The truest part of a Charles Bradley performance doesn’t happen onstage, where he falls to his knees, flings his arms from the microphone, blows kisses to the crowd, and pushes himself past the emotional brink, where words can’t follow and a painful howling rises up instead. It’s when he’s off the stage and running headlong into the arms of the first person he sees.
Bradley is an affectionate man, and his hugs have rivaled his irrepressible voice as his calling card. When he started touring behind 2011’s No Time For Dreaming, Bradley took to this practice immediately, meeting the audience with a beaming face streaked with tears as he books it from behind the footlights with the band vamping in the background, usually during “Heartaches and Pain.”
“At first, it was kind of hard doing my own thing,” says Bradley, seated at the kitchen table at Daptone Records’ headquarters in Bushwick. For Bradley, “Heartaches and Pain” was cathartic. Written with producer and guitarist Tom Brenneck, the song taps into Bradley’s grief over his brother Joseph, who was shot and killed just steps away from his family’s home on Willoughby Avenue.
“I had to go into my soul to bring a part of me up, and it hurt,” he says. “When we were in Europe on that first tour, I told [the band], I said, ‘No, no, no! I want to go home, I can’t do this!’ Everybody was on my case because I started missing the lyrics. I didn’t want to sing; I tried to scream it. The next day, they said, ‘Charles, go out there! People want to hear your lyrics!’ I went, ‘God, please help me, move my feelings aside so I can get these words out of me!’ I stood there for half a minute just looking at ’em, and then I grabbed the microphone. When I let that out, ‘Heartaches and Pain,’ that’s when I felt the greatest love of those people out there. I got so emotional that I jumped out off the stage and started hugging the peoples. I want the people to know me onstage and offstage. I want them to know I’m the same person. That’s when they won my soul. I felt a little better. Every time I sung it, it gave me a little more of a chance to get into it. When I get into it now, it’s better—I’ve learned how to take the hurt and learned how to let all of it out at the same time, and not get my vocals so muffed up that I can’t say the words. I found that I had to teach myself how to do that.”
Much of Victim of Love, Bradley’s sophomore effort out next week, came from Brenneck and Bradley messing around in sound check before the shows of that first tour. They harness the same mercurial energy of the live show.
Bradley’s favorite song on the album is “Confusion!” “I can git nasty wit’ it! I can feel the motivation!” he says, raising his arms and shimmying for a second before recalling the psychedelic funk vibe of the number. Though “Strictly Reserved For You,” “Let Love Stand a Chance,” and the title track capitalize on the forlorn sentimentality previously perfected by Bradley and Brenneck.
With Victim of Love, doors have opened to Bradley that were previously locked: a handful of accolade-reaping sets at South by Southwest now give way to a full-on spring tour that’ll take him across the country and back. Poull Brien’s documentary about Bradley and his struggles, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, will see its television debut on April 10. Instead of donning a wig and singing James Brown songs, Bradley will take the stage at the Apollo Theater on May 16, and shimmy, shake, and scream on the same hallowed ground that launched the career of his idol. And even though it’s the Apollo, and Victim of Love finds Bradley in a very different spot than he was in at the onset of 2011, there’s no way in hell he isn’t leaping into the front row at his hometown show to hug everybody—especially considering all the heartaches and pain that went into making his dream a reality.
“The last record brought me out of the darkness, and now I’m walking in the light,” he says, signing the last copies of Victim of Love that surround him in piles at Daptone with a Love, Charles. “Coming into the light, you can’t hide no more. The world will see me. They’re watchin’ me and my behavior, how I’m gonna adapt to this new world. Is the music gonna go to my head? Am I still gonna be the humble Charles, that person that everybody love? That’s the person I have to seek within myself, and I’m still coming out of the light. It’s frightenin’. Before, I’d hide behind James Brown. I had to go into my feelings and my hurt. I could just learn James Brown lyrics and go out there and do the dance, but now, I’m going into my feelings and my aura and my depth that God give me and I’m bringin’ ’em out. You can’t hide forever. With all the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through, I’m glad I got the chance to walk in the light.”