top of page

Joel Culpepper



Since his debut album, Joel Culpepper has been taking the time to look after himself. Whether it’s hiking, surfing, or meditating, the South East London singer has explored how these interests can support his life as an artist. It’s made his most recent EP Happiness Is Only A Few Miles Away reflect more on his vulnerabilities. 

“Those activities informed how the music should be, so I wanted to integrate what was going on for me. It's a more introspective project - I'm just a little bit more exposed than I normally would be”. These themes are in his 2021 debut Sgt Culpepper too, but the new record is more transparent in addressing struggles and heartbreak, how to escape from that suffering and own it. 

“I feel that putting on a brave face, having a stiff upper lip, and getting on with it, is a default of mine. The artists that I really connect with are able to be a vehicle for people to get through various things in their lives. I don't know if that was always my intention, but I noticed there was more vulnerability within this project.” 

On the EP, Joel lays into slower, in-the-pocket funk jams, creating a vibe which differs slightly from his energetic live shows – as seen with his emotional breakthrough performance on the influential YouTube platform, Colors. 

Since releasing his first mixtape back in 2009, Joel has always been bringing a touching yet powerful take on Soul music. Heavily inspired by his mother’s record collection growing up, listening to Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and old-school R&B and Gospel built a foundation for him to digest the great late 90s Neo Soul albums from Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. 

"It's not necessarily a bad thing to be uncomfortable - sometimes it's because you're growing." 

It was when he put a show on at college with friends that he realised he wanted to pursue music. “I sang Musiq Soulchild’s ‘Mary Go Round’ - it was the best! We pulled it off, and that felt like a significant moment in feeling you can achieve something.” 

With a steady stream of singles and EP releases over a decade before his debut album, it wasn’t until 2018 that he could commit to becoming a full-time musician, quitting his job helping children with behavioural difficulties. This brought a lot of positives that he appreciates now. 

“I'm more grateful. I know what it means to work full-time. When I am touring knackered or not sure what to do next, I know what it means to be in another situation where you're just still trying to make that leap. But I felt pressure to come out and get to a stratospheric level immediately. It’s tough because the industry is completely intertwined with metrics that determine success.” 

Being embedded in the London jazz scene, he’s come through just as some of his contemporaries have become stars – as seen with Ezra Collective’s 2023 Mercury Prize win – which adds to that pressure. But Joel feels it is still difficult for black, male soul singers to stand out and be marketed well in the UK, despite the growing strength of the scene. 

“I think there is a glass ceiling because there's not an understanding necessarily how to do it. But over the last few years, artists like Sampha have left a bit of a blueprint for us all. They present other ideas of what space a black, male artist can be in and have these soulful connections and not feel like they’re compromising or doing anything mainstream.” 

Joel is certainly not compromising in developing his retro sound with his music, and he still tells himself the same advice; to trust the process. “Don't deep everything. Just put out music you love and see what ripples. There’s a joy you still want to maintain whilst doing this, otherwise it's going to be too much of a tall order.” 

Finding that joy with Happiness Is Only A Few Miles Away has come through working with his friends. After continually bumping into prolific indie-soul multi-instrumentalist Tom Misch around Peckham, they had a session together and started penning the smooth, laid-back ‘Free’, becoming firm friends and collaborators. With US soul star Eddie Chacon also working on the track, it’s clear Joel is grateful for the relationships he has made in music and values how being open with fellow artists or producers has helped collaborating become easier. 

"Artists like Sampha have left a bit of a blue print for us all." 

“I collaborated more on this EP than I have done before. That was a real adjustment for me, [but] you collectively getting the best out of each other, and that's a nice, positive thing. When Eddie came to the studio, he listened first. It wasn't 'here's the killer line, or melody'. There's no ego. Someone's got that lived experience, so you’re just having a chat [together] and sharing.” 

“You can find a lot of solace in what they have said and the hurdles they’ve faced. Then all of a sudden, you'll find in that rub between each other. The song writes itself. It's not like it has to be this or sound like that. Those are definitely the stronger types of songs I've put out.” 

Whilst ‘Free’ is about being responsible for your own autonomy and wellness, a lot of the EP deals with gravitating towards misery. “Artists find a lot of understanding of life through pain and suffering. It’s weird that we're almost pulled towards it – I definitely am. With this EP, I acknowledged that, but I also ask, what's my response?” 

Meditation has helped Joel respond and flesh out lyrics. “It was my form of sobriety, sitting with myself regardless of how I felt – good, bad, indifferent, accepting. Just acknowledging whatever those things were. Sometimes it would be really confrontational, but I found that I was getting a lot of peace. I think we've almost been conditioned to run away from feeling uncomfortable. It's not necessarily a bad thing that you're uncomfortable, sometimes it's because you're being challenged or you're growing.” 

Something you can see from speaking to Joel is that he deeply cares about the aesthetics of the music, whatever he’s writing about. It’s evident in his charismatic live performances as well as the detail in music videos, seen none better than in the short film for ‘Return / W.A.R’ from the Sgt Culpepper album. 

“I grew up watching Prince and was captivated; there always seems to be a real fleshed-out narrative with visuals, storytelling, wardrobe, lighting, and concepts to narrate what you’re communicating. When I saw Kendrick [Lamar] live, he also epitomised not just thinking about one thing. Everything has to be communicated. 

It's something that I'm constantly thinking about. I want people to think ‘I'm definitely getting something from Joel; even if I don't know what it is just yet, I want to keep being there’. My desire is to connect on a deeper level and leave a lasting impression.” 

Coming into 2024, Joel is preparing to strengthen that deep connection, with a new full-length record on the way. Through collaborating with friends and embracing being uncomfortable with his vulnerabilities, he is ready to continue and use what he’s learnt from this EP for his future songwriting, propelling himself into a new, calmly confident era. 

“It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing. How the listener interprets it may be different, but I think it's a natural progression. I’m excited.” 

Joel Culpepper's EP Happiness Is Only A Few Miles Away is out now.

Joel Culpepper

Words by Ben Lee

Photography by Andrew Benge

bottom of page