Amel Larrieux talks lifelong dream and her favourite SA artists

It has been pointed out that the “neo soul” label is paradoxical in terms. “Neo” means new and “soul” implies depth and history and timelessness. Soul simply cannot be new, many argued – including Maxwell and Goapele – whose main complaint was that their music defies definition and doesn’t need categorisation.

The term was coined by music executive Kedar Massenburg who managed Erykah Badu and D’Angelo who felt the kind of music they were making went against the mainstream offering and needed to be packaged accordingly so consumers would know what they were buying.

Michael A Gonzales, author of the article titled “On D’Angelo and the Birth of Neo Soul” published in Ebony magazine in 2012, wrote, “In 1995, the concept of neo-soul was sold to an audience who was already R&B fans, but had grown tired of acts like H-Town, Chante Moore, Shai, Silk and MoKenStef being their only choices. If nothing else, neo-soulsters were on a mission to make Black music that broadened the definition of R&B while exploring its sonic possibilities. Experimenting with various textures, vintage instruments, old-fashioned microphones and sometimes even Analog recording methods, these artists created a sub-genre of soul that was determined to take Black music back to its roots. Yet, while the term proved catchy to both critics and fans, most of the musicians rejected the term. ‘I always felt that the term neo-soul applied more to the making of music, but not the sound,’ India Arie states. ‘We were just young Black artists looking for wider musical parameters to express ourselves.'”

It was at this time that Groove Theory came onto the scene with hits like Tell Me, Keep Tryin’ and Baby Luv. One half of the duo was Bryce Wilson, the other American singer-songwriter and keyboard player Amel Larrieux. After leaving the group a few years later, she co-wrote and co-produced her debut solo album Infinite Possibilities, which arguably, became the album that defined her sound with the critically acclaimed track Get Up. In 2003, Larrieux started an independent label with her producer husband Laru Larrieux called Blissfful Records. The label has released five albums including her latest Ice Cream Everyday (2013). 

The album is reminiscent of that 90s R’n’B sound; that summer groove. Her distinctive sultry vocals (sprinkled with a few French lyrics), an upbeat tempo and that unmistakable funk beat all combine to make a shoulder-bopping package.

When I ask Larrieux about the blurring of musical genres and how she would characterise her own music within that confusion, she says, “I leave that part up to the listener”.
Without getting her to claim the neo soul label, it’s hard to describe her music as anthing but. It’s a little bit of that 70s soul and funk sound combined with hiphop and that R’n’B quality minus its often predicable whiny smoothness, to create a sound that escapes traditional categorisation. Artists like Bilal, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Tony! Toni! Tone! Lenny Kravitz make music with that similar sensibility about it. In my mind, it’s a convergence of sounds and influences that have “allowed” musicians to create, produce and exist within the oft-exclusionary lines that are supposed to define popular music. 

Growing up with influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to Miles Davis and Tribe Called Quest; from The Beatles to Fela Kuti and The Police; from Prince to Black Uhuru and Debussey; from Gang Starr to Ella Fitzgerald and field recordings of indigenous people … Larrieux says there has never been a time in her life – from her early childhood to now – when there hasn’t been a diverse tapestry of music as a backdrop. “I am quite certain all of it has influenced me at some point along my journey and I’m still on it.”

Those limitless influences have a lot to do with her background and upbringing. Her own parents were artists – her mother was a dancer and an actress and professor of dance history; her father a photographer.

She paints a picture of the environment she was raised in: “The Village was Bohemian and subtle, very little consumerism, artists living side by side. I grew up in a very unique building called Westbeth. It had once been a telephone company and was converted into artists’ lofts. It was super diverse racially, socioeconomically and there was a big LGBT presence. 

“I was playing with the children of jazz musicians, actors, dancers and visual artists. These folks were working artists – I’m sure they were sometimes starving – and making art for a living was the norm. Westbeth was a microcosm of sorts but it also represented the entire downtown scene in the late seventies and eighties, before downtown Manhattan become so utterly gentrified and so the diverse community was priced out. I think growing up here had a profound influence on me as an artist and a human. I never imagined stardom and glamour. I have always only been emulating the artists I watched in that community, working hard at their craft, being totally unique and appearing to have complete artistic freedom.”

When did she know she had the gift of music, I ask her? “There was nothing of the sort! I just knew I wanted to write songs and sing them because that was all I found myself ever doing when I was in or out of school. I spent an unusual amount of time all by myself, throughout my childhood and teens, just listening to music for hours on end.”

When her family relocated to Philadelphia in the late eighties, Larrieux says she just wanted to move back. “I didn’t have any real plans but I knew I wanted to be around music and art. She attended CAPA (Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts) where she spent her freshman and junior years coincidentally, at the same time Questlove, Black Thought, Christian McBride and Boyz II Men were there.

“When people started naming their kids after me, that’s when I knew I had made it as an artist. That blows my mind every time,” she says.

Set to perform at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on Saturday, March 28 at 11.30pm Johannesburg fans discovered via her Twitter account that she was scheduled to perform at Carfax in Johannesburg on April 2 and 3. Any surprises for the audience? “Well, I guess some people may not know that my eldest daughter, Sky, has been in my band for the past 6 years,” says Larrieux.

In fact, Sky does the backing vocals on Afraid, features in Keep Tryin’, performed a rendition of Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place at a blues club at 14 years of age and mother and daughter played together to a sold-out audience at the famous Conga Room (co-owned by Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, Sheila E, and other partners) in downtown Los Angeles in 2009 when Sky was just 15 years old. 

Her youngest daughter Sanji Rei has also performed with her mother. “We’re predicting that she’s gonna end up in Broadway or films. She’s quite the stage singer/actress/dancer and pretty good with the drums and instruments,” she told Clutch magazine. “My oldest, Sky, I’ve always called her a child prodigy. She can pick up any instrument and play it by ear.

“I love working with other artists and have done so many times over the years,” she says when I ask her the obligatory question about who she would love to collaborate with. “What I’d most like is to have one of my songs covered by someone in another genre. That would be a lifelong dream fulfilled.”

The soul songstress will be spending just under two weeks in South Africa and plans to do as much as her body will allow her to do. It might be her first time in the country but she’s not unfamiliar with South African music or its cultural heritage and history. “Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu,The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is one of my faves,” she says. “I love textiles and art from indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia. I collect vintage African American folk art whenever I see it.”

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