There's a moment on Anthony David's new album, As Above, So Below, that changes everything you thought you knew about him. A transcendental moment that moves him past the cliché characteristics of a Southern-bred soul singer and into a realm that is strictly his. It comes on the title track, a song about embracing reality, that is so naked and raw, you feel altered to the core after hearing it.
"I wanted to speak about something like the feeling that we all get — that people call the Holy Ghost — without calling it God," says David. "So I was like, 'How do I get that out? How am I going to be honest about who I am without being ostracized.'"
Considering the genre's churchified roots, the idea of a modern day soul man going against that God-centered grain might seem borderline sacrilegious. But soul, at it's best, has always straddled the line between tradition and progression - stirring the collective consciousness by questioning the status quo on one-hand while reveling in timeless truths on the other. Still, it's often easier to produce comfort food designed to console rather than provoke. Even David admits he's been guilty of it. But this time around, he's done some serious soul-searching, and it shows on As Above, So Below, the album on which he's found himself, not only as an artist, but as a man.
On an unseasonably warm February day, David strolls down Edgewood Avenue, making his way from New Line Cuts, the barbershop he frequents, to the Corner Tavern to grab a bite. He greets the owner by name upon entering, smiles at his waitress who immediately recognizes him, and chats up an old neighbor.
Although he's recently moved around the corner to a revitalized loft in Old Fourth Ward, this is his still his block — so much so that he often sleeps in his old loft apartment located down the street. Any growth that he's experienced since the 2008 release of his third album, Acey Duecy (Universal Republic) — which sold around 60,000 copies and earned him a Grammy nomination for the duet "Words" with India.Arie — started here.
"What's really interesting on this album is that I learned a lot of things over the past three years that I've been mulling over for a while," says David, who turns 40 this year. "The biggest change is I became what I call a secular humanist, or an atheist. All I know is that I'm interested in being nice to people but I've never believed in any religion. But it's tricky when you're in the South and you're around the culture that I'm in."
The culture he's referencing is not only defined by the politics of living in the Bible Belt, but the cushy box that comes with being a Southern soul singer. In years past, David, who was raised in Savannah and served a three-year stint in the military before pursing music full time, was afraid of being ostracized for his spiritual beliefs. Now, he regrets he ever "had to fake it."
"Like on [my song] 'On and On,' I said something like, 'I promise God,' but I didn't even mean that," he admits. "So I'm trying to relearn words to express myself more honestly."
That veracity serves as the emotional backdrop on As Above, So Below, clearly his best album to date. Formerly signed to Universal through India.Arie's SoulBird imprint — a venture formed by his longtime friend strictly to release his album — David is hopeful that his new release will catapult his career now that he's signed to Purpose Music Group/E1 Music and is equipped with a stronger team. On his next single, ironically titled "God Said," he satirizes religious zealots — such as right-winger Pat Robertson, whose God-cursed-Haiti rhetoric serves as the song's intro — for rationalizing their own evildoings by professing to "know what God said," David sarcastically croons.
"I'm saying that it's stupid to proclaim to know something that you don't know," David says. "I didn't want to end the song with any resolve, like, 'Well, what God really means is,' because I don't know."
Of course, David's struggle to musically convey his altered outlook runs counter to that of soul collaborator India.Arie, who has expressed her desire to infuse more God-focused spirituality into the commercial confines of a secular industry. But their friendship hasn't been tested by his revelations, he says, as much as it's given them fodder for thought-provoking conversation. "I was always the person that had a lot of different friends of different styles and I would copy them," he says. "I'm just now kind of reconciling who I am, no matter who I'm around."
Spirituality isn't the only thing he's re-examining. Written shortly before he split with his fiancé in 2009, his peppy, wedding-friendly lead single "4evermore," featuring Algebra Blessett and Phonte, helped him come to terms with the fact that "forever is a mighty long time."
"I like the idea of marriage but I don't think it works," he confesses. "I think we need to rework it, I just have no idea about how. That bugs me and I couldn't really be in a relationship with those kinds of thoughts with no resolve, and that's part of what happened. Even with '4evermore,' there was a lot of rationalization going on if you listen to my verse."
The song segues perfectly into other love-torn songs, including "Girlfriend" on which he sings about struggling to remain faithful. But in a notable change from David's prior releases, it's the strong socio-political tracks, such as "Reach Ya," that define the album.
"I was in a relationship and I'm not now, so I didn't want to do as many love songs," says David, who worked closely with longtime friend and writer/producer Shannon Sanders on the project. "It was like, 'What else can I talk about?' And that's when you get more into yourself."
Even with all of his evolving beliefs, the warmth and sincerity that made David a soul hero in Atlanta, and a burgeoning national star, remain faithfully intact — as evidenced by the genuine connection he shares with people he encounters.
"It's very hard to talk about your own flaws and growth and maybe that's why [the album] sounds emotional," he reasons, his gaze sweeping the assorted characters at the neighborhood bar. "I was trying to express growth and pick out a new path."
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