Future First: Joel Culpepper, the soulful singer behind a cinematic funk debut
For our next instalment of Future First, we talk to the London artist about his album, ‘Sgt Culpepper’, released in July – a funk and soul conceptual odyssey referencing The Beatles and Motown greats
By Ollie Horne
Joel Culpepper’s soulful falsetto has been smashing the airwaves of late. Since releasing his eight-track EP Tortoise in 2017, he’s attracted the attention of some of the world’s most famous DJs, including Annie Mac, George Ergatoudis, and MistaJam. His Colors performance of the same year, of the standout track from that release, ‘Woman’, is currently approaching 14 million plays on YouTube. But in July 2021, Culpepper took things to the next level with the release of his debut album, Sgt Culpepper.
The release, two years in the making, is pure cinematic soul and funk. Squelchy envelope filter bass and phased guitar combine with live drums and orchestral strings and horns, with Culpepper’s falsetto soaring above it all. Trumpet and saxophone hits are as tight and funky as legendary 1970s bands Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. Vocoder basslines and backing vocals are reminiscent of the electric funk of Zapp in ‘Remember’, and ‘W.A.R.’ recalls the grit and power of James Brown’s best performances. But perhaps the highlight of the record is the last few bars of ‘Thought About You’, where the band hit a driving behind-the-beat groove, while an electric sitar adds a dreamy melody over the top. It’s a lovely textural contrast, emblematic of the detail present on this record.
The title is not just a passing joke to The Beatles’ seminal Summer of Love album, either. As Culpepper tells us at 180 House, ‘Sgt Culpepper is definitely a concept record. I wanted to nod to The Beatles, as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is known as one of the first concept albums,’ he says. ‘Mine has four chapters: The Battle, The Surrender, The Love, The Lesson. There’s a story, and I hope people pick up on those little Easter eggs I’ve left there. I wanted to present a humble character, but a flawed one, for people to find themselves in. I hope there’s something for everyone to pull from.’
Sgt Culpepper is a collaboration between a host of talented creatives. London’s multifaceted producer extraordinaire Swindle was on executive production, while Shawn Lee (producer and instrumentalist for Kelis) contributed production and recorded drums for the whole record. Tom Misch produced ‘Poetic Justice’, and wrote and performed the contemplative, lyrical guitar part. Guy Chambers, Robbie Williams’ main songwriter, also hit up production duties on a couple of tracks, as did Grammy award-winning producer Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Paolo Nutini, and Estelle).
As Culpepper tells us, ‘I’m really excited. It’s been two years in the making. It involves a lot of friends, who have become family. A combination of talented people I know, who have supported me on my journey, and encouraged me to go out to the front and put out a record.’
Joel Culpepper’s future is already here. If you don’t believe us yet, check out his performance of Sgt Culpepper’s first track, ‘Tears Of A Crown’, on Later… With Jools Holland, where he’s joined on stage by many of the album’s recording artists. It’s powerful stuff. We can’t wait to see what’s next for this confident artist.