It’s rare that a musician has to move away from New Orleans to find her place in music, but such was the case for the now-London-based (via The Big Easy and New York City) soul singer, Acantha Lang. Unlike many big-voiced performers, Lang didn’t grow up in church and/or a particularly musical household. Her older sister would share records like Sade and Anita Baker, but songs, melodies and rhythms weren’t particularly prioritized.
Videos by American Songwriter
Lang’s career began to click when she left The Crescent City for The Big Apple. Upon landing in New York, Lang says she quickly realized it was “sink or swim,” so to supplement her new music passion, she modeled. But when she found a regular residency at a new club in Harlem, her career began to progress. Today, Lang is poised to premiere her latest single, “Whatever Happened to Our Love,” which showcases her vocal prowess and signals a new record release later in 2021.
“I had no idea I wanted to be in music while I was in New Orleans,” Lang says. “Go figure.”
Lang, who grew up where blues music was born, was afraid to sing at first. She suffered from severe stage fright. On one of the first occasions she tried to perform, she froze. It was like a plant trying to blossom without roots. She had no real example of performance or singing ability growing up, so she didn’t know what to do. After a dare, she initially got on stage and pushed through.
“I tried it a couple of times and I actually bombed,” Lang says. “It was intimidating.”
But instead of backing off, she dove in. Finally, she started having breakthroughs. One important factor was a now-ex-boyfriend. He ran the club in Harlem where Lang first got her proverbial sea legs. He encouraged her to get on stage. With his support, Lang began a regular Monday night residency, singing blues music with some very accomplished musicians, including former members of Prince’s and Chaka Khan’s bands. The club, now defunct, was called The Harlem Grill and it occupied a formerly historic space where Black musicians would congregate after performances in the borough. As The Harlem Grill, it also attracted big names like Puffy, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys. There, Lang grew her confidence and stage presence.
“I’m an energetic, fun person,” she says. “True artists reflect themselves in their music. So, I love to have fun. But I also like to put on a show, so I know when to bring it up and bring it down to nice moments when you connect with people.”
As a singer, Lang is more than capable. Her voice excels at filling out a room but it also boasts a vibrato —a vocal flutter—that harkens to the great Aretha Franklin. It’s a stunning sonic detail that one might not pick up at first listen but remains indelible with each subsequent spin.
“Early in my career,” Lang says, “I felt like trying everything. But I really focused on the tone of the blues guys I was listening to, like Little Walter and Muddy Waters. The blues is all about tone and storytelling. So, that’s how I started to develop my sound.”
Today, Lang lives in London. When considering the history of American music— especially soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll—the United Kingdom and the United States have a symbiotic relationship. Many Black artists in the middle of the 20th century (and beyond) weren’t accepted in the segregated U.S., so they found home, solace and appreciation across the Atlantic Ocean. While Lang’s story may not be as dire as, say, Nina Simone’s, she does feel a deep sense of appreciation for the music she makes overseas. Part of that too, is that American audiences don’t flock to blues music in the same way that Europeans seem to. So, as a soul, funk and blues singer, Lang has found a footing in London. She came to the city after The Harlem Grill closed, and after she helped open up a new club in New York City, which later branched out to London Town.
“I love it here,” Lang says. “It’s a nice mix of big city and calm, peaceful gardens and parks. The music scene is excellent. There are loads of awesome players and venues and live music and support. I can see why a lot of Americans end up in Europe.”
While Lang is in the process of preparing for a potential album release later this year, she is dropping singles like breadcrumbs along the way. Recent releases include the rousing and provoking, “He Said/She Said,” and sentimental, “Lois Lang.” But her newest single may be her best hit yet. Originally, Lang had written it about her ex-boyfriend, the former owner of The Harlem Grill. She’d penned it with Grammy-winner, Jimmy Bralower. But since finding some distance between the breakup and the release, Lang changed some of the lyrics, hastened the feel, kept the chorus and has now created a song with legs.
“I realized everything happens for a reason,” Lang says. “It was the best thing for me that the relationship ended. But I still wanted to sing it. So, we just made it a little bit more funky.”
Now, with a path forward, Lang is as energized as ever. She’s armed with an excellent perspective and personal philosophies too.
“You just have to figure out and tap into who you are,” she says. “What do you want to say, what do you want to present to the world? I think you just get in tune with that and shut out the noise and do your thing and people will come and check it out.”
For someone born in the heart of music, Lang may have taken a long journey to find her place in the world of song. But she’s done it.
“I love the peace that it gives me,” Lang says. “It’s my purpose. I love to be able to step on stage with all of the hard work that I’ve put in and when I open my mouth, people are moved. That’s everything.”