Date: Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023
Genre: Funk / Groove
“How do we heal from this?” Kam Franklin asks on The Suffers’ explosive new album, It Starts With Love. “How do we heal?” It’s a loaded question without any clear answers, a painful reckoning with the open wounds of racial violence and trauma that continue to plague this nation as we lurch forward from one tragedy to the next, swearing things will change each time only to watch the same scenes play out over and over again. “They keep breaking us like we can’t feel,” Franklin continues. “We’ve all been shouting out since Emmett Till.”
“There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with being Black in America,” says Franklin, “with not feeling safe if you put on a hoodie or even just look at somebody the wrong way. I wrote that song with my friend John Michael in New Orleans, and it was a really therapeutic thing for both of us to speak our truth like that.”
The truth, it seems, has set The Suffers free. Racism, misogyny, and the ugly underbelly of the music industry are all in the band’s crosshairs on It Starts With Love, but so are growth and evolution and self-acceptance. Written in the midst of a tumultuous stretch that saw the Gulf Coast Soul powerhouse reinvent themselves personally and professionally, the record is a fierce, defiant ode to resilience and commitment, to the passion and drive that brought them together in the first place. The writing here is bold and self-assured, with fearless lyrics and addictive melodies, and the performances are blistering to match, fueled by buoyant rhythms, muscular horns, and Franklin’s hair-raising vocals. Mixed by GRAMMY-winner Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas, Prince), who transferred all of the sessions to analog tape, and mastered by Chris Longwood (Khruangbin, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic), It Starts With Love is an album for survivors, for the down and out, for the doubted and the written off, but it’s delivered with the kind of faith and conviction that ultimately transcends pain and anger to instead land on something far more triumphant and spiritually rewarding. Certainly there’s a righteous fire burning beneath the surface, but the heart of this record is, as its title would suggest, love: love of the band, love of the music, love of the self.
“Our whole career, we’ve had people ask us, ‘How the hell do you make it work?’” says Franklin, “and I’ve always said, ‘It starts with love and it ends with love.’ If you don’t show up every night with love in your heart, if you don’t leave feeling the same way, this life gets really hard really fast.”
It’s a notion the group brings vividly to life with the album’s brilliant physical packaging, which features a visual survival guide to life on the road as a touring band. Developed over the course of two years with celebrated artist Dohee Kwon, who created the artwork as she uprooted her entire life in a move from Korea to Thailand, the imagery draws on everything The Suffers have learned on their wild ride through the modern music industry, which began a little more than a decade ago in Houston, Texas. Founded in 2011, the group built a devoted local following before breaking out internationally in 2015 on the strength of their extraordinary debut EP, Make Some Room, which helped land them performances everywhere from Letterman to NPR’s Tiny Desk. The band followed it up in 2016 with a self-titled full-length that yielded similarly widespread acclaim along with breakout performances at Newport Folk and on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. By the time the group released their 2018 sophomore effort, Everything Here, their arrival as critical and festival favorites was undeniable: NPR praised the “multidimensional, multicultural possibilities of their take on soul,” while The Guardian called the album an “adventurous” collection that “blends 70s R&B, disco, jazz, and contemporary gospel,” and Rolling Stone proclaimed it “an inspired vision of roots music.” Behind the scenes, though, a series of setbacks was unfolding that threatened to derail the band completely.
“I don’t want to say that what followed was the worst year we’ve ever experienced,” says Franklin, “but it was definitely a very difficult stretch. We went through some major changes with our team, said goodbye to two founding members, dealt with a host of mental and physical health issues, and then had a trailer with $40,000 worth of gear stolen after a show in Dallas.”
On top of all that, Franklin found herself facing increasing pushback for her outspoken statements on inequity and tokenism in the music industry.
“We’d hear people bragging about how diverse their festival was only to find out that meant they had one act of color on the lineup each day,” says Franklin. “And I’d see stuff in the press pitting Black artists against each other as if the success of one precluded another. Meanwhile, I’d be told that I needed to work with certain white male songwriters in order to ‘make it.’ I grew up with a lot of examples of strong Black women speaking up, so I did what came naturally and I called it out.”
Outlets like Vice and Forbes shared Franklin’s thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and while she confesses it lit more than a few relationships on fire, she felt justified in saying what needed to be said. After one particularly galling interaction with an industry leader, though, Franklin finally snapped. Fed up with being talked down and lied to, she headed back to her hotel room, poured a drink, and proceeded to write three songs in a night.
“I don’t now if you’ve ever met an angry woman before,” says Franklin, “especially one that’s been angered by the underestimation of other people, but it usually brings out a wild kind of art.”
The experience unleashed something wild indeed, and by the time the band was ready to start recording, they had demos of upwards of 70 new songs to choose from, many of them written by Franklin in collaboration with other women and artists of color. At first, the group—now a seven piece consisting of Franklin, bassist Juliet Terrill, guitarist Kevin Bernier, trumpeter Jon Durbin, trombonist Michael Razo, percussionist Jose Luna, and drummer Nick Zamora—captured a series of live takes with Matt Pence (Jason Isbell, Nicole Atkins) and Jason Burt (Paul Cauthen, The Texas Gentlemen) at The Echo Lab in Argyle, TX. Once COVID shut down the possibility of traditional touring and recording, however, they switched over to working remotely, with Franklin producing sessions piecemeal with the help of Houston engineer and producer Ryan Chavez (Narrow Head, Robert Ellis).
“It was a new way of working for us,” says Durbin. “You’d come in to record your parts and be totally surprised by what your bandmates had laid down, which would then inspire something totally new and unexpected from you in the moment. The whole experience was really refreshing creatively.”
That creative rejuvenation is clear from the outset on It Starts With Love, which opens with the intoxicating “Don’t Bother Me.” Mixing Latin percussion with ’80s dance-pop energy, the track—a collaboration with Swedish writer/producer and longtime friend Johan Karlberg—is an electrifying declaration of independence and empowerment, one that sets the stage for a record that walks into the room with its head held high and refuses to back down from any challenge. The playful country-blues of “Yada Yada” calls out the bullshitters and doubletalkers, while the disco-fied “Bitches Gotta Get Paid” (given to the band by the legendary GRAMMY, Emmy, Golden Globe, and Billboard Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren, who was introduced to Franklin through her acting work) minces no words when it comes to knowing your worth, and the effervescent “Nunya” (one of two tracks captured at Church House Studios in Austin with producer/keyboard player Dave Boyle, who recorded the band’s first album) balances Caribbean and African influences as it keeps its eyes fixed firmly on the prize. “We learned a couple lessons the hard way,” Franklin sings. “But if we talking life we playing long game / Don’t worry about us we gonna meet you at the finish line.”
“I wanted to make a record that sounded like Houston to me,” she explains. “You’ve got the hard edges and tough exteriors and hip-hop swagger, but then you’ve also got the sounds of the choir and the soulfulness and even a little bit of twang. I wanted to make something beautiful out of hardship.”
The Suffers don’t just settle for overcoming hardship here, though; they also insist on learning and growing from it, on strengthening their bonds with each other and lifting up their brothers and sisters in the process. Franklin channels Whitney Houston on the smoldering “I’m Not Afraid,” a show-stopping piano ballad that transforms doubt into unbridled confidence, and gets breathtakingly vulnerable on “How Do We Heal (feat. Bryce The Third and Son Little),” which grapples with the enduring pain and anguish that comes from living through one racist killing after another. “Alton, Philando, Trayvon, Tamir / We love you, we miss you, we wish you were here,” Franklin sings in a near-chant. “Charleena, Sandra, Breonna, Korynn / We’ll say your names ’til we get to see you again.”
Heavy as it can get, It Starts With Love leaves plenty of space to celebrate the beauty and ecstasy this world still has to offer, too. The sultry “Could This Be Love,” for instance, gets drunk on romantic connection and intimacy; the addictive “Take Me To The Good Times” (which now serves as theme song for Brené Brown’s Dare To Lead podcast) revels in the endless party of life on the road; and the hypnotic “Be You (feat. Vapor Caves)” embraces the confidence that comes with living in your own skin. “It don’t cost a thing to be you,” Franklin promises. “So be you.”
In the process of making the album, The Suffers also developed a relationship with Northeastern University in Boston, working with a group of students there who served as something of a focus group to help the band pick songs for the record, shoot videos, and create remixes.
“We love working with young people and bringing them into our world,” says Franklin. “We always try to play free shows for underserved elementary schools, too, and I remember right when we were going through the most difficult stretch of these last few years, we got asked to play for some kids in Houston. After we were done playing, we invited all the students up onstage with us, and to be surrounded by 300 children just absolutely enthralled with the power of music really touched something deep down inside all of us. It was a reminder of why we do this.”
It starts with love. Always.