Isaac Aesili's background from both his biological and adopted family have translated into a melting pot of sounds, writes Scott Kara
Isaac Aesili was adopted as a baby and, growing up in his new family, listened to a steady diet of classical, jazz, funk, pop - and the soul music of Stevie Wonder.
"He's the greatest of all time," says the 32-year-old producer, trumpet player, and musical jack-of-all-trades. "And there were lots of other artists my brothers and sisters exposed me to, too. I was fortunate to be adopted into a highly musical family - we all tried different instruments when we were young, my mum played ukulele and keyboards and my dad plays trombone and guitar. So that was definitely the foundation for me starting to do my own thing," he says.
But also as a young lad he had a penchant for drumming on anything he could get his hands on. And when Aesili met his birth mother, she told him that his birth father, who he has not yet met, was from Guyana in South America. "And I was like, 'so that's why I was so intent on banging away on pots and pans when I was young'," he smiles.
This diverse mix of influences and musical styles has become a hallmark of Aesili's "future soul music" over the past 15 years. It's music that is rooted in soul but incorporates everything from the classical and jazz sounds his adopted father was so passionate about, to house music, R&B ("as a teenager that was the music I taped off the radio"), electronica, and those swinging South American-meets-Caribbean rhythms of his Guyanan heritage.
He started out in soul fusion band Solaa in the late 1990s and since then has been part of Opensouls, Eru Dangerspiel, and the Recloose Live Band, and released debut solo album Eye See in 2009. More recently he started Latin Aotearoa, a Latin-inspired sound system with Brazilian DJ Bobby Brazuka and Venezuelan singer Jennifer Zea, he also released an album as the Karl Marx Project with his younger brother Mark McNeill last year. He plays in jazz ensemble Circling Sun and is now focused on his latest band, Funkommunity, with singer Rachel Fraser. They released their bobbing and slinky soul debut album, Chequered Thoughts, late last year.
All this and he DJs at various venues around Auckland too, which is like his bread and butter.
While his first love is the trumpet - "If there was an instrument I'd take to a desert island that would be it because it's the one I would be most able to express myself through" - he confesses his favourite instrument is the recording studio because of the sonic scope it allows him.
The Karl Marx album is the perfect example of this sort of thinking. Conceived as an instrumental soundtrack for a sci-fi movie that was never made, it brings together Aesili's forward-thinking soul and dance music with his brother's industrial synth-pop leanings.
Aesili's beats are unique in that they can be glitchy and dancefloor-oriented but with a silky soul and heart to them.
"I gravitate to the more subtle elements of electronic music, and I do take from that glitch thing, but I try to keep the humanity and feeling of the music.
"What I'm trying to do is a find the middle ground between the analogue, very organic traditional soul music and contemporary future soul music which brings in electronic elements - so it's like Kraftwerk meets Stevie Wonder kind of thing."
Or, as Aesili puts it in the liner notes of Eye See: "It's all about the fusion".
"Yeah, that's kind of been my motto for quite some time now," he laughs. "When it comes to music I'm all about diversity. I really need to switch my focus fast, between different genres and different textures and feelings and emotions because that's what it is to be a human being."
He's always loved female R&B singers - when he DJs he plays tracks by everyone from Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans to Beyonce and Rihanna - and now with Funkommunity he feels like he's found his musical soulmate in Fraser.
"She just blows me away," he says of the singer.
Funkommunity is signed to German label, Melting Pot Records, which also released the Karl Marx Project, and they plan to tour Europe later this year.
As well as his music, his two families are a big part of his life, be it writing letters to his birth grandmother in Palmerston North and his "twin" adopted sister doing his accounts, to some of his family doing spoken word vocals and hand claps on the title track to Eye See.
When he was growing up in Christchurch the fact he was adopted didn't even figure in his thinking until he reached his early teens. "I think it's because my parents wholly accepted me, from a very young age, and also I have a twin sister in the family, and it's not biological, but it just so happens we were born four days apart. So we were raised as twins and I never felt like I was outside of the family."
It took until he was 18, and with the encouragement of his adopted father, to make the connection with his birth mother. And he's glad he did.
"Meeting my birth mother and birth grandmother, it was this magical moment sitting down in front of a complete stranger and seeing your eyes, and your features. And sitting down with my grandmother and having a chat and realising we have the same world view, I don't know how that translates genetically, but I have never met a person in my life who was more like me."
Who: Isaac Aesili in Funkommunity
Where and when: Splore, Tapapakanga Regional Park, main stage, Saturday, 3.30pm
Listen to: Funkommunity - Chequered Thoughts (2011); Karl Marx Project - Karl Marx Project (2011); Isaac Aesili - Eye See (2009)