Back in 2013 Rochester, NY-born singer ROBIN MCKELLE took the soul world by surprise with her still-lovely ‘Soul Flower’ album. Amongst the long player’s 12 tracks was the mighty ‘Fairytale Ending’ and the heart- rending duet with a still relatively unknown Gregory Porter, ‘Love’s Work’. That album was a marked departure from Robin’s previous jazz albums but after ‘Soul Flower’ she went on to consolidate her position as a real soul contender with the ‘Heart Of Memphis’ and ‘Looking Glass’ collections. Next month Ms McKelle releases a brand new set – ‘Melodic Canvas’ – and previews reveal another subtle shift in musical direction so we needed to know where that direction was leading. Catching up with Robin we first asked what she’s been doing since the 2016 release of ‘Looking Glass’……
Well, I took some time off from touring and really focused on writing and working on a new album … that , of course, became ‘Melodic Canvas’. I also had the opportunity to perform with a few other groups in some interesting projects. After performing the European leg of the Jazz 100 tour with pianist, Danilo Perez, I was inspired to reconnect with jazz. I didn’t limit myself in the writing or in the creative process though.
So how did you get all organized for the new project? I mean sorting/writing the songs, finding the musicians and producer and hiring a studio…. A big job!
After 2 years since my last release, I knew it was definitely time to get back into the studio. I think it’s most important, though, to take the process step by step. I didn’t get overwhelmed about trying to do it all at once. I wrote the songs, and then I stepped away from them for a while to think about how I wanted the album to sound. Once I decided on the instrumentation to have more of an acoustic approach, I worked on the arrangements. I produced the record myself so I didn’t have to look far for that! Finding the right musicians was really just a matter of knowing what kind of sound and style I was going for. I just looked for musicians who had a soulful approach to jazz.
OK, so tell us about some of the players then….
First up there’s Shedrick Mitchell on Piano, Organ and Rhodes (he worked with people like Dianne Reeves, Maxwell, Roberta Flack, Robert Randolph, Kirk Whalum and many more. He was able to grasp the concept of where I was going with the music and he helped shaped the vibe of the music by the way he played what I wrote it. He also helped to coordinate the gospel Choir on ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Yes We Can’ Then on Bass there’s Vicente Archer who’s played with many musicians from Robert Glasper and Nicolas Payton to Norah Jones. He has the most beautiful warm tone and was a total peach in the studio. He’s super groovy! Daniel Sadownick is on percussion (he’s recorded with Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, Ayo, Incognito, Dennis Chambers Michael Brecker, Raul Midon, Norah Jones etc….) Daniel is great because he really helped to keep the sound earthy and organic. I leaned on his experience with the percussive parts because he really knew that it was important to keep it intimate. Next we have Marvin Sewell ( Lizz Wright, Cassandra Wilson, Brain Blade, Jason Moran, Regina Carter, etc) . He has such a unique sound and approach to guitar. He added such a vibe on ‘The Sun Died’ and ‘Simple Man’ using swells and subtle strumming patterns that really add to the movement and the feel. He’s amazing at just finding the space within the music and how he fits into it. The other guitarist is Al Street . He has a jazz sensibility but plays soul like he was born to play it. I remember recording acoustic guitars with him on my ‘Soul Flower’, and thinking someday I’d hope to have a chance to work with him again. He helped to solidify the groove in ‘You’re No Good’ and also ‘It Won’t End Up’. That ” Bill Wither’s” style guitar strumming. I Love it! As “special guest” we have Chris Potter on Sax. I met Chris on the Jazz 100 tour. I had been a long time fan of his and to get the chance to perform with him was really a cool experience for me. He was gracious and his playing, so powerful. When working on the arrangements I was hearing soprano sax on ‘Come To Me’ so I reached out to him and luckily he was available for the session. He brought a different texture to the album. I just love his playing. You know, overall, the musicians on this record are all really artists themselves. SO all of us coming together and adding our one little touch on the music makes it what it is.
Now the album title…. ‘Melodic Canvas’ , what’s that all about?
Simple …. using melody, lyrics and harmony to “paint” a picture. In the same way a painter paints on a canvas. The music is my canvas.
And sound wise what were you aiming for? It sounds to me that you’re moving back to your jazz beginnings…. I mean your first two albums were jazzy affairs; ‘Soul Flower’ and ‘Heart Of Memphis’ ploughed soul grooves while ‘Looking Glass’ had a singer/songwriter feel to it (with a garnish of Americana?)… Why the shift of mood and feeling?
It’s just where I am at this moment in life. I wanted to make music with the band at the same time. I wanted to have beautiful musical moments and chose the musicians because of what they brought to the music. I also found that I was missing singing more Jazz. ‘Melodic Canvas’ is like coming back to jazz a bit but on my terms. I’m a songwriter, singing jazz soul songs. I love that I’m able to use different timbres in the songs depending on what it calls for. It’s intimate and I love the idea that if you close you eyes, maybe you can visualize us playing the music in your living room. It’s not trying to be anything it’s not. It’s just the music that we played in that moment. It’s a more mature album.
OK so what track on ‘Melodic Canvas’ best defines what you’re about?
Probably, ‘Simple Man’. It’s about having compassion towards people. I really believe it’s important to think of others and have a more “worldly” view.
Right now the song we’re loving is ‘Lyla’… sounds very personal; what’s the story behind this one?
Thank you! It’s a powerful message song . Sometimes I just feel so sad for the young girls and boys of this next generation. How difficult it must be to grow up surrounded by social media and technology and the idea that “likes” are so important. Things that have no substance… Fame, Money and material items. It’s also about the importance of having a dreams and a passion. It’s the adults that need to be there… hear and see the cry for help and let them know we are here for them.
You also have a track in French on the set… is this your first French recording… should be easy for you …. You spend a lot of there….
Yes, It’s my first recorded track in French. I feel more comfortable with the French language now, but I’m still learning. It’s a difficult language. It’s a little “gift” for my French fans that have been incredibly loyal!
Ok why is it that you work much in France…. is it easier to find work there than in the USA?
France is where my career really took off with the release of my first album, ‘Introducing’. They love jazz and they embraced me… So I go where the gigs are!
… And what about the UK….. We don’t see you here often enough!
I know! I’d love to be there more often! Any agents out there!!!
Back to ‘Melodic Canvas ‘….tell us about any other tracks that you’re especially proud of….
For me I am most proud of ‘Do you Believe’, ‘Lyla’ and ‘Simple Man’. The lyrics invoke thought and have a social relevance.
…. And the version of the spiritual ‘Swing Low’…. why did you choose that one?
My mother used to sing this song to me when I was really young. She pushed us in a swing and sang this to us. I always wanted to record it for her, mostly.
Finally when is the official release date and how can we find out more?
‘Melodic Canvas’ gets a worldwide release on April 20, 2018 and you can always get more @www.robinmckelle.com