Nick Bollinger discusses a soulful and personal set from Aaradhna.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of things described as soul music. But it’s not so often that I feel like I’m really hearing somebody’s soul. ‘Brown Girl’, the title track from Aaradhna’s new album, is soul on every level.
For a start, it is in a tradition of soul ballads that harks back to the 60s when black American singers, raised in the churches, were defining soul as a genre. A generation later, deep in the South Pacific, Aaradhna Patel heard something in that music that spoke to her own feelings.
But ‘Brown Girl’ is much more than just a collection of learned soul licks; the song is a personal one. And like the greatest soul songs, it is a song born of suffering. It reflects on Aaradhna’s childhood, growing up in Porirua, the daughter of a Samoan mother and Indian father, and dealing with people’s prejudices towards not just one but two cultures. Her lyric lays it bare and you can feel the pain of memory stinging beneath Aaradhna’s stoic, intimately recorded vocal. But then she goes a step further, rising above that pain to make a triumphant declaration of who she is and isn’t, as she pleads to be seen not as a set of preconceptions but for the person she really is. She asks, in effect, that we see her soul - and then she shows it to us, unleashing the full power of her voice. It’s an extraordinary performance, and even after half a dozen listens it blindsides me every time I hear it.
‘Brown Girl’ is, in a way, the mission statement of the album; it’s the reason everything else is here. But it’s by no means the only thing worth hearing. And one of the remarkable things about the album is that it strikes far more than just one emotional note. In fact it runs the gamut from pain-drenched soul to pot-party pop.
Perhaps the reason for the party is to drown the memory of some childhood trauma, or maybe get over some relationship drama, still ‘Drunken Heart, Smoky Mind’ - with its acoustic strum and hint of a baion beat - makes a bright contrast to the title track. Between the poles of the title track and that ode to excess is plenty of emotional ground.
Brown Girl is Aaradhna’s fourth album, and second truly great one. The last was 2012’s Treble and Reverb. For that album, Aaradhna worked with local producers Pete Wadams (a.k.a. P Money) and Evan Short to create something like a jukebox packed with great lost 60s singles. The hooks were Motown-ish and immediate; the sound bright and crackly, like vintage vinyl. This time she recorded in the States, with the Brooklyn-based producer Jeff Dynamite and the same musicians with which he made Aloe Blacc’s breakthrough album Good Things. And while both Treble and Reverb and Brown Girl draw on the same classic soul influences, the latter is not so consciously retro – though, paradoxically, it has more live instruments on it.
Also surprising is that while Brown Girl was made in America, parts of it have a recognisably Pacifican flavour, particularly ‘I’m The One For You’, which starts with a ukulele and develops into a classic Aotea-reggae.
Though that track might have the most obvious signposts to the Pacific, the whole of Brown Girl is really a Pacifican story; a daughter of two cultures growing up in a country that is not always as kind as it likes to see itself. Add to that the more universal feelings that go with love and loss, and you’ve got soul music of a very personal and powerful kind.
Songs featured: Brown Girl,Drunken Heart Smoky Mind, Empty Hall, Messin’ Around, Devil’s Living In My Shadow, I’m The One For You.
Brown Girl is available on Universal Music.