In a recent mockumentary promo produced by American rock band Sleater-Kinney, the film’s faux presenter remarks that, “no one asks a bird or whale, yet human singers have been asked for centuries to explain their lyrics.” I’d counter this by saying that, if the preoccupations of birds and whales are anything like our own, then they’re probably singing about love.
There is no end to love and there is equally no end to the efforts of singers around the world to impart something of love’s essence in their songs. Love is certainly the primary subject under review on the new five-track EP from Aotearoa singer-songwriter, Louis Baker.
Released this June, Love Levitates is Baker’s first body of work since his debut album, Open, from 2019. That album marked the culmination of six-years’ worth of touring and short-form releases from Baker, which began when the Wellington artist was invited to join the Red Bull Music Academy in New York City in 2013.
Off the back of this formative experience – which included mentoring from Q-Tip and a studio session with Just Blaze – Louis Baker travelled to London to record his debut EP. Released in early 2014, the self-titled collection of acoustic soul numbers introduced audiences to Baker’s nimble, pitch-perfect vocal abilities.
He followed up with a string of standalone singles through 2016 and 2017, the most popular of which was the acoustic paean, “Rainbow”. “Rainbow” made a mark internationally and became a playlist favourite, securing Baker a captive audience for the eventual release of Open.
Although grateful for the platform he’d built over the past decade, Louis Baker was eager to branch out on his next project. Love Levitates remains grounded in the funk, soul and R&B styles explored on Open, but working alongside producer Devin Abrams (Shapeshifter, Drax Project), the new record is a more comprehensive tour through Baker’s tastes and interests.
Watch the official music video for Louis Baker – “Brighter Day”
“I’m a music lover,” he says. “I love koto music from Japan; I love to listen to Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis; I grew up listening to metal, Pantera and Megadeth, and played a lot of Van Halen on guitar; and rap music has always been a big part of my musical diet.”
It’s soul greats like Marvin Gaye and neo-soul artists D’Angelo, Anderson .Paak and Nick Hakim that influenced Love Levitates the most, however—something that is plainly apparent on the title track, which features a star contribution from Auckland flautist, Nathan Haines. Meanwhile, Baker channels the guitar histrionics of Isaiah Sharkey on the record’s closing number, “Into Your Life”.
But the most crucial influence on Love Levitates is that which underlies its thematic persuasion. “It digs into my more poetic, Eastern philosophical nature,” says Baker. Encouraged by his parents, Louis Baker has been absorbing the works of Taoist master Lao Tzu and modern interpretive scholars Alan Watts and Thomas Merton since a young age.
Each track on Love Levitates explores a different aspect or manifestation of love, with the title track serving as the record’s literal and figurative centrepiece. “It’s [about] intrinsic love and universal love and a oneness or symmetry, ecstasy, all of those things,” says Baker. “It’s about a higher consciousness.”
The song’s opening lines – “Looking at Earth at night from space / Lights intertwine like DNA” – were inspired by a Discovery Channel documentary about light pollution. After viewing footage of the Earth’s major cities taken from space, Baker landed on this simile for what binds the global population.
“Some people find it through taking drugs, some people find it through taking that run in the morning – we find it in different ways and we call it different things, but it’s about [finding] an uplifting feeling of connection,” says Baker.
Listen to the official audio for Louis Baker’s “Love Levitates”
The EP begins with “Brighter Day”, which is dedicated to Baker’s late grandfather, Frederick Baker, a commanding officer in the 28th Māori Battalion during World War II. “I never got to meet him in person,” says Baker, “but since I was young, my dad has told me this story that he was shot through the mouth and had to learn how to speak again.”
The chorus refrain – “Looking for a brighter day” – echoes the mantra Frederick would repeat in an effort to rebuild his facial strength. “He would sit in front of the mirror and say, ‘Today is a beautiful day,’ to try and learn how to speak again,” says Baker.
“Brighter Day” is broadly about sacrifice and enduring hardship in order to create a better future. And for Louis Baker and his Māori father, “it’s an ode to our whakapapa, to where we come from,” he says.
The EP’s first single, “Overdrive”, features a guest verse from North Shore MC, Kings. The track – which Baker co-wrote with American musician Ingrid Andreas and Melbourne writer/producer Tobacco Rat – debuted at no. 1 in the Hot 20 NZ Singles Chart in February. Lyrically, Baker and Kings convey a sense of the popping-corn emotional tumult that takes hold during the early stages of romantic attraction.
“The whole idea of the song is when you meet someone, your heart skips a beat, there’s all the things that you want to say or want to do, but you want to take it slow as well because you know that’s probably the best way,” says Baker.
Track four, “Won’t Forget”, is a dose of infectious neo-soul rooted in the elastic rhythms of drummer Cory Champion and bass player Johnny Lawrence. Written in London and instigated by a feeling of homesickness, the lyrics go out to Baker’s closest allies. “It just got me thinking, ‘Man, there are so many people in my life who I know that if anything happened in a serious way, they’d be there at the drop of a hat,’” says Baker.
Watch the official music video for Louis Baker’s “R A I N B O W”
“Won’t Forget” also indicates that for love to thrive, the acts of generosity and patience must go both ways. “It’s me saying that I’m going to be there and help you if you’re ever in that place too,” says Baker. “[The line] ‘First breath, til the death, I won’t forget,’ it’s like, Start to the finish, I’m going to help you too.”
On the EP’s final track, “Into Your Life”, Baker draws attention to the leap of faith that’s a prerequisite for any loving relationship. But, although ups and downs are inevitable, Baker insists that the payoff of fulfilling love is unmatched. “All the things we could see if we just had the new perception,” he sings in the song’s second verse, implying that once you’re in love, everything starts to look, sound and feel different.
The track itself is a work of luxurious funk-soul inspired by Nick Hakim and D’Angelo. The arrangement comes equipped with a horn section, written and arranged by Baker in tribute to the late D’Angelo collaborator, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargroves.
“Into Your Life” is a prime demonstration of the sort of stylistic and spiritual freedom Baker sought to attain on Love Levitates. “It’s me just feeling more at ease and [more] lightness with what I’m creating and less perfectionist,” he says.
He continues: “We put in a lot of love, blood, sweat and tears into making just five songs on an EP. Everything we do in our small little record label, which is now called Ngākau Records – which means heart or soul in Māori – is independent.”
And what drives them to work so hard? Love, of course. “I’m proud of Love Levitates,” says Baker. “I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of the music and what it’s saying.”