Groove Loves Melody talks with Robin McKelle
July 19, 2013
Robin McKelle’s fourth and latest album on Okeh/Sony Records is called Soul Flower and features original compositions inspired by the sounds of Motown and Stax Records in the early 1970′s. Robin McKelle began to show her talent in R&B groups from the age of fifteen. After taking up the piano and French horn, she studied jazz at the University of Miami (1994‐1996) before attending and graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston (1999), and won a prize in the 2004 Thelonious Monk competition in Washington, D.C. After bringing two big band swing jazz records, Robin began to move back into soul/jazz territory with her previous album, Mess Around in 2010. Soul Flower is the first record to introduce her as Robin McKelle & The Flytones. In our talk, we discuss vocal influences, her directions in sound, and the writing process for Soul Flower.
JW: I can definitely hear the Gladys Knight influence in your style. What influenced you so about the style, the delivery of Gladys Knight? What songs spoke to you the most as a girl? And of Nina Simone? How did you connect with her material?
Robin: I grew up just listening to the radio with artists like Whitney, Micheal Jackson and Aretha and there was something that I loved about the sound of R&B music. I remember learning songs by ear to play and sing at the piano but I didn’t think much about it then, I just did it naturally. I think the sound of soul just sunk in and the exposure at an early age helped that nurture the natural talent. I loved “Respect” by Aretha and Stevie Wonder’s “Sunshine of my Life” and “I Wish”. It wasn’t until college when I was more into learning about jazz singers that I was introduced to Nina. She is so expressive and the thing I love most about her is that she is fearless. She really evolved as an artist and sang about unpopular things. She said unpopular things and was totally under appreciated in her time. I think she was very misunderstood.
JW: Seems like from your bio that R&B/soul, gospel, and jazz were intertwined? As you began recording, did you feel any pressure to pick just one style for marketing sake? Was there pressure from your label then, if not from you?
Robin: Yes, there was absolutely a pressure to choose a path and a style which was difficult for me to understand then but I understand why now. Never pressure from a label because I license and fund my albums so that I can own my music.
It is important to get into a niche for example jazz or soul and then you can find your way. To me, music is totally intertwined because of my particular background of soul, jazz, rock, music theater, opera and all the different musical experiences I had. They are all present in who I’ve become as a performer and musician so it can be difficult to separate them because it’s why I am who I am.
JW: Two things happened on Soul Flower that I’d like to talk about: 1) the formation and development of the Flytones in working with you on the album, and 2) the development of your songwriting. First thing, what unique quality did these jazz musicians (The Flytones) bring to this session that the album had to include by name?
Robin: The Flytones are a group of musicians that I’ve been putting together for a long time. Derek Nievergelt (bass) was playing upright with my 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. I wanted to give the band a name to differentiate this soul project from my previous jazz albums and because they were an part of creating the sound of the band as you hear it!
Inspiration for the writing came from the Motown sound and others 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.
JW: You could have done an album of soul music covers, and I’m sure it would have sounded fabulous. Why was it important to pen original works for this record? Was it, in any way, more of challenge than you thought it was going to be?
Robin: I have been writing music for a long time so and I really wanted to do an album of original music. I like to sing covers but it’s important to keep on creating new music. It was a good challenge but not more that I thought because I already put way too much pressure on myself.
JW: “So It Goes” deals with society issues as represented in the media and coping with it daily? Any particular set of issues that inspired that song?
Robin: It was mostly inspired by the tough economic struggle that many people are experiencing. It’s everywhere! Although it’s a tough thing to deal with, I tried to spin it to a positive sentiment in the chorus in hopes that if you did connect with it in your life, you could try to look at all the good things in life and keep your head up cause tomorrow is a new day and “so it goes”. Just knowing that there are other people dealing with the same struggles can help!
Robin: Right after the show I usually have a glass of wine with the band ( we have a great time on the road) and then the fun part happens….I get to remove ALL the makeup and hair (it can be a long process)!
It’s very relaxed on the road, not too much drama so nothing too crazy ever happens. When I’m not on tour I love to cook and I work out a lot! I feel good when I’m strong and in shape and it helps me to be a better performer! I spend time with people I care about and my little dog, Ella! ( yes, named after the amazing Ella Fitzgerald)
Soul Flower by Robin McKelle & The Flytones is available at iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.
From Groove Loves Melody.
Robin McKelle was a name I had never heard until this morning when I stumbled across some footage of her and SoulBounce favorites Alice Russell and Sharlene Hector giving an impromptu live performance of Dionne Warwick‘s “Walk On By” at La Defense Jazz Festival last month. I was intrigued enough by the performance to do a little digging on Ms. McKelle and found that she is somewhat of a veteran, having released a handful of jazz albums over the past few years. Her latest release, Soul Flower, is a bit of a departure from her jazz roots, and sees the New Yorker exploring a more soul-orientated sound alongside her band, The Flytones. The inclusion of “& The Flytones” on the album’s front cover immediately had me pigeon-holing this as a “retro” rehash a la Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or Laura Vane & The Vipertones, but after pressing play that isn’t strictly true. Sure, there are (sometimes strong) retro influences, most notably on the cover of “Walk On By” and the Lee Fields-assisted cover of the Bee Gees “To Love Somebody,” but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that McKelle and her band are certainly no one-trick ponies. I’ve already listened to the album twice today and it’s her collaboration with fellow jazz-soul crossover success Gregory Porter on the tender “Love’s Work” that stands out.
From Soul Bounce, June 28th, 2013.
Robin McKelle hails from Rochester, New York and she boasts a varied and impressive music CV. Her mother sang gospel – and young Robin was righteously impressed but at 15 she took the secular route working with a number of youthful R&B groups. After taking up the piano and French horn, she studied jazz at the University of Miami before attending and graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Moving to the west coast, she found work as a backing singer – most notably with Michael McDonald and Bebe Winans. She subsequently went back to the Berklee College Of Music as a teacher and entered the Thelonious Monk competition in Washington, winning third place in 2004 for her jazz vocal prowess. Encouraged, she went on to record a trio of jazz albums –’Introducing Robin McKelle’ (2006), followed by ‘Modern Antique’ (2008) – two big-band swing sessions – then 2010′s ‘Mess Around’. For this new album Robin has chosen to go back to the music she grew up loving – classic soul – and to help her deliver she’s put together a tight organic band (the Flytones) with whom she’s proud to share billing. Together they create a great modern soul set that is truly progressive- yet with its roots firmly in soul’s rich heritage.
Confident in her abilities, Robin (in collaboration with various members of the Flytones) has penned most of the material herself … and one song in particular is strong enough to become an instant soul classic – it’s the wonderful ‘Fairytale Ending’. The tune is a lovely slab of mid-tempo retro soul. Featuring beautiful brass, a haunting B3 and an ear-worm of a piano riff, it rolls with the catchiest chorus hook you’ll hear all year. Add to that a fabulously aching vocal from Ms McKelle and you have soul perfection. I’m putting it in the same league as Jennifer Holiday’s ‘Love Stories’…. it has a very similar feel. Almost as good is the gentle ‘Miss You Madly’ which references Marvin Gaye’s ‘Pretty Little Baby’ while if you’re a fan of proper soul duets try ‘Love’s Work’. Here Robin is joined by new jazz super star Gregory Porter and the result is wonderful. It has all the qualities of the great 60s/70s Stax duets (think Billy Vera/Judy Clay). Porter’s voice is a remarkable instrument and McKelle’s expressive contralto is the perfect complement. ‘Tell You One Thing’ is another noteworthy original. Fast and furious, it combines elements of Northern soul with rock and country. Quirky, yes – but not as quirky as the invasive ‘Don’t Give Up’.
To complete the album there’s a trio of brave covers. First up there’s a nod to the singer’s jazz background with a version of Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’ which Robin takes into Amy Winehouse territory. Then there’s a fairly respectful treatment of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ (a duet with soul veteran Lee Fields, by the way) and finally Robin takes on ‘Walk On By’. Her philosophy here seems to be that if you’re going to cover such a well-known song why do it like all the other versions out there. So, Robin cranks up the pace to an almost Northern tempo and then gives her all… and guess what? It works. Robin’s wonderful, world-weary voice carries the day (aided an abetted by some great piano courtesy of Ben Stivers).
We’re told that ‘Soul Flower’ was the album that the singer said she’s always make. At one time she was going to call it ‘The Real McKelle’…. The Real McCoy, I’d say… great stuff.
Last Updated on Friday, 07 June 2013 21:04