How I wrote ‘Shelter’ by The Brand New Heavies’ Jan Kincaid
The former drummer and songwriter of the London-based acid jazz-funk group, talks about the making of his dramatic, groove-led single
The Brand New Heavies began in the mid-80s as an instrumental acid jazz group called Brothers International, inspired by the James Brown and Meters records the band heard while clubbing the rare groove scene. Founded with guitarist Simon Bartholomew and bassist/keyboardist Andrew Levy, Jan Kincaid helped forge the trio’s distinctive sound and established his role as drummer, keyboard player and principal songwriter. After being joined by a brass section and lead singer Jay Ella Ruth, the Heavies signed to indie label Acid Jazz and released their eponymous debut album in 1990.
The group changed lead vocalists a number of times over the years, with N’Dea Davenport stepping into Ruth’s shoes, before Siedah Garrett took over to front their platinum-selling album Shelter in ’97. Subsequently, the position would be held by Carleen Anderson, Sy Smith, Nicole Russo, and latterly Dawn Joseph who would leave the band with Jan to form the soul-pop duo MF Robots.
With a string of chart singles like, Dream Come True, Back To Love, Close To You, Spend Some Time and Never Stop – many of which involved Jan as a co-writer – established The Brand New Heavies as one of the UK’s finest contemporary soul-dance groups of their time. However, it was the writing of Shelter‘s anthemic, groove-led title track that we asked Jan to recall here, as it was purely his moment of individual brilliance…
“Shelter was a song that I started completely from scratch. We were all in London and I wrote it in a small writing studio we were working in, which was run by Henry Binns – one of the guys who became the band Zero 7. He worked with the Heavies on the first two albums, really, because we ended up mixing them at Rack Studios, and he was an assistant there. Henry then got his little studio as well, and we started doing some writing in there. I started the germ of Shelter at home – just the backing track – but then I took it in there and developed it further.
“I tend to start writing from a musical point of view, even if I have an idea of a song I want to write, I’ll always start with the music first. It’s because I come from a musical background, as a musician. So I like to put something very firmly in the ground first and have really strong roots to it, before you start adding melody and everything else.
“I probably wrote it in 1995, I think, the album [also called Shelter] came out in ’96. By that time we were kind of writing in teams and were all each writing with Siedah who was our vocalist at the time, and there were a couple of other songwriters as well. So we’d go off individually and write with her. Shelter was a track where I put the music together first and felt like I wanted to sing it because it grew into something that I wanted to be involved in 100 percent and not give away. I felt like I knew what the song needed to say, and how I wanted to say it, and also how I wanted to deliver it as well.
“So I kept hold of it and it became a lot of people’s favourite, certainly in the A&R department at the record company – they thought it was a good lead track for the album, in terms of what we were trying to say. There was also a certain amount of drama involved in that song – the sound of it is very dramatic – and that was something that we thought was a very strong way to lead with, both lyrically and sonically. The two of those things meant it was a good benchmark to set on the album.
YOU’VE GOT TO BELIEVE IN SOMETHING, WHATEVER THAT IS
“It was a very strong drum track, with a lot of drama. I had some timpanis on the one and the three of the beat, and that’s what started the whole dramatic process off. Then I started feeling the need for live strings and an orchestra, which we added later on, and that it was a song with quite a lot of gravitas, so it needed a lyric and an idea behind it that was equally ‘up there’.
“It’s not a love song. I was going through some very personal stuff in a relationship, so it became a song about survival and hope, and about having something to hold onto even when you feel that everything else is falling around you. You’ve got to believe in something, whatever that is. It wasn’t really a religious song, per se, it was more about having enough self-belief to be able to forge ahead, or something else you can hold on to or look forward to – something positive, you know? Also, there’s a bit of defiance in it as well, in terms of being able to survive despite everything. It was quite a personal statement for me, at that time. I didn’t start out intending to write a song like that, that’s just what it became.
“I actually wrote the lyrics at home. They were quite easy to write. It kind of wrote itself, in a way, just because of how I was feeling at the time. I guess I kind of needed an outlet, on that particular day, and it just fell into place quite quickly. I’ve never been someone who spends a long time writing lyrics – I read a lot, so I know how to put words together and rhymes. I probably spent no more than three or four hours writing it, I would say. The first line of the song is: ‘I was born in the city, there’s no flies on me,’ and that was kind of where it came from – that was a position of strength, so the rest flowed from there.
“I’m very proud of the song because it was something that I really put into words. At the time, it was a very strong emotion I was going through, and I’ve always been good at love songs, but this was more of a personal song. It was a slightly dark period and I was able to write something good. Also, it was quite therapeutic writing that song and what I took from it, so I’ve always been proud of that. Going back to it, I think it’s a really well put together record and it became the best possible vision of what I set out to achieve.
“Songs are like children, in the sense that you put everything into them – at least, I do – and then what comes out at the other end is important. I’m not writing songs to be a commercial songwriter, I’m writing songs to reflect how I feel or to write something that other people will react to and recognise something of their own experience. That’s more important to me than writing a commercial hit.”
Interview: Aaron Slater