Musiq Soulchild is many things — a gifted singer, an accomplished songwriter, and a skilled performer — but above all he's passionate man.
"I live for music," Soulchild says. "I study it, I practice it. I liken it to my religion. It's something I believe in. So I want to honor it and do it justice."
Born Taalib Johnson, the 35-year-old Philadelphia-bred, Atlanta-based singer has released six LPs since 2000. He's notched a couple platinum and a couple gold albums, scored more than half-a-dozen chart hits, and earned 11 Grammy nominations. But after a decade as the quintessential neo-soul success story, Soulchild frankly sounds a little frustrated by the genre box he's been placed in and is eager to break out.
"People tend to stay in one lane, wanting to ride it until the wheels fall off," he says. "And
I get that. I have nothing against that. Everyone is entitled to their own creative expression."At the same time, I feel I have the right to express myself the way I want. But it feels like there is some unsaid rule that you're not supposed to do certain things, play certain types of music if you're an (urban) artist. But if I can validly contribute to a different genre of music and add to that legacy of musical expression, I don't see why I shouldn't make whatever kind of music I'm moved to make."
Soulchild is doing a series of one-off shows to start the year, starting with a concert Sunday at the Orpheum. One of his New Year's resolutions, he says, is "to find a way to reintroduce who Musiq is. The lines have got a little bit blurry along the way. I'm trying to reintroduce the music brand, so to speak."
Though he doesn't say it explicitly, there seems to be some dissatisfaction with his longtime label, Atlantic, which has released his past three albums, including 2011's MusiqInTheMagiq. "I've been privileged to have been able to put out some substantial music," he says. "But that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface — not only of what I want to do, but what I've already done, that no one has heard. Part of the problem with the (music industry) is being forced to fit within a certain criteria. People like when things are compartmentalized. They like when they can put things in their own category and keep them there."
But Soulchild's R&B/soul heroes were musical explorers: Ray Charles made some of the best country songs; Stevie Wonder created pop masterpieces. He won't say specifically where he's headed, but it sounds like Soulchild's next project will be a departure point.
"Look: If I want to write an aria and sing opera, it would be nice if that was welcomed, rather than everyone saying 'Musiq Soulchild just lost his mind. He thinkin' he wanna be Pavarotti now!' It's like, why you gotta hate? Just let me do it; you might like it.
"I want to be in a position where my audience has a faith that at the end of the day, 'He's going to give us quality, worthwhile work. Even if we don't understand where he going, we have enough faith to follow, to at least see where he's going.' That's all I ask for."
Soulchild took a break from music in early 2012. He used the time to write "Love According to Musiq," a relationship advice book that "assists in matters of the heart and ways of communicating a little bit better." More recently, he's been in the studio working on his new tracks, music that should debut this year.
Meantime, Soulchild is eager to return to the stage. He says that nothing quite connects him with his muse than getting in front of people and performing. "I can sit in the studio and fantasize and theorize about what would be hot and what effect a track would have. However, it's more important to be out there in the field with the people listening and responding to you immediately."
Soulchild's upcoming show at the Orpheum will see him playing songs from across his catalog. After that, he'll head back to the studio to finish his new record, to create the music that will define the next phase his career.
And, who knows? Maybe that next phase will actually see him become the new Pavarotti.
"Well, that wasn't really on my agenda," he says, laughing, "but I just might do that."