Soul music is many things to Ben Pirani: It’s positive and it’s hopeful. It’s a soundtrack for struggle, which is where soul music came from in the first place. That the struggle has been happening largely in the black community is not lost on Pirani, who is white — it’s something he thinks about a lot. “I feel really strongly that soul music is precious and must be treated with care and respect,” he says. “Anything less is colonizing the funk.” That brings us to another crucial point: real soul can’t be faked — it’s an expression of self that is so much more than mimicry of the sounds that have come before. “It’s called soul music,” Pirani says. “You’re supposed to sing from your heart and your soul and not your record collection.”
That’s exactly what he does on How Do I Talk to My Brother? Make no mistake: Pirani has a lock on the sound and feel of soul music on his Colemine Records debut. The album contains 11 deeply felt tracks with echos of vintage soul in the vocal harmonies, the way the songs sit back in a deep pocket and Pirani’s unerring instinct for stick-inyour- head hooks. Yet he isn’t just rummaging around in the past on How Do I Talk to My Brother? The New York-via-Chicago singer, songwriter and multi- instrumentalist brings a contemporary context to his music: He’s writing about what he sees going on all around him, and his reaction to it, be it racism, love, war, poverty or politics.
“The music has a message. if you listen for it, it’s there. I think that’s important because soul music without a message isn’t soul music.” Pirani says. “Art is political. If your music doesn’t come with some level of cultural understanding, then it’s just pastiche.”
All of it comes from the heart, from the soul, and also a little bit from Pirani’s blood. Raised by musician parents in the post-industrial Maywood neighborhood in Chicago, Pirani grew up around music: his father was a jazz musician who also did session work on soul records, including Terry Callier’s 1972 opus Occasional Rain, and his mother was a conservatory- trained singer. Pirani’s parents were the music directors at a Pentecostal church, but his world truly opened up when a family friend gave Pirani the entire Beatles catalog and a five-piece Ludwig drum kit. He got into punk in high school, dropped out and went on the road as a drummer, coming home to play in various bands in Chicago, rediscovering soul in the dusty record storesand, eventually, moving to New York.
“Punk embodies a lot of the same spirit to me as soul does,” Pirani says. “It was about people’s hopes and dreams, love and loss, unless you were on Motown, it was an underground thing. And punk was the same thing.”
How Do I Talk to My Brother? is in many ways a catalog of Pirani’s own hopes and dreams. Making the album followed what Pirani calls “a personal renaissance”which is the subtext of “Not One More Tear,” a pulsing, horn-laced anthem to perseverance. “I basically decided to get my shit together and take music seriously. getting married and cleaning up my act was a big part of that.”
All the same, New York at first was a hard place to make music, and more than one promising project fell apart. He found initial success in 2016 with a 7-inch single, “Light of My Life” b/w “Dreamin’s for Free,” which became a sought-after item on the Northern soul scene in Britain. Things moved much faster once he linked up with Colemine, and though How Do I Talk to My Brother? has been a long time coming, it’s coming out at a perfect time.
“Coming together to listen to music is revolutionary” he says. “If we can harness that energy, that togetherness and camaraderie maybe we can make a change in this world.”