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Anthony Hamilton talks love and pain

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soul mu·sic: noun
A kind of music incorporating elements of rhythm and blues and gospel music, popularized by African-Americans. Characterized by an emphasis on vocals and an impassioned improvisatory delivery

Anthony Hamilton is a soul singer.

Of course, if you’re reading this — you probably already knew that. But in recognizing what the Grammy winner has become famous for, fans can sometimes underappreciate exactly what that means. As R&B has morphed and mutated consistently over the last 60 years, the idea of what is or is not soul music has been the subject of some debate. Soul was born out of gospel’s impassioned delivery becoming married to the energy and grit of the juke joint. Artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and James Brown laid the groundwork for the genre, and then it diversified into everything from the soul-pop of Motown to the foot-stomping funk of Stax to the introspective songwriting of artists like Bill Withers. But, when one looks at the contemporary R&B landscape, it’s hard to determine who exactly is performing soul music. The neo soul rebirth of the late ’90s and early ’00s seemed to become quieter in recent years, but Anthony Hamilton remains. And as far as soul’s next generation, he isn’t too worried about it.

“There are people that love [soul] and those who embrace it, but people are trying to eat right now,” Hamilton says in regard to young R&B stars. “There’s a new sound and a new sonic movement and people are enjoying it and being really creative with it. But I think that traditional soul singers, they’ll start to develop — [there are] ones that are coming. [Young singers] are becoming more conscious of what they say and how they say it. But right now, they’re young. They’ve got to go through something. You can’t just ‘put it’ in the music. The only way to get it is to live and allow it to come out.”

Life experience is a recurring theme in Hamilton’s conversation and it’s easy to see why. The North Carolina native rose to prominence in the early 2000s on the strength of achingly personal songs like “Coming From Where I’m From” and “Charlene.” Hamilton always seemed to carry a degree of authenticity and sincerity in his music that resonated with listeners. And he explains that those qualities don’t just happen.

“I’ve lived and been through some things,” he shares. “I have pain and joy and I have experience now. So I know what to put in [the music] and I know what it feels like and what it smells like. I think you have to have experience to reflect on anything — whether it be joy or pain. You have to encounter that emotion, to a degree. To [the point that] it’s in your memories, it’s a part of who you are and there’s enough material and characteristics that you can identify with it. Relay it through the music or the acting or whatever — but you have to have it in there.”

And Hamilton uses his own songs as a measuring stick for that pain.

“ ‘Charlene’ had a lot of real raw pain in it — and ‘I’m A Mess,’ ” he says. “But you also have songs like ‘The Cool,’ where it’s all about fun; even though we’re going through a bad time, we’re still happy.”

And happiness means a lot to Anthony Hamilton these days. For a guy who many think became famous for singing sad songs, he’s more devoted to joy than he is defined by sorrow. He’s a father (he has six boys) and a husband, and he’s on the cusp of releasing his first Christmas album. Home for the Holidays will be released on Oct. 21 and the singer says that the 14-track seasonal project was something he’d wanted to do for a while now.

“I’ve always wanted to do it but I think the time was just right,” explains Hamilton. “I had time off the road and everything lined up and the stars were right. I jumped right on it. I’d already started it. I just wanted to finish it and make it seamless. [We started] about a year ago. Anytime its 85 degrees outside and people are wearing booty shorts, you don’t want to be creating a Christmas album, you want to be outside!”

Seasonal awkwardness aside, Hamilton said he threw himself into this project just as he does his regular releases. Unlike many artists who release Christmas albums, he refused to churn out an uninspired product.

“I made it ‘Anthony Hamilton,’ ” he says. “I thought of Christmas, but I put Anthony into it and just rolled out. I didn’t want it to be sterile and have nothing to it. Either you do it sincerely or don’t do it at all. I’m not one of those mechanical-type of dudes. I’m not really interested in that.”

The love of his family has been the thing that’s centered him most. And he says that more than just affection, it’s given him a sense of real purpose, both as an artist and as a man.

“Having family helps in that it motivates you to go to work a lot,” Hamilton states. “Sometimes getting away from the house can be a problem, but it also allows you to understand there are things you have to take care of while away from the house. Taking care of yourself, physically and mentally; saving money and being on top of your business, financially — you can’t be in a position where you can’t do what you’re doing. You have to be business-savvy.

“I like being a father and the kids being able to identify with their daddy being something. He’s not a bum. I love being able to travel the world and interact with the people that are totally different from what I am, but they still understand me.”

After more than 20 years of gigging and recording and being Anthony Hamilton, he’s learned to appreciate himself. Now in his 40s, Hamilton can look back on a career that has been defined by honesty and diligence, as well as excellent music. And everywhere he goes, people let him know that he’s done a great job being who he is.

“I see myself still standing in an industry that features several fading musicians and music, and I’m still standing strong,” he says with a sigh. “That’s a reward in itself: longevity. I get a lot of love and before people didn’t know me. Now I get a lot of love everywhere I go. It builds your confidence and your character.”

That love has helped get the singer through the rough patches, but it hasn’t been everything to him. He holds himself accountable for his emotional well-being while still acknowledging that we all want to be validated and encouraged. The idea of love helping to build confidence is perfectly reasonable, but it’s clear that Anthony Hamilton is more complex than that statement would indicate. He pauses for a second, before modifying his words a bit.

“You’ve got to love yourself enough so that you won’t need nobody else,” he clarifies. “I’ve been through a lot. Even though I had people to love me, sometimes their love was painful and sometimes their love wasn’t always available. So I had to love myself enough for the lonely nights to be all right. So that I could make it to the next day.”

Story by Stereo Williams

Images by DeWayne Rogers