Josh Hoyer photo by Michael McGrath
Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal Make a Connection With Green Light
Nebraska-based Soul/R&B band Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal recently released their new album Green Light which is designed to get audiences moving and get minds tuned in to some of the bigger human ideas they’ve encountered in the last few years. Songwriter Josh Hoyer, like everyone, found himself at home for a prolonged period, but for him, the silver lining was not only time with his family but time to go through a massive collection of Stax singles and to hone his intentions on these new tracks. Recorded live in a short period, the album brought people together, literally, and reinforced the human connection that Hoyer admires so much on Motown and Stax records, and the second part of that connection has been playing these songs live and seeing big audience reactions.
Making sure that people have a good time when they hear the songs has been combined seamlessly with taking on meaningful topics. A song like “Mirrors,” explores the bewildering amount of information we receive from distorted sources, contributing to the breakdown of connection, while the song “Evolution” reflects on how deeply connected our world really is, and “Loneliness” expresses a timeless human experience. I spoke with Josh Hoyer about the band’s most focused album to date and where they’ll take it from here.
Americana Highways: I heard that this album was recorded mostly live. To what degree have you recorded that way before?
Josh Hoyer: It’s something that I’ve always done. The majority of our albums were recorded mostly live. Often, we’d have horns afterwards. With this one, I went with everyone playing live together. The only things we flew in were background vocals, and a couple of tambourine and conga parts. We just wanted all that energy to be there. It’s something that I think is pretty essential when recording Soul and R&B. You need to have that energy there.
AH: As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s becoming less and less common to do things that way.
JH: I think people have gotten used to that because they have bandmates who live in other cities. It’s just such a strange world where we don’t have to be in a room together anymore. I think it was part of my reasoning, consciously or subconsciously, to get back to the human element and really embrace it.
AH: Was that the first time that you managed to play the songs together, in the studio?
JH: No, we rehearsed quite a bit for this one. For a good portion of that we were masked, but we hashed it all out with intention. When everything slowed down, for me personally, there was a lot of silver lining. To be able to take the time to be intentional about everything that was on this record was really great. Sometimes as a recording artist you feel that you’re trying to fit everything in and you feel like you’re rushing. So this time, it was nice to have the time.
AH: Does that tie into the songwriting for this album, too, in that you had time to reflect on each of these pieces?
JH: Absolutely. During that period of time, I wrote 40 songs, so I took the 10 that I felt fit together and my favorites for the album. I had time to really get into the songs and I write every part of them, including bass lines, drum parts, and horn parts. I was able to figure out how they could fit nicely.
AH: How do you document all the parts that you’re writing for the band?
JH: I have a little 8-track digital recorder that I’ve been using since 1998. I love the thing. I’ll write and layer things up. Then I’ll go back and replay things. You can’t cut and paste like with digital, but I can get things where I want them to be.
AH: I know you’ve had different influences and people who have impacted you in terms of musical styles, but were there people who impacted your view of the recording process?
JH: I love all the Stax records, and I love Motown records. More currently, I love the Daptone Records from the East Coast. That kind of production level of having it just be what’s going on in the room is what I highly value. It’s about that emotion and that human energy of when people come together. That vibe then translates to people. In live shows, that’s where R&B music can really grab you, with the shaking, and the sweating, and the howling, and the dancing. There are certain labels who have done that. I’m borrowing from the past and still trying to make it a viable thing for now.
AH: Does any of that translate into your method of recording, using older tools?
JH: On this record, we didn’t actually use tape, but on the previous record, we went straight to tape, which was pretty sweet. In 2016, we did a direct to vinyl album where we recorded the whole side of a record as the record was spinning! That was a whole other experience in live performance.
AH: That’s wild! I’ve never heard of that. I’ve heard of pressing immediately after a live show, but that’s incredible.
JH: It was intense. It was at a place called “Welcome to 1979” in Nashville. We were a little worried about making mistakes, so I don’t think that we were playing with the full energy and heart that we usually would. Knowing it was being etched on the record did that, but we settled in.
AH: This album, to me, does feel like each song is very intentional and has its own life, but together they have that focused quality in common. How does that compare to the way that you would normally put together an album?
JH: For a lot of the records that we’d done in the past, we had been touring so heavily, that it was tough to have material prepared and be more deliberate about song selection. I would hash ideas out quickly to get a record done while preparing for a new tour. Instead of falling apart, like a lot of people probably did when our lives changed so much, I did this. I know that a lot of musicians were destitute and depressed [during the pandemic], but instead of falling into a bottle, I went into the basement and was creative. I wrote about what was going on and filtered my frustrations and concerns out through creativity. Then I could stand back with this time capsule and decide which songs fit best together. That was nice.
AH: Did you set yourself songwriting goals during that time?
JH: The energy that you usually exert as a touring musician means that you get used to staying busy, so going into the basement wasn’t like I was on a time schedule, but it helped me put that energy towards something. My garden was also amazing that year. My time with my family was amazing for that year and a half.
AH: Have you all played some of these songs live yet?
JH: Yes, we’ve been playing quite a few of them live and a number of our fans have been hearing them. It’s just nice to get it out there in a way that they can have in their homes.
AH: Are there any particular reactions to the new songs during performance that you’ve noticed that made you happy?
JH: Oh, yes, you bet. My wife bought me the entire Stax singles compilation, which is about 900 songs, and I’ve picked away at that over the years. When things slowed down, I sat with it for a few days and took everything in. My intention with writing this record was to write songs that would lift people up, and make them want to move, and give them some freedom through dancing. So, that was intentional as a vibe.
There are a lot of tunes on this record that are pretty funky and we’ve seen a great response to that. There’s a New Orleans vibe to a couple of the songs, and a Stax vibe to a couple of the songs. People have really embraced those songs and gotten out dancing, and that’s brought me joy to see.
AH: There’s a lot of energy on this album, though it gets taken in different, specific directions.
JH: Right! I often introduce many of these songs by saying, “This one is for your mind and your booty.” There are some heavier topics as far as what was going on in the world, but we don’t have to address those ideas with something somber. We get people moving, and then they might realize that the songs have a lot more depth than just a dance song.
AH: We can often work out big problems in our mind while exercising or doing other things, and the songs remind me a little of that. It’s a perfect place to think about things.
JH: I love music that has depth to it. I love when you kind of have that awareness of your place in the universe all at once, but you’re moving to music. There’s a lot of magic that happens there and if we’re able to do that, it’s a feather in our cap. [Laughs]
AH: Even though there are heavier topics, I don’t think you are hitting the audience over the head with them.
JH: Heaviness doesn’t serve as medicine for anyone. It’s more about relating to people than preaching to them. I feel like we hit that a little better this time through. One tune, “Mirrors,” kind of came to me whole, which is a rare experience. I was thankful for being a medium. Those kind of tunes take on a lot more importance for me, as an artist.
I realized I was given that one for a reason. Just as we experience this inability to see what reality is these days, because of social media and news outlets where things are more opinion rather than fact, that song seems to have a heavy importance right now. Especially as we approach a midterm election where we’re going to have a lot of information thrown at us, people are looking in mirrors more than they are looking out windows today.
When I play songs like that live, you can see that people feel it’s a beautiful song that moves them. Then you can see a switch in people when they gather the depth of the message and take in that concept. Hopefully it’s an awareness of something they’ve experienced that can relate to how I have felt as an artist. A number of these songs are important for now, but that one makes me emotional when I perform it almost every time. But I love all the songs.
AH: I feel like they all go big. None of them are quiet, retiring tracks, but “Mirrors” is a really key song, I agree. That’s so interesting that the song came all at once to you. How long had you been at home when that happened?
JH: It was shortly after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and there were so many deep things happening. The political stuff that was going on, and the covid stuff that was going on, was also about six months into the shutdown. So many sides were being taken and somewhere in between there was a common story that we were all missing. That common story is the one that transcends difference. As we became more aware of how connected we all were, I was hoping we’d get to the bottom of it all, but that didn’t really happen, and that was sad to me.
AH: Mainly we stay in bubbles of information and don’t encounter difference, which the song wonderfully expresses. Another one that goes really well with that song is “Beautiful People.” It’s quite a different song, but it’s about connection. It melts down categories and ways of looking at others to something more essential.
JH: The song was actually inspired by a boy that I used to babysit who graduated in 2020 from high school. That was his philosophy in life, so I wrote it about his life as a commission. That’s how it started. Through that experience, I learned to connect to everyone’s story. It was fun for me to put other peoples’ lives to song and feel attached to it.
My father was a teacher for many years, and he always believed that massive change was difficult, but change that we could exert among our community on a regular basis was just as important. It ripples outwards, and then you see that larger social changes can occur. So I was thinking about my father, and I was also thinking about this young guy. It definitely touches on some aspects of maybe feeling a little powerless right now but realizing that we may have more ability to affect change than we think.
AH: I love how it builds up to that message. Who did the spoken word part? It’s wonderful how it’s all spelled out so clearly because powerlessness has been a big feeling of the last few years.
JH: It’s me, but I’m embodying what my father said to me many times growing up.
Thank you for spending time with us, Josh Hoyer. You can find more information and music here: https://www.joshhoyer.com/
Enjoy our coverage of the album here: REVIEW: Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal “Green Light”