Christian Gregory
Christian Gregory

First Look Friday: Christian Gregory Lays Down Sweet Soul with 'Count on You' Debut [Exclusive EP Premiere]

Christian Gregory

If the story of Christian Gregory is any barometer, the best plans are hatched in the dead of winter, when sidewalks ice over and the night air turns brittle and sharp. For the British singer, songwriter and producer it was winter's chill that breathed new life into his career. "It all started in January of last year in New York. Mike and I had a few whiskeys in some little bar in Greenwich Village and came up with the whole vision of it," Gregory said. Mike, in this case, is none other than Brit-soul genius Michael Kiwanuka, and that vision was a new record label, Movement Records.

Gregory, it turns out, is Movement's debut artist. The 28-year-old Londoner packs a silky croon and a deep belief in giving the groove its due--two qualities that shine on his upcoming Count on You EP, out August 19th on the newly-minted label and making its online premiere with a preview stream for this First Look (click through to the end to listen).  The disc's four songs glide from bright Bill Withers funk to syrupy Voodoo-era soul, with Gregory's smooth vocals basking in the warmth of analog production. "Everything we do is tracked to tape," Gregory stressed. "It's cool. It forces you to have an idea of what sound you're looking for before you start."

That sound is a fresh take on neatly-composed soul, full of clean chords and melodies that linger in your head for hours. "Count on You," the EP's lead-off and title track, is the best place to start. The tune flips Bill Withers's "Use Me" on its head; Gregory muses on a friend that's got his back, and how he's right there on the same page while the crisp sauntering basswork of Miles James grounds the song in classic soul territory.

Christian Gregory's whole life has been devoted to the search for sound. The son of classically-trained musicians, he was drawn to the drum kit in grade school and was cratedigging for jazz records as a pre-teen. But Gregory's creativity hit high gear in high school when he found two important tools: a Mac loaded with recording software and The Roots's Things Fall Apart.

"I think it was the fact that there was live drumming on it. That I could play along to it,"  he remembers. "I'd just put on headphones and play it to death." At the same time Gregory was learning how to record, mix, and master on a school computer and before he realized it, he was a producer. "I was just programming basic beats and basslines. Then I started buying microphones and got a little home setup together." He quickly picked up the bass and guitar "out of necessity" and was laying down full-band tracks before he could order a beer. Gregory admits that learning guitar made him all the more enamored of Withers, Al Green and Marvin Gaye--those r&b legends that emphasized chord structure, harmony and dense arrangements became his lifelong heroes.

With flourishing skills and a keen taste for soul, Gregory packed up and moved from Oxford to London after finishing school, looking for a scene--a scene that was already drying up. "A lot of the soul nights I used to go and see have either moved or gone and shut down," he said. Still, perseverance paid off. Sessions slowly came together, and one night 8 years ago when a guitarist couldn't make it down the studio, Gregory got a tip to call in a ringer--a deeply talented and easy-going axe man named Michael Kiwanuka...

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"Someone told me I should check out Mike, that's he's a great player," Gregory said. "It was all a recording tip, and we just kept in touch." Kiwanuka had been in London at the same time, seeking out a sound of his own and building up a network through session work.  "I don't know when he started writing songs--he kind of kept them to himself--but Mike's got some chops," Gregory assures. "You may never hear them and he'll never show off too much, but they're there, believe me."

The early connection between Gregory and Kiwanuka stuck, and the two kept collaborating in the studio and on stage. And it just so happened that the wintery, whiskey-soaked night that launched Movement actually fell during a trip to New York for Kiwanuka's appearance on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. Since then, Movement Records has grown from scribblings on a napkin into a full-on, yes, movement--a new nest for r&b on the other side of the pond. "There isn't really a vehicle for the music that we want to hear," Gregory said. "I love coming to the states because it has what I think is missing in London: a really good home for soul."

As a record, Count on You is a kind of answer, the straight-to-tape proof that London does have a soul scene, and that Gregory's finally found his sound. Lyrically the EP is taut and concise, made up of musings on love, loss and fraying desire. As it wades out into Prince power-ballad territory, "Won't Get Nowhere" seethes "You better put the pain away / Won't get nowhere with a hollow heart" before a downpour of tortured fuzz guitar drenches everything in earshot. Kiwanuka himself had his hands in the making of Count on You, and told Okayplayer "I had a great time being in the studio with Christian and the rest of the Movement team to make this record." "It represents exactly what we're aiming to do with Movement Records," he said. Every rhythm track on the record was recorded live and sonically caressed by both Gregory and James, who supplies many of the EP's guitar pyrotechnics.

Movement is already busy adding new artists to its roster, and Gregory is studio-hunting for a place to record his upcoming full-length record. Wherever that hunt takes him, it's a sure thing that he'll be involved on both sides of the booth. "I can't think of too many British soul artists that play and get involved in hands-on production. I see myself filling that role, and I'm just a sum of all my influences," he said smiling. With his top-notch debut and a label on the rise, the man has good reason to smile. He's made a place for himself; the new home of London soul may yet be the house that Christian Gregory built.

Stream Count On You below: