On a recent afternoon in the up-and-coming Philadelphia
neighborhood of Northern Liberties, Mutlu Onoral and I are sitting in a
little sandwich shop. We'd originally planned on hitting a trendily
seedy local Spanish joint called Bar Ferdinand, but it was too late for
lunch and too early for the beautiful people to get buzzed up on mixed
drinks. Since all the other local bars seemed to be closed as well, we
end up here, nestled between Boar's Head signs, blocks of cheese and
what looks like 1,000 different kinds of beer in a wall of refrigerated
vaults more complex than you see in most local banks. While we wait for
our lunch (roast beef for me, tuna salad for Mutlu), we're talking
Why is the City of Brotherly Love so well known for soul
Going back to the 50s you have the old Cameo/Parkway
songs of Chubby Checker, DeeDee Sharp and The Tymes. In the 70s the
Sound of Philadelphia spawned the likes the O'Jays, the Stylistics and
Patti Labelle. Recent years have brought rappers like Will Smith, G.
Love and Cypress Hill. Also in the 70s and 80s, the blue-eyed soul of
Hall and Oates shone an international spotlight on the Philly scene.
"It's the scene, I guess," Mutlu says. "It must be in the water
soulful thing. You hear that soulful thing even in the rock bands or
singer/songwriters. There must be something about the different
elements of this city that just make it conducive to that. It's a good
town to come up in, because you've really got to be doing something
here. People won't just hand it over to you. You really have to be
putting something on the line that's substantive and worthwhile. But
it's a good place to cut
your teeth. Once you start getting on the road, you kind of wear that
like a badge of honor. I've found traveling around that people know
what's going on with Philly. It's got a thing. It's a brand, almost." He laughs.
Mutlu is just one of the names who are pointing Philly soul into the new
millennium. He is a vital part of a musical community which is known
for its closeness and collaborative vibe. On Mutlu's full-length debut
CD Livin' It, many of his friends and peers pop in to help out. There is Amos Lee, one of Mutlu's first strong supporters. He also
works with hip-hop icon G. Love, local songstress Sharon Little
just released her own major-label debut), former Wanderlust member Scot
Sax, local favorite Ben Arnold and one of
Mutlu's heroes, Daryl Hall.
probably my favorite aspect of music," Mutlu says, "the element of
collaboration. That's the element of hip-hop that I like. I wanted to
bring some of that into this more sort of acoustic soul
singer/songwriter album. These were all people who I met out of
context, just being out in Philly. Amos was one of the first people I
met. When things started taking off for him he started bringing me on
the road, opening up for him, then he produced [my] second EP. He's
always been one of my best friends in music.
"G. Love, same thing
met him just hanging around Philly and then opened for him. He had a
Coke commercial that he did a few years ago and had me sing on that. We
just crossed paths. Even though he was really busy – he was getting
ready to go on the road, I was able to catch him at a time when he had a
few days to spare and he did his thing and just laid it down.
"Everything was really easy. Everyone who collaborated, Sharon, Scott,
Ben Arnold – both songwriters and vocalists, it was all very natural. As soon as I came up and saw somebody, they knew what to do.
It just kind of clicked."
Hall, on the other hand, came into the project through the album's
producer. T-Bone Wolk is a long-time member of Hall and Oates, as well
as being a respected gun-for-hire for the likes of Elvis Costello,
Robert Palmer, Billy Joel, Marc Anthony, Carly Simon, Roy Orbison, Shawn
Colvin and Des'ree. In recent years, Wolk has been branching out into
production, producing recent Hall and Oates music, Willie Nile, M2M,
Karen Savoca and another Philly-area favorite, John Eddie.
Mutlu felt an immediate rapport with Wolk.
"It was great," Mutlu says, enthusiastically. "It was really
fantastic. I met T-Bone through my manager. They had worked together
on a few projects previously. We just hit it off as soon as we met. Then once we got in the studio, we were just very innately on the same
wavelength. He's just such a phenomenal musician. Multi-instrumentalist. Then of course, Hall and Oates have always been
one of my favorite groups."
of course, led to the introduction to Hall. Mutlu was pleasantly
shocked when the classic Philly blue-eyed soulman offered to sing
backing vocals on Mutlu's song "See What It Brings."
"Daryl is one of my heroes. So it was cool how I got to meet him,
because we ended up cutting some of the record at his studio. The first
time I met him, it was just kind of low-key. Since he was there we
talked for a while. We talked about Philly, talked about getting
started here, the early days.... Then there was another session we had
both he and T-Bone were doing a string rehearsal for the next Hall and
Oates tour. They had a string section and we had our session booked
right afterwards. We asked Daryl if he wanted to stay and hang and he
said, 'Yeah.' He listened to the stuff. He dug it. It was just like
clockwork. It was very natural and organic."
Hall was also so impressed by the new singer that he invited Mutlu to
join him on his new internet series
Live at Daryl's
Hall recently talked to PopEntertainment writer Ken Sharp
and said about the series, "I'm very interested in new artists.
I really like working with new artists and that will never
change." Other artists who have appeared on the series include Gym
Class Heroes, KT Tunstall and Finger Eleven. Mutlu had a blast doing
his episode – in which he played with Hall's band (including Wolk) on
his own "Livin' It" and "See What It Brings" and the classic Hall
and Oates songs including "Maneater" and "You Make My Dreams."
"That was really so much fun," Mutlu says. "It was really exciting to
do. We did a couple of things. He invited me down to Austin for South
by Southwest. We did one that was for DirectTV, which was a live
audience. I got to go up and we did a few of his songs, a few of my
songs. Then we did another taped thing the next day, which was for
Daryl's House. It's really exciting for me, because we were working on the record just
as he was getting this thing going, so to get to be one of the first
guests was just such an honor. I really think it's taking off now. It's constantly progressing. I think there were like ten-twelve
episodes in now. It was definitely one of the defining moments for me."
course, it is hard to define Mutlu's music – which is one of the things
which makes it so intriguing. He prides himself in the fact that
he can bring many shades and colors into the music – touching on soul,
folk, hip-hop, rock, even sitcom themes. He
doesn't exactly fit into a box,
which may make him harder to sell but also makes him more consistently
interesting than so many artists.
love all different kinds of music, so I try to find a way to incorporate
every different thing that's inspired me – soul, rock, reggae, hip-hop, jazz," Mutlu
explains. "I'm always looking for ways to kind of
conglomerate everything, but still make it cohesive. Make it my
voice. I think there's always a soulful underpinning, regardless of
what style I go into, but it is something that I consciously do – to try
to pull in the different styles. A lot of artists that I like the most,
that's what they do. They find a way to make that mix of styles work. It's not just for the sake of doing things, it's something cohesive, you know?"
This love of different genres stems back to
his very first performance experience – which was in stage musicals.
"Sometimes when I tell people that, they are kind of surprised," he
chuckles. "I used to not really mention that, but now I feel like
got to be honest what my path has been. Some of the greatest songs ever
have been written [for musicals]. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gershwin. That's the original pop music."
Even his stage name is somewhat inscrutable – many people don't get that
it is just a relatively common Turkish first name. He laughs about the confusion, acknowledging that having an
unusual stage name is both a blessing and a curse.
think what it does is – it's always a conversation piece,"
Mutlu says, smiling. "People wonder – whether they think
made up or people think it's a band rather than just me. Or I've been
in that situation when I've been on the road and people come up to me
after the show and go 'what is that?' I tell them it's my name and they
still don't believe me. I think it's kind of this weird built-in
marketing thing. It piques people's interest. They wonder what it is. It's sort of exotic, I guess."
One thing that is noticeable right away about his music
is its generally sunny lyrical disposition. In a world full of sad
songs, Mutlu prefers to take a more inspirational look at the good
points of life.
Wonder and Bill Withers – the music that I think moves me most – tends
to have a positive underpinning. Even though it can be serious, it
doesn't have to be cheerful. But that's definitely a conscious
thing. I thought 'Livin' It' was a good way to kick off. That's the kind of
trend we tried to keep. Because you're right, there's so much negative,
miserable, dark, depressed music out there. I'd like to just try to do
something that's a little bit more on the cheery
Even on songs that are more serious have this ultimately uplifting feel,
like the gorgeous story song "Marilyn," which looks at the lonely life of a
woman who is trying to move past a relationship which no longer works.
"My friend McGowan and I – he's a Brooklyn-based artist and songwriter
we sat down one night and just wrote that song," Mutlu says. "It was a
conscious thing. We said; let's write a song that's a story. It's
almost when you read the lyrics it's like a mini-film. You can see her
leaving the house. You can see her going to the city. We wanted to
make a little short story, so we sat down and just wrote it."
This kind of intricate genre-hopping seems to make a
certain amount of sense from a guy who says his favorite movie is the
good-hearted stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, and yet his favorite
book may just be the notoriously downbeat social criticism 1984
by George Orwell, which looked at a future when the government takes all
personal freedoms from the citizens.
remember that really had a very powerful impact. And I kind of feel
like in a way it's not so far removed from where we are now. I kind of
had a feeling that there is something very real about this book. Now,
when you look at our society, maybe it's not so far off." Mutlu laughs.
Which brings up an interesting point: in 2008, the United States has a
big election going on. The country seems split deciding who will lead
us – Barack Obama or John McCain. Is Mutlu getting involved?
would like to be more involved," Mutlu says. "I'm hoping in the next
couple of months. There has been talk of different events – a big show
or something to support Obama. Nothing's taken shape, I'm hoping these
next couple of months something will come together. I really feel
strongly about Obama getting into office. I feel like that would be a
huge turning point that would be a step in the right direction. That
would prove that our system here can be self-correcting. The right
people can get back into power. I think he's really that
once-in-a-generation kind of guy who can connect with a broad base of
people. I feel good that he's gonna get it. There's just a movement. There's an intangible thing that's happening behind him. There are
people getting into it, younger people, who I know are going to get out
and vote. [People] who probably never even cared before. He's
the meantime, while Mutlu is waiting for a change he can believe in, he
is enjoying the feeling of his CD being out there, performing shows
around the country and reaching out to fans through his website and
"Once I started going on the road, the MySpace page was
imperative," Mutlu says. "You play a show and the next few days, the
next week, you're in touch with people. Whether you met them or not at
the gig, it's just a great way to stay connected to fans that you
build. And also the mailing list, and so on.... I think those social
networking sites have kind of revolutionized it that way. It builds a
more direct connection to artists."
He also has a stockpile of songs built up that he hopes
will see the light of day – both songs for himself and also for a special
soulful side project he has going with friend Amos Lee.
"It's sort of like this tongue and cheek sort of R&B thing we do," Mutlu
laughs. "A few different songs. We might do covers, but there is this
song called 'Caramel.' There's this song called 'Teddy Bear.' When I've
been on the road with him in the past, some nights he'll bring me up and
we turned it into a whole performance piece. It's just something for
fun. Just to have a laugh... we're serious musically, but the songs are
just kind of silly."
Another of these songs is a concert favorite called "Board Games," which
uses old childhood games as a metaphor for
think that I'd ultimately like to find a separate outlet to get those
tunes out there," Mutlu says. "For this record, I probably had about
25-30 songs. When I first met T-Bone, we just started whittling it down
to what we feel was a real statement. There were still a handful of
songs I'd like to revisit that I thought were real good tunes, but they
just didn't end up fitting into the context of this particular bank. It's definitely a process, but having a guy like T-Bone who has been
working in the studio with tons of songs for years helps you get that
objective sense of this song works, this song doesn't work."
The songs which made the Livin' It CD certainly do work.
With his silky smooth voice, good sense of tune and intriguing
songwriting touches, this will undoubtedly be just the first step on a
consistently fascinating musical road. The
whole point is that Mutlu should not have to define himself and his
music. That is just selling him short. The guy has wide interests and
lots of talent and doesn't need to be pigeon-holed.
people wonder – are you more of an R&B singer? Am I more of a
singer/songwriter? People sometimes want to define what it is that you
do in such a concrete way. Some people can't quite make out where it is
I'm coming from. I'm coming from both places. I'm just trying to do
something that integrates everything. Sometimes I think people have a
need to want to put something in a place. I guess my approach is to
feel like I'm trying to bridge a gap. Not necessarily one or the other
– because it's all music at the end of the day."
Instead, Mutlu hopes his music "represents a community
and a scene, in a way. That's why this first album is great. I'm a
product of a certain sound and a certain community. I'd really like
them to take away from it that positive element. It's the kind of music
you can listen to at a party. You can have it on your iPhone. I'd like
to think my music is versatile and that it can work in a lot of
different contexts. It's the kind of thing that makes people forget
whatever ills or worries they have for a while. They can just lose
themselves in it. That's the goal. To make people feel good."