Sunday, July 4, 2010
Interview with Yaw
In April I posted the following blog when first discovering Yaw:
I'm not in the habit of posting music videos that are not music videos, that is to say that they have no moving images but merely consist of one image or a slide show uploaded to YouTube by fans of the artist/band. However, where there are rules, there are exceptions and an exception must be made in this case.
Last night I was listening online to the archived edition of Coco and Robin of Danish duo Quadron's April 20 guest DJ set on KCRW, Santa Monica with host Anthony Valadez who has a weekly midnight to 3 am show. Coco and Robin picked some favorite tracks and just after Michael Jackson's "Got To Be There", another song came on.
My ears perked up just from hearing the instrumental intro which - thanks to the sound of a lone trumpet - reminded me of Jerry Goldsmith's gorgeous soundtrack for the film "L.A. Confidential". And there were trembling strings, an angelic chorus of soulful Sam Cooke style backing vocals and sweet Isley Brothers guitar sounds before the sublime vocals kicked in - a man's voice, but with a Nina Simone timbre to it. I thought: when was this recorded - decades ago or this year? I was puzzled, intrigued, eyes wide open, ears and heart taking in every perfect note and word in this gut wrenching love song.
Today, after learning from KCRW's track list that the vocalist is Chicago based singer Yaw, I Googled the name and found his MySpace Music profile. Turns out British DJ and champion of great new music Gilles Peterson released the CD "Brownswood Bubblers 3" on his label Brownswood Recordings in 2008 - it featured various artists, including Yaw and his track "Where Will You Be".
Listen for yourself.
Bio by Yaw taken from his MySpace page:
I know there is a piece of me that is connected in some way to the past. Oftentimes, after I've created what I create - and I've had an chance to listen - I see myself as being intrinsically connected on a subliminal level to my ancestors.
I can't get away from the fact that I am from Africa and Blackness. It's in me, like my bones and my heart are in me. It's a part of me that I don't have to create necessarily, it just is.
Everything that created me is still with me and every time I sing or speak or communicate, those words are the manifestation of it.
Sankofa! Connectivity. Synergy.
My music comes from this place - a truly unforced thing.
My tongue is African.
We don't get the luxury of choice of this heart-versus-that-heart, or whathaveyou; the musical part of me is so connected to nature, the world and Africa that when it comes out, it's a huge organic occurrence.
And that's the only way I can really function. I can't live in a world where cookies are cut and products are created; I will die. I must live in a natural, non-artificial environment.
100% juice to do what I do - no high fructose corn syrup because I am 100% juice.
That's my word. Here are a few words that have been said about me:
Yaw has performed on both the theatrical stage and musical stage. He has had the privilege to work with Ntozake Shange and Paul Carter Harrison and various roles including Walter Lee "A Raisin in the Sun" to Uncle Morty in "Awake and Sing." On the musical stage, he has shared the stage with the likes of Floetry, Jaguar Wright, Kindred, and Amel Larrieux. Additionally, he has backed up Eric Roberson and Liz Fields in concert. The world appears to be opening up for the young singer, who has been likened to Al Green and Bilal. His prayer is that God continues to supply him with the words and sounds to affect on a larger scale.
Q & A with Yaw
The Nightfly: What is the story behind the name Yaw?
Yaw: Both of my parents were born in Ghana. It is a traditional practice in the Akan culture to name your child after the day on which they were born. I was born on a Thursday; hence the name "Yaw". It isn't just my stage name, it is my given name, typed on my discolored and slightly tattered, birth certificate.
The Nightfly: You are based in Chicago – is this also where you grew up?
Yaw: Yes, Chicago is my place of birth and where I was raised; in the land of the Daleys [Chicago political dynasty], with fufu [a staple food of West and Central Africa] in my mouth.
The Nightfly: How old were you when you first started doing music?
Yaw: Music it seemed was like my fingernails or my hair - part and parcel of me, it was always present. I believe I began to take it more seriously, more professionally about eight years ago.
The Nightfly: You seem to have an equal love for soul and hip hop - did you discover both at the same time?
Yaw: My discovery of soul came first. There were a lot of different musicians represented in the many records that my dad had when I was growing up. Soul to me was heard when I listened to Freddie Mercury, A. B. Crentsil, Chicago, Hall & Oates and Osibisa. I was turned on to R. Kelly when he first came out; he was immediately replaced by Donny Hathaway when I was a freshman in high school -his record, "Giving Up" changed my life. Hip hop hopped into my world when Nas first hit the scene. Still, then, I hadn't fully accepted her, but when Wu Tang appeared, I was all ears, and then mind and then heart. They both are necessary parts of my life.
The Nightfly: You write on your MySpace page: “I see myself as being intrinsically connected on a subliminal level to my [African] ancestors”. Has this consciousness given you the desire to visit the continent of Africa and maybe even do shows there?
Yaw: The last time I was in Africa was in the year 2000. I went with my dad back home to Ghana. Such a beautiful experience! No shows there yet, but that is definitely a great desire of mine.
The Nightfly: How did Gilles Peterson come to hear your music?
Yaw: Ron Trent, super-producer and DJ shared it with Gilles and Gilles shared it with the world. I have a relationship with Ron Trent through a hip hop project that he is the producer of called jMb or justMybRother. Myself and an amazing MC by the name of Phenom will come out with an EP titled "Open Rehearsal" this month.
The Nightfly: Is there a “master plan” in terms of your career or do you believe in things happening more organically, for example by word-of-mouth and through the web?
Yaw: Things have been happening organically for the most part. The people who I have come acquainted with over the years, the venues, the resources, have all availed themselves as I've availed my soul. They have all helped to push me to where I am now. That, and my own natural ability and efforts. I would say moreover, there is a direction, a "master plan" if you will. I definitely hope to have more exposure and more performances in the overseas market. I want to work with more artists that have a greater level of exposure than I. And of course, I want to be invited to the Grammys and maybe an Oscar celebration or two before everything is said and done. In general the plan is to always be moving in a progressive fashion, always onward and upward. The team is becoming stronger every day.
The Nightfly: Do you prefer songwriting, recording, or performing live?
Yaw: I prefer performing - if there's only one to pick. The exchange of energy with the audience is my addiction. I do enjoy the other two immensely as well.
The Nightfly: You have a young daughter named Marli. How old is she and is she showing any particular interest in music at this point?
Yaw: Marli is six, with seven around the corner in August. She is definitely an artist. She has a sponge for a mind - it doesn't take long for her to know the choruses to songs; the verses are like candy for her. I think she will be a Renaissance woman, with her focus however on painting or sketching; she's quite a phenomenal kid. She makes love easy.
The Nightfly: Which song has had a big influence on you?
Yaw: "Giving Up" by Donny Hathaway definitely reverberates with me on many levels of my being.
The Nightfly: Do you primarily write your own material or do you seek out co-writers in Chicago and elsewhere?
Yaw: I primarily write my own material, but the musicians that I work with are awesome creators. They have made material that is undeniably beautiful. Material that I couldn't help but add my two cents to.
The Nightfly: In your opinion, is it true that American soul music – classic and new – is more appreciated and even revered outside the US, notably in England?
Yaw: Very generically, yes. I think many artists will contend that there is a very different energy present overseas. And it is an energy of appreciation and adoration and respect and love; oft times on a level greater than experienced at home. It seems natural though. There are things in my home that I pass by without a second thought. Those same things may be fascinating for a guest to my home. In England and other countries that maintain this wonderful love and respect for soul music, we are new and strange and beautiful and fascinating. In our homeland, we are breathing and manufacturing the same music of our forefathers - it doesn't have the same exoticism and excitement as it does in foreign lands.
The Nightfly: Talk about the flawless soul track “Where Will You Be”.
Yaw: Thank you for saying that it is "flawless", but I actually know it to be flawed. It is funny to say, but the recording took place in Khari Lemuel's (the mastermind behind the music) bedroom. All the horns and strings were recorded one by one on a creaky wooden floor - you can hear this in the recording. At one point, as we recorded the vocals, we opened the windows 'cause it was too hot and I don't believe we closed it. But that didn't matter at all to us. The music reminded me of a smoky jazz cafe which I believe influenced my vocals. I closed my eyes and talked about this woman...and the rest is history.
The Nightfly: Do you plan to record a full album of so-called “old school” soul in the vein of “Where Will You Be”?
Yaw: I don't know. What comes out, comes out. The term "old school" sounds like a gimmick. The music that is created is a by product of the times and my experiences; so in it is an essential organic appeal that is immune to certain categories it may be placed in. I definitely have an affinity for "old soul" and I believe it informs my tones, my melodies, etc., but in this moment, how I express myself and my music will only conform to this very moment - ideally!
The Nightfly: You have performed on the theatrical stage as well as the musical stage – have there been times when you have felt torn between the two?
Yaw: I respect both spaces equally and I try not to mix them. For example, I am not fond of musicals. It is an aesthetic that I respect but don't quite have the mind or heart for. Often when I am acting, I have found it hard to also perform as a musician and vice versa. I don't believe that I am torn between the two forms of expression. I accept their invitations into my life as they come. No love triangle here; but perhaps Big Love.
The Nightfly: On “Where Will You Be” your voice has a distinct Nina Simone like quality. [Wikipedia: “Simone had an “unusually low range which varied between the alto and tenor ranges and occasionally even reached baritone lows”.] Are you a fan?
Yaw: Nina Simone, I believe, single-handedly influenced my style, my approach and my movements where music is concerned. There is a funny story that goes with this: the first time I heard Nina's voice I was physically unnerved, weird; I didn't like her voice at all. I think that was a psychological repression of self though - I can't even believe that this was one of my truths once upon a time. Now, Nina is the monarch of my universe. It appears that she has effectively thrown her spirit and mind into the atmosphere and I stand, mouth agape, beneath an azure sky, waiting for her to drop into my mouth, like a child playing in a summer rain.
The Nightfly: Which recording artist - past or present - would you like to work with if you could pick anyone?
Yaw: I think me and Shuggie Otis could make magic!
The Nightfly: You have been compared to Bilal and Al Green. Do you find it frustrating to be compared with other artists or do you simply take such statements as great compliments?
Yaw: I am aware of the human inclination to categorize for the purpose of comprehension. We place things in boxes, firmly bounded, so that we can understand its parameters and thus - supposedly - create a summation of the thing. Artists are in no way removed from this process. I accept it. Bilal and Al Green are fine artists. I love them. It makes sense and I am honored to be compared to them. I have shuddered when I've heard other comparisons, but alas, I have also played the game. Such is life.
The Nightfly: You appear in the Chicago segment of the 2008 VH1 Soul series “Soul Cities” hosted by music critic/author Nelson George – how did this come about?
Yaw: Ron Trent was also featured on the show. During that moment in time, we were working together very heavily and he turned the producers on to my music.
The Nightfly: On the Titanic, the eight-member band kept playing on deck until the bitter end in an effort to keep passengers calm as the ship was sinking. Is the primary role of musicians/performers/songwriters to entertain and comfort audiences and listeners or do artists have a responsibility to push for change in the world through music? (many artists have managed to do both).
Yaw: The primary role, I believe for us all, let alone artists, is to be honest with ourselves and the world. We can only do this if we, as Russell Simmons says, "Do you" or "Do us". I had a conversation with my drummer and he said that, "music is the most important resource on the planet next to water." I believe this. On my "Doing me" journey, because this revelation reverberates with me, it is my duty to use the music to uplift and effect change and push positive vibrations with the gift that I have been given. Some of us don't have this calling or are not affected by what is happening in our streets and in our schools. For them, their view is different; their heart is patterned from another mold. And that is fine. There is always a villain when there is a hero. And there will always be passerbys, unaware of the struggle between the two. Roles need to be filled. My role here is to share my gift with the hope that it will inspire the masses to also share and give and care.
Big thanks to Yaw!
Posted by The Nightfly