InterviewsPaul Stokes

Happy Birthday I Need A Dollar! Aloe Blacc on the origins of the 'sound of the credit crunch'

InterviewsPaul Stokes

Today it's the second birthday of Aloe Blacc's I Need A Dollar, after it was first released as a single on 16 March, 2010. With the song already on its way to being a soundtrack for our times thanks to the way it encapsulated the economic woes being experienced by governments and individuals alike, we caught up with Blacc to discuss his creation and wish it happy birthday. What was it that first inspired you to write I Need A Dollar? "I was listening to a CD of field recordings made by chain gang workers, basically singing songs of woe. They were singing their own songs about their hardship and problems and I was inspired to write in that style. The details of my lyrics were personal experiences, mixed with friend's experiences and just experiences I gleamed from the situation I saw happening in the US and the economic crisis."

Did you get fired then? "I was working as a business consultant and during a big round of layoffs I was part of the chopping block. I started writing the song back in 2005, before the financial crisis and a couple of years after I lost my job. I was laid off because the company was trying to trim down so they could sell it to another company. For me it gave me a chance to focus and incubate, make some music and develop myself into an artist. It gave me the chance to take music from being a hobby of mine into a full time activity. So the second verse when I sing about losing my job was personal, but the maybe inside the bottle... line was about a friend of mine who was falling into the trappings of alcoholism. So I sprinkled a few different experiences in there and mixed mine in to make the song."

So the song predates the credit crunch, yet it became the fitting soundtrack for it. "Over the years from 2005 onwards, I'd create different versus that applied to different situations and I think by 2008 most of the versus made sense! The first verse, Bad times are coming... relates directly to the financial crisis."

Though released two years ago, the song has had quite a journey to prominence, it's not been a standard hit single has it? "It's been really instructive and informative watching the song's rise. I take apart the song and realise what people are attracted to and think How can I do this again? It's a lot of fun. Three year-olds are singing the song, 33 year-olds are singing it, 73 year-olds are singing it! It's got something that's so visceral that everyone can repeat it and enjoy it.

Talk us through the sleeve, it's a strong look. Is that what you wear when popping down the shops? "My goal was to honour the tradition of soul music and present something as wholesome, honest and genuine as my heroes. I was paying respect to them. Wearing a suit and looking classy was my way of saying this kind of music is timeless and classy, I appreciate and I want the folks who see it to think good things and maybe pick it up and listen to it. Luckily it worked out. The bow-tie became a signature for me, it just suggests class, and that's the way I'd like to honour my heroes like Al Green, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye. The first release came with a dollar bill, did you see that? That was a nice tough from the label, I'm sure they were charging extra for it!"

Do you hate playing I Need A Dollar live yet? "No, no, I love the song! It still gets the biggest cheer in the set and I appreciate the way people respond to it. If I could play the song more times in the set and not make my musicians angry then I would!"

Strangely, you can already imagine the song being used to soundtrack future documentaries about the credit crunch and the general economic difficulties around the globe right now. Is it weird to already be in the running to have a "song of our times"? "It is strange, I honestly never expected any of this, but now being in that running it makes me want to stay in that running because I can see how much positive I can do with the music and lend my voice to causes like Malaria No More UK and express that we can cure this disease within our lifetime if we work together. So I feel really good about that and want to keep doing that. The best have done that. Bob Marley sung about change and helped influence positive change, Stevie Wonder is still doing it, and I'd like to be engage in that with my music. I Need A Dollar has been a big help."

Have you thought about following it up yet? "I'm in the middle of writing new stuff and hope to record soon. Will the next album have a similar contemporary subject mater? My dad asked me if I could sing more love songs and I think he's write, love songs are missing. There's a lot of break-up songs so I think a few love songs can't hurt."

Finally, you needed a dollar but how many did you actually get from releasing I Need A Dollar? "[laughs] Enough to donate to a lot of charities!" Paul Stokes @Stokesie Portrait Alex Lake, thanks to Al Horner