Here at SoulBounce, we’ve been singing the praises of the talent that is multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer, music director, producer, DJ, and educator Miguel Atwood-Ferguson since back in 2009. The intriguing Atwood-Ferguson captured our attention through his ability to create audible art that transcends the confines of genre boundaries and brings together musicians of varying styles in a unique way to pay tribute to soul, jazz and hip-hop legends and their music. Atwood-Ferguson is currently in the process of putting together his first solo album, Les Jardin Mystique, which will be released via Brainfeeder and will feature the likes of Bilal, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Coco O. of Quadron. He is also working on a classical string quartet album, and along with his band, the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble, is set to head over to Australia in May/June to do shows in Sydney and Melbourne thanks to Straightup and the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. In light of all these musical goodies coming out of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s corner of late, we had a chat with the man himself to find out how he approaches creating music, collaborations and what inspires him on the daily.
SoulBounce: Music has been a part of your life since you were born. How has music shaped who you are?
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: It’s completely shaped me, though I do love the world and I do love people, and I’m really thankful to also have just the appreciation for life not just the egocentric human experience. I love nature and animals. It’s really helped to grow up in a really mountainous area, so I did get to connect with nature that way, but music has completely shaped my life since day one. When my amazing mother was pregnant with me she blessed me by playing music around me all the time, mostly recordings but she would bring me around places where people were playing music so I got to feel all those vibrations and the diversity of vibrations even before I was born. Then when I was born I was lucky enough to listen to a plethora of music from all around the world; mostly European and classical music but also pop music from America. My parents had these tapes that they would play in my room if they put me down for a nap. They would have these tapes playing amazing music like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and all these amazing musicians like Bach. Then I was lucky enough to hear music like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder and so even before I started playing music, it was already the soundtrack to my life. It was like swimming in the ocean, and then I started playing violin when I was four and that’s when I became more of an active participant. But music has showed me how to basically not give up and showed me how to take responsibility for my own dreams and whatever’s in my heart. I think we can all relate to that. Even though we are so lucky just to be alive as human beings, it’s still incredibly difficult as well, and I think we all share that in common as human beings. So we all struggle to take responsibility for whatever is in our hearts. I was lucky enough from an early age to have music be the beautiful spirit showing me how to do that basically.
SB: What inspires you both in daily life and creatively?
MAF: I do find myself inspired to make some type of positive difference in the world. I’ve had a difficult life, but I’ve had a really good life and I feel pleased. I feel like what kind of legacy can I leave behind? How can I help so I care about the world after I’m gone? Now I’m hoping to be alive for many more decades, but in terms of what’s shaping my inspiration for what I do, I want to put something fresh out there that’s really encouraging for people, that basically just awakens people to be themselves. Music can be so comforting and reassuring. I definitely want to create music like that. That makes people feel valid, because I think everyone is valid. Everyone has super amazing perspective and the world needs us to be more responsible and to take care of one another, of society, the earth and other forms of life. Definitely every day I think about that, and that’s what gives me the biggest inspiration to do what I do. That’s the context. So my motivation is not how much money can I make or how popular can I be. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with money or being popular, but that’s not what really interests me. I want to touch people’s hearts in a way that fills them with energy and gets them excited about their own life.
SB: When you tackle something from the heart, I think you can only succeed. Do you think that’s part of what makes you so in demand? You have collaborated and worked with many artists from Roy Hargrove to Rihanna, even Matt Corby and Lianne La Havas recently. Do you think because you come to music from such a pure place that’s what allows you to cross over into many different genres and unite so many different artists?
MAF: Yes, I think so. There are a lot of really talented people out there and there are a lot of people out there that might have amazing technique and they might have a lot of amazing attributes to their artistry and to who they are as a person. But to develop one’s humanity, that, in my opinion, is what really makes an artist. And not just an artist, but to be a real human being. To be alive. It has more to do with humanity. I’ve worked really hard all my life, so those people might see that I work hard and they might have an awesome career in certain ways, but once you add the humanity aspect to it, that’s when stuff gets really rich. Rich in terms of the value of the experience. So I think you’re right, because of my heart I don’t think there’s one correct way to live, and I don’t think there’s one best type of music, you know, I have some of my favorite music and my favorite artists, but I don’t think my taste is the best taste. My taste is my taste, so I think that you’re right — my heart does allow me to connect with various musicians in a way that makes them want to have me there.
SB: You’re well known for creating interesting arrangements of songs and breathing new life into them. I personally am in love with your version of Bob Marley‘s “Is This Love” with Bilal. Can you talk us through the process of putting an arrangement together? How do you tackle something like this?
MAF: Well, I don’t want to take too much credit for that particular video. That’s one of my favorite videos that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of. That’s cool that you pointed that out. Each situation we are in has a lot in common with our path and our future, but each situation is a little bit different. So it has to do with what’s the instrumentation and a big one is what’s the personality and the particular skill set of the musicians that are there. So for that day, there was like a septet, I forget how many people. I think a couple of people showed up at the last minute. So, I pick the players and I help pick the song and I try to set the stage for everyone to have the most fun. That is more or less what I do with every situation I’m in. But for that situation it was also a joint collaboration with Bilal and he needs to get credited for picking the time signatures. That beautiful song that I really love, it was originally in 4/4 time, and if I’m not mistaken I think it was Bilal’s idea to do it in 6/8 so he deserves a lot of credit for that part of the arrangement. I was more the music director and the one making things possible and making sure that everyone knew the chords and the form of the song. I was there to support Bilal and try to make his vision come to life. That was a joint thing. It’s always just a balance game, because you never want to force any of your ideas, and you also want to make sure that you’re coming with enough clarity of ideas so that people in the band have something tangible to grab a hold of. That was a fun one though!
SB: You’re heading to Australia at the end of May/early June for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, and you have a show in Sydney, too. What can people expect from your shows?
MAF: People can expect awesomeness! People can expect really good songs. The band is amazing. We are all discussing what repertoire we want to do right now. It’s going to be pretty diverse. There’s going to be some well-known songs celebrated in different ways, kind of like how we were talking about the Bob Marley song we covered, it’s a well-known song and we did it in a new and interesting way. Lots of that! There’ll be some original material, but most of all it’s going to be diverse, fun, fresh, nice and raw.
SB: What would you like people to take away from your live show?
MAF: I want people to get so pumped up that they were born who they were. I know it might sound ridiculous, but I really feel that. I want to empower people so much. I think everyone is a genius, and I think it’s possible that the genius that, in my opinion, is in everyone, can be dormant if we don’t probably manifest it, but I think it doesn’t have anything to do with intellect or how much money we have or what we look like. I think we just have this infinite genius in all of us, and with my music performance that’s what I want to do — trigger that genius inside everyone and get people excited to unlock it. It takes amazingly hard work and blood, sweat, tears, but it can also be very fun. So, this show I just want it to be fun! I want to open up people’s hearts, people’s minds. I love diversity, and I don’t think in music that there are only one or two super cool things in music and it’s the same with life. That’s the picture that I want to paint with these performances. I want to shed light on how awesome life is, and that we have to appreciate it and take good care of it. I want to get people super hyped on that!
SB: You’ve collaborated with some outstanding female vocalists such as Coco from Quadron and Zap Mama. On these Australian shows you’ll be working with Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote and Sophia Brous, two beautiful and intriguing vocalists. What do you look for in a vocalist that you collaborate with?
MAF: That’s a really good question. When it comes to music, I respect everyone. But, I have to admit I have the most respect for amazing vocalists and amazing drummers. When it comes down to it, whatever instrument, the more integrity we have that’s really what it’s about. The vocalist and the drummer are so important. So for me, in picking vocalists, I want to pick vocalists that inspire me. I already feel inspired, but I want to learn from them. I don’t feel like a dictator or anything like that. I feel like “wow this is awesome.” I adore both of those vocalists very much. I think they are very talented and incredibly beautiful people. I think it just comes down to what their heart is. And how do they touch my heart? You know how our heart is like this infinite, magical place? I feel that when certain people touch our heart in a certain way, it’s beyond words amazing. We can use this in words to describe how special it is when people touch certain nooks and crannies of our heart that don’t get touched everyday. I try to pick vocalists who touch my heart in unique ways because ultimately that’s what I really want to do to the crowd.
SB: You’re working on your first solo album, Les Jardin Mystique, through Brainfeeder (which features Bilal, Coco, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Chris “Daddy” Dave and Deantoni Parks among many others) as well as Quartetto Fantastico, a string quartet record of cinematic improvisations with your string quartet. Can you tell us a little more about these projects?
MAF: Blue Note label has been trying to sign me for a while, but I’ve been really excited to do my first album for the Brainfeeder label and I’d already talked to Flying Lotus about doing that. He has been very patient with me. I’ve basically just been busy with all my performances and just trying to pay my bills, too! I’m a working musician trying to make a living and to make the album that I want to make takes so much time, and it also takes a lot of money to hire musicians. I haven’t had that type of time or money that’s why I haven’t done it yet. The inspiration is there. That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. Every time I go to compose, it always feels magical to me. I don’t have writers block. I feel like I’m in a sea of inspiration, it’s always there, but it’s more the mundane issue of trying to have the time. I’m also done with the string quartet album, and I’m extremely excited about that. It’s a double album. We are going to release it ourselves, independently. We’re going to press up a bunch of CDs, we are going to do the artwork ourselves and we’re just going to sell it at our shows and online. That one is pretty close. For my solo album, Les Jardin Mystique, that is pretty far away from being done. I’ve had a couple of sessions. They were magical. That’s going to be the album that everyone is waiting for. It’s going to be more on the wild side and diverse. There’s a slew of special guests. Most of them haven’t recorded yet, but everyone is excited. I’m so stoked. I’ll give a call or an email to one of my heroes, maybe I know them or maybe I don’t, and I’ll say “Do you want to be on album?” and everyone has said yes! So now it’s just a matter of getting the funds together. That’s why I’ve done this indiegogo campaign, which is really cool but I haven’t raised anywhere close to the amount of funds that we need to do this album. So, unfortunately it’s going to take more time to do the album. We are still in the fundraising stage, but I’m sure it will happen exactly when it should. It definitely will be awesome.
SB: It’s amazing to me that a respected musician like you still has to find that balance and fight that battle between creativity and needing to live. With that in mind, what advice would you give to a young, aspiring musician out there who’s ready to take the leap to doing music full-time?
MAF: Thanks for asking! In no particular order, one of the things I tell myself, even though I’ve been a professional musician for over half my life, is I don’t have another job. I do music everyday. One of the things I tell myself is that your efforts add up, and I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I’ve had a lot of success with reminding myself to do a little bit each day. It adds up. Also, not doing a little bit each day adds up as well. It’s pretty encouraging though that if time is really limited just to do a little bit each day, and be smart with it. They add up. It’s really important to study artists that you like and to know why you like them. It’s cool to listen to somebody or read someone’s writing that you like or study art you like. It’s cool just to enjoy it. That’s really important, but at some point it’s really important to start to dissect it, and it’s really all about balance. We have to make sure we have discipline. It’s a bad idea to become unbalanced in either way. Some people become too robotic, and then some people become too undisciplined. So you want to spend time with both. The fastest path to succeeding is to spend time doing the boring, mundane scales and stuff like that. I’m at the point where I love doing that stuff now; I didn’t when I was a kind growing up. But that’s the fastest path to crossing that bridge from being beginner to having some mastery. You have to spend time doing that type of work and also doing all the fun stuff of getting in touch with your passion. A lot of people don’t realize that everyone has their own unique jewel of awesomeness and it’s cool to adore other people, but it can be really dangerous doing that because we have to make sure we aren’t disempowering ourselves. Whether we are already a professional travelling the world or an amateur, it’s important that when we are honing our craft that on a daily basis we acknowledge that whoever we are we have something amazingly unique and valid to say. That’s really important that we work to see that clearly ourselves and that we work to manifest it. It’s like digging deep in the earth and unearthing a jewel. So, if we are focusing on that on a daily basis that helps.
SB: We spoke about how music can change your mood, and I’ve got one last light-hearted question. I’m wondering is there a go-to song for you that when you put it on it does the trick and makes you feel great?
MAF: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have one or two special songs! What are yours?
SB: I’d have to say Raphael Saadiq‘s song “Movin’ Down The Line,” or pretty much anything by Stevie Wonder will do the trick.
MAF: I think most people that I’ve spoken to do have one song that they go to, but my thing is that I like to chant. I practice Buddhism, and when I’m feeling down I like to chant. That’s what I do. But in terms of music, I have made a couple of mixes where I’ll put some Stevie Wonder, some Bob Marley on there. It’s a mix that’s specifically to bring me up. But I don’t really have one or two songs, there’s so many out there!