Louis Baker is a young man who is having a moment as his multiple musical projects come to fruition. The Wellington singer-songwriter talks to Lydia Jenkin.
He's the kind of fellow who'll have you laughing with funny impressions (during his interview with TimeOut he manages to slip into the voice of President Obama, the young man in the "ghost chips" ad, and a current affairs journalist) one minute, and deep in a philosophical conversation the next. He can hold the attention of a room with only a quiet smile, no bravado needed, but he's also capable of one of the most impressive soul screams you'll hear in New Zealand. Louis Baker is a young man of dualities, so it's fortunate he has multiple different outlets for his creativity.
Though he's been performing round New Zealand and overseas for the past few years, this week the 23-year-old releases his first solo EP - an intimate self-titled collection of five tracks, recorded in London with Breaks Co-op's Andy Lovegrove, which shows off his soulful singer-songwriter style, equal parts bluesy and folky, and his hot-fingered guitar work.
That comes hot on the heels of Build It, the debut album of his nine-piece nu soul-funk monster band, which came out in late January. And, as if those two projects weren't enough, he also plays as a trio with Warren Maxwell (Trinity Roots/Little Bushman) and Mark Vanilau - a beautiful rich blend of rootsy voices.
"I love them all for different expressive reasons. I guess with Brockaflower there's a bit more funk that comes out of me, a bit more Sly Stone screaming soul that comes out, and by myself, it's a bit more about the vulnerable fragility, and trying to lure people in.
"I mean when you've got eight people behind you, and all you're focusing on is singing, it's a different mindset really. You know, I'm one of three singers in Brockaflower, and then there's the horn section, bass, drums, guitar, MPCs, and synths, and so the pressure isn't entirely on you. You don't have to be holding the crowd by yourself the whole time, it's a shared experience. But I love the zone I get into when performing solo too.
"And performing with Warren and Mark, that's always such a lush, soulful experience" he finishes with a sigh. "We're all quite busy cats right at the moment, so there's nothing immediate happening, but what it always comes back to for me, is how much of a privilege it is to play music with those guys. They're people I really look up to."
Those different musical hats he wears are a reflection of the diverse music he was introduced to by his family, growing up. His sister introduced him to "metal and melancholy music" from Nirvana to Panterra. His mum gave him gems like Joni Mitchell and Keith Jarrett, and the records of soul greats like Donny Hathaway, and Al Green. And his dad was a fan of Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and Van Morrison - "all of that 60s stuff".
So he had plenty of guidance and support as he picked up a guitar as a 13-year-old in Newtown, Wellington, and slowly discovered his own voice, writing songs in the back garden.
"Mum plays guitar, and keys and sings a bit - she loves to play soul, folky, blues, 50's stuff with quite minimalist instrumentation. And I was definitely guided by my sister as well, who plays the guitar and sings. But I actually learnt a lot off the internet, and learnt a lot by listening to records, and just playing stuff back by ear. That's the best teacher, man. Recording yourself, and listening back; it's the equivalent of editing your writing I guess."
Those early years practicing guitar for five or six hours a day ("Yeah, I was a bit obsessive"), and time spent listening to other vocalists, and learning to mimic them ("I was trying to take different colours and tones from different people and work out how to sound like that. I'd listen, sing, play it back, listen again") all paid off it seems.
He won himself a guitar through the Play It Strange competition before he finished school, spent three years studying jazz guitar at university, and in 2013 was picked to go to the prestigious Red Bull Music Academy. It's held every year, plucking rising musicians from all over the world, and bringing them together with some living legends to make music, and learn. So packing his bags for New York, Baker headed off on his first trip overseas to hang out with artists ?uestlove, Brian Eno, Flying Lotus, James Murphy, Lee Scratch Perry, Kim Gordon, and Philip Glass, among the 120 guests.
"It was a truly amazing experience. I spent two awesome weeks at the Academy, but also quite a lot of time walking around Brooklyn, and then went up to Harlem and did a session up there, you know, just taking in all the sights and sounds and feels."
He wrote the final track for the EP - The Way - while he was in New York, as he reflected on what it felt like to be in such a huge pool of humanity.
"I think on one level it's about that idea of separatism, and trying to differentiate between the concept of ones self and everything around you. And feeling almost, alone. And then there's the other idea that you're a part of everything, and that everything you do has an effect, you're knitted into this much bigger picture. Going to New York helped to emphasise that duality, and that awareness."
He's hoping to spend more time travelling this year - some solo shows in Europe are on the cards, and Brockaflower has already made multiple festival appearances in New Zealand this summer, so fingers are crossed for more - but he's you can tell Baker is very grateful to be writing, and singing and performing, no matter where it is.
"A few years back I never thought I would've been doing this with my life, and having such a great time doing what I love to do. Every day I wake up and say thank you, because I feel like I've just been so fortunate."
Who: Wellington musician Louis Baker
What: New self-titled solo EP, and debut album with Brockaflower Build It
When and where: Performing at the Leigh Sawmill tomorrow night, and at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on Friday March 28, along with dates in New Plymouth, Kerikeri, Mt Maunganui, Masterton, and Paekakariki.
More info: louisbaker.co.nz for more details.