ROBIN McKELLE’S new album ‘Soul Flower’ is currently making huge waves on the underground soul scene. The set’s probably the best new authentic soul collection of 2013… and just don’t take our word for it – check out some of the better, more-knowing soul sites and you’ll get the same reaction. ‘Soul Flower’, you see, is hugely contemporary but its roots are firmly in soul’s rich heritage… think ‘Dusty In Memphis’ meets ‘Back To Black’, and though Robin’s expressive contralto sounds nothing like Dusty or Amy, it is a thing of soulful beauty in itself… try the fabulous ‘Fairytale Ending’ to hear what I mean. On the brink of a breakthrough, it was time we found out a little more about Ms. McKelle. Taking a break from a busy touring schedule we met up, and started by asking about her background….
I was born in Rochester, NY and grew up in a musical environment, as my mother was a singer. I was singing as soon as I could speak and studied classical piano from the age of 5. I loved music theatre and learning pop songs by ear on the piano. I attended the University of Miami (Jazz Studies) and then finished my college studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Tell us more about your musical schooling and who were your musical influences while you were growing up?
I had classical training in voice and piano, which allowed me a strong base for my singing technique as well as my skills as a musician. Although I studied the classical repertoire my influences were based in pop and R&B music and on the weekends (at the age of 15 and on) I was getting tons of experience singing in an R&B band. Early on my influences were Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson then evolving into other artists as I grew to know more about this music. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Etta James, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and so on.
Your first attempts to break into the music business were a little tenuous; I believe… after graduating you went out to the West Coast and worked as a background singer… but then went back into education. Why?
Yes I made so many attempts to “break into” this business and felt that every gig was a step in the next direction of attaining a solo career. You just have to keep knocking on every door. And yes, I went out to LA to work on my solo career but when I first moved there I was working a day job. I got my first gig singing backing vocals for BeBe Winans after his musical director heard me when I sat in at a club. I went out almost every night to meet musicians and sit in. That gig led to another one and I ended up on the road for a long period as a backing singer. I quickly realized how difficult it was to further my solo career when I was never in town so I decided to move back to Boston where I had a steady gig in town and would allow me to focus on my music. Music was what mattered and though I was never interested in being a teacher and had never pursued it, I was offered a teaching job at Berklee and I felt it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I learned so much teaching my students and it was the advice that I had given them daily that kept me constantly trying for my dream of a solo career. I am so thankful for this chance.
What then made you take the decision to go back to music making?
Actually, I never stopped making music. I was singing in a pop cover band on the weekends and I also had my own band. We played my original music and a few covers that I would arrange in some sort of different way.
Your first albums were jazz-based – tell us about them… why were you drawn to jazz?
I became interested in Jazz when I was around 16 as my jazz piano teacher had me singing the melodies and lyrics to the tunes I was learning like “Angel Eyes”. I liked the harmony and the way it was closer to R&B. He was the first of a few teachers who told me I had a natural feel for jazz and at the time I took it for granted, but after teaching I realized what they meant. When you are swinging with a rhythm section it feels just as good as when you’re in the groove when singing groove-based music. The reason I choose to do a big band album of well-known jazz standards for my first album was because I had just been a winner in the Theolonius Monk Jazz Vocal Competition. I began doing performances as a soloist with well-known pop orchestras like the Boston Pops. Conductor, Jeff Tyzik, began to mentor me and as a result I made this album to connect more into that world. The intention was never to release it on a label and I was unprepared for the success that came along after it. I was very afraid of being pigeon holed and as a result, my manager and I came up with a long-term plan of how I could slowly take my audience on a journey from “jazz to soul”. It has allowed them to discover me as an artist and I’ve been able to grow because of it.
The new album now… ‘Soul Flower’ –as the title suggests is an ultra soulful affair – why the change? Was soul always a passion for you? Who are your favourite soul artists?
I love the feeling that soul music evokes. It makes you move and makes you feel something. I wanted to make an album of original music and music that reflects another time but not in a retro or “throw back” way. Songs, that when you hear them, they give you the sense that you’ve been taken to another time. This was the intention with ‘Soul Flower’. Some of my favourite artists of today are Amy Winehouse, Adele, Mayer Hawthorne, John Legend, Zero Seven, The Brazilian Girls, and Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes! She sings her behind off!!! Of course I still love the classics like Donny Hathaway, Otis Redding, James Brown, Tina Turner, etc… I also listen to a lot of different music and when I’m working out I always listen to dance and Electronic music ‘cos the constant beat helps to keep me going!!!
On the new album you’re backed by a great band … The Flytones – tell us about them.
Thanks, I think they’re pretty great myself! The Flytones are a group of musicians that I’ve been putting together for a long time. Derek Nievergelt (bass) was playing upright with me when the band was transitioning from a jazz sound to more of a soul sound. He heard where I wanted to take the music and he started to help me put together a band of musicians who came from a similar background and were looking to play soul music. It’s a very specific thing and it’s not really easy to do if you are not familiar with the music.
What kind of sound were you aiming for…. who were your influences/inspiration?
Inspiration came from the Motown sound and also from Stax but we tried to create our own sound and just write good songs. Influences came from artists like Alice Clark, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, but the list goes on and on.
Your songs (and indeed you web site musings) shows a real humanity and compassion – can you explain why?
Wow, thanks. That’s really who I am I guess. I like to connect with people. With me, what you see is pretty much what you get. Maybe just a little more makeup and higher heels when I’m on stage!!!
One of the album’s highlights is the wonderful duet with Gregory Porter, ‘Love’s Work’.- How did you get Gregory Porter to work with you? And there’s a real Stax flavour to it – was that conscious?
I first heard Gregory a few years ago at a jazz club in NY called Smalls. I was in the city writing for this album I had heard about him and he happened to be playing that night. At the first note I was enamoured by the tone of his voice. I called my manager immediately and told him I had to sing with him! Soon after that I wrote ‘Love’s Work’ especially with Gregory’ voice in mind. I was inspired not so much by Stax but rather the duets of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. I love their duets so much! Their voices are amazing together!
…. and tell us about Lee Fields, another of your album guests.
Lee is a serious SOUL MAN! I am a huge fan of him so the experience of recording with him was one I will never forget. Lee’s voice is powerful and gritty but sensitive too. He is a sweet person; very kind and super cool to work with. A total professional! No joke!
There are three cover songs on the album … the bravest choice is ‘Walk On By’. Why chose that one and explain why and how you transformed it….
Yes, it was brave, but I think anytime you do a cover of a song you have to be brave. It’s a risk anyway … you put it out there. The lyric, of course, is a bit sad and reflective, but I wanted to change the feel of it and add some empowerment. With a more aggressive tempo and delivery of the lyrics you can hear a different tone. Maybe, it’s the perspective of a woman, who has been hurt, but not totally lost and devastated. This, I guess, is a bit analytical and in the end, we tried a few different ideas, different tempos and moods… this version on the album is the idea I felt worked with the rest of the songs on the album.
‘Fairytale Ending’ – one of your own songs – is another outstanding cut… what can you tell us about that?
Thanks. Funny… you know I almost threw this tune away before the lyrics were written. I had written all the music…melody and harmony and then I brought it into a writing session with Sam Barsh. We went thru several tunes that day I remember saying that I thought this was silly and maybe wouldn’t work. Self-doubt can get the best of you at times. He disregarded what I said and wrote lyrics that night and the song took shape. I learned not to underestimate the potential of a song before it’s complete!
Then there’s the Sinatra song, ‘I’m A Fool To want You’ – a conscious throw back to your earlier jazz work?
Yes, I love dark and moody songs like I’m A Fool To Want You’. The lyric is so desperate and I love the minor harmony but it was the guitar that Al Street added to this that helped take it to a different place.
What do you hope to achieve with the album?
I want a chance to grow and allow my music to evolve and I hope that ‘Soul Flower’ has shown people that I’m a writer as well as a singer. I don’t want to be categorized into a box and considered a “jazz singer” for the rest of my career.
What are your plans – both long and short term?
Even though ‘Soul Flower’ is just being released in the UK, I’ve already begun the process of recording the next album. I’m working with producer, Scott Bomar (The Bo Keys, Cyndi Lauper) and recording at his studio in Memphis. Don’t worry; the Flytones are recording with me along with a few great Memphis musicians to give it that extra Southern soul flavour!