Truly life-enriching soul music is an indomitable force of nature. No matter what sub-genre our current crop of musicologists may cite in the very near future to describe Jalen N’Gonda’s riveting nu-soul approach, he’s unequivocally the real deal, blending classic and contemporary soul influences to create a sound that’s all his own.
Clearly a keen student of the genre’s revered pioneers, Jalen possesses a rich, nuanced voice that sets him miles apart from the crowd. Yet N’Gonda is as fresh and contemporary as anyone gracing today’s scene. Inspiration for his compositions derives from a variety of places. “Everyday life. Anything, really,” he says. “To a stranger, I would say my music is soul/R&B, while trying to fit in the Beach Boys and the Beatles somewhere in between.”
His new EP Talking About Mary is the culmination of an extraordinary musical journey that’s taken him from the U.S. to the U.K. and eventually back stateside for a gala 2017 tour that encompassed a series of acclaimed appearances at high-profile venues.
Martha Reeves, the legendary leader of Martha & the Vandellas, became a fan of Jalen’s when he opened a concert for her. Last year, he embarked on his first U.S. tour, which brought him to New York City’s Summer Stage Festival, Pickathon, and the history-laden Newport Folk Festival. He’s been a supporting act for Laura Mvula and Lauryn Hill at the Montreal Jazz Festival and wowed sold-out houses on his own in London and Geneva.
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, Jalen grew up in nearby Wheaton-Glenmont and Germantown. His parents hail from the Washington, D.C. area; his father is a humanitarian worker, his mother a day care worker, and he has two younger brothers. “The kind of environment I grew up around was really average,” says Jalen. “It was generally working class but a very close community.” His dad’s family roots are planted deeply in Lusaka, Zambia, adding another intriguing facet to Jalen’s influences.
N’Gonda’s father introduced him to the joys of soul music at the tender age of 11. “My dad wanted me to watch this Temptations movie,” he says. “After the movie finished, I wanted to hear more of that kind of music, so I dug in.” Young Jalen proceeded to soak up the genre like a thirsty sponge, digging his father’s soul, jazz, and hip-hop collection. He paid special attention to legendary Motown artists, while taking in the works of some of the era’s great rock architects as well. “David Ruffin, Mary Wells, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Phil Spector, the Doors, and the list goes on,” he says. He’s just as quick to cite a lineup of contemporary artists that have more recently caught his discerning ear: “People like Alex Turner, Angel Olsen, Lianne La Havas, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes.”
Although he’s only been performing professionally as a front man for a couple of years, Jalen steadily accrued musical seasoning over a considerably longer timeframe than that. “I’ve been singing in shows since I was 14,” he says. “I also played as a guitarist and pianist for a few years in Washington, D.C. before pursuing a solo career.”
The big move came when N’Gonda decided to relocate to Great Britain in 2014 to study music at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. “That’s where the school I was going to happened to be in,” explains Jalen. “I actually went to the school just to study piano and music theory, to become a professional jazz pianist. It was the actual city of Liverpool that changed my approach–to become a solo artist by playing in clubs, bars, etc.”
The jaunt across the pond wasn’t without its adjustments. “When I first moved into the U.K., it was a culture shock, the way the cars looked and all the different British accents and mannerisms. The way I adapted in the country was by simply living in it,” he says. “I’ve been in Liverpool for nearly four years, and I’ve grown very accustomed to how things go around here. The culture is one of a kind with its humor, diversity, food, and the everyday people. The music scene in Liverpool is one of the leading scenes in the country.”
Consisting entirely of striking original material, Talking About Mary run a soul-steeped gamut; “Don’t You Remember” is a sleek, slinky ballad that beautifully showcases N’Gonda’s exceptional pipes. “When I was writing ‘Don’t You Remember’ with Mikey Jones, we were trying to write a proper 6/8 love ballad. We were trying to think of the smoothest lyrics, like they did in the ‘70s with the Chi-Lites and the Temptations.”
The edgy, insistent “I Guess That Makes Me A Loser” stands in striking contrast. “Musically, ‘I Guess That Makes Me A Loser’ was inspired by the Dap-Tone sound and the song ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’ by the Marvelettes. The lyrics were inspired by the mini-series Leaving. The series was about an affair between a middle-aged woman and a young man around 30 years her junior. It was a scandal, and it ended so badly. So I started writing after watching that.”
The EP also features the pounding stormer “We Fell Out Of Love.” “It’s very ‘60s Rolling Stones-inspired musically,” notes Jalen. “The lyrics were inspired by Cilla Black’s ‘Step Inside Love.’ I wanted to write the opposite of what she was singing about.” And there’s an elegant acoustic interpretation of “Holler (When You Call My Name),” the song that stirred up so much interest for N’Gonda via his 2016 band-backed version. The song itself was born of necessity. “I was playing a gig and I was running out of material,” he says. “So ‘Holler’ started as an improvisation.”
“The Newport Folk Festival was absolutely amazing,” says Jalen. “The crowd they bring every year just loves to hear good music. To think that so many great artists and bands played there in the past, you feel like you’re part of the festival’s timeline.”
Is the soul genre ready for a rebirth? “Real soul music never died,” replies the young singer with the mega-promising future. “It’s always been here, but there is a trend nowadays of using real instruments instead of just computers and pads and stuff.” True indeed, but one listen to Talking About Mary and you get to thinking that this release could easily be the catalyst for a full-scale soul revolution, with Jalen N’Gonda leading the charge. “Well, that’s up to (music journalists) and the audience to decide that,” he says. “I just wrote and recorded this EP to express myself, and for people to enjoy.”