Water Seed celebrates the release of We Are Stars at Blue Nile May 20.
Lou Hill once compared Water Seed's upcoming album to Prince's 1999 — a preview of what's to come from artists coming into their own, with something bigger on the horizon.
"This is the setup," says drummer and bandleader Hill. "Where we really want to take you, this is just your ticket to the theme park ... Get to the theme park, you’re cool. We’ll get you to Space Mountain. We have this amazing thing planned. Get on board."
Water Seed's We Are Stars — out May 19 — is the latest genre-spanning full-length album from the New Orleans funk band, remodeling retro-futurist funk and building ecstatic, maximalist pop in the vein of band heroes like Cameo, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Gap Band and Prince, but it's firmly and inextricably linked back to its New Orleans hometown, from its loose, shoulder-rolling funk to the gospel, jazz, and inventive, playful spirit weaving through the album's 14 songs.
The band formed as a songwriting team at Xavier University. They're now joined by J Sharp, flutist Cinese and vocalists Berkley the Artist and Shaleyah.
"The New Orleans connection is a big part of it," Sharp says. "We’re proud of it. We cut our teeth in New Orleans. It’s ingrained in us. It’s a flair. It’s an ideal. No matter what genre or style we play, New Orleans has some of that. New Orleans probably started it. Our ability to move with fluidity in and out of genres and styles is an inherently New Orleans tradition. It’s a big part of how we came to realize what we’re doing now."
We Are Stars begins with an opening duet of big band funk on "Open Sesame" and "Bollywood," followed by a gospel-inspired piano blues of "Home to You" and the bass rich futurefunk of "Arithmetic." Mid-album standout "Duke'ish" blows up Stevie Wonder's R&B into a starry-eyed jazz breakdown. The band's progressive arrangements don't linger or get too comfortable, nor do they drift into jams or unfocused half-thoughts, though they never settle for a singular interesting riff or harmony.
They rely on a full-band dynamic, one that's been polished over the course of their exhaustive live shows, to find their singular voice — one that's inspired and instructed by their New Orleans roots but looking outward and forward. "It's what our instructors would want us to do, expand their concepts and what they taught us," Hill says.
"The nuances of each person making a contribution in real time has a lot to do with how we achieve the sound," Sharp says. "I’m not even sure we could achieve the same things."
"We wanted [the album] to have a live feel," Shaleyah says. "Because our show is so dynamic and energetic, we wanted to bring that to the recording process and reflect that on the album."
Live, Shaleyah says, the band takes what it learns from the audience. "It helps us to know, 'OK, people are really responding to this,'" she says. "'We can juice it a little more.'"
The band celebrates the release of We Are Stars at 10 p.m. Saturday, May 20 at Blue Nile with Cyril Neville. Water Seed is likely to play the entire album, Hill says, "plus anything we can throw at that stage we think is funky."