Alicia Olatuja is a singer and composer whose diverse musical work reaches far and wide.
Recently, she has worked on drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Songs of Freedom, and pianist Billy Child’s Grammy-winning Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony, 2014). Her first solo album, Timeless, was released on World Tune Records in 2014. She appeared on the national stage when singing a solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.
At The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, Olatuja will present for the first time songs from her new project, Transform, featuring David Rosenthal (guitar), Juan Pastor (percussion), and Keith Witty (bass). We caught up with Olatuja by phone, who was busy in between moving house and preparing for the new project. We spoke about topics of transformation and vulnerability on the personal, musical, and political level. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us about the ensemble for this gig?
Alicia Olatuja: Well, it’s actually going to be a stripped down sound. What we normally have with my shows could be from five to eight people in the band. So we’re going to strip it down to a trio, quartet type of thing, and it’s all acoustic instruments. We’ll have guitar by David Rosenthal, cajon by Juan Pastor, and then on upright bass, for a few of the tunes, we’ll have Keith Witty. I’ve played with all three of them in different configurations. But this is the first time all four of us will be playing together in this group. We’re going to be debuting some new tunes as well, from my upcoming project, so it’s really exciting for several reasons.
TJG: What’s the new project?
AO: It’s called Transform. All the tunes, and the thematic material is about transformation—the vulnerability of it, the tragedy of not growing and changing, the fear of moving on, and also the freedom and joy of transformation.
TJG: What was the motivation to do something with the more stripped down ensemble?
AO: Well, I feel like the music is still in the process of being molded and shaped into what I want it to be, and so I feel like starting a little bit more bare and then building onto it might make the music have a different process of development. With my other album, I recorded all the tunes first, and then released the album, and then toured it. The growth and the transition the music has made since then is crazy! There are many different ways and processes you can use to create music and reveal it to your audience. So I thought I would start from small and build outward, unlike last time which was more like “here it all is!” in its codified form. Because it’s stripped down, we’ll hear the real core of it, which is important for me to hear. It’s about finding out, “what are these songs trying to say? How are they impacting the audience and the listener?” But without bells and whistles and all that.
TJG: I really like that idea of working through a new project in front of an audience.
AO: Exactly. And that’s what the whole message of transformation is about. It’s about presenting yourself and living life when you’re in transition. It’s a very vulnerable place to be, an unfinished project. And that’s pretty much what we are anyway. But there are certain times in life when it’s more prevalent than others.
TJG: What inspired you to run with the theme of transformation for this project?
AO: I feel like I’m definitely in a transformative place in my own life personally, I’m moving on to other things. I mean, look, right now—I’m sitting amidst boxes about to change my living location. So my cocoon is changing currently. But also I feel like when I was writing the tunes and was collecting tunes from other writers, there was a through-line that was happening thematically. And I think that through-line was transformation. And even this country right now, we’re in a transition time. I mean everything is in transition. And that’s a very scary time. It can be a time when you can choose to cling on to what you know and dig your heels in. Or it’s a time where you can realize that vulnerability isn’t so bad, and it actually makes you open and makes you relatable. And if you can just be in that space and be aware and be present in that space, you can learn a lot about yourself and about other people. Because once you get to the other side of whatever your next phase is, you may be there for a while. You know, transitions are usually pretty short, so there are so many beautiful lessons to learn in a brief time, so you’ve got to really stay clued in. So, just thinking on that really pushed the theme along, artistically.
TJG: At the Winter Jazz Fest, you did Songs of Freedom with Ulysses Owens, Jr., which had this theme of social justice. And now, your show at the Gallery is on the eve of the inauguration, so everything’s kind of getting caught up in that moment. Do you feel the need to reflect on what’s happening politically in your music?
AO: Yes. As I expressed, we’re in a transitory time as a country, and as a nation. And that transition is going to be felt worldwide. And it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take a while for things to move in any particular direction. And I just feel like at this time we’re very vulnerable. And it really makes you look and reflect on certain things. And it really can show what you’re made of. But I think that we have to understand that even though it sucks for some and it’s celebratory for others, we still have to just keep moving forward.
TJG: You studied classical voice at Manhattan School. I read that one of the motivations for doing that was to have a healthy approach to singing. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you feel that vocal technique has helped you in singing over the years.
AO: I grew up around a lot of singers, singing in church, and a lot of them have gone on to be on “The Voice” and other competition shows. But I noticed that some of my friends were experiencing vocal damage at very young ages, I’m talking nine, ten, eleven—calluses on their vocal cords, and nodes, and kind of really emotionally debilitating things. So I thought, OK, well I don’t want that to be my story. So when I went to school I decided to pursue classical voice so that I could discover this territory that I have inside without hurting myself, basically.
TJG: And do you feel like it’s given you those tools?
AO: I think it was really really beneficial. I mean, you’re thinking about focusing the voice in a certain place to help acoustically benefit you so that you’re not pushing so hard; when you’re focusing on breathing, that overrides nerves and can relax your instrument so that you can just get out of your own way, pretty much, and do what the instrument wants to do. Then you can sing anything. And that’s pretty much what I feel like I’ve attached to every genre that I’ve sung. You’re able to attach the healthy technique to anything you want to do, because it’s all about discovering, exploring your voice, learning how to project, how to breathe, how to set up your instrument so that if functions optimally and so you get out of your own way.
TJG: It’s interesting that you say that, because sometimes it seems that western classical technique is kind of, top-down, or limiting, and you’re saying that actually it frees you to do whatever it is you want to do.
AO: Yeah. It’s very freeing. But with any genre, what actually caps you off or makes you feel like you’re limited is all in your mind. Every time you learn a particular genre you feel confident of comfortable in that genre. Moving on to another genre is going to be challenging and intimidating and you have to give yourself permission to make some mistakes, to be vulnerable, and to try something else. A lot of people study classical music, they learn how to create operatic sound or classical sound ideals based on the technique, and then when it comes times to move to another genre or when they’re requested or challenged to try another genre, some people feel that, “Oh well, I don’t know do that.” But the funny thing is, ten years before they started studying classical music, they didn’t do that either. So you just have to be willing to be vulnerable, to start over, and learn how to master certain genres and sound ideals on a better vocal technique. The technique actually, though, is separate. The technique is not the genre.
TJG: When did you feel like you left the classical world and entered other genres?
AO: Well, the funny thing is that sometimes genres will just select you. It’s not even like you try. I never made a conscious decision. I was never rejected in the classical world. I had a lot of opportunities open up for me really early in my career. I made my professional debut when I was twenty, and I sang at Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center before I was even nineteen. These were strange uncommon type things, so I thought, “Oh, OK, well I guess this is what I’m going to do!” And then when I graduated I still did that, but I was dabbling around with different bands, different groups. And, when you look at the performance for the inauguration, that was classical/gospel-y but mainly classical, and the first call that I got after that gig, was to tour with the Julliard jazz band.
So I thought, “I wonder why? That’s so strange.” And one of the first tweets that I got that blew my mind was from Diane Reeves, saying, “Well, this is some good stuff,” or whatever kind words that she had. So I thought, isn’t it interesting that you can go forth with whatever type of music you’re doing, but you can be embraced and encouraged by other musicians in different fields? And then you follow that. I could have said, “Oh I don’t do that,” and then I would have been limiting myself.
TJG: Is there anything else that you want to say about this show?
AO: Well. I just hope that people like it. I hope that people connect to the text, and I hope that they’re willing to visit that transitory place, because it’s uncomfortable for some people. And so to actually live in that music challenges the audience. And that’s what I really like to do. I like to challenge the audience to think about things differently, or to just think on things that they maybe have not thought of, or have avoided thinking about. Not depressing things, but things that actually connect us on a human level, which is something that we all really really need right now.
Alicia Olatuja plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 19th, 2017. Ms. Olatuja, voice, will be joined by David Rosenthal on guitar, Juan Pastor on percussion, and Keith Whitty on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.