Any other bandleader might have come unglued at the prospect of a three-year gap following a debut record. Especially when that record had built up a healthy buzz, thanks to a Top-30 appearance on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and some high-level song placements. But Ruby Velle isn’t sweating the sophomore release from the Soulphonics, the Atlanta soul-pop band she fronts. “We like to take our time,” she says. “We like to say [the Soulphonics play] ‘sweet soul,’ and that takes time.” The group performs at The Grey Eagle on Friday, June 5.
As a title, It’s About Time — the Soulphonic’s 2012 debut — is polysemantic: an announcement of the band as a sharp young voice and an acknowledgement of good timing. It’s a tip of the cap to artists like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings who helped usher in soul’s commercial and critical revival. Listen to It’s About Time, and you would be hard-pressed to guess that the music you’re hearing is from 2012 or that it was performed by a white band fronted by an Indian woman.
But the title is mostly, Velle notes, a sly wink to the record’s long gestation. The Soulphonics had been a band for the better part of a decade when It’s About Time was released. They formed in Gainesville, Fla., in 2005 when Velle met Spencer Garn and Scott Clayton, but it was the trio’s 2007 move to Atlanta that marked the band’s real beginning. “Georgia’s very special to us,” Velle says. “I think it was very fate-driven for us to come here. I think we really started who we are in this city.”
In Atlanta’s Little 5 Points, the Soulphonics refined and defined themselves. In 2008, the group, rebuilt with a new rhythm and horn section, snagged a residency at the neighborhood’s Star Bar. It played there every Wednesday night for about a year, building its chops and fan base but also diversifying its soul-standards repertoire by incorporating other musical influences, like classic rock, R&B and jazz.
More importantly, Little 5 Points is where the Soulphonics developed into a self-contained enterprise. In 2011, Garn sold his car to build Diamond Street Studios, where the band members push out digital singles when they’re ready and sometimes sell commissioned demos for licensing in television spots and commercials. It also serves as the home of Gemco Recording Group, a label co-run by Garn, which released It’s About Time.
The luxury of commercial space and a vanity label is extra work, Velle concedes. But investment in the business end is as critical to the Soulphonics’ success as its anachronistic-but-authentic sound. The infrastructure grants the band incredible sovereignty, both financially — the band doesn’t have to shell out big bucks for expensive studio time and generates income by renting out its studio — and creatively.
It’s also gifted the Soulphonics the luxury of time — time to endlessly toy with arrangements and rehearse and rework songs until they’re just right. Or dump them if they don’t work.
“It’s helped us to grow,” Velle says. “Just to make our own calls and our own choices. It gives us a lot of freedom in our expression and our creativity. [We’re] a group of very picky individuals. And we know what we like when we hear it, and these things just take some time to develop.”
Consider the single “Tried on a Smile,” released in November. Where It’s About Time is a smoky and sultry affair, leached from the loamy red-clay soil that grew Georgia soul, “Tried on a Smile” is a vibrant, almost Technicolor pop song rooted in the vernacular of soul. The rhythm section drives the feel-good song, the drums echo the classic Motown heartbeat and the bassline moves with Stax sweetness, but the song is bright and breezy instead of brassy and bold. Velle’s voice moves in a more classical pop melody than a rangy soul roar — less Marva Whitney and more Minnie Riperton. Modern flourishes, like the chewy phaser applied to Clayton’s casual guitar arpeggios, abound. The production is as brilliant and sun-baked as the washed-out photograph on its cover, further removing the Soulphonics from any retro-soul aspersions.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the label ‘retro-soul’ exists. How can you say something is retro when it never really went away, when it’s still very much current?” Velle says. “The important thing for us is to be a pillar in the genre, to be able to stand on our own making soul, regardless of which pigeonhole we go into. It is soulful. That’s the bottom line.”
WHO: Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics with Sidney Barnes and The Secret B-Sides
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, June 5, 9 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show