His singing voice and the one in my ear are not the same. Joel Virgel is calling from his Los Angeles home, his thick French accent dicing his words. But on his debut, Amour Amer (which hit stores Tuesday), the dude is quite the seducer, breathily crooning in a mink-soft voice romantic lyrics that ride balmy, Brazilian-kissed grooves.
As we talk about the project two weeks before its release, the Paris-raised artist doesn't sound so confident.
"Do you think it'll be successful?" he asks.
"Who knows?" I say. "You never really know. You're cool with the album, right?"
"I mean, aren't you satisfied with it?"
"Yeah," he says with a little hesitation. "It's fine."
Joel's nervousness is understandable. He's been in the business for more than a decade, playing drums and laying down background vocals on various projects. But Amour Amer (French for Love Bitter) is his first time in the spotlight.
"It's the fruit of my existence, this album," Joel says. "On the record, I talk about what I've been through -- the games of love and growing up."
There is a cohesion to Amour Amer. Lyrically, the 14-track album centers on the peaks and valleys of romance, but with more emphasis on the low points. Musically, though, the record is lush and bright. Melodies float into your head, lingering there. Strings rise, fall and creep along with a cinematic flair. The Caribbean informs the rhythms. But there's a pop sheen to the arrangements, making the amalgamation of bossa nova, soul and Afro-Beat accessible. Above it all, Joel's low, whispery baritone sails smoothly.
"I love the sensual stuff, you know," he says. "I grew up in Paris, a pretty romantic city. So that is in the music."
The artist was born in Guadeloupe "more than 30" years ago. (Joel likes to keep his age to himself.) His folks moved to Paris while he was still a boy. When Joel was in his teens, his older brother turned him onto American soul through albums by Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
"I wasn't into singing then," Joel says. "I was learning to play drums and percussion. I used to walk around with James Brown records under my arm. I loved those beats. My roots are Caribbean, so I'm into those kinds of rhythms."
In 1981, just out of high school, Joel came to the United States on a vacation and decided to stay. In New York, he worked as a model and did some studio work before moving to Los Angeles, where he sang backup for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and played drums for such acts as the Wild Colonials, Nina Hagen and Les Rita Mitsuko. In between gigs, he studied voice at the Dick Grove School of Music and sang bass in a local L.A. classical choir.
Joel was able to carve out a nice living singing for TV commercials while he wrote his own material on the side. He eventually secured a deal with Electric Monkey Records, an independent L.A.-based label.
Joel plans to tour internationally to support Amour Amer.
"I want to be loved for what I do," he says. "I'm not really funk. I'm not really Brazilian. I'm in between somewhere. I'm all about being global."
It'll take a minute to get used to fronting a band, he says: "Singing comes easily for me. It comes so easily, I took it for granted for a long time. It seems we always want to do what's difficult and not what comes so easily. I don't know. I just want to do a good job."
As the music gently takes you under.
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