It’s a mild fall evening at an Uptown coffee shop and Sonny Knight is clad neck to toe in a dark, casual getup illuminated by the glimmer of a silver Vikings flat brim hat. Before sitting down, he orders a black iced coffee and waits patiently by the counter. “No cream,” he equably reiterates to the young barista about to spoil his dark beverage.
In a sense, Knight takes his coffee the same way he makes his music: straight, with no artificial flavor to mask what’s really there. “Sooner or Later,” Sonny Knight and The Lakers’ sophomore album due out Friday, October 14, acknowledges the darkness in life—and accepts the fact that even if we take our coffee with a little cream, that darkness still exists.
“There was a lot of dancing on ‘I’m Still Here,’” Knight says of the group’s debut album. “Not to say this one isn’t about dancing as well, but this one has a little bit of a darkness to it—more ballads to it.”
On “Sooner or Later,” Sonny Knight and The Lakers return as the soul revivalists they established themselves as on their 2014 debut album. Like peers Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones, Sonny Knight—now 68 years old—grew up trying to catch a break in the music business only to hit dead end after dead end amidst minor successes.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Knight caught his break when he was asked to stand in for a member of the Valdons, a Twin Cities soul group from the ‘70s that Knight worked with on other projects. At the time, Eric Foss, founder of the Minneapolis vinyl reissue label Secret Stash and drummer for The Lakers, was putting together a compilation of rare and obscure songs that featured the Valdons titled “Twin Cities Funk & Soul.”
From that point on, Knight and Foss slowly started to develop a rapport until Foss decided that this was a guy who could make good use of a backing band.
Like their debut, “Sooner or Later” offers plenty of dancey moments for listeners to get down and let loose. The title track opens with with a flurry of bright pops from the brass section, while “It Had to Change” features a barking baritone saxophone that guides a funky James Brown-esque groove.
But this album also finds Sonny Knight and the Lakers exploring a softer, deeper territory with moving ballads like “The Cry” that features a delicate guitar arpeggio or “Why” that slowly swells into an emotional exclamation, showcasing the gritty melisma Knight possesses in his booming vocals. These are the moving parts of the album in which Knight grapples with darkness, then transcends it in grand moments of triumph.
“Overall, the album is to try to get people to look at what’s going on,” Knight says. “So many people don’t think about the fact that you’re gonna leave this world. So what are you doing now while you’re in this world to make it a better place or take care of each other or to do something right while you’re here?”
This is perhaps most evident on the gospel-inspired album closer, “Oh, Mary,” which was written not long after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and addresses the politically-charged issue of gun violence head on.
Knight explains that lines like “If he hadn’t shot me down / Oh Lord, I would still be around” are meant to be more of a wake-up call for everyone to take a look at how we treat one another while we still have that option. Though the song attempts to provide comfort with the refrain “Oh, Mary, don’t you weep for me,” the words feel insufficient to assuage the grief in the song until Knight’s vocals build and the band embarks on one final ascent.
“There were times when we would perform this song where it would just bring tears to my eyes.”
With many of the songs on this record, Knight explains the writing process is a collaborative effort between him and all seven members of The Lakers. All of the members of the group come together to bounce ideas off of one another and iron out the details as they move along.
The group has been mulling around ideas, writing and recording for more than a year leading up to this record and it shows in the detail found in its lyrics and instrumentation.
“We like to let people be free to say and do what they want to do—that’s the way we do it,” Knight says. “Eric [Foss] has a vision and he stays tuned to the vision. Sometimes I’ll wander away from it, but he keeps me focused.”
As the evening winds down and the sun sets, Knight reminisces on the music he grew up on—Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Blind Boys of Alabama—and how they instilled in him a love of music and inspired him to never give up.
“For such a long time I’ve been the guy in the back, never really given the chance to shine. Right now, this puts me out there and now I really get to perform,” he says with a twinkle in his eye as the Uptown streets begin to darken.
“I guess maybe I’ve always had a dream inside me.”