Michael Fitzpatrick’s love affair with soul music began when he was growing up in Los Angeles, listening to the music his parents grew up with. That music became the soundtrack to his youth.
“The one condition that I could negotiate with my mother was turning the car radio to the oldies station,” he said. “I connected with all that music instantly, from the early Motown stuff to the late ’60s. I was entranced by the melodies, and there were background parts to sing along to.”
Fitzpatrick, who turns 42 this year, attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he discovered he wasn’t quite ready to sing the kind of songs that so entranced him.
“There were a lot more accomplished singers in my class,” he said. “It really intimidated me. They were singing full-voice, with runs. Some of those guys already had full beards, and I was this skinny 15-year-old white dude whose voice was still cracking. I was so intimidated I lost confidence in my own voice. I had no idea what it could do. A lot of the other kids were amazing.
“In high school I sang different styles: choral work, jazz — many different styles. After college, I retreated from singing and went in the direction of recorded music and songwriting. I dabbled in songwriting, tried to write a little bit. I mean, some people sit down and find some savant moment and write a song. That wasn’t the case with me. I had to study the craft of songwriting.”
His studies took him back to that Motown, late-’60s era, which he said “was maybe one of the best periods of songwriting ever. Once I started becoming a self-started studio nerd and learning how to make records, I again went back to that period and the sounds of those recordings, too. They have an enormous amount of personality and vibe. My love for that period of music is undying.”
In his early 30s, he also decided to improve his self-taught skills on the piano by taking some lessons. It all paid off in a confluence of fortunate circumstances a few years ago.
A former girlfriend told Fitzpatrick that her neighbor was selling an old church organ for $50. A few hours later, the enormous ’60s-vintage Conn organ was sitting in his living room. He sat down and tapped into his studies of ’60s pop and soul.
“I decided I was going to write a song in the style I loved,” he said. “I had no idea if I could pull it off.”
In five minutes he wrote “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” the first single off what would become the five-track EP “Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1,” the inaugural recording for the band he would call Fitz and the Tantrums. Like “Picking Up the Pieces,” the follow-up full-length, “Breakup” was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s living room
Once it was written, the guy who had lost confidence in his voice had to sing it.
“It was late at night, no one was around, so I belted it out,” he said. “It wasthe
moment for me as a singer. I’d finally found my voice. When you’re trained as a singer, you can sing in many styles. But which one is authentically you? What’s your natural voice? I found mine. That was the moment I took a chance and connected with myself as a singer. It was the missing element in my songwriting. From that moment on, the songs rolled out.”
The first person he called was James King, a college friend and saxophonist. King recommended others from his circle of music friends, and nearly as quickly as “Chains” had been written, a band had been formed. Everyone who joined the band was also in love with the style Fitzpatrick had fallen in love with as a boy.
“In Los Angeles, the music scene has the whole industry part with people who move here to make music for a living and to get a record deal,” he said. “But it’s an enormous city with a massive population, so you always have other scenes, and some of them are based on soul and funk — mostly in the black and Latino communities. It’s completely outside of what happens in the industry. James lived in that world. And he knew all these people who are in love with this kind of music He knew who to call.”
The four others who took the calls were drummer John Wicks, bassist Ethan Phillips (since replaced by Joseph Karnes), keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and singer Noelle Scaggs, all of whom have impressive resumes. King has worked with the hip-hop troupe De La Soul; Ruzumna was music director for Macy Gray. Karnes is a disciple of James Jamerson, one of the legendary Funk Brothers.
“They aren’t just rock musicians,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’re all very accomplished. They’ve studied their crafts for many years, and they all have a love affair for this kind of music. John is obsessed with that period. He can get his drums to sound just like those old recordings. So it was a natural transition for all of us.”
So natural that Fitzpatrick lit the fuse on Fitz and the Tantrums almost immediately.
“The first time we rehearsed I’d had three or four songs by that point,” he said. “I walked out of rehearsal and called a friend at the Hotel Cafe, a small singer/songwriter venue, and I booked a show. I told the guys, ‘We have our first gig next week,’ and they said, ‘What? We need more songs.’ ”
One gig led to another, then a coveted slot on the influential Los Angeles public radio station KCRW (89.9 FM) and a tour with Maroon 5 and the full-length, “Picking Up the Pieces.”
As much as he and the band love the sounds and styles of music from 40-plus years ago, Fitzpatrick said, none wanted the group to sound like soul revivalists or a tribute band. So they accent and embroider their songs with traits and filigrees from other eras.
“As soon as I started writing, I decided I didn’t want to be a revival band,” he said. “So there are some ’80s new-wave and Talking Heads influences. The back-beat leans toward hip-hop, ’90s hip-hop, which used drum loops from the ’60s. There’s a more modern-pop sensibility. And there’s some indie-pop and a little DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude. I mean we made that thing in my living room.
“Our version is a hybrid. It wasn’t something we put a lot of conscious thought into. But we didn’t want to be purists; we didn’t want to go, ‘This next part has to go here and sound like this.’ We’ve given ourself lots of freedom to deviate from the form. There’s a rawness to it, and I feel fortunate that it resonates. To get the reactions we’ve been getting is incredible.”
Those reactions are from listeners of all ages. Fitzpatrick said he wasn’t prepared to see the crowds his band typically attracts: baby boomers, 30-somethings, college students, teenagers. Many come all dressed up in period clothing, just like the band.
“You can tell some of the girls have gone to vintage-clothing shops to buy ’60s dresses,” he said, “following Noelle’s style.”
And then there’s the band’s first real hit, “Money Grabber,” a song about a gold digger, which includes the lyric: “I don’t pay twice for the price of a cheap dime whore.” Apparently, the song’s buoyant beat and sweet melody appeal to very young ears.
“A lot of our fans have kids,” he said. “And a lot of these kids are obsessed with that song. There’s a litany of YouTube videos with kids in their car seats and their parents filming them singing along to that song.
“I was in a coffee shop recently and a woman walked in and said to me, ‘My son has to meet you. He knows every word to “Money Grabber.” ’ I said, ‘Do you know what that song is about?’ She said, ‘Don’t remind me. But he loves that song.’ ”
And so, the circle is complete: The young boy who could talk his parents into turning the car radio to soul songs on the oldies station has taken the music he never stopped loving and turned it into something a new generation of 4-year-olds wants their parents to play, over and over.
It’s both appropriate and ironic, given what he chose to call his band.