How much legwork does pop stardom require?
Next weekend Aloe Blacc will appear along with some of music’s buzziest acts — OutKast, Haim, Skrillex, Lorde — at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the idyllic annual gathering near Palm Springs that for many artists serves as proof that they’ve arrived.
On a recent afternoon at USC’s Galen Center, though, Blacc found himself somewhat deeper in the record industry’s promotional trenches. The L.A.-based soul singer was rehearsing for an appearance on Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, and as he conferred onstage with his young collaborators — two dozen excited schoolchildren with whom he was to perform his song “The Man” — crew members installed miniature geysers designed to spew the network’s trademark green slime.
The Kids’ Choice gig was just part of an intensive push behind Blacc’s third studio album, “Lift Your Spirit,” which came out last month. Lately he’s also appeared on “Live With Kelly and Michael,” “The Voice” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” But if the endless hustle was taking a toll on the singer behind one of 2013’s biggest hits, Blacc wasn’t letting on.
“I’m happy to do it,” he insisted. “I spent a lot of years not doing it, so why not? At this point, it’s like a new adventure.”
Success hardly came overnight for Blacc, 35, an experienced music-industry presence who first began making small ripples in the late 1990s, first as half of the underground rap duo Emanon, then with a pair of hazy artisanal-R&B solo records. In 2010 he got a boost when his song “I Need a Dollar” was selected as the theme for HBO’s “How to Make It in America”; the tune went to No. 2 in the U.K. and sold more than 360,000 copies in this country, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Yet nothing in Blacc’s career could compare to the supercharging effect of his guest appearance last year on “Wake Me Up” by the Swedish DJ Avicii. The guitar-laced dance track with an impassioned vocal has been streamed nearly a billion times on Spotify and YouTube. Now the Orange County native, born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III to parents who’d emigrated from Panama, is using that exposure to drive attention to his own music — kiddie choir, green slime and all.
The plan is working. “Lift Your Spirit,” which puts an acoustic version of “Wake Me Up” next to craftily assembled songs reminiscent of Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder, entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 4, Blacc’s highest placement ever. And like many musicians today, he’s licensed tracks for use in TV commercials; “The Man,” with a slow-rolling groove and a chorus that borrows from Elton John, was featured prominently in a spot for Beats headphones (and is rising fast on the Hot 100).
For advertisers in search of a fresh sound, “Aloe’s music hits that sweet spot where it has an appeal to nearly everybody,” said Michael Frick of Mophonics, an L.A.-based firm that specializes in scoring commercials. “It feels new and on the cusp, but there’s also an instant familiarity.”
According to Blacc, that was more or less the point.
“This album is what I think will work for the level that I’m at now,” he said at a Glendale restaurant. Neatly dressed in a tweed jacket and crisp blue jeans, Blacc sipped cranberry juice and spoke in an even tone that seemed like a holdover from the time he put in, before his music career took off, as a management consultant in the healthcare sector.
“I want to make songs that give me a chance to be creative and artistic in the way I write my lyrics and present my vocal,” he went on. “But from a production standpoint, it has to be competitive with other stuff that’s on the radio — otherwise radio won’t play it.”
To help achieve that slick yet detailed feel, he enlisted reliable hit makers such as Pharrell Williams, who produced the album’s disco-strutting “Love Is the Answer” (and is also on the bill at Coachella) and DJ Khalil, who’s worked with Eminem and Pink. “He had a very clear vision,” Khalil said of his client, but that didn’t mean the songs were completed quickly; the producer recalled lengthy studio sessions with live musicians (including Justin Timberlake’s trumpeter, Dontae Winslow) trying out different interpretations of the material.
“It was a process, getting everything to fit together, which is what Aloe wanted,” said Khalil, who called the approach “really smart” at a moment when listeners are more likely to download (or stream) a single than to a buy an entire album. The result sustains a vibe that John Ehmann, an A&R executive at Blacc’s label Interscope Records, said reminded him of “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse — “a retro voice but with lyrics and drums that make it feel more modern.”
True to his past in business, Blacc, married with a young child, can come across as shrewdly calculating. Of the original “Wake Me Up,” he said Avicii’s surging dance beat functions essentially as “a marketing tool,” tantamount to a “half-naked lady” in a beer commercial. “It’s there to draw your attention in this very fierce marketplace to the quality of the product,” he said.
The product, as Blacc sees it, is his songwriting, and indeed there’s an earnest credibility to his message of optimism on “Lift Your Spirit,” which for all its radio-readiness feels proudly out of step with the button-pushing raunch and unfettered consumerism of so much Top 40 pop. Songs like “Owe It All” and “Here Today” — in which he insists, “It ain’t what happens to you / It’s what you do about it” — embody a hopefulness that Blacc said he doesn’t hear on the charts today (except for in “Happy” by his producer Pharrell).
Even “I Need a Dollar,” Blacc’s breakout 2010 hit, offers compassion along with the money talk; it’s not an expression of greed but an attempt to capture the desperation triggered by the global financial crisis. His music, he said bluntly, is meant to effect “positive social change,” a goal he claims also to pursue outside the studio.
His two professional ambitions, he said, are to join the Songwriters Hall of Fame and to “match or exceed” Michael Jackson’s charitable giving — $350 million, by Blacc’s account.
Perhaps that determination to keep succeeding is why he intends to bring only his crowd pleasers to Coachella, set to run April 11-13 and again April 18 through 20 on the manicured grounds of Indio’s Empire Polo Club. (After the festival, Blacc will tour the U.S. this summer as Bruno Mars’ opening act.)
“I leave the slower, quieter songs off the set list in a concert,” he said. “I envy artists who are able to have a dynamic show that goes from high highs to low lows and back up. But I spent long enough in hip-hop that it feels weird to bring the energy down.”
For now, anyway. “I’ll get there,” he added, “one day.”
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
April 11: OutKast, the Knife, the Replacements, Broken Bells, Girl Talk, Ellie Goulding, Neko Case, Haim, Brian Ferry, Aloe Blacc
April 12: Muse, Queens of the Stone Age, Skrillex, Pharrell Williams, Lorde, Pet Shop Boys, Nas, Foster the People, Warpaint, MGMT
April 13: Arcade Fire, Beck, Calvin Harris, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lana Del Rey, Motörhead, Disclosure, Chance the Rapper, Little Dragon, Superchunk
Where: Empire Polo Club, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio
When: 11 a.m. April 11-13; 11 a.m. April 18-20
Tickets: Sold out
Watch at home: Coachella has again set up its own YouTube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/coachella, which will stream performances of the festival’s first weekend. (The second weekend will be available live on AXS TV.) Plus, go to https://www.latimes.com/coachella for full L.A. Times coverage, including previews, live updates from the festival, photo galleries and more.