Kelly Finnigan has been pulling strings — or at least tapping keys — in the Bay Area music scene for nearly a decade, sweetening the area’s ears with psychedelic and soulful sounds from his studio in the North Bay. You’ve likely heard his searing, southern-tinged vocals and wicked organ on the past three Monophonics records, or seen Finnigan pouring his heart onto his Hammond with the band at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. If you pay real close attention, you’ll hear his influence on myriad modern funk and soul records – from L.A.’s legendary Orgone to locals The Humidors.
After extensive touring with his psychedelic soul group Monophonics and an obscene number of side projects, the singer-organist-producer released his first solo LP on April 26. The Tales People Tell (Colemine Records) is a masterclass in modern soul sounds; it’s pretty, piercing, and really fucking groovy. The album’s 10 tracks were produced, recorded, and mixed at Finnigan’s studio, Transistor Sound, with a little help from his friends.
“When I make records, I want to make a statement from front to back; I want it to feel together,” Finnigan tells SF Weekly. Yet Tales People Tell coalesced over a longer period of time, in between projects including Monophonics’ next record. The album’s first track, “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” a mellow but pleading love song, was written as a demo and put aside. Finnigan accumulated a few other songs, and eventually fell in love.
“I naturally tend to lean on writing love songs, whether it be sad, or about falling in love, or pursuing somebody,” Finnigan says. “But I wanted to make sure I said a little bit more than that.”
Where Finnigan and Monophonics are rooted in psychedelia and funk, Tales People Tell is decidedly more soulful and sweet. Desperate ballads, harmonies — all of which Finnigan sings — moody organ workouts and horns pervade, creating a modern patchwork of soul’s regional sounds. As a solo artist, Finnigan hits notes that resonate from the riverside grit of Muscle Shoals to the polish and prestige of Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic Records years.
“My influences are so great and there’s so many cool little avenues. There’s raw soul like Lee Moses, and Philly soul like The Delfonics, and on the West Coast there’s Darondo, and in Chicago there’s Curtis [Mayfield]. And that’s not even talking about Stax,” he says. “I could never do a ‘one thing’ record, there’s so many pockets of the genre that it’s hard for me not to show my love to these important pieces that make up this genre of the soul.”
Finnigan was particularly inspired by sweet soul vocal groups, lacing Tales with lowrider ready harmonies and falsettos a la Smokey Robinson. Hardcore soul fans, Chicanos who grew up on soulful ballads, and even Bose headphones are thirsty for sweet soul, Finnigan adds, nodding to Durand Jones and the Indications’ fantastically falsetto ballad “Is It Any Wonder.”
“I love falsetto singing, but I’m not a true natural,” Finnigan admits. “I don’t always want to write these belting songs, I want to show dynamism. I want to show range.”
Finnigan certainly shows his range on Tales, playing tambourine and percussion, vibraphone, xylophone, guitar, and sing harmonies — physically standing in different places around the mic, to create the feel of backup singers.
The record just “hits you like a hammer,” said Colemine Records co-owner Terry Cole. “Kelly is, in a lot of ways, a one man show: He’s writing, engineering, producing, arranging, performing. If you look across the landscape right now, nobody has taken this much on themselves.”
While Finnigan’s fingers are all over this record, The Tales People Tell is a family affair and features many friends and collaborators. Among the musicians featured are Orgone guitarist-bandleader Sergio Rios, guitarist Jimmy James of Washington’s True Loves and Delvon Organ Trio, and legendary funky drummer and session musician James Gadson, whose credits include the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Bill Withers, and The Temptations.
“Being in a band, the players are for the most part spoken for. For this, I wanted to try to spread the love out,” Finnigan said, adding that his father — organist and singer Mike Finnigan, who’s toured and done sessions with Bonnie Raitt, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and others — played organ on “Can’t Let Them Down.” The elder Finnigan also wrote the album blurb, calling the record “a marvelous collection … that run[s] the gamut from whispering tenderness to roaring appeals, from lean and mean to lush and lovely.”
“We wanted to keep it a mystery and not credit him. I think he was a little more excited about writing the blurb on the back than being on the song,” Finnigan chuckled.
The casualness with which Finnigan mentions his family’s musical history — if he mentions it at all — belies his own lengthy history as a musician and DJ. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Finnigan resisted any formal musical education and did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was entranced by the way hip-hop DJs commanded the room at house parties, and at 13, he got his first DJ gig at a school dance. The ancestral call of the Hammond caught him, and Finnigan moved to the Bay Area circa 2009, where he joined then-instrumental band Monophonics. Finnigan lent his powerful vocals and songwriting skills to the band’s 2012 album In Your Brain and proceeded to melt minds with a unique brand of Bay Area psych-funk.
Three Monophonics albums and more than a dozen Colemine releases later, Finnigan has become one of the leaders of contemporary West Coast soul. And he’s keeping busy even as he tours The Tales People Tell — Finnigan is working on new releases for sweet soul studio group The Sentiments, recording Monophonics’ next record, engineering an album for locals Gene Washington and the Ironsides, co-producing a Chicago group called The Right Now, and writing and producing with Nashville band Alanna Royale, among other projects. He’s also collaborated with San Diego’s Sure Fire Soul Ensemble on a recent cover of “Impeach The President” and performed alongside members of L.A.’s revival sounds community at Hello Stranger.
If Tales is a showcase in modern soul, it’s also a testament to Finnigan’s soulful community — who have undoubtedly been inspired by one of his productions.
“I like to think that I am influencing some people, but more importantly, I hope I am inspiring people,” he said. “I just wanna do my part and give back … all the love I’ve been given from all the musicians over the years who have inspired me.”
Kelly Finnigan & The Atonements,
Friday, May 3, 9 p.m., at Bottom of The Hill, 1233 17th St., $17-$20, bottomofthehill.com
Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m., at Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., Oakland, $17-$20, elismilehigh.com