Blues & Soul Magazine UK FEATURE ON ROBIN MCKELLE:
BORN TO BLOOM
Described as “the most flavourful bucketful of soul dished up by a white female singer since Dusty Springfield invaded Memphis”, “Soul Flower” – the new album from singer/songwriter/producer Robin McKelle – finds the New York songstress’ powerful, expressive contralto voice delivering a contemporary blend of classic soul and rhythm’n’blues while also boasting two standout duets – one with resurgent soul man Lee Fields (an emotive cover of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”) and the other featuring fast-rising star of vocal jazz Gregory Porter (the melodically-gliding “Love’s Work”).
Born Robin McElhatten in Rochester, New York in 1976 and influenced musically by her church-choir-member mother, a teenage Robin first began to reveal her talent by performing in local R&B groups from the age of 15. Meanwhile, after taking up the piano and French horn, she would go on to study Jazz at the University Of Miami from 1994 to 1996 before attending Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music from where she graduated in 1999. Following which, after moving to the West Coast she would regularly perform as a backing-vocalist for both Michael McDonald and BeBe Winans before subsequently returning to Berklee as a teacher. However, it was not until after McKelle placed an impressive third in the widely-respected Thelonius Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition in Washington, DC in 2004 that she would finally begin her recording career – first coming to the public eye as a solo jazz singer with her 2006 debut album “Introducing Robin McKelle” and its 2008 follow-up “Modern Antique”, both big-band swing sessions which would in turn precede the 2010-released set “Mess Around”. Which, with its more soul-jazz direction, marked the first hint of Robin’s personal yearning to return to her original R&B roots. … Which neatly brings up back to today and the release of the aforementioned “Soul Flower”.
As – with said album being signed to Sony France – an immediately-friendly and chatty Ms. McKelle enjoys a revealing introductory chat with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis from her Paris apartment.
PETE: With you hitherto being best known for your solo jazz albums, what was the thinking behind you releasing your first straight-up soul LP at this point in your career?
ROBIN: “Well though in my teens I grew up singing a lot of this type of music – soul and R&B – after I went to college and studied jazz I kinda became interested in that TOO. And so the recording of my first album “Introducing…” was basically just me taking a bit of a break from soul by doing some orchestral JAZZ, and its actual release was a bit of an ACCIDENT – because I’d never really planned on putting that album out for SALE! But then while it WAS a bit of a surprise to me when things started happening, at the same time in many ways it was a GOOD surprise. Because it allowed me to go on tour, I sold quite a few CDs, I got with a good label – you know, things did really start to take OFF. But at the same time I was still afraid that I was gonna be labelled as purely a JAZZ singer and only do that for the rest of my CAREER. So because of that I started working carefully with my management and my team about how we could kind of slowly evolve into making THIS album, because this was the kinda record I’d always wanted to DO. In that I wanted to write the music myself, and I wanted it to be more in the kinda soul vein that I’d always loved and grown up LISTENING to… So yeah, in some ways “Soul Flower” is almost like a full CIRCLE kinda thing. In that soul is where I started and what I’ve now come BACK to – though in a different WAY. Because today, as opposed to just being a singer, with this record I was completely involved from beginning to END – from writing the music to working out the arrangements with the band right through to the whole PRODUCTION side of it all.”
PETE: Musically you’re quoted as saying that with “Soul Flower” you wanted to create a contemporary blend of rhythm & blues but with the aim of “avoiding today’s retro tendencies”…
ROBIN: “Well, although I do love a lotta the soul music that’s happening right now – I’m a huge fan of artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Mayer Hawthorne, Charles Bradley – at the same time I feel that those people already have their niche and I really wanted to stay AWAY from that. Because while that music is definitely inspiring to me, at the same time it is a very throwback kind of SOUND. So what was really important to me for MY record was basically trying to keep my individuality as an artist and as a singer and as a WRITER. And while it was definitely a challenge to make this album something new and to really try not to do the retro/throwback thing completely, in my eyes the best way to achieve that was to first and foremost focus on just having good SONGS. And I think by us doing that it was only when we came to work at the actual MUSIC that we started referencing what particular STYLE we wanted to record them in. Like the arrangement on “Tell You One Thing” for example was definitely inspired by those real hard-hitting, uptempo, late-Sixties ARETHA tunes… So yeah, a lot of it did come down to the treatment of the songs musically and the way we put it together with the BAND. Plus when it came to the actual recording process the ENGINEER was ALSO great. In that he totally understood the concept of capturing the moment musically in an organic way, but without making it sound TOO throwback or TOO retro.”
PETE: Having studied Jazz at the University of Miami before attending and graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music where you later also taught, how do you feel the academic side of your background has impacted on you as an artist?
ROBIN: “Well, I actually think the education part is really IMPORTANT. I mean, I think it’s really hard now to PROMOTE the fact that education is important because we have all these shows that we didn’t really HAVE when I was a teenager – “Idol”, whatever country’s “Got Talent” – where everybody can become a star OVERNIGHT. But for me I do actually think it was the education that made me the musician – and in turn the singer – that I am TODAY. Because I do kinda pride myself on the fact I know what I’m DOING! I lead my band; I write the music; I’m a very instrumental part in ARRANGING the music; I know what’s going on in the HORN section; I conceptually know what’s going on in the recording process when we have STRINGS… Because I personally think that it’s essential, especially as a singer, to understand what happens behind you MUSICALLY. You know, we have this singer-heavy stereotype that they’re kinda dumb and they don’t know what’s going ON. And though that may be true for some people, I’m definitely the complete OPPOSITE of that!… So yeah, I definitely think it was that experience in education – from both sides, as a student AND as a teacher – that did really help me and ultimately push me into what I’m doing NOW.”
The album “Soul Flower” is released through Doxie Records August 19. The double-A-side 7” single “Fairytale Ending”/”Love’s Work featuring Gregory Porter” follows September 2 through Expansion Records.
TO READ MORE FROM THIS INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN MCKELLE CHECK OUT OUR PRINT ISSUE – http://www.bluesandsoul.com/feature/865/robin_mckelle_born_to_bloom/
WORDS PETE LEWIS