Sam Rocha Sings . . . Augustinian Soul?
Sam Rocha's new album, Late to Love (Wiseblood, 2014) took me by surprise. Frankly, I had my doubts about music billed as "Augustinian soul." It sounded a little too cute and a little too weird. And there's always that old problem of music that aims to be both popular and religious: to often, it's only musically and theologically mediocre at best. But we're supposed to "support" it anyway, because it's the right thing to do.
Late to Love is different. It sounds good. Good, I tell you! Rocha's voice is supple and velevty, the production value is top notch, the musicians are in the zone, and the tunes are catchy, with flashes of ingenuity to keep you on your toes. In short, it's fun to listen to, and the lyrics are smart and make you think, without becoming precious or preachy. I'll admit it: listening to this album, I caught my pale-skinned, second-trimester body trying to groove a little bit. That is saying a lot.
I nabbed Sam at the end of a long day teaching, and asked him a few questions about how this album came about. (My questions are in bold.)
When I hear about a new Christian or Catholic album, I almost always think of the words of Hank Hill to his son Bobby, "Can't you see you're not making Christianity better, you're just making music worse?" Can you tell us a little bit about what is lacking in a lot of religious art and music that's being put out today? Is there some major misunderstanding about what we're doing when we make art? Or what is the problem, exactly?
Ignoring for a moment the need for a culture of musicianship, the most concrete problem is that making good music is expensive, and there are zero Catholic labels out there to support it because there is no market for it. The problem is not that Catholic music is qualitatively bad, the problem is more severe: it doesn’t exist at any sustainable quantitative scale. Sure, we need gifted artists, but we also need patrons who give a s***. For instance, one expense few people think of is sound engineers. I was honoured to have a Grammy-award winner master this album. Without this, it is impossible, regardless of the quality of the musician, to produce more than a highly compressed, generic sonic footprint that sterilizes and masks the artist.
But this all assumes that we are talking about a very particular type of “Christian” music. In contemporary Gospel music, people like Israel Houghton are making amazing music with the best studio and stage musicians around. Consider this: most popular artists in soul music honed their craft in the Black church. Perhaps the question, then, is why do Catholic churches not produce artists of this calibre in any popular medium?
Your album on Soundcloud has the tags: “soul," "neosoul," "nujazz," "R&B," "Motown," "postmodern," "philosophy," "Augustine." Did you set out to do something completely new and hard to pigeonhole? Or did it just turn out that way? Did you think, "I'm going to write a concept album that will be genuinely Catholic!" or were you just thinkin' 'bout Augustine, or what?
This album makes use of the literal medium of American soul music. This tradition started with spirituals and blues, extends into jazz, which branched into rhythm and blues, funk, motown, soul, and early hip-hop, extending into the last eighteen years when neosoul, nujazz, and jazzhop emerged. I played in a neosoul band and at a gospel church while I was in grad school and immersed myself as a guitar player in the blues and what I could gather from jazz, so this is the result of ten years of study through performance. That’s where the genre labels come from.
The intellectual references are placeholders for concepts that inspire the album, taken from Augustine’s Confessions, processed through my life as a person and studies as a philosopher. The result happens to be new in one sense (i.e., the world’s first Augustinian soul music) but it also old (i.e., a reading of a book from the fourth century) in another sense.
How old were you when you first read Augustine, and what did you first think? Do you think of this album as a way to introduce Augustine to other people?
I read it in undergrad, but I remember very little of it from them. I studied it closely when I taught courses on philosophy of the human person, and a group study I led for the Newman Center, at Wabash College, in my late twenties. At that point in my life, let’s just say I found some very hard truths about myself in the book, and I was overcome by the emotional force of the text, its lack of irony in prayer and supplication.
Late to Love might be a good intro, but I don’t see it as having a literal or Sparknotes-like relationship to the book. I don’t consider good art as being a literal, linear, or derivative regurgitation of anything, much less a classic, ground-breaking text by a doctor of the Church.
What is your favorite track on the album, and why? Which one is the most popular with critics, and why do you think that is?
I don’t really have favourite track; I wrote this as an album, a whole. There’s no consensus, but people seem to enjoy the opening track, “In the Self’s Place.” I think this is because it’s a simple progression with a funky groove, easy to listen to, throwing out lyrical curveballs.
What kind of reaction would you want least to hear? Imagine you were being introduced on live TV, and the announcer said, “And now, the album that . . . " What would make you go, "Argh, I can't believe he described it that way"?
If I can make it onto live television, the announcer can call my album anything. The names and labels can never take what you actually sound like away—and how that makes people move and feel.