By Bill B. Soul and Jazz and Funk
Listeners to the more savvy soul and jazz stations over the Christmas period would have heard a new, gorgeous version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘The River’ from soul/jazz chanteuse ROBIN McKELLE. Not a Christmas song, per se, it does reference the festival and the sentiment, the sad tenderness and the sense of regret inherent in the song were beautifully delivered by Ms McKelle. The track is one of the many highlights on the singer’s upcoming new album – ‘Alterations’. The 10 tracker marks something of a departure for Robin. You see ‘Alterations’ is a “covers album” and when soulandjazzandfunk hooked up with Robin for an update the first thing we needed to know was why a covers album?
Yes, ‘Alterations’ is a covers album. It features music from celebrated women of song from different genres interpreted in a jazz idiom. After recording a few albums of my own original music, I wanted to record an album of covers because I wanted to focus on my singing. My first passion was singing, interpreting music and lyrics. I think this is my jazz background coming into play but I am also storyteller and writer. I choose songs that really spoke to me and evoked a feeling and distinct emotion.
Second obvious question… why did you choose those particular songs?
I chose each song by female artists who are songwriters and performers like me from different genres and styles. Taking inspiration from my jazz background I wanted to recreate a different sound and feel to these songs. That is also what inspired the title, ‘Alterations’. It features songs by Dolly Parton, Sade, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Janis Joplin, Carol King, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and Lana Del Ray. I just let the song speak to me and I let my voice carry out the ideas. Usually I knew within the first 8 bars of the songs if it was going to inspire me to make it my own.
How then did you set about making the familiar “different” without sacrificing the integrity and honesty of the original?
I found that it was important not to worry about outside judgement and what other people would think about my interpretation. I just tried to be true to the creative process. I sang them first to get an understanding of the direction of where I was going and what I was hearing in my head. Then I’d sit down in my studio and I would play with the harmonic progressions. That would lead to the overall vibe and concept. Although there are different harmonies and rhythmic sense, I tried to stay close enough to the original melodies so they are somewhat recognizable.
Why did you decide to include one of your own songs…. ‘Head High’?
I have immense gratitude for women who have paved the way in music. They have given me the encouragement to follow my own unique path and it is because of role models like these women, that I have found my own voice. I wanted to write a song that tells a story about the strength and the power the female singer has had over time. How we have the power and responsibility to educate, encourage change and inspire. With our words and out voice we have an opportunity to make a difference. It’s the first real jazz tune that I have written. Reminiscent of a classic be-bop tune from the late 50’s. Something maybe that Jon Hendricks would have done.
Tell us a bit about the musicians on the album……
Shedrick Mitchell (co-producer, arranger, pianist and keys) is the Musical Director for Maxwell’ he’s toured and performed with Aretha Franklin, Kenny Garrett, Keyon Harold, The Baylor Project, Yebba, Vivian Sessoms. Shedrick understood my vision and did a fabulous job helping to take the arrangements to come alive. He brought the team of musicians that we recorded with as well. We are like minded when it comes to the music. I think that’s what helped create the sound of the album. Rooted in jazz soul and rock while approaching the music from that jazz sensibility of where anything is possible. Then there’s Charles Haynes (Drums and Percussion). He’s worked with Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, and Queen Latifah. He is and established producer as well so working in the studio with him is a piece of cake and so inspiring! Bassist is Richie Goods. His CV numbers work with people like the Headhunters, Lenny White, Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band, Milt Jackson, Russell Malone, Vincent Herring, the Manhattan Transfer, Walter Beasley, Brian McKnight, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and Common! Richie most recently toured with Grammy-winning trumpeter, Chris Botti. The album also has guitarist Nir Felder. Marquis Hill is the horn player on ‘Born To Die’. Marquis is such a beautiful person and artist. Marquis, like me, believes that all music is the same. There are no lines drawn between genres. Like minded beings make great music together because there are no boundaries. . The sax on ‘Head High’ comes from Keith Loftis … such a joy to have on ‘Head High’. His solo along with his sound and energy lifted the tune into a different place and he plays his butt off! Most of the team have albums of their own out now…. well worth checking!
How would you describe the sound of the album…. indeed your sound right now….. You started off in jazz, moved towards soul then your last album, ‘Melodic Canvas’ crossed several genres….. Indeed your current press release says that ‘Alterations’ “fuses jazz, soul, r&b, blues and rock” is that where you’re at?
I have always been pulled between musical genres. Some people have difficulty with that. When it’s not one specific thing they get confused, I guess. I have never wanted to be labelled as a “jazz” singer or “soul” singer. I consider myself an artist and voice is my instrument. I think that now it’s just that I’m not really trying to hide it anymore. I am what I am. And I’m ALL these parts. It was actually easy to dive into all these pieces of myself working on interpreting other people’s songs. Because I can hear them in a different genre or colour.
The photos that came with the press release indicate (I think) a subtle change of image…maybe a little less sophisticated maybe a bit more “down home”, casual even… is that a conscious thing ?
Well, I am just a “down home” type of girl at heart. I think the photos go along with what I was saying about being who I am. If you saw me on the street, I would probably be wearing my hair this way and even these clothes. I do like to play with fashion and different looks but I am feeling more confident about presenting myself and my image in an authentic way. If you notice, on my last album ‘Melodic Canvas’, my face was fairly hidden. In years past I have felt uncomfortable in front of the camera. When I’m performing, its different, I’m in my element. But in still photos I feel bare and vulnerable. I am getting past that. With age comes wisdom and confidence.
I’m guessing that you’ll be touring to promote the album…. sadly (for us) in France… any chance you’ll be coming over to the UK and if you did what sort of show would you deliver. You do know that ‘Fairytale’ ending is still a big tune over here….
I will be in France, Germany, Romania, Italy, and Spain and all over EU. Then on to a tour in the US in the beginning of summer. We ARE working on dates for the UK and should have something for you soon so if any of you would like to know when we will be there, sign up for my mailing list on www.robinmckelle.com and we will send a newsletter of upcoming concerts and info. Don’t worry; I won’t blast you with loads of junk… just the important stuff about once a month! As for the show, I’ll be doing new music from ‘Alterations’ along with a few tunes from my previous ones. I’m thinking about re-imagining some of my old tunes in the way that I did with the covers. Maybe ‘Fairytale’ will make the cut! Glad to hear you are still loving it in UK!