Ray Curenton may be a new name to soul music lovers, but he began his solo career with 2012’s Cardiac Arrest, recorded while he was still a college student at Nashville’s Belmont University. He followed up with 2014’s eclectic Backslider, which put both his growing skills as a songwriter, vocalist and producer and his penchant to color outside of the lines stylistically on full display. Backslider ran the gamut from electronica to power ballad to gospel, telling the story of his own faith, identity and sexuality deconstructions. But then there was seven years of creative silence. He returned last month with “Make It With Me,” a single that received praise from our own site, as well as SoulTracks.com and the Journal of Gospel Music, which crowned it their Pick of the Week.  SoulMusic.com had the opportunity to talk with Ray about the follow-up single,“Aroundabout,” and his forthcoming full-length project.

SoulMusic.com: You released “Make It With Me,” in April–your first release of any kind since 2014’s Backslider album and the streaming numbers skyrocketed. What has the public’s response to the song felt like for you?

Ray Curenton: The success of “Make It with Me” has been incredibly overwhelming. You know, I thought long and hard about which song from this new album I should release as the first single, and while there were some initial reservations—the fact that it’s nearly 6 minutes long, the fact that it’s a ballad that doesn’t really build until the very end—I knew this song was the one and I had to go with my gut at the end of the day. And here we are! It’s already the most-streamed song in my entire music catalog on every single platform. The song has been out for just over 8 weeks now and I’m still watching new people discover it every day. I’m getting messages from folks all over the world calling the song beautiful and resonating with the message. 

I had read all these trade articles about how songs that are 2 minutes long do better in the Spotify algorithms, but honestly, Spotify algorithms have been eating this song up since I released it! All of it has just been total confirmation to me that real music—with the right marketing behind it—bucks all the trends and finds a way to connect with people no matter what. And I’m so, so grateful for that. 

SoulMusic.com: Tell us about the new single, “Aroundabout,” and what inspired it. 

Ray Curenton: “Aroundabout” is so important and I knew I needed to follow up “Make It with Me” with something catchy and fun, especially if it was going to come out in the summertime! Both songs, like much of the music in my discography, are all about finding encouragement even amid uncertainty. While “Make It with Me” is very global, and about holding onto relationships and community as a refuge, “Aroundabout” is about introspection and soul searching. I know we’ve all felt at some point or another like life has us all stuck in a loop of hardship and denials, especially during this pandemic. That “round and a-round and a-round” hook really is how it feels sometimes! But the song is about peeling back the layers a bit and asking questions. What can I glean from this experience that might benefit my life moving forward? Are there any choices that I can make that might spare me from reliving this again down the road? Some cycles, we might find, are actually self-imposed, and even for the ones that are beyond our control, perhaps, there might be some little life lessons or revelations that hold the key to getting us unstuck. Kinda heady for an uptempo track, huh? Haha.

SoulMusic.com: Well, I think soul music has always done that kind of work–giving introspection a groove and also space to think and have fun simultaneously.

Ray Curenton: I’m kind of grabbing from a few different eras of Black music for inspiration and hoping it all comes together in a way that sticks to landing. The dope thing about the 70s and Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder is that they could make pop hits out of the most esoteric and mystic lyrical concepts. So figuring out how to bring spirituality back into the musical landscape has been my real mission. But I also wanted to pay homage, sonically, to my favorite R&B producers of the 90s and early 00s.
“Aroundabout” is one manifestation of that. Do you hear the Jermaine Dupri influence? I hope so. We also threw some quirky retro Hanna-Barbera-esque cartoon sound effects in the mix à la Timbaland, just to illustrate the zaniness of life and help make the song all the more humorous.

I’ve been watching, and sometimes participating, in a lot of conversations on Twitter and other places about the state of R&B music—is it dead? What are the new artists missing? Why isn’t the genre as mainstream as it used to be? For me, the best thing about R&B music is when it can be a source of liberation and healing. That’s what I’m trying to bring back.

SoulMusic.com: So, the singles you’re releasing are leading up to the album release, The Last Shall Be the First. When can we expect the full-length album? 

Ray Curenton: The album actually won’t be out until next spring/summer, 2023. I was planning to release the first six songs as an EP this fall. I don’t want to move too fast though. I was on hiatus from music for a really long time so I really want to do the groundwork to make sure as many people as possible have the chance to discover what I’m doing first. So we may save any collective release until next year and just keep doing singles until then. Regardless, there will never be a 2-3 month time span between now and then when I don’t have something new for y’all. We’re really just getting started! 

SoulMusic.com: What are the underlying elements that tie these songs together thematically and musically?

Ray Curenton: Conceptually, the album is about documenting and reclaiming what faith and spirituality mean to me right here and now. What do I believe? Where do I find meaning? What do I value as sacred? What does my spiritual work look like as I enter my 30s? I’ve been joking that I make modern gospel music for everyone the Christian church has traditionally shut out: the gays, the atheists, the occultists, and the communists! Haha. But really, it’s all about the outsider.

Faith for me is both internal work and social politics, but it’s also art and creative expression. I’ve gone through about a decade-long period of questioning and distance with regard to religion. I’m still a seeker (probably will be for the rest of my life), but I feel like I’m really in a solid place to bring this journey to the forefront of my music again. I know with our world falling apart all around us right now that there are other people out there who are seeking too and want their soul music to carry that part of the soul again. So my hope is for all of us to find each other. 

Stylistically, this album is everything I’ve wanted my music to sound like since I was a teenager. Brandon Adams (my producer) and I have been putting so much intention into everything from the lyrics to the arrangements to the vocal production. So this is really Ray Curenton at my absolute max. This is my heart.

My plan is for every new song to feel like another chapter bringing you deeper into the story. Every time I drop another single, I know more and more folks will really begin to understand what I’m trying to accomplish with this body of work. It’s soul. It’s R&B. It’s gospel. It’s life music. It’s nostalgic and it’s also for the present and future. Inspiration and empowerment—it’s going to be a wild ride.