Sunny Levine is just days away from finishing his most ambitious collaborative project to date, Boss Selections Vol. 1, featuring no less than 14 songs by 14 different musicians, all of them written and recorded by Levine in his Los Angeles studio.
His collaborators include drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers, Beck), his aunt the actress Rashida Jones, and his friend Amir Yaghmai aka Young Dad, one of L.A.’s most in-demand indie guitarists, who plays in Julian Casablancas’ band and toured with Charlotte Gainsbourg. “I didn’t want to make another record where I am the artist,” explains Levine at his studio one afternoon. “So I just picked everybody that I would want towork with and made a mixtape, basically. A really cool mixtape.”
Today, RnB singer Orelia is coming to the studio to lay down her vocal track, but before she arrives, Young Dad is going to stop by and record some bass lines for the track Rashida recorded the night before. Levine will be up until 4 a.m. tonight wrapping everything up before getting on a plane to New York in the morning, where he is recording yet another track for the album, with Brooklyn indie singer Nick Nauman of Keepaway. When Levine returns, he will have about two weeks to take care of overdubs and mixing; it will be a sprint to the finish for sure, but luckily for Levine, making music— on his own and with others—is what he was born to do.
Music is in Sunny Levine’s blood—his grandfather is Quincy Jones, his father is producer Stewart Levine (Simply Red, Joe Cocker, BB King, Dr. John, Minnie Riperton, and Jamie Cullum) and his uncle is producer QD3 (Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube). Becoming part of the family business was a no-brainer. After fronting the band Matta Haari,
Levine decided to try his hand at production and found himself working with artists such as Mickey Avalon, Hugh Masekela, Ariel Pink, Pete Yorn and the Happy Mondays. Levine recently wrapped up his third solo album, Hush Now, an “emotional rollercoaster” of a record. Boss has an entirely different flavor, he explains. “It still has an emotional throughlin in that there is soul in every song, but it’s generally more optimistic and up tempo. A lot more grooves and rhythm. And it leans on a few key influences—that 1980s British take on RnB, and splashes of deep house.” When people ask him whether it has been hard finding continuity between the tracks, because they have all been recorded with different artists, Levine reminds them of the common denominator. “It’s my take on those different artists,” he explains. “Even if the songs all have a different sentiment, the vibe of it is the same.”
Three of his all-time musical heroes are featured on the record. First, Hugh Masekela, the South African singer and trumpet player who contributed to Paul Simon’s Graceland . It was a now or never opportunity—Masekela was coming to L.A. for two days only, on one of which he would be performing, so Levine quickly wrote his version of the “dream Hugh Masekela song” and demo’d it in his voice. When Masekela showed up, they had two hours to get the song down. The track is called “One of These Days,” and it is about unrequited love. “It was such a great thing, hearing it in his voice.” And that was the first track Levine recorded for Boss . “It was so soulful, it set the record off on such a nice journey,” says Levine.
The second of Levine’s all-time heroes on the record is James Gadson, whom Levine describes as the “best drummer alive.” He certainly is among the most recorded drummers in RnB history, having played with everyone from Bill Withers to Ray Charles to Frank Sinatra to Beck. Gadson has hardly ever been recorded singing since the beginning of his career with pioneering soul and funk band Charle Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Band, with whom he had a hit called “Love Land.” “He’s a legend,” says Levine.
Singer Brenda Russell is the third of Levine’s heroes on the record. “She is someone I grew up up knowing, but we never made music together.” Levine says Russell was curious to check out all the “weird sounds and manipulation” he specializes in. Between working with Russell, Masekela and Gadson, Levine was in producer heaven. “Those three are crazy heroes of mine and to have them come in was a true gift,” he says.
Each song took a day to record, and the majority of artists on the record he had never worked with before. Like Phlo Finister, fashion-forward pop singer and best friend of Peaches Geldof dubbed the “next big thing” by Vice ’s Noisey. Then there’s Aska Matsumiya from the synth band ESP. “I met her in Japan when she DJ’d the party for the opening of the Citizens of Humanity store,” says Levine, who had been influenced by certain subgenres of 1970s and 1980s Japanese pop for a while. He had been searching for someone who could sing in that style, and when he found Aska, the search was over. “I always wanted someone who has that kind of voice, with a little bit of broken English, and then an accent. Slightly strange and beautiful.”
Aska really loved the track recorded by Young Dad, who strolls into the studio halfway through our interview and grabs a bass guitar. As well as being a go-to indie guitar hero, Young Dad also sings on all the Daedelus records and has worked with the Gaslamp Killer. Young Dad’s track, “Midnight Fools,” “is kind of like an electro RnB track inspired by home décor and succulents,” says Levine, in all seriousness. Young Dad explains that he and Levine are so close (they have been tight since high school) they don’t even need words to communicate their ideas about music. Levine will just do a little dance, or move his hands in a certain way, and Young Dad will understand exactly what’s up. “The best thing about this project is just how social it has been,” says Levine. “You have to be organized yet open-minded when dealing with so many different creative personalities—something between a shrink, an interior designer and a boxing trainer. But I think I found my perfect outlet with this format. Hopefully I can just keep making records under this Boss Selections umbrella.”