Q&A with singer/writer Robin McKelle - soul, jazz, rock, gospel, blues and the American Songbook cross paths

"Musicians 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. Music can make change and changes peoples ideas and mind. It’s so powerful."

Robin McKelle: The Lady & Her Music

A savvy songwriter and a powerhouse vocalist, Robin McKelle has long found a home where soul, jazz, pop, gospel, blues and the American Songbook cross paths. In her live performances, she exudes a bandleader’s moxie that recalls the Rat Pack era. While comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald are common because of her warm alto voice, her early influences were mostly Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. McKelle’s voice mirrors the power of those three vocal titans while maintaining the refined nuances of Fitzgerald. In her early days, McKelle shared the stage with such prestigious artists as Michael McDonald and Bobby McFerrin. There’s an insightful storyteller’s voice that connects her songs, a narrative thread that feels smart and soulful. In her songwriting and in the arrangements/production of the album, she mixes her varied influences together with strength and grace.

Robin McKelle released in 2020 her new album “Alterations”. She delves into the catalogue of some of the most celebrated women of song, interpreting these masterworks through the lens of the jazz idiom. On Alterations, McKelle follows in a long tradition of female song interpreters, lending her sultry vocal stylings to classics by a diverse list of female innovators including Dolly Parton, Sade, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Janis Joplin, Carol King, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and Lana Del Ray. McKelle is joined on this release by a group of consummate musicians including co-producer, pianist and arranger Shedrick Mitchell, acoustic and electric bassist Richie Goods, drummer Charles Haynes, guitarist Nir Felder. The energy and connection of the album overall is palpable; stunning interplay is displayed throughout each track.

Interview by Michael Limnios            Photos © by Frank Bullitt

How has the Jazz, Blues and Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

All of this music has allowed me to travel and experience the world. I’ve been able to spend time in different countries and experience diverse cultures. Music is so powerful and brings people together. As a songwriter I have also been able to try to speak about social issues that are important to me. Music is a universal language.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My sound is inspired from a wide range of musical styles including soul, jazz, blues and rock. I have a big voice that I’ve been able to melt into a sound that can be powerful and gritty or super sensitive and clear. I write a lot of my own music but like to mix it up with my own arrangements of cover tunes. I’ve always loved to re-imagine songs and music. Creativity comes from many different sources including life experiences, relationships, world new and issues and sometimes a move or a show I’m watching.

What characterizes "Alterations" in comparison to previous albums? What touched (emotionally) you from studio sessions?

Alterations is an album of cover songs written by female singer/songwriters that I have reinterpreted from my perspective. I’ve taken the songs out of the space where they have lived as we know them and recreated a new and different body of music. I worked with Shedrick Mitchel (piano and co producer) so I was really able to immerse myself into the studio session. It allowed me to focus solely on the music and be in the moment.

"My sound is inspired from a wide range of musical styles including soul, jazz, blues and rock. I have a big voice that I’ve been able to melt into a sound that can be powerful and gritty or super sensitive and clear. I write a lot of my own music but like to mix it up with my own arrangements of cover tunes. I’ve always loved to reimagine songs and music." (Robin McKelle / Photo © by Frank Bullitt)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the authenticity of artists. Before there was auto-tune and all the tricks that you can do to make something that is actually not great… be good. The image of music now is totally different. Then there is the whole social media thing and how you present yourself. For some people it can is more important than the music itself. I dislike this part of the industry. One of my fears is becoming irrelevant as an artist when as I get older. We live in a fast-paced society where music has become easily disposable because the lack of physical products and the pure saturation of the market. 

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It is extremely difficult to make a living as an artist. In the US we don’t support or value the arts and music like we do sports. It’s damn near impossible to work on your art while trying to pay rent and put food on the table. In other countries artists are encouraged and supported to work on their craft and the cultures see this as an important addition to the society. It would be great if there were more opportunities like this in the US and in the business all around.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I can only speak for myself, but I think it has been a journey for me to feel respected in all ways but mostly, musically. I always worked my ass off to know what I was doing (music theory, arranging, being a leader, etc.) There were times that men patronized me and made me feel like I was less of a musician because I am a woman. And of course, there is the sexualization part of it. I learned from a very young age that I would have to have a hard outer shell and that at certain times, I would have to be a version of myself that I didn’t like. That meant being what many people would call a “bitch”. I had to denounce or deflect unwanted advances and then have to continue to work on the same bandstand with men who were crossing way too many lines. It’s not something I would wish on a young woman because it’s very uncomfortable situation. It is exhausting and I think we women are fed up with this attitude. The future for women in music and in the world is looking brighter. The fact that we are having this conversation says that there is an awareness about the injustice and inequality.

"All of this music has allowed me to travel and experience the world. I’ve been able to spend time in different countries and experience diverse cultures. Music is so powerful and brings people together. As a songwriter I have also been able to try to speak about social issues that are important to me. Music is a universal language." (Robin McKelle / Photo © by Frank Bullitt)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

To be grateful for what I have and to have the chance to connect with people though music.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Musicians 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. Music can make change and changes peoples ideas and mind. It’s so powerful. My goal is to connect with my audience in hopes they feel something human. We can share a human connection. Especially in a world of phones and computers.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Off the top of my head, I think I’d like to be in my 20’s and go back to spend a night at Studio 54. It just seems to be so over the top! Dance the night away in sequins and bell bottoms sounds pretty fun to me!

Robin McKelle - Home

Robin McKelle / Photo © by Frank Bullitt

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