It’s taken America four years, but we’re finally catching on to Lukas Graham.
After scoring several No. 1 singles and two platinum albums in their native Denmark, the pop sensation notched their first hit in the States when “7 Years” peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart in February. (For clarity’s sake, Lukas Graham is a band named after its lead singer.) The group’s video, meanwhile, has generated more than 62 million views.
Why all the fuss? Because Lukas Graham is about as perfect a marriage of blue-eyed soul and confessional poetry as you’re likely to hear, and “7 Years” is a universal meditation on growing up and getting old that was inspired by the death of lead singer Lukas Graham Forchhammer’s father in 2012.
I would say I don’t sing soul music — I’d say I sing with soul
“It was definitely cathartic to write. It’s weird to describe what it’s like to lose a parent,” Forchhammer toldUSA Today in the days leading up to the U.S. release of their eponymously titled second album. “Some people find it very sad and dispiriting, where I find it empowering.”
The song’s arresting balance of sadness and hope, as well as its mix of pristinely rendered vocals and hip-hop beats, are indicative of the band’s overall style. They are qualities that directly reflect Forchhammer’s unique upbringing. Born in 1988, he was raised in Christiana, a scrappy commune within the borders of Copenhagen. What his family lacked in money, they more than made up for in love. As a child, he split his time between honing his classical singing chops in the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, obsessing over hip-hop and getting into lots of trouble with his friends.
As Forchhammer has pointed out, his heartfelt lyrics are drawn from real-life experience: “Instead of making up a pretty little love story about some girl I like, I end up singing about my boys in jail and how I feel,” he said. “It’s easier for me to be honest about who I am than to start making up some fairytale.”
Blue-Eyed Soul Grows Up
Lukas Graham’s breakout success shows that we are witnessing a golden age in blue-eyed soul. Since the term was first coined in the mid-’60s to describe white artists like The Righteous Brothers and Dusty Springfield who were influenced by black soul music, it’s never gone away, and artists such as Duffy, Joss Stone and, most importantly, the late Amy Winehouse succeeded in bringing it back into vogue. (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke also deserve credit, even if each singer is decidedly more inspired by the carnality of R&B.)
Lukas Graham’s music feels resolutely modern, what with its hip-hop inspired grooves
Yet more than anything else it has been the massive commercial success of Brits Adele and Sam Smith that has made blue-eyed soul an omnipresent sound on pop charts around the globe. In a feature for The New Yorker, published in November of 2015, music critic Amanda Petrusich hailed the former as the “most popular living soul singer in the world.” Meanwhile, the latter has appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone, Billboard and Vibe.
What’s striking is the sheer sonic diversity of modern day blue-eyed soul, particularly among the genre’s latest crop of talent.
Lukas Graham’s music feels resolutely modern, what with its hip-hop inspired grooves. In contrast, American crooner Allen Stone (his third full-length, 2015’s Radius, is currently climbing Billboard’s Top 200 Albums) pays homage to the classic sounds of Stevie Wonder. Mayer Hawthorne, whose latest full-length, Man About Town, is due out April 8, is even more indebted to old-school flavor. Then there’s the ever-growing list of artists operating at the genre’s fringes. Ed Sheeran, Meghan Trainor, Hozier, Lake Street Dive, Parachute and Charlie Puth all have infused their respective styles with varying elements of blue-eyed soul.
But despite being in usage for several decades now, the blue-eyed soul tag is met with circumspection by several of the newer artists frequently associated with it. Not only that, a few have intentionally distanced themselves from the idea that what they do should be considered a part of the soul music tradition.
“I would say I don’t sing soul music. I’d say I sing with soul,” Forchhammer has said.
Meanwhile, on his website, Stone echoed the Danish singer when he recently described himself not as a soul or R&B singer, but rather a “hippie with soul.”
Whether or not artists like Lukas Graham and Allen Stone, as well as Adele and Sam Smith, belong to soul music proper ultimately is beside the point. Call it what you will, because it doesn’t change the fact that these artists are creating some of the most expressive, honest and emotionally relevant music found on the pop charts.