Soul singer Louis Baker has his sights set on the United Kingdom with the arrival of his debut album Open.
At 17, he was an opening bat, captain and wicketkeeper of a team that included future Black Cap Tom Blundell and a host of soon-to-be Wellington Firebirds players and that had just won the schools’ division one league, “but music happily derailed that”.
That diversion came in the form of writing a song called Three Ladies on his first electric guitar – bought secondhand for $200 – about his mum and two sisters.
It earnt Baker third place in the Play It Strange songwriting competition and gave him a “gust of wind in the sails”. Two more songs quickly followed, and he won first place in The Primal Youth band competition – the prize for which was an acoustic guitar that, at 30, he still uses.
After three years at jazz school, he released his first single, the gentle, soulful Even in the Darkness, which won yet another competition and a chance to record at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios.
But, more important, the success of that single saw him chosen to take part in the Red Bull Music Academy in New York, where he was able to learn from such serious A-listers as Debbie Harry and Brian Eno.
“I was dropped in at the deep end,” Baker says. “I was 22 and had never been overseas, and suddenly I was walking around in what seemed like a film set where my heroes had walked around – it was such a culture shock.”
Among the 59 other musicians at the academy, most of whom were playing dancehall or electronica, Baker’s Motown-influenced acoustic guitar stood out and caught the ear of rapper-producer Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest and Questlove from The Roots. It also got him a recording session with hip-hop producer Just Blaze.
“The academy really did make the opportunity happen for me,” he says. “I’m quite interested in poetry and philosophy and how people think, but being able to go to New York and travel like that gave me a much deeper world view.”
That world view and four years’ touring and recording have culminated in his first album, Open. The record has all the familiar Wellington soul vibes you’d expect from a jazz-school grad brought up in Newtown, but woven through it are such influences as Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson.
“Good things do take time,” he says. “But there’s been so many learning curves since New York – going to Los Angeles and learning to write, or touring the UK and all the resources it takes to do that. But this has all been about learning more about the world and culture and people and observing that in an interesting way and telling a story about it.”
Which also explains the decision to launch the new album in the UK, as Baker feels his style of neo-soul fits in better there than in New Zealand. Open was previewed at a show in London’s Servant Jazz Quarters last month.
“Europe is full of people I love to work with, but there’s also a whole scene in the UK where there’s a real market for the alt-leftfield soul music I love,” he says.
“We don’t really have it in New Zealand. Here, it’s pop or reggae or something in between those two things. I’m looking to the world now for longevity and I think I can build a career here and be sustainable.”
Louis Baker will play three New Zealand shows to launch Open: Blue Smoke, Christchurch, August 8; Tuning Fork, Auckland, August 9; San Fran, Wellington, August 10.
This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.