What the Suffers do fits neatly into a soul revivalist movement that has its nascent roots in early-2000s New York City but has sprouted into a full-fledged phenomenon. Just look at early progenitors like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Charles Bradley who paved the way to a wider range of soulful groups including St. Paul & the Broken Bones, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas.
Kam Franklin, the powerful and boldly expressive frontwoman of the Houston-based outfit, doesn't quite buy the tag though.
"The only people who label us soul revivalists are those people who don't listen to that much soul music," she declares flatly, before softening a bit.
"As someone who has been listening to soul music all my life, when you really get down to the nitty gritty of it, what we're doing is not a revivalist sound. It appears that way because we're a big band and we have a horn section and we use real instruments and all that. But people assume, 'Oh, it's going to be like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings' or 'it's gonna be like Martha & the Vandellas; They are going to do some Motown stuff.'"
Instead, Franklin sees the group in the vein of bands like Chicago, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire — groups that featured horns and delved deep into soul and R&B sounds but also allowed for a wider, more diverse range of styles into their musical gumbo.
"Maybe it's just me," she says with a bemused sigh. "Maybe I'm like the smoker who doesn't smell their own smoke and everyone else is seeing this revivalist thing. I just find it so limiting to put that label on it."
The Suffers got their start seven years ago as more of a casual cover band with multiple singers, but as they gradually began writing more music, Franklin says that she found herself wanting to step into the foreground after spending much of her early career "in the back."
"I was a singer who would sit in with whoever would let me sing for a long time," she offers, noting that she sang for an eclectic range of groups from ska and punk rock bands to country, progressive rock, folk, soul, hip-hop, dubstep, reggae, and gospel acts over the course of her time in the Houston music scene. Yet it wasn't until the Suffers that she truly felt she'd found a musical home.
"This is probably the first project where I was truly allowed to be myself and shine, to explore myself as an artist."
Neither Franklin's past as a musical vagabond nor her present as a charismatic soul singer is that surprising, though — she's a deft performer whose voice pivots from low-key croons to explosive wails with ease, tracing classically minded R&B tunes with echoes of Stax and Motown. At the same time, she borrows elements of big band jazz and Latin rhythms that make the band's slippage from its traditional soul moorings feel seamless.
Franklin says the band creates music together in a highly collaborative process, with every member contributing tunes in various stages of completion and allowing the group to feel out the rest of the song.
"There's not really much limitation in terms of our creative process," she offers. "Sometimes it can be a bit chaotic, but the chaos works for us."
The chaos is indeed paying dividends as the Suffers ride high off the success of their debut album, TV appearances on The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, as well as a host of acclaimed festival appearances. A sophomore album is also nearing completion. And Franklin isn't too concerned with how the group's music will play in the increasingly processed and digitized world of popular music.
"Honestly, I feel as though there's a space for us and bands like us. People want to hear authentic shit, music that hasn't been edited and changed up so much in the studio that, when you go see them live, they sound nothing like that," she says.
"I get that it might not be what gets played on TV or Top 40 radio station, but maybe that's not who I'm going for. I'm OK with that."