Jalen Ngonda: Q&A

Jalen Ngonda (photo by Casey Liu, PR)
by Kara Manning | 02/21/2024 | 6:59pm

Jalen Ngonda (photo by Casey Liu, PR)

Jalen Ngonda first visited WFUV last September for an FUV Live session, charming us with his heaven-bound falsetto and soaring soul songs drawn from his debut album, Come Around and Love Me, out on Daptone Records. That album, with a timeless sound that evokes the emotional tides (and lush production) of great soul classics of the '60s and '70s, has been a massive breakthrough for Ngonda. He's an American, born and raised in the States, just outside of Washington D.C., but Ngonda has been living in the UK since attending college in Liverpool — and the now-Londoner has been embraced by British audiences with sold-out, headlining shows.

Ngonda just performed his brand new single, "Illusions," with the BBC Concert Orchestra for BBC Radio 2 earlier in February; a powerful, riveting performance that highlights the special gift that this young songwriter, pianist, and guitarist possesses.

As academic as he might be about his love of Motown and classic funk and soul, Jalen is equally influenced by other songwriting geniuses, from Brian Wilson to Burt Bacharach. And for "Illusions," he even cites Rod Sterling's "The Twlight Zone" as a lyrical impetus and the sound of Smokey Robinson and Martha and the Vandellas as his musical one.

Jalen plays just two dates in the States this winter —  March 2 at Brooklyn's The Sultan Room and a hometown gig at Washington D.C.'s Union Stage at Hyatt House on March 3 — before he returns overseas for an extensive European and UK tour.

We checked in with Jalen for a Q&A as part of our "Black Music Matters" series this month, and learned that he actually doesn't do much to take care of his gorgeous voice (send this man some Throat Coat tea and honey!).

It's nearing a year since the release of Come Around and Love Me, and the album has received rapturous critical praise.  Is there any song on the album that particularly stands out for you when you play it live? Why?

Yes, It is almost a year since I released Come Around And Love Me and it still feels like last week. To answer your question, a song from the album that sticks out to me was always "So Glad I Found You." It has haunting background vocals to contrast the sweet vibraphone production.

You have long studied, admired, and talked about the import of classic Motown in your life. Many of Motown's luminaries, like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Berry Gordy, were heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, such as Detroit's Walk to Freedom in June 1963, the March on Washington and more. In your exploration of that classic Motown era of '60s and '70s music, what have you observed about songwriting and activism?

I have studied and admired classic Motown since I was 11 years old. Any chance I got I would run to a computer and look up Motown singles on YouTube and and would read about them on Wikipedia. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement for the rights of all human beings and African Americans have been oppressed since the first slaves were captured in Africa. Soul music was invented by African Americans so the music is destined to reflect on the African-American experience.

Your debut album, Come Around and Love Me, resonated profoundly because of your beautiful voice, the lush, precise production, and your keen respect for a particular era that you made your own. But your music influences also include Brian Wilson, Bacharach and David and the Beatles. What did those artists' complex melodic structures teach you about the potential and scope of your own songwriting?

Thank you. The stuff that Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Lennon and McCartney did throughout the 1960s was not very different from what Smokey Robinson, Holland Dozier Holland, and Isaac Hayes and David Porter were doing. All of those writers' compositions are mainly based around the blues so I don't really think of the genres that they are placed in. To me it's all the same complexities and melodic structures and all of it is a big inspiration to my music.

You're touring a lot in the months ahead — including a stop at The Sultan Room on March 2. How do you take care of yourself and your gorgeous falsetto? Any vocal tricks and tips you've picked up as a singer and guitarist on keeping healthy on the road?

To be honest I'm not really good at taking care of my voice! But I try to minimize my talking moments before going on stage. Usually I just sit and wait until the show.

What lyricists are you discovering or revisiting these days, either peers or legends of long ago?

I really like beabadoobee, Mitski, and Olivia Dean who are of the current wave of new music. I find them very influential. Recent discoveries of the past include Leonard Cohen, some Lee Hazlewood stuff, and I recently got into Bob Dylan's writing lately.

As an American now living in Britain, what are your thoughts on Black History Month in the States? Did that designation or celebration ever had any meaning for you growing up?

Black History Month to me has always been a time to remind the world that Black history is an ongoing journey for millions of Black people around the world — and not to say that we should only acknowledge Black history in this short month of February, but to encourage people to celebrate and study Black history whenever they feel like it.

As we enter a rather fraught political year, what has been most on your mind about the state of both the US and your adopted country? What gives you hope — or what do you worry about — in 2024?

To be honest, the one country that's been on my mind the most has been Palestine (Gaza). As we reflect on the struggles that African Americans along with Native Americans and Latino Americans have faced in the United States, it should remind us of the almost parallel struggle that the Palestinians face currently. What worries me is the constant divide between the working and middle class and how we will always struggle to overcome oppression unless we realized that the people must unite. What gives me hope is that nothing lasts forever, and that includes subjugation, but love does.

- Jalen Ngonda
February 2024

Weekdays at Noon

Ticket Giveaways from WFUV