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.