20 Oct 2019

Louis Baker's Open

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 20 October 2019

William Dart puts Wellington singer Louis Baker in the spotlight following the release of his debut album of remarkably taut and tight soul, Open.

Louis Baker

Louis Baker Photo: Steve Stills

Wandering the corridors of Wellington College twelve years ago, one might have caught a young Louis Baker, fine-tuning this original ballad. And for blue-eyed schoolboy soul, it’s not too bad . . .

This Louis Baker song, titled ‘Three Ladies’, comes from a compilation of young talent put onto CD through Mike Chunn’s Play It Strange songwriting competition. There’s a short note on Baker in the CD booklet in which we learn that he’s been playing music from the age of 13; that he’s happy to play guitar, sing vocals and dabble on the keys. And, if what we’re hearing here is all his own work, then it’s a pretty professional and auspicious achievement from a young man who talks of “taking my music to the world”.

In 2007, the young Louis Baker was set on studying jazz at the New Zealand School of Music but I suspect that a bigger influence of his life and music would come later. Five years later, when he was chosen to participate in New York’s prestigious Red Bull Music Academy. It was an experience that he’d later describe as being dropped in the deep end, walking around what seemed like a film set where his heroes had once walked around.

The heroes being tutors of the stature of Debbie Harry and Brian Eno. The young New Zealander who went as a pretty straight-up-and-down singer-songwriter was exposed to all sorts of new music.

I first heard Baker on a 2014 EP that bore only his name as a title. It was starkly and sometimes almost hesitantly beautiful — and cleverer than it might seem at first listen. The opening voice and guitar in the song ‘Back on my feet’ giving no hint at all of goosebumps to come in the sound-mesh created when the piano comes on the scene.

‘Back on my feet’ found Baker in the top five nominations for the 2014 APRA Silver Scroll award, and three years later, another song ‘Rainbow’ managed to get into the long list alongside the likes of Aldous Harding, Lawrence Arabia and Shayne Carter.  

There’s certainly no shortage of rainbow songs in the world, but Baker keeps it a simple, if emotionally fraught, love song. After all, as he told one interviewer, he’s a man who sees the whole business of love encapsulated in the colour spectrum.

Louis Baker’s ‘Rainbow’ is as direct as this singer will ever be, I suspect. In the video, he fronts up to the camera in unswerving and unsparing close-up. There’s nothing to hide behind, not even the satiny production of Brad Ellis, from the hip-hop duo, The Nextmen.

One aspect of Louis Baker’s blue-eyed soul did start to concern me in the wake of his first EP. All the songs on it had the same low-key tempo, soulful to the point of languishing. How could a young man of his age not want occasionally to get a little friskier?

These thoughts had me going back to old soul favourites like Otis Redding. Redding might have strung out his emotions in songs like ‘I’ve been loving you too long’ but his medium tempo mega hit ‘Dock of the Day’ had a real Al Green buoyancy to it. And when he might have pulled the pace back, in a number like his 1966 ‘Sad Song’, it was surprisingly up tempo.

Louis Baker’s first album, Open, came out a few months ago. And it has been injected with a new and welcome energy.

You can hear it when he tackles one of his favourite subjects, the disillusionments of love, on the track ‘Figure 8’.

As an ex-skater, I can’t help reading a roller-rink significance into its title, but maybe we should not be quite so specific. Perhaps we’re just talking of the ever-looping spirals of life.

Whatever. With Brad Ellis once more taking on production, the sound has a new tautness and tightness, with Baker’s vocals pruned of any temptation to meander.

The opening track on Louis Baker’s new album strides into the well-worn territory of meeting the neighborhood.

‘The People’ doesn’t raise the anthemic clenched fists of Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’, but as the singer strolls around Wellington’s Newtown in the official video, it’s clear that there’s no danger of any fraying in this social fabric.

Thanks again to Brad Ellis, there’s a bristle in Baker’s music that somehow manages to fend off any suspicions that this is just assembly-line feel-good. There’s a knife-slash backbeat that keeps the song moving along, although, for a singer who has expressed an admiration for Sly Stone, I wouldn’t have minded a few soulful shrieks from Sister Cynthia.

For a musician who can do most things himself, Louis Baker works well with others and there are quite a few adding to the edgy lustre of the song ‘Addict’ ... names such as the much-lauded British songwriter and producer, Sacha Skarbek along with New Zealander Josh Fountain from the band Leisure. It’s nice to hear Christchurch singer Theia in the mix too.

As for the subject of the song, there’s no harrowing descent into substance abuse ahead of us, despite a passing reference to acid in the veins.

The addiction, like the answer to Princess Turandot’s riddle, is love.

This year Louis Baker didn’t appear on the list of 20 Silver Scroll nominations, but he was there on the Big Night, on the Spark Arena stage just a few weeks ago.

He had the task of putting his own signature on one of the five finalist’s songs. A challenge when the original was already distinctly on the offbeat side – Aldous Harding’s ‘The Barrel’. 

While Baker didn’t quite create the stormy soul explosion of Bella Kalolo when she was let loose on The Beths’ song, ‘Happy Unhappy’, he did give take the bouncing sing-around of ‘The Barrel’ and gave it a new, almost supper-club gleam – not only through the charged-up sophistication layered onto Harding’s original harmonies, but in the group of sharp musicians around him.

We know that Baker himself can create most of the sounds that he needs, but this time around he was on stage with just his guitar, almost feeling his way into the song in those opening bars.

Listen out for Jonathan Crayford who dispenses the hip piano stylings that add so much to the performance. And if it’s high-energy soul that you’re wanting, the man handing this out was the evening’s music director, Nathan Haines who, in his high-powered, high-flying sax solo would almost make one consider upgrading this winning song’s scroll from silver to platinum.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Three Ladies' (Baker) – Louis Baker
Strange Songs – A Decade of Excellence
(Play It Strange)

'Back On My Feet' (Baker) – Louis Baker
Kiwi Hit Disc 172
(NZ on Air)

'Rainbow' (Baker) – Louis Baker
New Tracks 196
(NZ on Air)

'Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)' (Redding, Cropper) – Otis Redding
Otis Redding Story

'Figure' (Baker) – Louis Baker
(Louis Baker)

'The People' (Baker) – Louis Baker
(Louis Baker)

'Addict' (Baker) – Louis Baker
(Louis Baker)

'The Barrel' (Harding) – Aldous Harding

'The Barrel' (Harding) – Louis Baker
live RNZ recording