Everything old is new again.
Their new album may be called Vive Le NuFunk, but for the latest record from Toronto eight-piece funk machine God Made Me Funky, the band is going back to their roots. Taking a cue from the love of music that inspired their early efforts before the pressure to make chart-toppers, GMMF have crafted a record that they say was made for themselves first.
“It’s really weird, it’s like we’ve come full circle in a really good way.”
So says Phatt Al of the iconic band. When the band got together a year ago to hash out material for a new record, the mandate was simple: to do the music they wanted to do.
“It was very different from trying to say, ‘Is this gonna get on CHUM, or is this gonna get played in the States?’” says Phatt Al. “We didn’t worry about that and I think without that pressure we actually wrote the best album we’ve ever done. Because we’d written it for ourselves first, and in writing it for ourselves we’ve written it for everybody, you know?”
But of course, their music couldn’t really be called “nufunk” without the “nu” – and there’s plenty of that on this album too, starting with a bit of a line-up change. When the band went on hiatus two years ago after churning out four albums in as many years, each member went off to do their own side projects, and for lead female vocalist Melissa O’Neil, this meant hitting the boards as part of the cast of Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Being hired on to the production resulted in her leaving the band to pursue the opportunity, leaving a spot open for a new female vocalist.
Enter Dana Jean Phoenix.
If you are a fan of blogger-turned-celebrity gossip hound Perez Hilton, you may already have heard of her. Earlier this year Hilton issued an open call for YouTube covers of Nicki Minaj’s hit “Starships” as part of his “Can You Sing” cover contest, and Phoenix blew them away with an artfully rendered a cappella video where she performed all the lyrics, beats and sound effects herself. The colourful entry landed her a spot in the top three and a Twitter shoutout from Hilton and Nicki Minaj herself.
But to pull a hipster move, God Made Me Funky totally discovered her first.
“I met Dana through one of our co-writers and producers, Andy Thompson, and Dana was singing with Jully Black at the time, so I was like, ‘Oh, if you’re singing with Jully Black I know you’ve got some soul, girl!’” says Phatt Al with a laugh.
“We also worked together on Dana’s previous two records and yeah, basically once Melissa was gone and we were looking for another singer, I was kind of like, it’s a no-brainer, I knew how much Dana would bring to the project so it was like, let’s just have Dana come in and do it. And it was so fast, so quick. She brought it in terms of not just singing, but her vibe, and writing also; that was like, wow, she’s already been in the band for, like, ever, so that’s great.”
For her part, Phoenix appears delighted to be working with the iconic Toronto band.
“I think God Made Me Funky is the most fun I’ve ever had on stage,” she says. “It’s like a crazy party, and I actually went on tour with them out west, and I was so amazed, the first time I’d ever been in Vancouver for example, and these crowds were there and they knew all the words to every song and I just couldn’t believe how much love the fans had for the band and Nu Funktonia and they were just there to party. So I love performing with God Made Me Funky, it’s just home to me.”
Phoenix will have a lot more opportunities to showcase her new contributions to the band, as they are slated to perform this month at the Beaches Jazz Festival on July 27 and 28.
But more than merely being a replacement lead, Phatt Al notes that Phoenix brings an entirely new sound to the band’s repertoire.
“She brings so many different styles to the female element in the band and really I think what’s really mind-blowing on this record [is] you hear Dana rapping and singing, just bringing that versatility that we didn’t really have before,” he says. “We’ve had some really amazing female vocalists in the band, but we never had a female vocalist who could bring such a diverse array of styles.”
This versatility is evident in the varied selection of songs she has covered and posted on her personal YouTube channel.
“I love doing the covers because it’s me getting to explore all the different styles and genres,” Phoenix says. “And it’s really that’s what it is, just showcasing my voice by doing all the instruments a capella. And it’s just so creative, and I love doing it.”
Speaking of creativity, the process of making this latest album was a little different from how GMMF may have crafted previous efforts – and definitely a lot more playful.
“We basically came back together and just wanted to write a really fun, roller-skating album that would be played in the future – that was our mandate with this album!” Phatt Al confesses with a laugh. “This one has to be a futuristic, 80s roller-skating record. Every single was like that, ‘Can we roller-skate to this in the future? Would you want to roller-skate to this song in ten years?’ and that was basically, the uh…[laughs] the mandate for this album.”
He elaborates further, saying that despite the future-centric tone of life today, there is still a lot of nostalgia for the tangible things of the past. Case in point, the strong resurgence of interest in vinyl records.
“I think roller-skates are of that era, I know they’re coming back, they have to!” he exclaims with a laugh, secure in his prediction.
So does the band plan to promote the new album by playing gigs in roller-skating rinks?
“I really, really wish there was a roller-skating rink in every city, because we would be playing those roller-skating rinks for like a roller-skating tour!” Phatt Al exclaims only half-jokingly.
“We’ve been calling places like, ‘Do you guys have a roller-skating rink,’ and they’re kind of like, ‘What country are you in?’ Y’all need a roller-skating rink, quick-fast!”
But he hopes that doesn’t limit their fans’ involvement in the 80s aesthetic of the album.
“We’re kind of hoping that this summer people kind of make the decision to roller-skate and get back to what was really funky and disco-ey about the 80s and join us on Vive Le NuFunk.”
Vive Le NuFunk releases on July 24, so fans strap on your roller-skates and get ready for a funky, rocking good time.