Anthony Hamilton On Being Vulnerable And His New Album 'Love Is The New Black'

Sep 26, 2021
Originally published on September 27, 2021 2:38 pm

Multi-platinum singer-songwriter Anthony Hamilton is back with a new album. Love Is The New Black is his first full length album in five years — one fans have been anxiously awaiting.

Hamilton is the self-described "country boy" from North Carolina whose vulnerable lyrics and gospel-tinged delivery have gained him fans across the globe. Many were introduced to Hamilton through his popular Tiny Desk performance in 2016. Some were fans way before that — as Hamilton says, "when only 10 people knew about me."

NPR's Michel Martin welcomed Hamilton back to NPR to talk about his latest album, and about his creative process during the pandemic.

Here are excerpts, including web-only extended answers:

Does it feel like you're a veteran by now or does it feel like people are still discovering you? It sometimes feels like you are everyone's "little secret."

I feel like a veteran, like an O.G. as the young entertainers call me — but I also feel like there are a lot of people who are still getting to know about Anthony Hamilton, and some people who who've never heard any of my music. I guess it's good to be both. But, I get that a lot. It's like, "I found him first!" or "I heard him first!" It's cool, though. It's good to be more than just a just a name thrown out there.

I think it's a different kind of comfort that I bring. The down-home. And you know, when it's something so good, you don't want everybody to have it, so you let it out in little secrets. ... I'm like "the Soul Man Whisperer."

A lot of artists have found themselves creating a different type of music in quarantine and reflecting on things around them. You have a song on this album called "Mama Don't Cry" that's responding to recent events. What was going through your mind?

You see what's unfolding in the news and around you in your city with the racial divide, and you're just stuck in the house with the pandemic, and you become real sensitive. And just being a Black man, it made me think of George Floyd. At first I was going to name the song George Floyd. It was that place that made me want to write this particular song.

We wanted to touch the heart strings of people, and to let them know we're losing a lot of people. But mama don't cry, papa don't cry. Be proud of me. I made it. I'm on the other side now. Don't cry for me. Just ride for me. Go out and do something, celebrate, and make something happen in my memory.

In the last year, a lot of artists have had to cancel tours or find different ways to work. Do you have any other thoughts about how this last year and a half affected you as a creative?

This whole last year allowed me to see that I don't have to rush things. I don't have to beat the streets so much and abuse myself, in terms of over-committing to things that may or may not move the needle one way or another. It taught me to really be intentional about what I want to say, to be intentional about the message I want to get out. There's a lot of noise. And so I took that time to really focus on: How do I want to say this? What do I really want to say? And you know, you get to know your strengths and you get to know your weaknesses so you can create from another place.

One of the things people value about you is that they think that you allow yourself to express vulnerability in ways that other artists do not. A lot of their songs are about sex, and a lot of your songs are about love and relationships. Do you feel like these last months intensified that for you or your willingness to be vulnerable?

We've all been made to feel sensitive and powerless in this last two years. Even the richest person had to be humble and become something other than what money could do for them. So that we were all vulnerable. And I know a lot of people were losing relationships and marriages were busting up. And I wanted to help people to focus on some of the stuff that could really help you get back to your healthier self and, you know, find love and look at love different. Like you may have it there, but you're focusing on the wrong thing. That makes me feel like I have a job that I could have for a long time because I don't mind exposing what I've been through. I don't mind allowing myself to be, you know, the blueprint for a man who needs work.

I think there's a strength in knowing that here I am in my complete self. If I had a relationship where I wasn't my best me and maybe I drank a little too much bourbon, it's OK. You know, my marriage didn't work. It wasn't perfect, but it's OK. I'm not bound to those moments.

You had a long road to getting where you are. Do you remember the "before times"?

Those were some of the best times of my life before the music came out. I've had some great times since I've been successful or so-called "made it." But before that, oh man! Like who's getting the last bag of Oodles of Noodles, who got the last piece of chicken and the last piece of white bread? Oh my god, you're talking about a trophy! Look, those are some of the best times and not knowing how you were going to get that pair of shoes or how you were going to get inside the club, how you were going to meet this young lady when you didn't have nothing real fly to wear or nothing real fly to say. You had to make it work! So there's power in in the beginning as well.

Your duet with Jennifer Hudson, "Superstar," has been a hit for a lot of people, most notably Luther Vandross in 1983. Why did you pick this one?

This is one of my all-time favorite songs. I was a huge fan of Luther Vandross. I didn't understand how he could sing so controlled, yet still give you chills and that emotion as if he was wailing off, like a gospel singer. It just lured me in, and I became such a huge fan of that record, so I was like, "You know what? I want to redo that song." I've always wanted to redo it.

I think it's something that people don't even know that they've been waiting for. And I'm glad we didn't try and out-sing each other on it. We didn't have to do all that! We just kept it classy. And we sang the hell out of it.

You recently published your first book, Corn Bread, Fish and Collard Greens.

It's not a cookbook, it's a tabletop book. It's a loosely autobiographical, but it's more about the music, the man, the writer and the songs that you love. Like Charlene, the real-life story about the heartbreak and all that. And it tells the story of my life as a child at my grandmother's house behind the big green couch where I used to dream of being an entertainer. And there are some recipes in the book. My cabbage is amazing. My curry corn is really, really good. My potato salad is bangin'.

Janaya Williams and Sami Yenigun produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, multi-platinum singer-songwriter Anthony Hamilton is back with a new album. This is his first full-length album in five years, and fans have been anxiously awaiting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY HAMILTON: (Singing) Oh, oh, I. Oh, I, oh, I, oh, I...

MARTIN: His new album is called "Love Is The New Black," and Anthony Hamilton is here with us now. Welcome back to NPR. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HAMILTON: Thank you for having me. It's good to be back.

MARTIN: So this is your 10th album. Does it feel like you're a veteran by now? Or does it feel like people are still discovering you?

HAMILTON: You know, I feel both. I feel like a veteran - feel like an OG, as the young entertainers call me. But I also feel like there's a lot of people who are still getting to know about Anthony Hamilton and some people who've never heard any of my music. So...

MARTIN: Can I run this theory by you? Because, you know, some artists are part of a collective experience, right? Like, people want to tell you what concert they went to and were you there and the stadium and this and this. But some artists are part of a personal experience. And I feel like you are everybody's own little secret. Like, it's like it's between us. Do you think that that's true?

HAMILTON: The music whisperer.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HAMILTON: You know, I get that. People want to - like, I found him first, or I heard him first. You know, when it's something so good, you don't want everybody to have it, so you let it out in little secrets - the whisperer.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

HAMILTON: The soul man whisperer, you know?

MARTIN: So let's hear some of the music. Over the past year and a half, you know, a lot of artists have found themselves creating a different type of music in quarantine and reflecting on things around them. You have a song on this album called "Mama Don't Cry" that's responding to recent events that I think we all know well. So I just want to play a little bit, then I want to hear you tell me a little bit more about it.

HAMILTON: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T CRY")

HAMILTON: (Singing) Mama, don't cry. I made it this time. No more tears, no more sorrow. I'm doing just fine. I had to beg, steal and borrow. Bills can wait till tomorrow. We pulled through some hard times. But we made it. So long. So long until I see you again.

MARTIN: So tell me about this. What was on your mind?

HAMILTON: You know, like, in the thick of it, you're seeing what's what's unfolding in the news and around you and your city, with the racial divide and all the stuff happening. And you're stuck in the house with the pandemic, and you become real sensitive. And just being a Black man, it made me think of George Floyd. And at first, I was going to name the song "George Floyd." It was that place that made me want to write this particular song. We wanted to touch the heart strings of people, man, and just let them know, like, hey, we're losing a lot of people. But, mama, don't cry. Papa, don't cry. Be proud of me. I made it. I'm on the other side now. And, you know, I want my folks to ride for me. If something was to ever happen for me, don't cry for me. Just ride for me. Go out and do something. Celebrate and make something happen in my memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA DON'T CRY")

HAMILTON: (Singing) Don't cry for me. Don't cry for me, mama. Just ride for me. Ride for me, papa, till I see you again - till I see you again.

MARTIN: Any other thoughts about how the whole last year and a half affected you as a creative?

HAMILTON: It allowed me to see that I don't have to rush things. I don't have to beat the streets so much. And there's a lot of noise. But it taught me to really be intentional about what I want to say.

MARTIN: It's interesting because your work is so known for its vulnerability already. A lot of people look at today's artists, and - I mean, I'm just going to say it this way. One of the things that people value about you is that they think that you will allow yourself to express vulnerability in ways that other artists do not. A lot of their songs are about sex, and a lot of your songs are about love and relationships. And I wonder, do you feel like these last months intensified that for you or - your willingness to be vulnerable?

HAMILTON: Yeah. Yeah, it has, you know, because we've all been made to feel sensitive and, you know, powerless in these last two years. Even the richest person had to be humbled down. So we were all vulnerable. And I know a lot of people were losing relationships, and marriages were busting up. And I wanted to help people to focus on some other stuff that could really help you get back to your healthier self and find love. That makes me feel like I have a job that, you know, I could have for a long time because I don't mind saying it. I don't mind exposing what I've been through. I don't mind allowing myself to be, you know, the blueprint for a man who needs work.

MARTIN: I wonder if that comes from - I mean, you had a long road to getting where you are. And, you know, you were - not that there's any shame in that because we all love our barbers, but you know, you were cutting hair in a barber shop...

HAMILTON: Oh, still cut hair.

MARTIN: Do you really?

HAMILTON: What?

MARTIN: Do you really still...

HAMILTON: I have six sons. Oh, yeah. I have six sons, so...

MARTIN: Oh, OK. See, you're not trying to go broke. You remember the before times, though, before the 10 albums? And do you...

HAMILTON: Oh, absolutely. Those are some of the best times of my life, before the music came out. You know, I've had some great times since I've been, you know, successful or so-called made it. But before that, oh, man. Like, who's getting the last bag of Oodles Of Noodles? Who got that last piece of chicken and that last piece of white bread? Oh, my God. You talking about a trophy? Look; those are some of the best times - and not knowing how you were going to get that pair of shoes or how you were going to meet this young lady when you didn't have nothing real fly to wear or nothing real flat to say. In the beginning, like, you know, you had to make it work.

MARTIN: And now, you know, you've got some sexy collaborations on this new album, if I may say.

HAMILTON: Yeah, that's sexy. (Singing) A little sexy on the album. Sexy it is.

MARTIN: (Singing) You got Rick Ross on "Real Love." You got Lil Jon on "I'm Ready."

HAMILTON: Crunk (ph).

MARTIN: There's your duet with Jennifer Hudson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTAR")

JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) What to say, what to say to make you come again. Come back to me. Come back to me, babe. I want to be - I want to be anywhere you are.

HAMILTON: (Singing) Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby. You said you'd be coming back this way again, baby.

MARTIN: OK, pressure - this has been a hit for a lot of people, most notably Luther Vandross, 1983. So no pressure at all.

HAMILTON: This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Even younger, listening to Luther Vandross - I was a huge fan of Luther Vandross. I just - I didn't understand how he could sing so controlled yet still give you chills and that emotion as if he was wailing off like a gospel singer. It lured me in, and I became such a huge fan of that record. So I've always wanted to redo it. I was like, you know what? It needs to be special. This is Luther Vandross. If I'm going to go down in flames, I ain't going down by myself.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HAMILTON: I'm going to take Jennifer Hudson 'cause I love her so much. Just come and go down in flames with me if we don't make it. And - yeah, and I'm glad we didn't try to outsing each other on it. It wasn't a holler-fest.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HAMILTON: (Singing) I love you. You love me.

So we didn't have to do all that. We just kept it classy and sung the hell out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTAR")

HAMILTON: (Singing) It's all right. It's all right. Oh, baby, it's all right. When are you going to say...

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

HAMILTON: I appreciate that.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, you recently added to your list of accomplishments with one more. You published your first book, "Cornbread Fish 'N Collard Greens," named after a song of yours. I haven't had a chance to see the book. So is it a cookbook?

HAMILTON: It's not a cookbook. It's a tabletop book. It's loosely, like, an autobiographical book, but it's more so about the music, the man, the writer and the songs that you love, like "Charlene," the story behind it, like, the real life story - you know, the heartbreak and all that. And there are some recipes in the book, recipes that I would, you know, often cook.

MARTIN: What's your favorite?

HAMILTON: My favorite? Oh man, my cabbage is amazing. My potato salad is banging.

MARTIN: OK, well, see challenge there, OK?

HAMILTON: You got a good potato salad?

MARTIN: That's a challenge. I mean, I don't want to brag, but...

HAMILTON: Brag it.

MARTIN: We'll have to see. We'll have to have a little...

HAMILTON: Let's have a 'tato-off (ph).

MARTIN: We're going to have to have it. Well, congratulations on everything, Anthony Hamilton, everybody's favorite secret superstar, multi-platinum artist, singer-songwriter, producer, now author. This new album is called "Love Is The New Black." Anthony Hamilton, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

HAMILTON: Thank you. And thank you all, NPR, for having amazing content. We appreciate y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I THOUGHT WE WERE IN LOVE")

HAMILTON: (Singing) This takes me back when we had a good thing going. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.