The Soul Seen™ is a retrospective of past features that provide a snapshot in time in the careers, from fledgling to legendary, of these very talented artists. The projects featured are older now, but no less significant. The insights and perspectives they shared, speak to their success and as you will find, still resonate today.
Conya Doss makes it CLEAR, she’s back
October 12, 2018
With a considerable and enthusiastic fan base eagerly waiting, the acclaimed and award-winning soultress, Conya Doss, suggested at the end of last year a brand new project was brewing with the release of her soulful, funky and infectious single, “I’m Trying.” Needless to say, anticipation was set in motion. More singles have followed like the groove – filled, sure “Stepper” lure, “Back to Us” and more recently, the loving declaration wrapped in a classic R&B vibe, “Until” stoking the fires of desire for Ms. Doss’ return. Well alas , the wait is now over with release of her new project, CLEAR.
Speaking with Doss earlier in the year just after dropping, the single, “I’m Trying” and thereby sounding the alarm for what has resulted in CLEAR, she enthusiastically described the project in relation to her others, as “a combination of everything.” She then also went on to note with equal excitement, “I had the honor of working with a couple of other producers outside of the two gentlemen that I normally work with. Of course, they’re still on the team, but it was just nice to get a different feel. Just venture out.”
The initial introduction to Conya Doss came while she was in New York City for an in-store performance at the iconic Macy’s Herald Square to promote her debut CD, A Poem For Ms.Doss back in 2002. Touting a pretty good memory during the talk with Doss about that time, she affably reminisces, “Oh my God! You’re taking me way back. Wow! That’s definitely been a minute.”
You could say that opportunity to be heard by scores of listeners at the world’s most famous store was indeed a sign of things to come. The stirred crowd of enticed spectators that day was consistent with the growing buzz around this Cleveland bred, singer/songwriter because of that splendid, now hard to find, debut – a choice brew of heartfelt sentiment, compelling grooves and fertile melodies straight out of the rich r&b/soul tradition with Doss’ engaging tone and passionate delivery emitting a life-lived authenticity. Boasting gems like the seductive “All Because Of You”, the warmly introspective “Meantime” and the classy remake of the Norman Connor’s hit, “You Are My Starship”, Doss’ entry onto the scene was strong indeed.
She fast became a notable artist in the then burgeoning movement known to many as “Neo-Soul”- A spirited crusade driven greatly, though not exclusively, by a legion of amazingly talented independent artists bent on keeping their artistic vision intact and ownership of their work.
Dropping a succession of widely acclaimed projects that followed (Just Because, Love Rain Down, Still, Blu Transition, A Pocket Full of Purpose and Seven:VII ) with many of the resulting tracks breaking through to coveted commercial radio air, Doss’ success has grown so notably on the soul scene that it has prompted many to dub her fondly, “The Queen of Indie Soul.” CLEAR is a fitting new chapter in her musical story, but indeed consistent with her past. One that will likely endear her to both new and faithful fans with that, now trademark, engaging tone and compelling delivery, felicitously immersed in a true, soulful, R&B vibe.
What’s also still consistent is Doss charting her own creative direction without much or any compromise. It’s certainly something she is used to doing and not only enjoys having the freedom, but insists on it. It’s something that now a legion of aspiring and even notable veteran artists count as the major impetus for releasing their music independently. Over the years the growth of the internet has made this even more attractive and viable. But has it made it easier?
“I think it is, to a certain degree, easier,” says Doss “But still, I always say it just depends on what you want.” She goes on to explain, “I stand by the fact and feel that being an independent artist means independently being able to creatively think and produce things the way I want to. I think it just allows for more freedom.”
You could imagine the time it takes for an artist, let alone an independent artist, to achieve the great deal of success Conya Doss has. So you’d certainly assume she can’t have time for much else right? Well that actually couldn’t be further from her reality. That’s because to this day she continues to do the thing she had been when she started her recording career – Teaching – Full time.
“Absolutely, but the beauty of it is that now I’m teaching at a performing arts school that is my alma mater and I really enjoy it,” says Doss. “I’m able to do the academic side, but be involved with the arts side as well, even though I don’t teach music there. But I’m always there as a soundboard for the students. It’s just a really good feeling to be able to have that balance.”
This all sounds good, but still might have some scratching their heads. Many artists given what she has accomplished and the window of opportunity to jump into the game full time would and have. Notable names on the soul and R&B scene who were on the come up with Doss have made that choice. To that, Doss sincerely states, “I have much respect for those other artists. We just have our different paths through life.”
“I’m going to blame it on my Gemini sign,” jokes Doss “It’s just me. I just feel, I don’t want to confine myself to a box. I have to be able to have that flexibility where I don’t feel like I have to just do that.” She admits, “I’ve definitely had opportunities to go full fledge music on quite a few occasions. But I’ve been blessed to be able to do both and touch people lives through music and through teaching. So I just think that’s my calling. That’s exactly what it is,” she declares. “I just think I’m able to do both, why not do both”
But something new in Doss’ life since our talk years ago is that she is a proud mom of a seven year old son. “Oh yeah, and he’s a piece of work,” says Doss affectionately. And it goes without saying he has had an impact on all parts of her life including her music. “A lot of songs people may be thinking I’m talking about a man or something and I’m like, no this is for my son,” she admits. “Definitely my whole perspective on life is different. The way I work, I’m doing this not just for me now. It’s just a whole different ballgame.”
For the established and desirous fans of Conya Doss she says of CLEAR, “They’re going to see some flexibility in my music.” She further explains,“ I think every time that I create more music they’re seeing a different side because as life progresses we progress and things change and we [artists] write about our own experiences. I think for me, this go around they’re going to hear a lot of clarity, vulnerability and just, more and more of myself.” And for all including the new ears that come across it? “It’s definitely going to be a feel good project and I know there’s something on there for everybody.”
And to learn more about her and tour information go to Conyadoss.com
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, IN FOCUS, 2002
WILL DOWNING The Journey Continues
On a sunny afternoon in Manhattan, I realize that I’m sitting in a place where scores of women would love to be. Behind closed doors with a gentleman whose rich, silky-smooth baritone and seductive delivery seemingly mesmerizes ladies like a swinging timepiece. I’m here to talk music with vocalist, WILL DOWNING and about the release of his new CD, SENSUAL JOURNEY, but my guess is those women would have a far different agenda, if you know what I mean. After just a few minutes into our talk, I’m convinced his warm smile and easy-going flow, add to the appeal of this suave New York son, but the velvety voice is without question, the key.
The title of his new release is quite fitting, for Downing has indeed taken many faithful admirers on a sensual journey. One that began some fourteen years ago with his distinctive, jazz-inspired and mellifluous timbre stirring romantic vibes, tender moments, and idyllic nostalgia. With a voice that conjures up the sophisticated elegance of legendary crooners before him like Johnny Hartman or Billy Eckstine and the mood-setting ability of R&B icons like Peabo Bryson and Luther Vandross, Downing personalizes every song he sings. In fact, early renown for him came with what he has become somewhat known for, which is his beautiful rendering of timeless classics – songs like the Deniece Williams’ tune, “Free” or Angela Bofill’s “I Try”. Needless to say the winning trend continues on the new project with Downing again adding his signature flavor to beloved gems such as “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.” But there’s more reminiscing to be done when he effortlessly weaves new warmth and beauty into the Michael Jackson hit, “I Can’t Help It”, with the aid of smooth sax man, Boney James, keyboard whiz, Ronnie Foster and the extraordinary, Marcus Miller. “I have a list of songs that I write down and I’m kind of going down the list” says Downing. “With the song, “I Can’t Help It,” I was listening to radio in New York and it came on and I was like, Man, this feels good and it sounds good. I started singing and humming it to myself and it stuck with me all day. Finally, I just said let me come up with my own arrangement for this song and that’s what I did.”
It’s clear the choice to adopt a song for his own comes from a sincere fondness for the music that has touched Downing over the years. It’s this fondness that sets the tone for all of “Sensual Journey”, a splendid union of R&B and jazz with an adult lean and seductive prose urging plenty of passion-filled scenarios. A listen to tracks like, the first single to radio, “Cool Water” with its infectious mid-tempo sway and pleasant Latin-tinged, acoustic guitar or the sure, quiet-storm jewel, “Maybe” with its alluring feel tailor-made for inciting intimate moments, will clue you to the target this accomplished artist is going for. “This album is for adults”, says Downing without hesitation.
Categories to artists like Will Downing are a frustrating reality that most often hinders their exposure to the mainstream in favor of younger more predictable artists. Even with a career such as his which, boast eight albums, a Grammy nomination, and sales of more than one million records. Not to mention, countless more sales and success he’s garnered with other prominent artists he’s recorded with. But “adult” is the only category he’s completely fine with. It’s where his music naturally falls and he’s quite proud of it. He also wants fans of his music to follow suit. “Basically what I’m saying (with this album) is, it’s a call to people in my generation and my age range. [I’m saying] listen, it’s okay to be this age and it’s ok to love this kind of music and it’s okay to buy it and it’s okay to see it in concert. Just because radio may not format music to your taste that doesn’t mean there isn’t music out there for you”. With unwavering confidence Downing continues, “When we’re out doing concerts, the joints are filled with people saying, ‘Oh I love it, thank God y’all are playing some real music’. Well, if that’s the way you feel, then you’re going to love this record. This record is for you. I’m not pulling any punches. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. This is it.”
To find out what Will Downing is up to now go to willdowning.com
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY 2003
SHELLY NICOLE Tellin’ The Whole Truth
“Come with me/I will lead you to a land/ where you can open your mind and be free/the light of truth will shine upon you/ and you will see for the first time/ follow me children/ get on board/there’s room for plenty and more.”
In a mock computer-generated cadence singer, songwriter, and bassist, Shelley Nicole issues this invitation at the end of the funky, rock-laced, self-portrait, “Scorpio Chile,” from the new CD of her and band, Blakbüshe, She Who Bleeds . . . But there’s nothing mock about her promise to “tell it like it is.” “I don’t know how not to. That’s my life,” says Nicole.
She fondly acknowledges coming from a lineage of folks – grandparents, mother, aunt, and uncle – who in different ways, spoke out against injustices, painted the real pictures of our society for others to realize and preached the significance of knowledge as being the prerequisite for real freedom. The need for her to do so could then simply be called destiny. It’s a sincere passion that some have suggested should occasionally give way to conventional song topics. “It’s funny,” says Nicole, “A friend use to say to me jokingly, Why don’t you just write a love song,” she laughs. “They’d say, can’t you just do what everyone else does? But I’d tell them, I write songs about loving yourself, about thinking enough of yourself, standing up for yourself and trying to love your environment.” She explains, “The [conventional] love song is just not the first place I go when I think. I’m just very affected by things around me and that’s just me.”
Indeed Nicole, born and raised in Massachusetts but who now calls Brooklyn, NY home, pours the issues, ironies and realities of the day into her songs. Cuts like the brazen, “America’s Secret”, the intuitive, “Spiritual Revolution” or the extremely happenin’, “3/4 Shit.” However, the poignancy lives not only in the messages, but in the delivery as well. Her voice is as potent, passionate and cogent as the very subjects themselves. And the sound is no less provocative brandishing a kaleidoscopic brand of spirit-lifting soul with a rousing rock edge and straight-up funkiness that reveals a seriously tight compositional flair. A listen to She Who Bleeds confirms why four years ago, answering the call to step to the leader spot and start a band, after doing the background thing for awhile, was the right move. It’s also a glimpse at an artist with the potential to be a breakout star.
Although She Who Bleeds . . . may escape genre categorization the project, three years in the making, with its messages of empowerment and a call to halt incognizance should assume the label of “timely” given the world’s climate of unrest. It’s something Nicole deems fortunate. “I’m blessed that the music held up for three years and the themes are on time,” says Nicole. “These are things that are always happening, but it just so happens they are things that are happening pretty prevalently right now.” Indeed Shelley Nicole’s choice to use her music as a vehicle to unabashedly incite thought is admirable and perhaps, as she would surely assert, necessary. Yet the stance could also be seen as risky for an artist looking for a shot at success amidst the fun-loving, materialistic fare that the music industry predominantly peddles. To that she says, “I think that for people who feel strongly about these things they’ll be fine and for some people, they just want to be entertained, they just don’t want to think about this stuff. They’re putting on the records so that they don’t have to think about this stuff.” “But this is my mantra,” she emphatically adds, “the beauty of music is that everybody is not going to love it. And then, there are those that are going to say, This is genius! The woman is a genius! And then, there’s going to be the middle of road. The people that will just say, It’s pretty good.” Finally, with a confident sincerity, she ends, “But I think that’s great!”
And that’s the truth, the whole truth and yeah, nothing but the truth.
For more on Shelley Nicole’s blaKbüshe go to http://www.blakbushe.com
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY, 2001
KAREN BERNOD Genuinely Speaking
At the heart of what we call soul is sincerity. It is what gives words meaning beyond definition and transforms a song into a conversation. Sincerity lies not only within the incredible voice of consummate and sought after vocalist KAREN BERNOD, as a listen to her CD, SOME OTHANESS FOR U or a trip to one of her live shows will reveal. But it also lies at the core of the person she truly is, off the bandstand and away from the mike. This refreshing quality is what turned a scheduled fifteen-minute interview with the gifted, Brooklyn-bred songstress into an enjoyable and interesting forty-minute chat.
What also comes through during a talk with Ms. Bernod is a humbleness that belies her vast experience. Experience that includes recording and performing with musical luminaries like the group Incognito, Paul Simon, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Mary J Blige, Chaka Khan, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and a host of others. An amazing instrument that is warm, captivating, full-bodied and commanding no doubt opens the doors for Bernod, but her personality is what surely keeps them that way. Although Bernod has always had her eyes set on a solo career and has always pursued that goal, as she notes, her work with such terrific artists has and continues to serve her well. “Background for me is like my nine to five. My job. And it still is and I love doing it,” says Bernod. “There’s an art to it and everyone can’t do it. I’m fortunate to be able to do both.”
Later Bernod shares fondly what working with one particular artist has meant to her. ”Chaka (Khan) is like my idol and I used to sing her songs in the bathroom mirror through a hairbrush, so the fact that I’m actually singing with her, I’m still in awe of.” At that moment she goes into a brief impersonation of the R&B diva that endearingly illustrates her unfettered veracity and also the great respect Chaka has for Bernod’s ability. “When I started working with Chaka she said you have this gig for as long as you want it and I’m totally in support of your solo project.” Neither was by any means an empty statement. At the time of our talk Karen was a couple of weeks away from touring with Chaka overseas and shares, with understandable excitement, that she will eventually be opening for the incomparable vocalist. This, like many of the things that have happened for Karen Bernod in her career thus far including the making and of her CD and the acclaim it’s garnered, has blossomed naturally.
Since it’s release, Some Othaness For U has steadily won over a growing circle of fans spreading as far away as Japan and as she describes it, “taken its own course.” Indeed the praiseworthy collection, boasting gems like ”Pray” and “Spirit” with their uplifting affirmations along with the enticingly smooth, “Chillin”, ”On The DL” and the groove-enriched invite, “Do You Wanna Do” has delivered Bernod to the world of independent recording artist with a splash. As she explains, it’s a path she’s glad to have followed. “Choosing [to be an independent artist] was the right decision. I chose it mainly because the record companies want to mold you and take so much from you without letting you have any creative input. But, I’m the artist. I should know a little bit about what I want to do and how I want to look.” After coming off a European tour with Incognito where she received much love and doing her own thing at the club, SOB’s in New York City garnering the same response from the audience, her decision was locked in. And the rewards have grown ever since. “It’s a slower process. It takes more elbow grease and all of that, but what you are paying, you appreciate it. It empowers you. You’re learning from it and I do want to set a couple of precedents in this business and change some things. So, I’m going to stick with it and getting the love and the kudos from people, it just shows me I’m going in the right direction.”
That Karen Bernod has received such adulation makes perfect sense. As will her certain success.
Karen Bernod who released several other acclaimed solo projects continues to be a sought after background and session singer. Click here to check out her catalogue and keep an eye out for new music.
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY, 2003
Alison Crockett Before Your Very Eyes
The catalyst for singer/songwriter, Alison Crockett’s solo debut being named On Becoming A Woman . . . , arrived in the form of a realization of sorts. Well, actually a couple of them. The initial concept revolved around the alias Diva Blue given to her by DJ/Producer, King Britt with whom she worked on the Sylk 130 project, When The Funk Hits The Fan and that spawned the popular underground hit, “Seasons Change”. But when the songs started to unfurl the first realization kicked in – they didn’t really support the concept. Feeling confident about the mounting collection of impressive tracks and rightfully so, Crockett who hails from the DC area, but who now calls Brooklyn, NY home, decided to go with the flow and find a heading that would best underscore their collective tone. That process revealed the defining realization that before her very eyes she had changed. “I changed quite a bit”, Crockett says of herself during the year and a half it took to complete the project. “Not significant changes, but I changed more from a girl to a woman. I started thinking of myself as a woman. And these are women’s songs,” she’s quick to add. “They’re not girl’s songs. They’re not about, ‘ooh will “he” like me’. It’s established. It’s established that there’s an attraction. [It’s established] that they’re having a relationship and they’re having problems. There’s [thinking] that I want more out of life than right now – Things that adults think about. So I figured, this is how I became a woman. I started thinking about all that kind of stuff. And I thought, ‘Ahh, that’ll work!’” And the ellipsis that follows the title is as important as the title itself because it acknowledges she is still growing into this stage of her life – Into womanhood and that of solo artist, both she seems quite ready to embrace wholly.
Indeed the talented vocalist has been traveling a path of steady progression toward this point, especially since her days at Temple University in Philadelphia where she “cut her teeth” on the stages of the storied music town and jazz was her calling. The experience not only brought sharpening of her ability, but also an invaluable glimpse at the kind of vocalist she was becoming – a stylist who although displayed a capacity for the jazz vernacular, clearly was something that harbored other musical influences and desires. Crockett can vividly recall regularly being on the bill with other vocalists of a now defunct club in Philly that while describing the others as either traditional or “smooth jazz”, would leave the space next to her name blank. “I’ve kind of been for a long time that artist that people can’t quite peg”, she says. But that characteristic certainly didn’t keep admirers away. In fact, the style driven by her dynamic voice and seductive delivery wooed several who proved instrumental to her further development and exposure. Folks like King Britt, saxophonist and Bluenote recording artist, Greg Osby as well as Geoff Wilkinson known to many as one of the principals of the rap/jazz unit Us3. Crockett appeared on their release, An Ordinary Day In An Unusual Place, an album touted by many as perhaps their best complete effort due in great part to the addition of her flavorful vocals.
Now with On Becoming A Woman . . . Crockett, who in addition to her vocal and writing skills is a talented pianist, has poured her wealth of accumulated experience and musical influences into a splendid, moving collage of sensual reflection, powerful affirmation and beautifully insightful takes. In the process, a complete look at this utterly mesmeric voice, soulful, strong and scored with individuality is granted and one of the more impressive releases this year revealed.
From the explosive opening track, “Save Me” where Crockett poignantly pleads, “Oh save me from/ loving you/I just promised myself/that I would not fall/in love again so soon” to the last, “Nappy” a celebration of her natural tresses, she shifts through a myriad of emotional colors and situations, but all supporting her tale of maturity. A creatively reworked version of Janet Jackson’s, “When I Think of You” gives us Crockett with an endearing sweetness while, “You Know What Happens” finds Crockett in an assertive, seductive mode with a jazzy backdrop declaring a certain someone can’t resist her special lovin’. Sitting in the midst of this very solid collection are “Crossroads” and “Like Rain” both amazing metaphorical looks at telling times in a relationship and strong candidates for instant classic status.
In addition to Crockett’s fine work all over this project is the equally fine musicianship compliments of a talented supporting cast and top-notch production from in-demand guitarist as well as sibling, Teddy Crockett. For him, this marks the emergence of an outstanding young producer destined for big things.
Alison Crockett, who is already enjoying success in the UK, is of course hoping for that and more here in the states with On Becoming A Woman. As for those who astutely discover this CD, she hopes they will have what she describes as an “ah ha” moment when listening. “That moment when you say, ‘Ah ha, yeah, I know how that feels,” she explains.
Ah ha, I got it! Right before my very eyes.
Check out Like Rain below, one of the fantastic tracks from On Becoming A Woman . . . and click on the album title to hear more and purchase
and now . . .
Alison Crockett is a splendid and accomplished vocal instructor and music educator back in the DC area. She released a few other impressive and acclaimed projects after the very successful On Becoming A Woman . . . , including Bare and the provocative Mommy, What’s A Depression along with a host of features on others. Although she has not released a project in a minute (we hope that’s something she has plans to rectify sometime in the near future) she is still wowing audiences live in and around the DC area. It would be wise if in that area or if you see her coming to yours that you check her out. You indeed won’t believe the vocal magic that happens right before your very eyes.
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
THE SOUL SEEN HEAVY
I would have gotten around eventually to reintroducing the following piece. It is for the incredibly talented, super fly duo, Heavy. In addition to then spreading the word about one of my very favorite groups (that, still being true to this day), it celebrates what I considered then and now to be a significant moment during ISPYSOUL’s initial run as well as a huge honor for yours truly. However, I’ve been nudged to do this sooner because I have found myself – upon hearing the music of many new artists on the scene today -repeatedly saying to myself or even sometimes out loud, that their sound reminds me or is reminiscent of this talented pair. In this piece there is the suggestion that they and their sound may very well have been way ahead of its time. Hearing what’s happening on the current musical landscape as well as with the shifts and changes in the industry, it seems that could very well be the case. And it’s true -for those of you who are not familiar with them – you would excitedly embrace them and the jewels they dropped like, “Do For You,” “Change,” “Unbelievable,” or “Wonderlove (for Minnie),” as brand new. For those in the know, here’s a reminder to pull your Heavy tunes from that special stash. Without further ado, here’s Heavy – a part of the Soul Seen.
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY, 2004
HEAVY Is Just Right
“To be referred to as heavy suggest something is too much to bear or that which is excessive. As it applies to artistic endeavors the word often connotes a creation of masterful complexity, deepness or profundity that flies above the heads of most – except for those with the intellect, keenness and “in the know” hipness to interpret it. The Heavy you now hold is neither too much to bear nor excessive. It is instead a incredibly happenin’ musical amalgamation of soul, rock and jazz, fondly reminiscent of years past, that supplies abundantly ideal portions of entertaining artistry for the mind, body and indeed, soul – Masterfully accomplished? Hell yeah – But beyond you? – Very doubtful.”
These are the words used to describe the group Heavy in the liner notes of their recent self-titled UK release. They are this writer’s words. Unexpectedly requested – enthusiastically supplied. It was indeed a pleasure to do so, but definitely not an easy task to sum up the admiration for this exciting crew in only a few words. Or for that matter, define their brand of music. However, a realization soon followed that even a flood of descriptive text would not adequately convey the effect of their music. They wouldn’t evoke fully the way Heavy blends a myriad of styles, revealing influences of the two principals, Casey Benjamin and Nicole Guiland, that belie their youthful appearance -or the way they shatter category with an almost rebellious abandon and whimsical flair, but arrive at a unique yet embraceable sound with sweet precision. A mountain of words couldn’t wholly illustrate the way your head will shift from a gentle sway to groove- inflicted nod to zealous dip and rise upon listening to their fertile inventions – or how Heavy seems on a course lit by creativity and obvious love for music – fueled by a desire to share and kindle enjoyment.
Will Comparisons help? Comparisons to whom? Groove Theory? Rene and Angela? Captain and Tenille? -To a degree, all of the above; for both obvious and not so obvious reasons. Maybe Mother’s Finest or a group they themselves cherish, Rotary Connection, which featured the wonderful Minnie Ripperton. Perhaps like the words, the comparisons just aren’t enough because Heavy is different – yeah, heavy – or maybe they should be considered, what’s next. For sure, they are now. Ultimately, the music will speak best for what Heavy truly is.
and now . . .
Like fine wine the number of projects Heavy actually released is limited and rare. Along with tracks on various compilations and as featured artists on projects from artists including revered, turntable ace/producer DJ Spinna, they released JAZZ MONEY and HEAVY: The First Sessions.
But in addition to their high powered performances and novel look, still made quite an impact on the then burgeoning independent soul scene for sure. With top-notch aid on both the music and business sides from stellar guitarist Teddy Crockett, Heavy turned heads and ears both in the states and abroad, which encouraged touring opportunities with likes of Q-Tip, N.E.R.D and Jill Scott.
I hesitate to say the dynamic duo have disbanded hoping instead to believe they’ve been on an extended hiatus; And maybe, just maybe, in a stealth-like fashion, concocting another long-awaited dose of heaviness. If not for a full fledged return, maybe to bless us with just a few more magical musical moments together.
It’s certain the two have been keeping their artistic muscles warmed up and in shape. Their talent and obvious love for music would not likely allow otherwise. Nicky Guiland amongst several creative endeavors, has for years been a featured vocalist on projects and with artists including jazz drummer and legend, Joe Chambers while Casey Benjamin’s been lending his sax, keyboard and vocoder skills to an array of A-list artists including Bilal, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar, Solange and as a member of the Grammy-award winning, Robert Glasper Experiment. And so, we can only hope to get real Heavy, to some degree soon.
Check out a few of Heavy samples below:
Do For You
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
THE SOUL SEEN KEM
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY, 2003
KEM Putting the Right Elements Together
It’s a lucky thing that the prevalent mind set of the music industry to foster monotony and artlessness has not kept gifted souls from being heard. The recent rise of artists, “doing it for themselves” has brought forth a crop of talented folks furtively proving that a notable slice of the listening public pie still desires artistry and meaningful messages. Case in point, vocalist, songwriter, and musician, KEM.
A little more than a year ago the “Motor City” resident born Kem Owens in Nashville, Tennessee, released the splendid CD that is KEMISTRY on his own label. The aptly titled concoction of smoothed out hipness, sensual vibes, stirring words, and Kem’s superb vocal prowess that hints to the flavor of legend, Al Jarreau, was ushered to the masses with a seemingly lofty goal – Sell 10,000 copies. Well, not only was the goal met, it was exceeded – while at the same time sparking a watchful eye and eventual offer from Motown Records to promote and distribute not only Kemistry, but 4 other future releases as well. It’s indeed ironic that the legendary label that once set up shop in Detroit would zero in on his project. It’s also fitting when you consider its iconic history of discovering and grooming stars even as recent as that of the talented, young soulstress, India.Arie. But why, you maybe wondering, after confirming his ability to sell records on his own would Kem decide to hook up with Motown? “It’s a win, win situation for me,” says Kem. “Having the machine of a major label behind me would allow me to reach a lot more people and to get the music released on a national level. It also helps me build my fan base, my market base.” He then keenly continues to elaborate on his decision this way. “If for some reason this should not do as well [as planned], I will have expanded my base and I can always go back to selling records on my own. I think the type of music that I’m doing is such that people will continue to buy the records for as long as I choose to make them. I will have established that kind of base.”
If Kem sounds confident, well that’s because he should be. Not only for his astute business acumen, but because he is in possession of the main element which has been key to his success thus far – Genuine, innate talent. In addition to being a completely self-taught musician, his vocal range goes 4 high on the octave scale and his emotive, creative style, which soars, bends, and soothes, employs them all. As to the comparisons made to renowned, multi-award winning vocalist, Al Jarreau, Kem considers himself in great company, but counts Jarreau and vocal wizard, Bobby McFerrin, as more like confirmations than necessarily influences. “I haven’t studied either one of those artists per se, but I am a big fan of Al Jarreau.” He explains, “A lot of things that I’ve been doing or have wanted to pursue musically, I’ve been doing all of my creative life, but those two artists helped validate it. You hear them and it’s like, okay, so that is cool and I’m not crazy for wanting to do this. But they’ve paved the way for it to be done.”
And doing it he most certainly is -folding his brand of vocal artistry into a soul-rich collection with love as the dominant theme, boasting gems like, “I’m Missing Your Love” or the first single, “Love Calls.” The lean to love on Kemistry is, however, something he admits to happening quite by chance. “I think that, somewhat by default, it’s an album that’s centered on love and a lot of people get that the most. I didn’t set out to do that. I really just selected songs that were closest to me, I liked the most and,” he adds with a humble chuckle, “were ready to go.” However, he admits, “I’ve been known for writing love songs for the duration of my career and I take pleasure in that. I think that’s something people need, people want, and identify most with.”
But you’ll quickly discover that although the intriguing and inventive voice that serves up the love stories is well suited for the task, there are other topics clearly close to Kem’s heart as well. Topics like spirituality and faith. Cuts like, “Brotha Man” and “Matter of Time” will bring you those with consistent hipness and stunning vocal flow. When asking Kem about his hopes for Kemistry, he goes back to why he got with Motown and what potential it creates. “I don’t want to be limited to or equated with being a “jazz” artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to be able to move into other markets. And the fact that a label like Motown came and made an offer lets me know that it’s a possibility that we can move into other categories. I’m hopeful it can become mainstream.” However, he is quick to add emphatically, “But it ain’t necessary! I’m hopeful. [Basically] I’m not interested in the people who aren’t interested. I’m only interested in the ones who are digging me. Feeling me. Those are the ones I cater to.”
Seems like Kem might very well have the formula for success.
Needless to say, Kem did indeed find the formula and has been whipping it up on the regular, over the years, for those countless fans that are definitely “feeling” him and his music. He’s had four #1 hit singles, three Gold selling albums, three Grammy nominations, and is a four-time NAACP Image Award winner – not to mention, he keeps a packed out schedule of tours and sold-out shows.
For more about Kem and when you can see him in your town go to musicbykem.com
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
The enormously talented and highly regarded, singer/songwriter Rahsaan Patterson, granted ISPYSOUL two interviews early in its initial run. In fact, his first was the first full interview feature that appeared on its pages. The New York born Patterson, who got his start as a child actor as part of the cast of the popular television show, Kids Incorporated in the eighties and later went on to writing hits for artists like singer/actress Brandy (“Baby”), released his self -titled debut, RAHSAAN PATTERSON, in 1997. The widely acclaimed project with gems like “Stop By”, “Spend The Night”, and “Stay Awhile”, helped stoked the fires of a resurgent soul music movement that would be deemed, by many, as “neo-soul” and also seduced a legion of fans with cult-like obsession, eliciting sold-out shows around the country.
Patterson would later, in 1999, follow up the debut with LOVE IN STEREO, another fan favorite steered by his emotive, multi-octave ranged vocals and flaunting superlative songwriting, incredible production and infectious grooves.
We caught up with Patterson a couple years later as he was working on his next project and in retrospect, our candid conversation was perhaps prophetic as he shared his views on his career at that point, the Love In Stereo record, the industry, the label he was then on and the artist he was intent on being. Below is that interview:
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, IN FOCUS, 2001
ISPYSOUL: You had already done a great deal of recording prior to releasing your debut solo CD, but was there still any anxiety?
Rahsaan Patterson: It was a natural progression for me to get to the point of making a record so when I was making it, it felt natural, you know, like the next phase. I was definitely excited about releasing an album.
ISPYSOUL: With that first CD, musically, what were you trying to accomplish or show?
RP: That I’m not a follower, that I don’t choose to be a follower unless I want to be lead by someone. I knew that I had to make some kind of impact and in doing so, I had to be me.
ISPYSOUL: I’ve always felt that an artist is only as good as their second project. Is there a great deal more expectation for your second CD than there is on your first?
RP: I believe there is on the second project. Definitely. People have more of an expectation. They want to at least see if you can live up to what the first one was. I believe it is true in that sense. I know for myself, I am always changing, growing rather and getting to places within myself where I feel comfortable with exposing other sides of myself to people through music. So with each album it just gets a little deeper for me that way. I feel that with each album, it’s for people to get to know the artist, maybe a little more in depth – See some other sides instead of that same side for twenty years.
ISPYSOUL: The first single off of the second CD, LOVE IN STEREO, was “Treat You Like A Queen.” Because this was your important follow-up CD and because of the nature of the song, dealing with issues of abuse, was there any hesitation by the label to release this as the first single and to choose another?
RP: Well the interesting thing is, “Do You Feel The Way I Do” was the last song that I recorded for the album and I recorded that song, with those producers, basically because that was supposed to be the first single. For some reason, it ended up not being – after spending an astronomical amount of money with two hot producers of the moment – for a song that was suppose to be the first single because they were hot at that moment and the production style of the song was suppose to be the hottest. It was crazy for it not to be the first single after all of that, but there are certain areas that I don’t control. But in terms of what I write and what I sing and who I do it with, I have control over that.
ISPYSOUL: Along with the song “Treat You Like A Queen” you started a foundation called Soul Survivors [dedicated to the rebuilding of condemned houses into new shelters for victims of abuse]. What brought about you being moved to record this song and to start this foundation?
RP: Growing up around it. Growing up around physical abuse – Being exposed to it and realizing the effect that it has had on my life and my view of relationships. I knew that it was something that a lot of people could relate to and I know definitely a lot of people that come from the place I come from and could relate to it. So it really stems from a healing place and a place of putting out what’s real and something for people to think about. I‘ve always wanted to give back and in doing that, I just started the foundation and hopefully within the next few years we’ll be able to embellish on that.
ISPYSOUL: With now two CDs under your belt and with now a third soon to be released, can you give us an idea of what we’ll hear that will reflect your growth and experiences since the last CD?
RP: It’s another side of Rahsaan. Not that you haven’t had glimpses in the two previous albums. It’s definitely the next album after Love in Stereo. With “Get Here” being the last song on that album, it segues into the new one.
ISPYSOUL: I, like a number of other people, believe you are just half way over the wall of full- blown stardom. How do you feel about that assessment and does it really matter that you become a “star?”
RP: Well, like Sly [of Sly and the Family Stone] said, “Everybody is a star” and my level of success is not defined by what is most commonly assumed being successful is. You know, like having a platinum record and all that kind of stuff. For me, my success is everyday, waking up cool with myself, and cool with my decisions and my choices – Always maintaining true to myself and artistry first. As long as I can stay true to that, I feel that I’m extremely successful in this industry.
ISPYSOUL: Because that‘s a hard thing to do, stay true to yourself and still stay on a label.
RP: Yeah, yeah, but then there’s always a reason why they keep you. Beneath all of that there has to be a reason why they keep you.
ISPYSOUL: Why is it, you believe, that your label has kept you especially since your CDs have done well, but haven’t been the multi-platinum successes they usually look for? Also keeping in mind, there have been other artists that have been dropped for similar situations.
RP: I can’t really say, because I’m not them and any perception I have in my mind is just a perception. I know that what I bring to the table is credibility and strength in music- Individuality, hope and truth. I guess, in the end, its just because I’m Rahsaan and I’m not anybody else. I’m me and what else should it be. And I guess, as difficult as it may be for them to try to understand me or understand what to try to do with me or my music – that’s on them, but there’s obviously some reason why I’m still there.
ISPYSOUL: With this whole Neo- Classic Soul. . .
RP: (laughs) I can’t believe that’s, like, still the phrase.
ISPYSOUL: I can’t really believe that there is a phrase, quite frankly.
RP: Well, outside of that, what I’m saying is that same phrase was around in 1996, so I guess we’re still in this.
ISPYSOUL: Well we’re hearing it more, its seems, because ironically enough, there’s been a succession of artists, new artists, that have come out that have been conveniently plugged into this classification.
RP: Well, that’s bullshit really, because the bottom line is its music, period. When it’s not hip- hop or when it’s not bubblegum pop, then they’ve got to give it something – Another label. It’s just unfortunate that they have to label it Neo-Soul simply because it takes people to a time when songs were strong songs and had melodies and were more memorable because of the sentiment or melody or lyric.
ISPYSOUL: But like it or not its an acceptable stamp now. . .
RP: And now, it’s a gimmick. Now it’s a way to be to fit into this new genre to sell records that are supposed to be hot right now and its all a bunch of bullshit.
ISPYSOUL: Now, with that being said, does that hurt or help you? I mean, you’ve been doing your sound, this sound, since you’ve been doing what you do. . .
RP: And being that I’m who I am and have always been, I never go with the rest of the grain. That just doesn’t appeal to me at all. So on this third album you won’t be hearing “Spend The Night” (song from his debut CD, Rahsaan Patterson). You won’t be hearing that because “Spend The Night” was in 1996.
ISPYSOUL: When I went to check you out at S.O.B.’s in New York, I was very surprised to see the lines waiting outside the door and the place packed. But the thing that impressed me the most were people standing there, being able to sing word for word every single one of your songs. Can you give me an idea of just how you feel when something like that happens?
RP: It’s a beautiful feeling and it’s nice to know that people appreciate it and are there for you. On the other hand, it sometimes felt like I was not either existing on this planet or the other people involved in my career were fucking crazy. Because you know, it kept being said that people weren’t feeling me and coming up with all these excuses why my records weren’t selling and why people weren’t feeling me. To do a show, sell it out and have people standing there, singing every song. There were times when I’m like, what the fuck is going on? Am I buggin’ out? Or like, what’s really going on? So it was always comforting to get to that point and know that I wasn’t losing my mind and that basically other people were just talking trash and making excuses.
ISPYSOUL: So now with this third CD coming up, what changes in that respect?
RP: What changes? I have no idea because I’m not in the position that those people are in to sell records -To make them number one records. I don’t know how to do that. Those people get paid five hundred thousand dollars a year to do that, so they should know how to do it. What I know how to do is write songs, and present Rahsaan Patterson. That’s all I know how to do. I am a point now where I’m not as moved or bothered by the excuses and opinions that in the past made me the reason for lack of, you know, lack of listeners. Now I’m just like, whatever, I’ve got to do me. I’ve got to do what I’m doing and that’s it. Not that I have deaf ears to other peoples opinions or anything like that, but number one, I have to respect your musical knowledge in order to even check for your opinion. I’m 27 years old and I am a young black male who lives in this society and who is very conscious and aware of the state of music and the youth mentality. For me, as an artist, its about being original, but yet, using what I’ve learned from growing up, listening to people that I grew up listening to, and incorporating that knowledge and manifesting it into some kind of strength and power for myself so that I stand apart. I’ve always felt that I wanted to show people that I’m just like they are. It’s interesting because, I don’t know if its people’s perception of what an artist is or what, but I know that I’ve always been perceived as something different and that’s fine, but I always felt like I wanted to let people know that . . .
ISPYSOUL: I’m just like you
RP: Exactly! That we all are capable of achieving greatness and we all have the power to do and be whatever we want.
I’m at a point now where I’m cool with being here, with everybody else without having to prove anything, – without having to prove anything.
and now . . .
Rahsaan Patterson would ultimately part ways with his then label, MCA and his third project, AFTER HOURS, was released in 2004 on the independent label, ironically called, Artistry. The move has become a sign of the times for many renowned and successful as well as incredibly talented upstart artists frustrated by the bureaucracy, limitations and short-sightedness of the major music behemoths. Patterson has since had several other successful, Billboard-charting projects including WINES & SPIRITS and BLEUPHORIA, as well as continued collaborations with A-list artists and producers. And yes, he’s still selling out shows across the country and overseas. Catch him if you can!
For more on Rahsaan Patterson go to his website, Not-of-this-world.com. Of course!
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, IN FOCUS, 2003
Larry Gold The Midas Touch
The story of arranger, cellist, and composer Larry Gold is one that should serve as an example to many in the music business or for that matter, in any business. Why you ask? Because his success is a result of his sincere love for what he does, a desire to grow, the recognition of talent around him, and of course, his own outstanding ability.
Check out the whole interview with Larry Gold above
His story is also one of irony because although many of you aren’t familiar with his name, you and scores of others have experienced his “touch.” Gold’s amazing body of work is punctuated by his tenure with the legendary label, Philadelphia International, as first, part of the house band MFSB that propels the treasured classic soul and R&B hits by folks like the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the Spinners and Patti Labelle to name only a few. And later, as string and horn arranger on hits from Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden & Whitehead, and more. That experience, while concurrently siphoning the knowledge of Sound of Philadelphia architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and renowned producer, Thom Bell, accounts for the prowess that has since driven both, major acts and emerging artists to engage his services. The list is both impressive and diverse, boasting such artists as Musiq Soulchild, Floetry, Jill Scott, Brandy, Jay-Z, Monica, Gerald Levert, The Roots, Kindred, Common, Vivian Green, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, Boys II Men, Glen Lewis, Kelly Price, and more. It’s also impressive because it shines with the glow of platinum and yes, gold selling success the records from these artists enjoy.
But there are things that stand out in the story of Larry Gold that could perhaps be seen as the basis his for longevity, success, and the respect he’s garnered- things such as his readiness to embrace new situations that ultimately unveil opportunity. Another is his love of the place he was born, bred and still calls home. You guessed it, Philadelphia. And the two go hand in hand. It’s what attracted a very young and gifted cellist with initial classical aspirations but a fondness for popular music, to the emergent label that was to become the fervent soul source, Philly International. “I always wanted to be more than just a cello player,” says Gold. “I was always involved with popular music. Even from a little child I was learning Elvis Presley tunes on the guitar. So it was both. It wasn’t just one or the other.” He continues, “I must have been anywhere from thirteen to fifteen [years old] when I met Leon Huff for the first time, playing cello.”
Ultimately his vast experience, love of both, a broad range of quality music and the art of making records over the years is what fueled his opening of a small studio in 1985. That would become the prototype for the State of the Art recording facility now known as The Studio, used by many of Philly’s brightest young talent. When asked if the young artists who are flocking to his studio now fully know the depth of his impressive resume and ties to the legendary Philly sound, Gold responds, “It depends on who they are. Certain people do and certain people don’t. He continues, “I know enough young producers that they might say to other people, hey, he’s been making hit records since he was a baby.” And he adds, “I think that people like Timberland do. I think they’ve learned after working with me now a bunch of times that its not just random. I think Rodney Jerkins knew. I think that Amir (Questlove of The Roots) knew. A lot of these young producers are big fans of old music,” Gold asserts. “There’s a lot of respect or else I wouldn’t be working quite as hard as I am.”
So when he was approached by the UK label, BBE, to do a record, the concept was a no-brainer – an homage to the rich and legendary Philly music scene he has been a part of for so many years. The result, Larry Gold presents Don Cello and Friends, a cornucopia of some of Philly’s finest, past, present and future, submitting lyric, voice and song to Gold’s lush and affecting arrangements.
Busy with arranging gigs seemingly around the clock and running a popular recording studio, Gold hadn’t given much thought to doing a record of his own and really had to ponder the offer from BBE. But as he explains his decision to go forward with the project, he says with a chuckle, “I think at the time, a whole group of people were recording at the studio and I thought to myself, ‘well I can get the young kids to help me make it.” Indeed the assiduous 55-year old Gold called upon a range of talents from young and little known to legendary with the criteria for selection being pretty simple. “First of all I wanted everyone to at least have some roots to Philly. The whole concept was to keep it local if I could,” says Gold. “I wanted [the project] to be a touch of the old, but also with some new people. Some [artists] that people never heard of.” He explains, “My intention was to make a nice blend of old and new and not just famous, but also introducing some younger artists.” Don Cello and Friends is the mission accomplished starring a cast which includes Floetry, Kindred, Gerald Levert, Black Thought of The Roots, Jaguar Wright and Philly music royalty McFadden & Whitehead and Bunny Sigler sharing the stage with lesser known, but solid talent like Carol Riddick and Eric (ERRO)Roberson to name a few. The musical goal is achieved as well with infectious dance and up-tempo grooves flowing there way through to warm, sensual and tender moments all providing a hearty glimpse at Gold’s masterful, mood setting, string arrangements. On Don Cello and Friends he successfully whips up the spirit of the classic Philly sound while displaying vibe of the current Philly music scene.
The making of the CD could be seen as one in a multitude of things validating what Gold had a hunch would eventually happen – And that is Philly’s return to prominence as a major music town. When asked about the renaissance Gold says, “I had a sense. I had a very strong sense. I kind of smelled it at the beginning of the 90’s.” But he is also quick to give cudos to the revered Philly unit, The Roots for being a huge catalyst. “The Roots had a lot to do with the city coming back,” says Gold. “Because The Roots really kept playing. They were a band. And when there weren’t other bands playing, they were playing. In a way, they folded into the into the neo-soul movement.” In the end, what he believes is, “No matter what the other markets do, we do our own sort of style and at this point we’re having success with it.”
It’s clear Larry Gold has had a hand in that success both times around. Or you might say, he’s still shining bright on the Philly music scene.
Check out Larry Gold presents Don Cello and friends by clicking here
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY, 2003
MARLON SAUNDERS Right on time
In a business where many set their sights, often prematurely, on “out front” glory, singer/songwriter MARLON SAUNDERS revels in the significance of being a part of something special. Taking a look at his impressive resume, you can certainly see why he would. His multi-ranged, soulful sound has been employed by music icons like Sting, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and Barry White to name a few. He was part of the inventive vocal ensemble, Voicestra, fashioned by the amazing, Bobby McFerrin. And he is co-founder of the eclectic, groove-driven collective, Jazzhole, that has itself garnered much acclaim and a solid following due in part to Saunders’ distinctive, passionate flow.
Being a vital cog music folks could call on to complete their vocal vision was actually all the Maryland-born Saunders had his sights set on upon graduating from Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. “It was never, ever a dream of mine to be a solo artist,” he reveals with much sincerity. “It was always my dream to be a session singer. It was always my intention of coming to New York, doing tour work and working with other artists. Really just perfecting that world of being a session singer.” His plan had been working to perfection. So you’ll understand why Saunders refers to the opportunity to release his solid debut, ENTER MY MIND as “icing on the cake.” Lucky for us, it was a destiny he couldn’t shake. “For the longest time I was just riding on a high from creating with other people,” says Saunders. “I’m such a background singer head. I love harmony. I love singing with other singers. I love that!” He also speaks to his place with Jazzhole as giving him a “chance to be creative and write” and being “a creative outlet.” But for Saunders, who points to the improvisational artistry of McFerrin’s Voicestra as perhaps part of the catalyst for the solo plunge, “It just kind of felt like the timing of everything was right.” He explains, “It felt like the music that I was beginning to hear and seek out around me was just where we were in terms of growing as human beings. Everything in the world just seemed to be like, ok, now it seems like it would be a good time for me to say some things that I’ve wanted to say, because it would now resonate.”
And so we have the aptly titled, Enter My Mind, a soulful, 14-track voyage through Saunders’ thoughts, emotions, and recollections glazed with a retro finish, but like no one you’ve heard before or are hearing now. It is a marriage of his musical influences including the soul-rich ‘70s and the ones his impressive experiences have exposed him to. Fervent, seductive and cool are Saunders’ vocals as he moves from the upbeat tale of perseverance that is “Keep Doin What Ya Do” and psychedelic-soul vibe of “Afro Blue My Mind” to the mood setting, slow groove of “Coolin” and the beautiful, “The Beginning of Never”, a personal favorite of his. “It represents for me,” says Saunders, “kind of how I see our existence and our purpose.” “You journey in life, trying to make some sense of a lot of things. But what I realized is that Earth itself gives us the easiest example of what it is. It’s just the continuation. Like there’s no separation of anything. It’s just one cyclical thing. So for me the song became this great play on words.”
Enter My Mind marks the “beginning of another chapter” for Marlon Saunders, one he didn’t know he’d be writing, but one he’s eager to fill. “I’m at a place where I’m saying, yeah, let’s roll up the pant legs, jump in the mud and get in,” exclaims Saunders. “Because for me, this is a win-win [situation]. I’m enjoying it, I’m having fun, I have a great band and the great thing that’s happening is that I’m seeing people respond to my music and I’m kind of like, wow! That’s what I’m feeling, like wow!”
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
THE SOUL SEEN OMAR
From the original feature segment, IN FOCUS, 2000
Omar Haven’t You Heard
“When I grow up I want to be like Omar.” When asked about that comment, England–bred, singer, songwriter and musician, Omar replies with a humbled chuckle and flattered lilt, “I take it with a pinch of salt because there was an obvious laugh when he was saying it.” The “he” in this case is the one and only, Stevie Wonder and although the statement was made with his storied comic flair it’s also obvious it packed a wealth of sincere admiration. Why you say? The legendary icon will appear on Omar’s next project and he made the call. “He called me up twice in two days in fact, to say he had a song for me”, recalls Omar. “I had to wait seven hours in the studio for him to turn up but hey, I would have waited two days. It was one of the most memorable times for me.”
Viewed by many as an icon himself on his home turf, Omar’s artistry has actually incited similar accolades from artists and fans this side of the pond -Folks like India.Arie, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Maxwell and more who are often in attendance at his sold-out shows in places like Atlanta, Chicago or New York. In addition, his collaborations boast a list that includes Lamont Dozier, Leon Ware, Erykah Badu, Common and more. On his CD, BEST BY FAR, now being released stateside, soulstress, Angie Stone and hip-hop/jazz weaver, Guru show the love with flavorful guest spots adding to a gem-filled collection of classic grooves and maestro-like orchestration.
Best By Far is actually Omar’s fifth release over a career spanning thirteen years. While it carries such a definitive title, many of his faithful followers would probably proclaim this just another in the string of creative hipness he’s become known for. But again, aside from keen soul searchers here in the US, known about mostly in the UK. The domestic drop of this, his latest, he feels will serve as a good first introduction to his uniquely soulful sound as opposed to waiting to put out a new CD here later with a name only relatively few know. Hopefully there will then be a more sizeable American contingent, captured and thirsting for the new project planned for completion this year. “[Best By Far] hadn’t been released out here,” explains Omar. “It’s only been available as an import. There’d never been any promotion with it. So rather than just stepping over with a new thing, I thought it would be easier to introduce people to the latest stuff. Because there’s the stuff on there like the duo I did with Angie [Stone] that no one’s ever heard. So it’d be cool to give [people in America] the opportunity. The hard core fans obviously know it, but it would be cool to introduce it on a bigger scale.”
For many of those same hard-core fans Omar also carries the distinction of being at the forefront of what’s now been labeled, neo-soul. When asked about being bestowed with the tag he is guardedly grateful for the assessment, but has astutely put it all in perspective. “It’s a flattering thing and it’s great for people to mention my name in the same breath as some of the others who have been credited in that way or to say that kind of thing,” he says. “But that’s as far as it goes. I’m not sitting down saying, I’m the founder of this so what’s my next song going to be. It’s an accolade I receive very humbly, but that’s as far as it goes. That’s not how I sit down to write the music. It’s what I’m vibin’ about at the time.” Indeed Omar’s vibe is one emitted by artists motivated most by the opportunity to create something unique, lasting and stimulating. And the moment in time dictates the focus. Best By Far, a masterfully woven tapestry of grooves, sounds and incredible arrangements, is the mission accomplished. Think classic soul with pumping rhythm sections, in the pocket and funky – a vibrant section of horns juiced with the sweet growl of trombones – strings – lush, beautiful and stirring – Background harmonies layered to perfection and Omar’s lead – super cool and utterly hip. And that moment in time dictated the direction – a lean to cinematic score writers of the 60’ and 70’s. “I always have this idea about who I want to work with on an album,” says Omar. “I like to work with icons. I’ve worked with Leon Ware, Lamont Dozier and Syreeta Wright. But this time I was gunning for Lalo Schiffren, Burt Bacharach, and John Barry.” He continues, “In essence what I’m trying to do is have a funky beat with strings and orchestration over the top of it.” The result is something reminiscent of the slick soundtracks for Shaft or Superfly – jewels from maestros like Barry White, Issac Hayes or vintage Quincy Jones – the magic provided by Philly’s MFSB, with a hint of mod, Austin Powers- like flavor – Funky, hip and oh, so soulful.
It seems unimaginable that with the formal introduction of Best By Far to U.S. ears Omar won’t continue to draw mounds of new found love and recognition beyond the discerning music miners. But of course, that remains to be seen. However for Omar, his task is simple. “I just try to enjoy myself when I’m making the music,” he says. “I try to make music that everyone else will enjoy.” That is the bottom line. Haven’t you heard?
Check out the Best By Far by clicking here
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original ISPYSOUL feature segment, IN FOCUS, 2003
RAPHAEL SAADIQ DO YOU REALLY KNOW
Depending upon with whom you speak, the name RAPHAEL SAADIQ will elicit various responses. The lion’s share of folks will no doubt place him as the thin-framed, lead voice of the ultra-funky, soul trio, TONY, TONI, TONÉ that garnered much love and success from the late 80’s through the 90’s. From Oakland, CA, Saadiq (né, Wiggins) along with brother, Dwayne and cousin, Timothy Christian, made an impact on the R&B scene with an organic, live sound that meshed their love and reverence for vintage funk and soul as well as gospel with a current day gleam, churning out top-ten hits like “Little Walter”, “The Blues”, “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” and “Anniversary” to name only a few. Others will site their connection to Saadiq as brainchild and member of the group, LUCY PEARL, that featured EN VOGUE alum, vocalist Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from standout hip-hop clique, A TRIBE CALLED QUEST. Their brief, but successful union spawned the Grammy® nominated hit, “Dance Tonight.” And still others will be familiar with his string of soundtrack efforts like the hit, “Get Involved” featuring rap luminary, Q-tip, from the PJ’s, “Ask of You” from Higher Learning or “Just Me and You” from the iconic film Boyz In The Hood. But perhaps only the more savvy music mavens will realize the enormity of Saadiq’s work as writer and producer – An impressive string of hits that have filled Billboard charts and grabbed a host of awards, but have flowed from the lips and tracks of others. Tracks from artists like D’Angelo (“Untitled”, “Lady”), Erykah Badu (“Love Of My Life” featuring Common), Angie Stone (“Brotha”), Bilal (“Soul Sista”), Calvin Richardson (“She’s Got The Love”), Macy Gray, Whitney Houston, Kelly Price, The Roots, the Isley Brothers and so many, many more. The irony in all of this is that not until the 2002 release of his debut (that’s right, debut), INSTANT VINTAGE, could Saadiq truly be recognized by the masses as a solo artist.
“I think, more or less, that I was really trying to figure out and find out what was going on with the [music] business and learn it,” says Saadiq of the wait. “I could of have taken off when I was younger and done an album, but it really wasn’t about that for me – to be like a Bobby Brown or Usher and win BET (the network) all over, that really wasn’t me. I’m really like a band oriented person and I really love making music. There were some people who were saying, ’If you wait to late, you’re going to be too old to do an album.’ But, I was like, you know what, whatever happens and whatever comes to me, I’m [at least] enjoying producing at the same time and I can get off on being in the studio and just listening to [the music] myself.”
Lucky for us he shared his “Gospeldelic” sound, an ingenious concoction of his musical influences, and in the process, proved his choice to wait was the right one. The critically acclaimed Instant Vintage garnered three Grammy nominations – one for best R&B Album and two for the hit from it, “Be Here” featuring D’Angelo. Now, Saadiq is back with his follow-up, RAPHAEL SAADIQ: ALL HITS AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, a live two CD set that is a soul-stirring, good time ride through some of the illustrious stages of his career, past and present. It also celebrates and represents another first for him – the first release on his reactivated, Pookie Entertainment label, on which the Lucy Pearl project was put out, but that is now totally independent. According to Saadiq, starting with a live recording was very significant.
“The reason I decided to do my first record live was because that’s where it starts for me,” says Saadiq. “So when I was starting this label I wanted it to be how I started my life as a musician. I also had songs that you couldn’t get all at one time – stuff from the Boyz In The Hood soundtrack, Higher Learning, Baby Boy, “Get Involved” from The PJ’s – so I wanted to put all these things on one record along with some Tony songs, and some of the new stuff from Instant Vintage that people really didn’t get to hear. [Basically] I wanted to connect the dots before I really moved on to a new chapter.”
Indeed, the super gig recorded live at the House of Blues in Los Angeles wields an ultra-tight band backing up Saadiq as he rouses a sold-out crowd with an array of memorable tracks. But that only holds half the excitement. The other half comes from the guests who share the stage with him. Fellow Bay-area standouts Goapele and Ledisi lend their characteristic flair to the track, “Different Times,” while Leslie Wilson of the legendary soul/R&B group, New Birth (“Wildflower”), mesmerizes the crowd with soul–drenched and evocative old-school sway on “Uptown.” More surprises come as D’Angelo joins Saadiq for a fierce version of the hit, “Be Here” and the piece d’resistance, a reunion of the Tonies- Saadiq, Dwayne and Timothy- vibin’ like old times on some of their biggest hits like “Lay Your Head On My Pillow,” and “Whatever You Want.” Appearances from sexy siren, Joi, Devin The Dude on “Just A Man” and DJ Quik on the 3T smash, “Let’s Get Down”, round out the guest spots. Through it all, Saadiq punctuates the kaleidoscopic sound of bygone funk and soul, hip-hop and an infusion of spiritual joy, with an ardent tone – confident and sincere – serving as a clarion call for all to share fond memories and embrace the new. When you ask Raphael Saadiq about how he feels when he sees people respond to all the music he’s been a part of he responds with a contented lilt,.
“ I think I’m overwhelmed, like they are.” I think we both get the shock. I sing something and they scream and I’m feeling the exact way they are because we’re both finally seeing it in a full circle.” And he adds, “I just really appreciate knowing how much people really love the music. That makes me feel really good.” “Feels Good” – hmmm, sounds like a song to me!
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original ISPYSOUL monthly feature, WATCH CLOSELY, 2003
A “Savory” Delight
With the distinguishable sounds of the busy, Saturday afternoon, New York City streets stirring in the background, singer/songwriter Liz Wright makes a cell phone conversation on the fly feel like a comfy lounge setting. The knack for doing so has no doubt become a necessary skill for the 23 year old, Georgia native who leading up to her highly anticipated debut release, Salt, has been causing quite a stir of her own and demanding a lot of attention. With the same seasoned vibe that permeates each track of the solid CD and her entrancing vocals, Wright speaks of the recent whirlwind as, “an exciting thing.” “Sometimes the momentum is really overwhelming, but I’m really grateful.”
Salt, the appropriate name for her tasty collection of revamped standards and stunning originals proves Wright a worthy recipient of the new found opportunity. Her voice, which recalls her roots in gospel blended with a soulful sound and innate jazz facility, refined in the same Atlanta scene that brought us Donnie, Julie Dexter and India.Arie, represents her musical travels. Her telling, personal, and poetic lyrics reflect her life’s travels. Travels that account for a sound, delivery and genuineness that belie her youthful years. “I’ve experienced a lot in my life and I don’t try to line it up with someone else’s experiences, but I will say that I’ve been through a lot in a little bit of time,” says Wright. “I try to be very real about the fact that I’m young, but I don’t let people push me in a corner and say ‘you’re wet behind the ears or blah, blah, blah.’ I’ve been through some things and God gives me the opportunity to gain wisdom from my life just like everybody else. And if I’m eager to gain wisdom, then I’ll gain it.” She adds,” I think I’ve been through enough to get some thing out of it.” It’s quite obvious she has and aptly pours it all into each song, convincingly illustrated in her soulful remixes of the Flora Purim classic, “Open Your Eyes” and traditional gospel piece, “Walk With Me Lord” or in the moving rendition of the timeless standard, “Afro Blue.”
But the poignancy of the life lessons Wright has learned truly reveal themselves in her own material, particularly the title cut, “Salt.” This slow, but swing filled, New Orleans style blues plays host to Wright’s rich, haunting tone as she sings, “How can you lose song/When you’ve sung it so long/How can you forget your dance/When that dance is all you ever had/It must be true/You can’t separate the two/It’s impossible to do/Just like the salt that’s in the stew/It’s all a part of you/One thing that life can’t do/It can’t take your song from you.” Wright, who was raised under strict religious conventions and watch of a minister father, views this as a sort of a personal well of motivation. “It was the first year out of my parents house and I was living in Atlanta and I just felt very bothered and nervous about the idea of having lived such a sheltered life and now I’m out in this colorful world with so many questions that I didn’t have answers to. I was sitting at a rehearsal piano in a studio and I started plucking out this little silly song for myself. I didn’t know [at the time] it would be what it was, but it’s turned out to be something that has kind of held me together throughout this whole journey. And it’s kind of been the meaning of my whole journey and experience.”
The stars have truly aligned right on time for Wright whose arresting talents have raised her from virtual unknown to what some have heralded as the next big vocal icon. The praise is of course flattering and she does want success for Salt, but the more immediate hope is far more modest. “I just hope that people will get a piece of what I’ve learned and experienced along the way. I’ve found myself going from being worried and looking for a genre or a box or a place to fit in to feeling very liberated and very thankful that all these elements make up who I am. And I’m still exploring. And I hope people will find on their own inside my music.” It appears Liz Wright has the right ingredients for a bright future.
and now . . .
Well that bright future forecasted for Lizz Wright has long since been proven true. Her distinctive, soulfully rich and arresting voice has now won over scores of faithful fans and earned her chart-topping success as well as critical acclaim. Her recordings, now five deep (Salt, Dreaming Wide Awake, The Orchard, Fellowship) including her latest and first for label Concord, Freedom and Surrender, have seen her weave her instrument through a tapestry of Soul, Jazz, Gospel, Blues, and Folk while at the same time displaying an equally affecting writing style that provides a window to the travels in her life. For more on Lizz Wright’s latest, below is a video courtesy of Concord that provides some insight into its making.
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
Just prior to his 2003, platinum – selling release, Comin’ From Where I’m From, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the talented singer/songwriter, Anthony Hamilton. I remember right from the start feeling I’d known the soulful crooner like he was one of my homies from years back, catching up on what’s been going on in his life. It was indeed due in great part to his amiable personality, this is true, ( Upon letting him know of my looking forward to the CD’s release he enthusiastically responded, “Me and you both! You get it first you call me. We’re gonna ride in your car and listen to it.”), but it was also because of the voice that delivered his words with a wisdom-laced, down-home flow reminiscent of your favorite uncle from down south – a voice and tone that belied his years, heavy with experience, but full of life – a voice that has now captured a ton of industry respect, a legion of fans and oh yeah, a host of awards including a Grammy to boot. Its been a successful career still going strong with Billboard hits like “Charlene”, “Can’t Let Go”, “The Point of It All” and more for himself and a host of hot collabs with Jill Scott, Jadakiss, Nappy Roots, Angie Stone and 2Pac. His story is one many aspiring artists should hear and one many successful artists have themselves lived – Its about perseverance, timing, peaks and valleys, being yourself, believing in yourself, working on being the best you can be and most importantly faith. Here’s a look back.
WAITING NO MORE
If anyone has encountered the rollercoaster ride that is the music business, it’s singer/songwriter, Anthony Hamilton. Since charting the course north to the Big Apple from his Charlotte, North Carolina digs in 1993, Hamilton has over and again risen to the awareness of keen ears who set the “star-making” wheels in motion only to have them come to a screeching halt in the wake of the chronic, industry shifts and woes. But in a rich tone seasoned with a grit and time-honed wisdom that belies his relative young years, Hamilton, who now calls Harlem, NY his home, simply puts his rocky journey in perspective. “In the past, it was the past and it wasn’t my turn totally,” says Hamilton. “It was my turn to taste it and to view it up close, but it wasn’t my turn to really, really, really do it yet.” But the stars have all finally aligned perfectly for Hamilton who has persevered on the wings of faith and strength of his talent to deliver one the most anticipated debuts this year, Coming From Where I’m From. And he’s not at all worried of the prospect of history repeating itself. “I’m not [worried] at all because it’s just so right, right now.”
The long road to Hamilton’s new found fame which includes writing songs for artists like R&B vocalist Donell Jones (“You Know What’s Up), droppin’ vocals on cuts from rappers like 2pac (“Thug Mansion”) and jazz trumpeter, Roy Hargrove as well as backing up soul crooner, D’Angelo on his worldwide Voodoo tour, was significantly lined with signs toward the right opportunity when his perfect hook appeared on the rap group, Nappy Root’s Grammy nominated hit, “Po Folk’s”. In short, that ultimately led to a chance to perform in front of industry brass at a Grammy event, which in turn brought him to the doorstep of producer and So So Def head, Jermaine Dupri and as they say the rest is history. For Hamilton the difference between this situation and the ones in the past are clear. “What makes it different now is that it’s working. The doors are open”, he says with a noticeable excitement. “I don’t have to fight so hard to be heard. People are putting the loud speakers up for me now and chanting, ‘you’ve got to hear this cat.’ And adds, “I’ve got the surround sound set up for me now.”
Indeed speakers around the country are no doubt pumping tracks from the new release, in particular, the first single and title track, “Coming From Where I’m From.” This cut, like all the rest, serve as views of life or love’s peaks and valleys sans rose-colored glasses due in large part to Hamilton’s unfeigned lyrics and blues-infused voice that whiffs of classic soul singers of the 60s and early 70’s. He himself describes the CD as “definitely a trip down memory lane.” Adding, “not even just for me, but also for people [in general]. Because I’ve seen other lives and other paths through these eyes as well and I had to talk about it.” The twelve-track set offers amongst others, a poignant portrait of a mother’s unending devotion to her child with “Mama Knew Love”, a wonderfully reworked version of the country hit “Lucille” made famous by singer Kenny Rogers whose idyllic beauty is in stark contrast to it’s affecting lyrics, and the sensual gem “Float”.
Because of the throwback, soulful tone of Hamilton many are quick to neatly place him in the newly constructed box called neo-soul. And although there are qualities he notes, that are a part of his music that should be inherent to what soul music is all about, he also feels there’s a distinguishable difference between him and others. “It’s more me, says Hamilton. “It’s not trended out to where you get lost in just a style, writing or singing style. This shit right here is raw. It’s real! And it vibrates different.” He continues, “[My music] is not compressed in one feeling. You get a whole journey of freedom. It allows you to feel. It allows you to be happy. It allows you to cry, laugh. So I think you get free when you listen to my music.” And he makes this point, “Some music nowadays is so trying to be something, that they miss the whole point to put life in it.”
Anthony Hamilton has waiting nearly all his life for an opportunity like this and now, the wait is over.
Below are audio excerpts from that interview with Anthony Hamilton:
This has been a look back @ the soul seen
From the original monthly ISPYSOUL.COM feature segment, WATCH CLOSELY 2003
HESTON MUSIC, SWEET MUSIC
The power of music has time and again proven itself to be an elixir for many things. We’ve all heard the phrase, “music soothes the savage beast” and storied tales of serene melodic passages calming ferocious sorts, both real and mythological, into harmless submission. For singer/songwriter, Heston, the “beast” was not of the growling or fire-breathing variety, but that of personal adversity – as a child moving from his native Dominica to less than cozy conditions with extended family in Philly. Recalling the period he notes, “There was a lot of time to kind of dig deep.” Already bitten by the music bug early on by the likes of Bob Marley and his usher into American music, Michael Jackson, songwriting evolved into an outlet and tapped into a talent he didn’t know he had. “I knew that I loved music”, says Heston, who now calls the hot music town Atlanta home. “Seven, eight years old I used to do the Michael Jackson moves. I used to cut my pants up and use my mom’s blouse to make a Billie Jean type outfit – Put thick grease in my hair and make Jheri curls. So I always knew I loved music. But I didn’t know that I could write. It’s only when I started writing”, he continues, “that I came to enjoy it and even at that point, I didn’t know that it was worth anything.” Ironically, Heston is now finding that his words not only mean a great deal to him, but to a burgeoning number of fans. With an affecting voice that exudes passion, sincerity and engaging warmth he is causing quite a stir on the soul scene. On his self-titled EP, Heston, a glimpse at his talent is revealed through a winning assortment of grooves that range from driving to laid-back and smooth that serve as canvas for a fervent delivery that’s refreshingly pure and packed with a kaleidoscope of emotions.
His manner, for many, evokes a quality reminiscent of past soul-bearing crooners, like Donny Hathaway or one of his favorites, Marvin Gaye. Fittingly, a warm tribute to him and others comes by way of the track, “Songbirds” on his debut release. It’s clear those who’ve been wooed by his CD or stirring live performances have identified the common strand between them – a genuineness and ardor that not only comes through in his music, but in conversation with Heston as well when the topic turns to the kind of music he’s committed to steering clear of. “If I was given a big [label] deal tomorrow that said give us some cookie cutter R&B in the vain of anybody that doesn’t move me, I’d give it up in a heartbeat.” insists Heston “Compromising what I love and the kind of music that influenced me is of no interest to me.”
Alas, Heston also believes he shares some other things in common with those he’s been likened to – Once again some personal adversity. Things in his life that he candidly admits commonly spell unrest – Hurdles that actually many can relate to a time in their own lives. This is undoubtedly the realness you can feel when he sings a phrase or what enables you to envision a scene through his lyrics. However, the irony is his sound is in no way down or dark, but alive and stimulating delivered with confidence and an almost optimistic air. As he explains, it’s how music still continues to soothe the “beast.” “When I’m on the stage, I don’t ever what to get off”, says Heston. “Not because I’m a stage hog, because I’m not attracted to the stage. I’m really not. I’m not one of those people that can’t wait to jump on a mike. But when I get there, it’s a totally different experience. I am a completely different person.” He continues, “My emotions are on my sleeves and nothing that I write or nothing that I sing is meaningless. Everything that I say out of my mouth and every word that I write is through experience. It’s heartfelt. It’s my life. It’s my release”, adding, “Music and performing or writing a song or recording a song is my drug. It’s my high!”
No doubt, if the buzz around Heston continues to swell and fortunes continue to unfold he’ll be on a constant high with plenty to be happy about –very much deserved.
Nothing like the power of music, sweet music.
Check out Heston’s stunning debut EP and his other acclaimed releases by clicking here
and check out our latest interview with Heston about the release of his newest project, Transparency by clicking here
And to find out more about Heston go to hestonmusic.com
This has been a look back @ the soul seen