Simon Okely is a student of The School of Life. The popular YouTube channel, a facet of London author Alain de Botton's emotional intelligence empire, which aims to answer the universe's big questions—like why we think about other people during sex or how to be your own friend—offers bite-sized nuggets of knowledge with a philosophical edge. Okely sometimes finds himself in a video wormhole. The clips feature topics he considers frequently, and it's comforting to know that someone else out there might be pondering the same ideas too. It's one of the things he loves about philosophy, which he's taken up as an academic hobby. Okely is not a practiced philosopher, but a curious mind, a fan of Plato and Aristotle. Over the phone, in a car with friends at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, he ponders music's relationship with math and science: "Music is numbers in time, astronomy is numbers in space and time," he says, regurgitating what a buddy has relayed to him.
"As you can tell, my memory retention is ridiculous," Okely continues, chuckling. "I can remember the lyrics to 40 minutes of my own songs so I'm pretty proud of myself."
By day—when he's not working his day job as a social worker—Okely turns his musings into romantic verses delivered as the wistful Slow Dancer, the easy-listening, groove-infused solo act he founded in 2014. The moniker is not inspired by the Boz Scaggs album of the same name, but a lyric from his debut full-length Surrender. Its follow-up, In a Mood, due out on June 9th via ATO Records, is full of the same breezy, yet precise guitar work, but highlights more of Okely's R&B and funk influences—from Stevie Wonder to Beyoncé. Once again, Okely, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, wrote and recorded every element of the record, from the warbly organs on title track to hi-hat dominant, jazz-influenced drumming on "I Was Often."
A more texture-heavy production, In a Mood creates a blanket of sound, each layer blending smoothly, a sonic gradient of guitar, organ, strings, bass, and vocals. Every tone lays in the baritone range, creating complementary combinations even when basslines are groovy and guitar licks are jazzy. The record straddles the line between past and present with nods to Van Morrison and Steely Dan and hints of more recent acts such as John Mayer and Whitney. Lead single "Don't Believe" begins with a moseying blur, a sexy Hall & Oates-esque groove. Okely's timbre maintains a steady flow, never escalating, exuding an authoritative sense of contentment—here's who is confident in his storytelling so there's no need to yell it. Meanwhile, "It Goes On," (premiering below) dives right into a groove and builds with sanguine guitar licks and subtle twinkles of keys.
His second effort is an album that seeps into your consciousness rather than grandstands, which parallels how Okely behaves as a human: He speaks eloquently, his voice a tranquil hum. Currently thousands of miles from his home of Melbourne, Australia, it was thousands of kilometers still further, in Perth, where Okely spent his adolescence. He took up guitar at nine and surrounded himself with music that made him feel like less of an outsider, like "Whatever You Love, You Are" by Aussie instrumental act the Dirty Three. Although he played in a band as a teenager, it was when he moved to Melbourne in 2013 that Okley joined the indie-pop act Oh Mercy, playing lead guitar. At that point something shifting. Although Okley was operating more as a hired hand, the role allowed the now 31-year-old to observe Oh Mercy vocalist Alexander Gow, learning what it means to be a frontman. As Slow Dancer, Okely is the captain, crew, and vessel. He was able to self-record and self-release Surrender, fleshing out his live band with friends who are solo musicians and producers in their own right. There's no element of Slow Dancer that Okely doesn't have his hand in. "Beyoncé and I share a lot in common," he laughs. "I'd be lying if I said she wasn't a role model, for sure. The dedication to her craft, the way she selects her team. I feel like she's a modern day art curator."
Okely's is not a religious man, but he did grow up in a faithful household. The balance between spiritualism and pragmatism comes from embracing the beauty and mysticism in religion while also realizing science and philosophy hold beauty, too. He references heaven and the devil throughout "Heaven Knows," while elsewhere, on "I Would," Okely heeds warning of his two loves: "Young philosophers and poets they will charm your day / And warm your nights / But they won't save your life." Like the rest of his album, it's romantic, dusty, and yellow with the light of sunset. But just as his passion for philosophy has taught him different ways to view the world, his propensity for poetry allows him to commit such experiences to memory, if not for anyone else, but himself.
"I suppose every person has their own philosophical journey with life," he concludes, "but for me and my life and in relation to my craft, I think once I realized the world doesn't owe me anything, all the pressure lifted."
Slow Dancer Tour Dates
3/29/17 - London, UK @ The Waiting Room
6/6/17 - Brooklyn, NY @ Baby's All Right
6/7/17 - New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
6/8/17 - Cambridge, MA @ The Lizard Lounge
6/10/17 - Ottawa, ON @ Zaphod Beeblebrox
6/12/17 - Toronto, ON @ The Drake
6/15/17 - Chicago, IL @ Hideout
6/16/17 - Chicago, IL @ SPACE
6/17/17 - Minneapolis, MN @ Icehouse
6/20/17 - Seattle, WA @ Barboza
6/21/17 - Portland, OR @ Doug Fir (Patio)
6/23/17 - San Francisco, CA @ Cafe du Nord
6/24/17 - San Francisco, CA @ Cafe du Nord
6/27/17 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
6/28/17 - Los Angeles, CA @ Resident
Allie Volpe is a writer living in Philly. Follow her on Twitter.