In a nondescript brick building in the industrial section of Tuckaseegee Road, three vocalists, two keyboardists, one guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a sound engineer, a stylist and a videographer work through a medley, debating just how long its extended section should extend.
Everyone’s trying to figure out, at this mid-April session, just what it is that Anthony Hamilton will want. And everyone knows what the Grammy-winning R&B singer doesn’t want: A single lull in the set.
That’s because Hamilton was preparing for a much-anticipated tour with fellow Charlottean (and Grammy winner) Fantasia. They’ll bring the tour to a close June 19 at Bojangles Coliseum.
Charlotte-born Hamilton shows up later that night, via Uber from his Waxhaw home. A brace on his left leg (an old ACL injury has been giving him trouble) is almost camouflaged by his black leather pants. The ever-stylish singer has topped those with a gold graphic T and black leather jacket, plus a tan cowboy hat that manages to look cooler on him than it would on a cowboy. He’d spent the earlier evening with his three youngest sons; the twins will be 6 in November, he says, and their little brother will be 4. (Hamilton has six children – all boys. The older ones are 27, 26 and 19.)
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He and musical director Kenny Leonard discuss the set list before convening with the group: They’ll kick off with the opening track, “Save Me,” from Hamilton’s new album, “What I’m Feelin.’ ”
Released in late March, “What I’m Feelin’ ” finds Hamilton reunited with “Charlene” producer Mark Batson. The album, recorded in Nashville, is rich in detail – church-style organ, a brush of percussion – and in celebrity guests in its liner notes (Vince Gill, Gary Clark Jr.). It follows a hard year; Hamilton went through a divorce, and lost his mother to cancer.
Hamilton talked to The Observer about the tour, the album, his voice in the larger social conversation, and what President Obama has on his playlist.
Q: You and Fantasia are old friends. How did this tour come up?
A: The fans have been asking for it for a long time. Fantasia and I both have been wanting it, just due to the fact that we’re both successful and do similar music – downhome, church-feeling, deep-rooted emotions. We just know how to love on you. This is what the people want. They want Al Green. They want Aretha Franklin.
Q: What were you going for on this new album?
A: First of all, it’s me and Mark Batson together for the first time in 13 years. It’s the first time we ever did almost a complete album together. I had to go back and get my team. My (Charlotte-based) engineer Bruce Irvine. We had a lot of success back in the day and I wanted to do something cohesive ... keeping the team tight with people who understand. It was a recording that had no interruptions, no loud crowds, record execs. It was pure.
Q: It sounds like a lot of thought went into the details, sonically.
A: We took a lot of care, in textures of guitar. When it was blues. When it was funky. We made sure we made the funk relevant. When it was a ballad, we made sure it felt like it had been loved before. When it was country, we made sure we got Vince Gill to play guitar on it.
Q: Why isn’t it the sad album people might expect?
A: I didn’t want that. The song “Walk In My Shoes” didn’t come until late in the recording. RCA was like, “It’s great, but we don’t hear that pain, that divorce, what’s he’s been through.” Who wants to feel the pain? Hear the pain? One day we were in there and it just happened. It was time. (“Walk in My Shoes”) came in its own time. When you try to force something like that, it’s generic. It’s cheap. It’s dishonest.
Q: What did writing “Walk In My Shoes” mean to you?
A: “Walk in My Shoes” frees me from the divorce. That last “I’m sorry.” If you’re out there and you’re judging me, whether you know what happened or didn’t happen, or judging her – you can never point the finger unless you walked in my shoes. Not just my shoes today, but my first pair. It’s taken me some places that’s affected me in great ways and in ways I desire to change, and I’m OK with that, because it’s growing and I’m aware. It’s only going to get better. My ex-wife sings background for Fantasia. There’s no bad blood.
Q: Are there other tracks you’re particularly pleased with?
A: “Ain’t No Shame” is one of my favorite songs. I’m from here, born and raised here. A lot of people from the South – probably all over the world – they just settle. They never go outside. You live in Charlotte, but you’ve never been to South Carolina. You’ve never been to Raleigh or Asheville, to VA or anywhere, to the beach. You go to work and come home. You live this half-life. I want to encourage people to get out, to enjoy life. God made a big world. You’ve got to get off the porch to enjoy it.
Q: Musically, were there certain things influencing the sound?
A: Sonically, one of the songs that I fell in love with was “Ever Seen Heaven.” It’s an ’80s throwback, to when I had a crush on a redheaded girl with freckles. I was into Phil Collins and I fell in love with that whole moment. I remember the house we were at and all the kids got together. When creating that, I just went back to that moment and it was a sweet, innocent moment. I wonder how she’s doing.
Q: Do you ever get stuck? Run out of things to say?
A: There’s always something to say. You always can write something, whether it’s great or OK is the thing. Some people can’t hear anything, because they don’t feel it’s great. But there’s always something in there, even if it’s “blah di blah.” That might be the one to take you to the top. (He laughs). Put the right music in there and you are out of here. I might try that. I’ll give my kids the writing credit.
Q: Your band is going to be in the new television series filmed in Charlotte, “Shots Fired,” which focuses on issues like racism, gun violence and corruption. As an artist, do you feel like you have a role to play in that bigger conversation?
A: You have a sonic billboard that’s louder than most politicians’. (It’s about) just bringing awareness to people. Make sure they’re paying attention to what’s going on. Even if they don’t have an idea or an opinion. If you know something, share it. Maybe give them an idea.
Q: Did current events fuel any of the songs on the record?
A: Oh yeah. “Love Conquers All,” the song I did with Salaam Remi, is pretty raw and gritty. “Down So Long” (which will be featured in “Shots Fired”) is about being incarcerated.
Q: On the flipside, did you get to meet President Obama (when he sang at the Ray Charles tribute)?
A: Oh yeah. We hung out. We sang together. He told me when he’s in trouble with Michelle he puts on “Float.” I said, “Well, I’m on the playlist for the president. Ain’t I something?”
Anthony Hamilton and Fantasia
When: 7 p.m. June19
Where: Bojangles’ Coliseum, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.