Curtis Harding spent 2020 the same way that most of us did—trying his best to stay productive and baking. Lots of baking. The Atlanta artist’s pandemic story is a familiar one for the most part; Harding had an entire record written before Covid hit, but the widespread effect it had on the music industry meant hitting pause before moving forward. And with that downtime, he decided to give those songs a second listen, at which point he realized he wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he had.
“I thought I had the album done and then after the whole lockdown thing hit I had time to listen to the record, just take a step back and basically just redo it, so that’s what I did. I used that time as wisely as I could. Besides making banana bread and getting fat. Because I did that as well—like, how much banana bread can I make and eat?”
The finished version of the album, If Words Were Flowers, is out now via Anti-, and it’s both an energized set of electric anthems and a soothing balm for an audience in need of something positive amid several years of chaos and uncertainty. The title is a tribute of sorts to a phrase that his mother told him when he was a child—”Give me my flowers while I’m still here”—in other words, show appreciation when you can, and Harding is passing that message on for anyone who might need it.
If Words Were Flowers showcases the full breadth of Harding’s musical universe, from the psychedelic-gospel swirl of the title track to the string-laden grace of “Hopeful,” delving into a heavier garage-soul sound on “Can’t Hide It” and a gentler folk arrangement on “With You.” It’s an album whose sonic nourishment matches that of its social consciousness, less a political album with specific targets than one whose songs espouse a positive motivation—a call for change and putting something better out into the world.
Harding spoke to us via Zoom about staying hopeful, how music reflects its environment, and how the music he loves has had a positive effect on who he is as a person.
When working on a new project, how much reflection is there on your previous releases? Or is it a fresh start each time?
Curtis Harding: I would be lying if I said it was always a blank slate. I definitely think about what I’ve already done, because I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to keep doing the same stuff, but I also want to maintain who I am and just expand on that. It’s about progression and getting better. This album is definitely a little quieter, just because of the environment—like, no one was in the streets. There’s a lot of space on the record because there was literally open space everywhere. I was able to ride my bike downtown which is unheard of. There are people that do that every day when there are cars everywhere. But I’m not that adventurous. I’m not risking my life. But the empty space, that played a lot into the sound of the record.
When you’ve had time to sit with some music you’ve recorded, do things ever stand out to you that you’d change if you had the chance?
CH: Yeah. I’ve thought about things that I’d do differently, but once it’s out there, you gotta just let it go. Just move to the next thing. I think that tomorrow is always an opportunity to do something else. So that kind of ties back into the hope thing. I hope tomorrow I can do something different and something better. The goal is to always get better. So you have to let it go. It’s just a snapshot in time. You gotta just do more shit.
Given that some of the anxieties and socio-political realities of recent years play a role in some of the themes on the record, were making these songs a cathartic experience for you?
CH: Yeah. It’s becoming kind of cliche to say, but Nina Simone said it’s our job to reflect the times, and it’s true. It was kind of unconscious, but 2020 was so intense, every aspect of it—how could I not reflect that? I did my best to scale it back a little bit, but it was an intense year for everyone, so I think music just naturally took on that form. Some of my experiences crept into that—just being an observer of other people in life, that crept into the music.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
CH: Yeah, you have to be. If you don’t have hope, what are you doing? I hope that the next meal I have is going to be delicious, it might not work out, but if it doesn’t maybe the next one will. You have to have that. If you lose all hope, then there’s no point. I try to impart that in my music. Even if I’m having a bad week or a bad year, I’m a huge believer in speaking things into existence, so I try to be as positive and optimistic as I can. And music immortalizes you. You know what I’m saying? So if this is the last thing I’m going to say to someone, it’s going to be some hopeful shit.
You’ve said that the idea behind If Words Were Flowers is a metaphor for language, but it also feels like a gesture of goodwill…
CH: Right, exactly. That’s exactly what it is. It’s not anything bitter, or anything that you should—you should definitely be upset about some things, but don’t hold on to it, use it to do better. There are a lot of relationships ending, a lot of bands that didn’t make it through that period, but if you can take a positive stance, it can help us to become better. If you can take something like that and put a positive spin on it, we become stronger.
What music has had that same effect for you?
CH: Oh man, so much. What comes to mind for me is a lot of Sly Stone. A lot of old gospel music that I used to listen to. There’s so much music that’s just full of hope and positivity, regardless of the times. When Sly was making music, there was some heavy shit going on then. But he found a way to breathe some life and hope into it, and that’s just like, again with the idea of music immortalizing you—if it’s the last thing you say, it better be worth saying. I definitely don’t want the last thing I say to be “fuck you!”
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