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There are a couple of things stopping American audiences from realizing that World Outside My Window, the debut album from soul singer Glenn Lewis, is one of the more brilliant, satisfying R&B albums of the past year.
For starters, Lewis hails from Toronto. When you think of the future of black music, your mind doesn't leap to the land of back bacon, serious hockey fanatics and Michael J. Fox. In fact, it may come as a shock to many Yanks that there are actual black people in Canada.
"There are a lot of individuals back home that appreciate, grew up on and are influenced by soul music and African-American music, period," says Lewis, who now resides in North Philadelphia with the rest of today's more adventurous neo-soul artists. "[But] there are no real outlets, and opportunities are few and far between. So often, a lot of us find ourselves having to either make the trip down south or go overseas to the UK and try to get something popping off."
Luckily, Lewis didn't go to the British Isles, even though there's a chance he would have been appreciated more there. Instead, he set his sights on the good ol' U.S. of A. When his album was released in March, he found himself in a peculiar situation: It seems that at the same time his album dropped, another debut Canadian soulster -- a Winnipeg white boy named Remy Shand -- released an album of his own. Lewis found himself in the vanguard of Canadian soul entering our borders, a new wave Americans found to be more of a curiosity than a priority.
"I don't know if it's so much that it's not a priority as much as it's something new," says Lewis. "With anything new, like myself and Remy Shand, it's almost a guinea pig kind of a thing -- you know, because it's different. We sing about different experiences or we have different views on love and relationships or socially or politically conscious issues. We might express them differently, just due to our upbringing -- being from Canada, at one point in time, we were under British rule -- and it's a whole different environment and we view things differently."
But after a listen to World Outside, you might find that the things Lewis sings about aren't so foreign to Americans after all. With the help of Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, a pair of Philadelphia writer-producers whose list of past clients (Jill Scott, Michael Jackson, Musiq) has people pegging them as the new Gamble & Huff, Lewis turns in an album of tender love ballads, bouncy, mid-tempo numbers and overall authentic soul. He takes familiar, contemporary R&B scenarios (girlfriend creepin' around, love affair gone wrong, freaky one-night stand) and imbues them with genuine sincerity by summoning the soul spirits of his past.
Which leads us to reason no. 2 why Lewis hasn't really blown up yet: He sounds like Stevie Wonder. A lot. Maybe too much. More specifically, Lewis sounds like the Stevie Wonder of the post-Hotter Than July phase. (Atlanta soul singer Donnie, whose debut album, The Colored Section, comes out later this month, sounds more like the Stevie of the Talking Book/Innervisions/Songs in the Key of Life prime, but that's another story for another time.) The comparisons to the R&B living legend have made some folks a little dismissive of Lewis.
So just how does he takes the comparisons? "From now till the last person that decides to express [that I am] in any way even a glimmer of Stevie Wonder's league, then to me, that's a huge compliment," he says. "Because I know I'm gonna make my mark, God willing. If I have longevity in this business, I know, over time, even by the second album, I think people are really gonna get it. I think eventually people are gonna go, 'Yeah, clearly this cat is influenced by Stevie, but he's influenced by a number of other things that make him who is.' "
Lewis says he can't help it if he sounds like Stevie. He was born to it. His parents were both singers, and the young Lewis was weaned on the music of Wonder and other soul greats. He has said his father sounded so much like Wonder that as a kid he often confused the two. Later, at a high school talent show, the younger Lewis's eerie, soundalike rendition of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" astonished the audience. So he just rolled with it. "It just so happens that my vocal styling and my tone sound somewhat similar, I guess," he says. "I don't even dare give myself this kind of praise, but I am, without a doubt, very much influenced by Stevie."
Wonder is certainly no critic. "Stevie, on countless occasions, has come to my defense," Lewis says. "It's been great talking to him because he's a big part of how I've identified with myself as an artist and the things that I gravitate to naturally and the things I've learned about music, or just learned about life [as] a whole. He's just that kind of a teacher."
As Wonder is a teacher, a mentor, an Our Miss Brooks -- if you will -- to Lewis, Lewis is looking to become the same to the Canadian soul singers of tomorrow. "At the end of the day, it's about the music. And when you make good music, it's undeniable, and eventually I think we'll break through, but it's gonna take time."
Hey, if there are any other cats up there who are just as talented as Lewis, somebody should put them in the trunk of their car and sneak them across the border.
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