The debut album from Ben L’Oncle Soul was released ten years ago, revealing an extraordinary soul-infused singer who sprung from nowhere – or, more specifically, from the school of fine arts in Tours. Since then, his superb voice has enraptured audiences in hundreds of venues. But Oncle Soul is the past. Now he is just Ben., no longer the same character he created at the start of his musical career. “I’d formed a really strong bond with the public and I thought it was finally time to get even closer, to move on to a more direct relationship,” he explains. Ben. is a timeless nickname. Simple, clear. And lacking the nostalgic resonance of an uncle, however soulful! The good news is that this isn’t merely a name change; his sound has evolved as well. On Addicted to You, Ben. tears down the boundaries between R’n’B and hip hop, goes jazzy with a pop vibe, echoes of soul and reggae here and there. An album that reflects his musical passions as a teenager, from Method Man to Lauryn Hill, Wu Tang Clan to Robert Glasper’s jazz and 90s R’n’B artists like Usher, TLC, Maxwell and Aaliyah.
It all began six years ago in New York. On that fateful day, he had a meeting with Like Minds, a pair of directors creating a huge amount of buzz. As he sat in the car taking him to Brooklyn, he spotted an agency whose logo was two trees sharing the same branches. It inspired the first song written for the album, which became the opening track Two Trees: “It’s the only one I created like that and it sets the mood for Addicted to You. It suggests rootedness, two seeds that fall side by side, two trees that grow and live their lives together. Instead of making things difficult by looking on the other side of the world, why not look closer to home?”
Addicted to You is an unmistakeable call to love, a magic potion. His decision to feature eleven tracks a playful nod to the one-plus-one equation. Especially since, despite his decision to produce this album alone, Ben. wanted to work with new people he encountered in the most spontaneous of ways. After recording and performing various Frank Sinatra songs for Under my Skin (2016), he put out an appeal on social media. Anyone with a good sound was invited to try their luck. He received over 300 songs in three days. He then had to turn the tap off and make a choice: “We listened to everything blind, and very quickly came up with a selection. The album is the fruit of the ones that captivated us instantly, regardless of their genre.” Bowled over by a melody, rhythm or arrangement, Ben. put his trust in several songs, resulting in an eclectic track-list from several different writers and beatmakers. Twigg, for instance, hails from the Toronto electro scene while Bastien Cabezon, from Bordeaux, has a background as a drummer, playing for artists including Theo Lawrence. Then there’s Gunnar Ellwanger, who made a name for himself with Parisian folk outfit Gunwood, and guitarist Thomas Broussard, one of the only guest artists he already knew: “We’re all from the same generation, all obsessed with what black music has produced over the past few decades.” A passion that comes across on the album. In the Paris studio where Ben. spent two years working, the instrumentalists are from the world of jazz while the rhythms are rooted in hip hop.
After the inaugural Two Trees comes Next to You. Written during his wife’s pregnancy, the track focuses on fatherhood and was designed as a duet. Yuna was the obvious choice for vocals, with “her fragile voice, crystal clear but possessing real strength.” Another guest is none other than IAM, who feature on All my Life, a track that talks about passion for music as much as for a woman: “The track is the last piece of the puzzle. When I went to my label to let them hear the album, I bumped into IAM who I hadn’t seen for ten years! We hugged each other – and the result is the track recorded between Paris and Marseille.” The third collaboration is with Jamaican artist Samory I on Call Me, where synthesized R’n’B is served up with a reggae garnish – an instant classic.
While I Love this Game puns on the notions of playing and of sport – because Ben. is a basketball fan – The Best insists on the importance of confidence “in yourself, but also in other people. It’s a luxury, the basis of all relationships.” Love is portrayed in its many facets, from the poetic imagery of You’re All I Need to the sexual manifesto of I Just Want You. Then there’s Addicted, “the album’s strongest melody,” according to Ben. “It’s a declaration which describes the need to be reassured and an addiction to others, whether it’s your partner or your public.” His anger at a betrayal experienced by a friend is expressed in I Don’t Wanna Go, but then there is the happy release of Let it Go: “You have to stop protecting yourself when there’s no risk. Absorb nirvana and believe we can live it on earth.” As he sings on one track, why take your raincoat when it’s sunny outside? And certainly when you listen to Addicted to You, the sky suddenly seems much clearer. Ben. and his magic are back!
Because of that chance discovery, Ben fell in love with Sinatra. The soul aficionado began to explore ‘The Voice’, buying old Sinatra LPs – “Capitol classics with legendary sleeves” – especially those arranged by Basie, the master of pneumatic swing, a wonderful machinery that rocks and rolls. He also read up on the life of the complex, multifaceted character, whose centenary had just been celebrated. “I had to plunge into the lyrics, the words, and his singing. Very few voices sound like his: it has a texture that sends shivers down your spine. Live, he was even better than in the studio! Total control… I grew up with Otis Redding and I can hear the years of work and the ups and the downs in Sinatra’s voice. All of that moves me. They’re not throwaway pop songs but an extremely polished repertoire, with melodies that remind me of soul music.”
It was not the first time that Ben had explored another voice to develop his own. He is of course famous for Soulman, but to get to know the remarkable singer better, we have to go beyond that hit, just as we have to look further than his version of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Donny Hattaway and Marvin Gaye had all been fixtures in his family home, along with the great jazz divas – Ella and Dinah, Sarah and Nina, a subject of particular tribute – who had also formed a familiar soundtrack, but there had not been a single Sinatra album in his mother’s record collection! Now the time had come for the boy raised in the great school of gospel and revealed by the nu-soul movement to climb this Everest in his own, unique way.
“You can’t compare yourself to such an icon. It’s not possible to do a tribute in jam mode, just to be cool. I wanted to tell my own story through his music and bring it to life! The album celebrates a great singer, but it’s above all my new record. I had something else to express.’
We thought we knew all there was to know about these songs, but Ben has made them his and added new, autobiographically contoured perspectives. His thoughtful singing and dark arrangements convey a bitter-sweet message of peace and melancholy – classy and classical like the man who turned the songs into masterpieces. Under My Skin – the hit that relaunched the career of the Italian-American stallion – is cloaked in deep, minimal, twilit gospel. The Frenchman brings out all the meaning of the lyrics, which were sometimes overshadowed by arrangements that were certainly stunning, but a little too flashy when Sinatra recorded them. Fly Me to the Moon lifts off to a trip-hop beat, while My Way and All the Way rely on very hip-hop production, with the backing kept low. Ben also presents a dubbed version of the unstoppable New York New York and a take on I Love Paris, a reaction to the terrible events in his neighborhood on that tragic November 13. The cover has a strong flavor of Horace Andy, guardian singer of English-style reggae. In fact, Ben took one of Andy’s records into the studio when he made the album. “For me, reggae reflects the peaceful values behind the tribute to Paris.”
The Good Life adopts the same approach, but this time enhanced with R&B. As for Witchcraft, Ben gives us a voodoo version with Caribbean leanings. “A Papa Legba side and witch doctors, where Sinatra’s version was more Bewitched and enchanting girls.”
The entire record is passed through a deliciously spiced and seasoned Caribbean filter and is sometimes more rhythmical than a Reggae song. “I needed to add an ethnic mix and bring a sway to the original melodies.” So Ben has created a vibe that reflects his West Indian roots – a prolific avenue of exploration. Time and a different tempo provide a fresh approach to the original versions – a retro-futuristic approach in fact, where the Soulman broadens the spectrum and winds the clock of his influences while positioning the album in the present. Going to Blue Note after Motown seemed completely natural to him. He is now as proud to have joined the mother label of jazz as he previously was to work with the cradle-of-soul label. “The American label with the finest, trio-based history. And three is actually my key number!” So it comes as no surprise that after three years of planning, the record was made by a production trio over a period of three months. Working with Ben were the very stylish music and image duo Matthieu Joly and Benjamin ‘Waxx’ Hekimian, who crafted a showcase worthy of Ben’s very special style of singing. Hip-hop techniques are combined with pop melodies, soul in reggae mode and the feline swing of jazz, between the lines. The postmodern but old-school production lends its flavor to the album as a whole: vintage chic, like the beautiful American automobile where it all began…