“My daddy used to tell me, ‘Boy, you don’t want to be a lost ball on the high ridge,’” famed R&B singer Aaron Neville says during our phone interview last week. “I didn’t know what he was talking about back then. But after a while, they stop looking for that ball.”
Neville was speaking about a lot of life lived and lessons learned. At 75 years young, he has spent most of his time singing. And when he isn’t singing, Neville admits to getting into trouble here and there. “Back in the day I stole a couple of cars,” he remembers, “but we were just joy ridin’—and we brought them back.”
Neville’s latest album, “Apache,” released earlier this summer, is centered around his experiences, stories and poetry. In it he writes about the “fragile world” around him, from natural and human disasters, to his home life and family nuances he would later grow up to understand as an adult.
“I like to write about things that mean something,” Neville adds. He will be performing songs off of “Apache” at his Wilmington concert at CFCC’s Wilson Center on Saturday, Sept. 24. “I’m telling stories about my life,” he continues, “and songs that molded my childhood in ways.”
“Apache” is both a reflection of what Neville has done in life and a declaration of what he can do in music. While he delves deep into past family history in songs like “Make Your Momma Cry,” he showed another side of his musical prowess in his performance of “Be Your Man” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in August. The veteran singer’s soft yet unwavering tenor vocals ride the waves of fast-paced funk married with a solid horn section (recorded with the Dap-Kings). Neville cowrote all 11 songs with Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce, Tedeschi Trucks Band) and Dave Gutter (Rustic Overtones).
“I like poetry,” Neville clarifies, “and I wanted to put some of my poetry in the music with the help of Eric Krasno and David Gutter.”
Grammy-winning artist and producer Krasno oversaw “Apache,” which was recorded in Studio G in Brooklyn. His experience working with jam, rock and funk bands, like Lettuce (who will be coming to the Port City in October), lent a different perspective to the album’s production. Despite Krasno’s homebase of Brooklyn, Neville says he was able to bring a familiar flare to the tracks on “Apache.” “I’m from New Orleans and when you listen to [‘Apache’], you think it’s from New Orleans,” Neville observes.
Despite decades of dealing with bruised vocal chords and bouts with asthma throughout his career, singing is still second nature to Neville. It remains a part of everyday life—a simple formula of writing a song and singing it from the heart and soul. Like Rachel Horn of NPR notes in her review of “Apache,” it’s apparent Neville’s voice is one that has aged gracefully.
“I sing a lot,” he credits of his longevity. “You have to sing and try to sing every day, and hit those notes. . . . and I pray a lot.”
While the process of completing “Apache” alongside stellar talent ultimately yielded the best work, Neville admits the record also posed a great challenge. In his long tenure, Neville often has felt pigeonholed in the industry, or at least thought the industry was trying its best to pigeonhole him. His solo career of love ballads and duos (i.e. “Don’t Know Much,” with Linda Ronstadt, 1989) will forever grace the airwaves of soft R&B stations, and his roots in funk with his brothers, Art, Charles and Cyril, endure. Nevertheless, Neville sought to do more with “Apache.” “I can do the funk stuff, I do a little bit of all of it,” he explains. “I don’t sit down and plan to write anything; I just get inspired.”
As it’s impossible for a parent to choose a favorite child, there aren’t any favorites on “Apache” for Neville per se. However, there are tracks, like “Orchid in the Storm,” “I Wanna Love You,” “Fragile World,” which hold special meanings. “Heaven” represents another prominent part of Neville’s life and of his reflection: faith.
“It’s my testimony,” he says. “It came from my heart. I really mean it; it’s not just in words, it’s in my soul. I have a part of my life that I want to be forgiven for and I forgive anybody that hurt me.”