“We were creating new skin”: How Black Pumas redefined their musical relationship for a more collaborative second album
In all relationships, the question of where you’re going is pointed – particularly when you’re enjoying being where you are. It’s one that has hung over Black Pumas in the wake of their self-titled debut album – a surprise hit that picked up multiple Grammy noms and set them on a hard-touring path for a couple of years following its release in 2019.
That record, a simmering Technicolor melange of retro soul and celebratory pop, was created through means of necessity, with guitarist-vocalist Eric Burton prompted to find space to shine in compositions already largely fleshed out by producer-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada. It worked because it had to. “I was tasked with basically being a top-liner to someone else’s aesthetic, which they were providing me to wear out into the streets and make my own,” Burton says, during a short autumn stopover in London.
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Burton’s presence on album one was unruly, fun and outlandish, his voice a lightning rod at its heart. A Los Angeles native whose style was honed while busking, he brought larger-than-life chops to bear on considered, meticulous arrangements that Quesada – a seasoned campaigner out of Laredo, Texas who was briefly in Prince’s orbit while a member of Grupo Fantasma – had taken right to the edge when it came to crossover appeal. Burton got them over the line, and in harnessing the duo’s respective strengths the record appeared both spontaneous and fully-realised.
Black Pumas. Image: Jody Domingue
But when it came time to assemble their next statement together, Black Pumas had to figure out how they functioned when creative give and take was on the table. This time around, on the forthcoming Chronicles of a Diamond, Burton was in from the drop. Some of the LP’s most eye-catching songs – such as the singsong Ice Cream (Pay Phone) – were his initial creations, with Quesada then going through the gears at his Electric Deluxe Recorders studio in Austin, turning them into pieces that fitted with the band’s established palette.
“It was just myself and a friend of mine, it was maybe two in the morning and we’re having fun on the porch sharing music, drinking and being merry,” Burton recalls. “I asked him to help me record an idea just for the sake of recording an idea, but doing so in like an hour. It came together really fast. I have a loop of a lead part, I have a distorted guitar rhythm part, I was just picking everything up to listen to myself and what I felt was the right next step. I had the mini Korg to find that ice cream synthesiser colour, and I love the idea of arpeggiation – it gives what you might hear as a loop a bit of drive.”
“I said to myself, this song needs another element, and I went back to my inspiration of the nursery rhyme that you hear in Big with Tom Hanks, you know, ‘shimmy shimmy cocoa pop.’ I took that demo to another friend’s studio to re-record the drums. I said, ‘Cool, this is in a good enough place to send to Adrian.’ He didn’t have to do very much, he added his lead guitar part at the very end, and did some producing around the bridge. It went through his filters for some of the sonic qualities that you hear. My goal was to retain the raw emotion and beauty of the demo and that doesn’t happen very often. I was very thankful that I got to allow that to breathe and live.”
Black Pumas. Image: Jody Domingue
Perhaps reflecting this experience, Chronicles of a Diamond appears to be the work of a pairing that has grown together but not grown apart – its songs are still slick, diaphanous things, but they’re also all over the place, bouncing from growling guitar leads to rich, harmony-laden soul and back again. It hangs together because they have moved on without cratering the classy sheen that coated every surface Quesada touched the first time around.
“It was hard changing the system within which we make things together,” Burton admits. “The situation was imploring the producer inside myself to start ideas that really were moving to me. I’m just glad that Adrian was generous enough to allot me that space, from his perspective, to allow me to explore myself so that I might be proud of the aesthetic altogether, making it easier to perform on a day-to-day basis, as well as making the engagement a little bit more authentic for where my mind goes when making music.”
Black Pumas. Image: Jody Domingue
The first thing that’s apparent when the needle drops on the opener More Than a Love Song is that Burton and Quesada haven’t halved their ambitions while ceding ground to the other. It is a head-spinning splurge of gloss and melody, tied up in a virtuosic vocal performance, swooping string motifs and sauntering Spanish guitars. It’s interesting to note that both musicians have admitted to a sense of trepidation when beginning the process, with expectation weighing on them for the first time. None of that is apparent in the finished piece, which is extravagant in a manner that fatally self-conscious people couldn’t envisage.
“It was quite an undertaking for the simple fact that we’re two individuals who are confident in what we have to say individually from the perspective of songwriting and production,” Burton says. “Having spent time together in the studio learning what that process feels like, what it smells like, what it sounds like, the goal has always been for us to do something that moves us first. That was our biggest challenge, especially coming from the first record where the relationship between the two of us was kind of cut and dried.
“I felt pressure to learn how to communicate my ideas to Adrian in a way that would bring understanding of what’s going on in my mind. I had to become a fast learner, on top of pushing myself as far as songwriting goes. Maybe I’m the only one in the studio. [I had to] play in that sandbox fluently enough to not need help, so that he could have a fresh perspective of where I’m at. It allowed him, I think, as a collaborator of mine, to start from a different place. We were creating new skin for the second situation.”
Black Pumas. Image: Jesse Lirola
From a guitar standpoint, Chronicles of a Diamond is all about layers. It’s a textural feast, whether that’s the sun-bleached desert bar skronk of Sauvignon, the in-the-room ambience of the fingerpicking on Angel or the LSD-and-a-light-show spaciness that closes out Tomorrow. Largely, Burton cycled through a series of hollow-bodies, noting particular affection for the atmospheric scope provided by a Fender Coronado, and savoured the sound of the instruments when DI-ed.
“I was surprised at how much character you get with just a simple hollowbody,” he says. “I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, what awesome warmth and a vintage sound.’ It’s the history of some of the songs that I really know and love, an Al Green album, or an Otis Redding album. A lot of times those guitars were going straight into the board.”
The album’s closer is called Rock and Roll. It’s a big title for a moment that’s intended as a big statement. It speaks to another element of Chronicles of a Diamond that sets it apart from its predecessor: the involvement of Black Pumas’ live band – keyboardist JaRon Marshall, drummer Steve Bidwell, bassist Brendan Bond and vocalists Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller – in a studio setting.
Written during soundchecks and initially tracked on a day off in Amsterdam, it’s a fusion of the band’s competing processes. It’s vibrant and live, but it’s also heavily indebted to Space-Echo, production sprinkles from alt-pop mage John Congleton and a post-recording wigout at Quesada’s studio that blew its running time out to 10 minutes for a while. It captures the back-and-forth that has developed alongside obvious, road-worn chemistry between musicians who can throw down.
“Utilising the classical guitar on Rock and Roll was one of my favourite elements – it automatically and inherently gave the song this very classic vibe,” Burton observes. “It just felt like a classic rock and roll piece, and I think that it was because of the acoustic elements – the classical guitar and the acoustic piano in conjunction with the drum sets playing in four plus two with electric bass.”
“The dates that we were on tour this last time, we were very sharp, we were very much listening to each other and inspired by each other in a little bit of a telepathic way,” Burton says. “I felt that was very enchanting and I wanted to capitalise on that. I remember almost begging the band during the soundcheck [to go to the studio]. Everyone got on board, they had my back. That first day was just myself and the rhythm section – I was playing that acoustic guitar, and we fleshed out what would be the rhythmic motif. I’ve learned quickly enough that Adrian trusts me to come up with something that feels engaging from a fresh perspective. That, I feel, is how we collaborate best, when we take our respective corners and then come back to the table to embellish each other’s ideas.”
Black Pumas’ second chapter isn’t so much a dive into the unknown as it is another spin through a landscape that they haven’t fully explored yet. It’s the sensation you get when something shifts, and you like how it feels. “When I’m excited about life, I wish to create,” Burton says.
Black Pumas’ Chronicles of a Diamond is out on October 27 through ATO.
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