Songwriting and ReverbNation proudly present the fourth winner of our monthly competition for songwriters – genuine soul man Lionel Cornelius
very time we’re judging the entries to our monthly songwriting competition, held in association with musicians’ social network ReverbNation, there are certain styles of music we hear a lot of. Sweet, syrupy R&B is one of ’em… but while much of what we hear from that arena may certainly have commercial/chart potential, it mostly lacks that indefinable ‘something’ we’re looking for, being too often simply a pastiche of what’s currently bothering the Top 40.
So stumbling on Lionel Cornelius in the last round of judging was a welcome treat. Here’s an artist who harks back to an earlier age of R&B – the production may be contemporary-sounding but lyrically and stylistically Mr Cornelius has more in common with Messrs Gaye, Mayfield or Isley than with any of today’s baseball-capped, gold-dripping young pretenders. Lionel got soul, baby…
Then again, it turns out it runs in the family – he’s the younger brother of US Top 10-busting 1970s soul group The Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. Now, in his 50s, Lionel’s getting in on the act, with a three-track EP called Intimate Details out now (featuring Hey There, Seriously In Love and Time, the track that won this competition) and a full-length album due to follow in 2014. Read on to find out more…
We gather from your biog on ReverbNation that you come from quite a musical family…
“That’s correct, yes. Back in the 70s, my older brothers were the Cornelius Brothers, which consisted of Eddy Cornelius and Carter Cornelius. They later added my sister Rose and my brother Billy Joe, and the name changed to Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. They released their first single, Treat Her Like A Lady, back in ’71 when I was 12 or thereabouts. So I grew up in a house filled with music. It was kind of exciting.”
At what age did you start joining in yourself?
“Well, I started playing trumpet when I was about five, and I’d moved over to piano at 12, so I was just getting acclimated with composition and writing music. But my mom did not allow the younger clan of singers and musicians – there were about four of us, I grew up in a house of 13 kids in total – to go out with the older guys. We were only allowed to do our thing around town, locally.”
“But then at 18 I got married, while I was still in college, and we decided I wasn’t going to pursue the entertainment industry. I became a parent and a husband and just put it all down. For a few years, anyway… then four years into the marriage, Universal Production moved into Miami and I just happened to get picked up as an actor. So I thought I was out of the entertainment business and then bam, there it was, I was into acting. I was in Miami Vice for a big chunk of the 80s. Then I moved to Charlotte, North Caroline about 20 years ago and again, I put it all down again.”
“I was picked up by the music director of a church”
So how did you get back into making music?
“About five years ago I was picked up by the music director of a church, and that’s how singing redeveloped. You see, I’d started a management and production company with my brother John. We said, there’s a plethora of talent in this family that needs managing, so let’s go ahead and form this company, we’ll produce them, we’ll get them out there, the whole kit and caboodle. That didn’t quite work out as planned, my brother and I, so I separated with him and set up on my own as Lionel Cornelius Enterprises and Lionel Cornelius Entertainment.
“Then I got approached by a young woman called Donna Peterson. She was musical director of a production of Messiah here in Charlotte, and she walked up to me one day and she said, ‘I’m putting on this play and I noticed your family history on Google and wondered if you’d be interested?’. Well I told her I hadn’t picked up a mic in 30 years, but she said, ‘I’ll work with you, I’ll get you back to shape’. And she took me under her wing five years ago, and everything you hear today comes from working with her.”
Had you not written any songs in the intervening years at all?
“Not at all, in fact Seriously In Love, my first song, was only written last year. Well actually I wrote it three years ago but I rewrote it last November! But now the bug has really hit me.”
So do you have a writing ‘method’ you follow now?
“I have no real true method… a lot of my stuff comes from my dreams, comes out my shower. So it may be two o’clock in the morning that a song hits me in a dream, and I’ll get up and I’ll put it on my phone, and then I may actually write that melody out right then and there, I may put a verse together at 2.30 in the morning, and then I’ll get up the next day and I’ll string it down. And that’s pretty much it.
“I’ll write a song out and I’ll pretty much have it down the way I wanna deliver it in no more than a day. I mean, it’ll take me 20 minutes to write it but it’ll take me maybe a day to kinda feel the flow of it. Now, from there we’ll lay out the arrangements, and that’s when I really get to work! I work very heavily on the arrangement and how I want my sounds and my tones and my strings and my horns and my drums to kinda connect with my lyrics.
“I start out with a basic melody, and then I couple with my phenomenal partner, pianist, co-producer and co-arranger Mark Stallings. Once I lay my melody out I’ll get with him, he’s just got a world of experience, and together we’ll orchestrate how we want each part to work, and that’s how we come out with the flavour.”
“I wanted to take the old school flava but make it contemporary”
Speaking of flavours… we were struck by how your winning song Time sounded classic yet contemporary at the same time. Was that something you were striving for… and if so, care to share your secrets?
“That’s exactly how we designed it! I wanted to take the old school flava of what I was feeling in my spirit, but I wanted to modernise it, make it contemporary, give it today’s edge so I could draw in that younger crowd by giving them what they listen to from an arrangement and a beat perspective. Even to some degree some of the lyrics… but we keep ’em clean!
“What I do to get that contemporary feel today, it’s all in the compression and the heavy bass delivery. The bass drum or the bass strings. So you bring in what I call that deep bottom. I start out with my basslines and I make it real deep, which is today, which is contemporary for today. So you’ve got that contemporary flow, that uuumph, that Usher-feeling type stuff, and then we use different sounds on top, and I think the reason it sounds ‘classic’ is that it’s all played. We don’t use any virtual instruments, or any programming – it’s all played. Real fingers on real keys, or real strings, or whatever!”
So what are your plans for the future?
“Well, we have about 45 songs written so I’m hoping to bring out three or four albums over the next four to five years. This first album is going on my own dollar, just to get it out there, but we’re hoping that we can find some production assistance, because it can be quite costly coming right out of the box on your own. But this first one, we’ll bankroll it and we’ll see what happens. Everything’s been wonderful so far.”
And it doesn’t daunt you at all, starting out in the music business at a slightly more (ahem) advanced age?
“At first it did, at first I was like why, why now? But as I became more passionate about it and more comfortable about it, I realised that it really truly was a blessing. I wasn’t prepared before; I’m totally prepared now. Vocally I think I can stand up with ANY that are out there now, and as my skills develop I’m starting to think I can stand up in terms of writing as well.
“You know, this industry’s always about marketability and appearance, and if you’re not young, you think you won’t appeal to the younglings. But I think what really opened my eyes was when I had a group of 6th Grade girls at my son’s school that came screaming across the parking lot, because they’d heard my song Seriously In Love and they wanted a signed autograph of the CD. That’s when I realised okay, I’m giving up the age thing, it doesn’t really matter. It’s what you’re delivering to people that matters.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
Lionel Cornelius’s Intimate Details EP is available now on Google Play, Amazon and iTunes. For more information visit his website.
If you’d like the chance to be featured in an article like this on Songwriting, then the good news is, our monthly songwriting competition is still ongoing! To enter, you’ll need to be registered with ReverbNation and submit your track via the competition page. Each month, we’ll listen to every entry and select the most promising artist, who’ll be the subject of an interview feature similar to this one.
At time of writing there are just four days left to enter November’s contest but don’t worry… there’ll be another one starting on 1 December if you’re not quite ready!