My conversation with Charles Bradley lasts a little over 10 minutes.
In that brief window of time, he punctuates my queries six times with the plaintive refrain "Where does an honest person stand in this world?" It's a question I can't answer, especially for a man like Bradley.
His life has been a litany of pain, disappointment and struggle, and even now, with some modest success as a performer in the R&B-revivalist mode, the 64-year-old Bradley can't elude persistent agony -- not on the physical plane, but on the spiritual. You can hear that soul-sickness in nearly every note of last year's No Time for Dreaming, a knock-out record steeped in '60s and '70s soul, powered by Bradley's enormously potent rasp and his tortured lyrics about broken love and dead-end lives.
All the accolades can't sweep away life's mundane problems: Bradley tells me all the money he made last year he put into his mother's house, after the contractors hired to do the job abandoned it before it was finished. "They rushed her out, and now I've got to finish it," he says, driving around his native Brooklyn. "So I've got to deal with that. It's very hard because I'm fighting to get out of the projects."
Bradley's been fighting from an early age, drawing inspiration from a James Brown performance at the Apollo in 1962, moving to Maine for work and putting his dreams on hold because of the Vietnam War. After a spell hitchhiking across the country, Bradley spent two decades in California working as a chef, and performing music where he could on the side. He was laid off, and returned to New York City, where he weathered the murder of his brother. In the wake of that tragedy, he came to the attention of hip label Daptone Records, and eventually, young singer-songwriter Thomas Brenneck, who was instrumental in getting Dreaming made.
Bradley has drawn raves for his live performances, and will doubtless provide a mesmerizing finale to this year's Fort Worth Music Festival (he's scheduled to perform on the Rahr Stage at 7 p.m. Saturday). But in speaking with him, there's a sense he feels catharsis more than he facilitates it.
"Thats when I let go," he says. "I let it out to the world, and let the world know how I feel. I sing from the heart -- all the pain and stress and hurt and joy, I give it to the world. Thats why people love me; they say, 'Charles, please dont change on us.' At least I got an open door, I can express it to the world."
An as-yet-untitled follow-up to Dreaming is forthcoming, Bradley says, and is due out in March or April of next year. Until then, he's going to continue working to keep, as he puts it, "his spirit clean."
Before we end our brief interview, I ask Bradley what it means to him to see audiences reacting the way they do to him and his music.
"Sometimes I dont want to face it," he says. "Sometimes after my show, I want to go to my room and close the door and never come out. What can I do, what can I say, what can I tell the people? Theyre searching for something, searching for true honesty. What more can one go through?"