I'm not," he says, laughing.

This attitude is both progressive and old school and allows him to contextualise himself in an ever-shifting American musical landscape, yet he bemoans the speed of music's cycle, where songs come and go on a weekly basis. "It's not a good situation. People need to slow down their listening." But how does he rise above this new net-savvy attitude? "I read a lot of music history and try to preserve a sense of the past. But the short answer is, I don't know." 

His latest album of soul-jazz musings, The Upper Hand & Other Grand Illusions, has paved the way for his next project which, he says, will hopefully be released early next year. "It'll be a concept album, but the thing about concept albums is that you've got to have good concepts! It's got to be something I believe in. My fan base wants me to be myself, and I like that because I'm coming into my own as a person right now."

He says he'd like a bigger, more permanent group. "The group's always shifting. I play keyboards and I sing, and behind me there's a bass player and a drummer. Sometimes I have two singers, a guitarist, and horns." These are the changing tastes of an arranger with one eye very intelligently on the history of soul and jazz and the other on the business side of things. 

He appears genuinely amused by the industry in which he works. "You can have platinum selling records in the UK or in Japan, but in the States sometimes there'll only be two people at your shows. So I'm trying to connect with people in the US who are tired of the superficiality of the mainstream because there is definitely a subculture of music fans in the US who want real music."

He says that, historically, the bedrock of black American music contains the message that life is beautiful, despite the pervasive modern sense that artists are more focused on self-aggrandisement, rather than producing work concerned with social uplift.

A music school education he did not go without (Boston's Northeastern, Berklee and New England Conservatory), so he knows whereof he speaks while needing to free himself from the constraints of rules so that he can write - and not always from an emotional standpoint.

Again comes the laughter as the late summer London monsoon slashes the windows. "People would rather think I was an emotional wreck because of the subject matter of my songs, but I don't want to give them that."

But all things considered, would he like to make music outside the US where, perhaps, he'd gain a different perspective that might better feed his writing? "Yes, but everybody I love is there, and I do get homesick. 

"And anyway, I'm not sure I'd want to lose the American experience," he says at last. "I'd feel I was punking out a little if I gave that up. My music would lose some of its fire, because the experiences I have in America make me what I am. And frankly, I don't want to get too far away from that."

Photo courtesy of Amy Frenchum at Brownswood Recordings