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Interviews

Robin McKelle: Songbird On The Wing

By Published: November 17, 2008

AAJ: That's the wonderful part about jazz. You never hear the same thing twice—you have a set arrangement but then you take off from there.

AAJ: How did your singing career start off?

RM: I grew up singing all the time but I started off mostly singing in the bands and doing this and doing that and whatever, but a lot of singing at weddings—tons of weddings. I moved out to L.A. after I graduated from Berklee and I pursued a job as a background singer. So, then I was a background singer and then I realized, "No, this is so not what I want." But it was great life experience, traveling all over the world and weeding out: "This is what I want; this is what I don't want." I moved back to Boston and I was offered a teaching position at Berklee. I never, ever wanted to teach and I never saw myself teaching, but I really felt I couldn't turn it down. I was honored to be offered the job. I thought, "You know what, I'll do one day a week and I'll see how it works for me," and then I started to teach a little bit more and I was still singing at weddings and everything. I was always working on my own music, but I needed to pay the bills, too.

There was a colleague of mine who suggested that I enter the Monk competition. At the time, honestly, I had studied jazz but I was really making a living as an R&B singer. What I was singing, of course was influenced by jazz, but my writing was more pop than jazz-influenced. I thought, "Well, it's the last year I could possibly do it because I'll be over the age limit the next time, so I might as well try it. I sent the CD in and I got accepted to the semifinals, and I honestly couldn't believe it. When I went there I said, "I'm just gonna go and enjoy this experience," and then ended up in the final four, thinking, "I can't believe this." Honestly, I didn't think I had what it really took to be a jazz singer because the people I listened to and was influenced by were so far on a level that I thought I could never achieve. I guess everyone goes through that. And then, here I am standing on a stage with four other women. And then I was one of the winners, and I'm sitting there and Kurt Elling and DeeDee Bridgewater were really, really encouraging. They both came to me personally. They were amazing. They just said, "You're already doing this." Kurt said to me, "We need to hear you out there. You need to be doing this because people need to hear you. Keep in touch with me. Anything you need, call me." He gave me his phone number. So then I really had the encouragement from the people that I looked up to and that I was so in awe of. I didn't realize that this was the territory where I really fit in. I had found my niche.

And then I decided to record Introducing Robin McKelle. The real story with Introducing is, the producer Willie Murillo, whom I had met four years previously, had been begging me, "I want to record you." When I lived in L.A., there were not a ton of jazz singers out there. Most of the jazz singers were in New York in early 2000. I started to get some calls about doing some pop symphony Orchestra dates. So I thought, "This is better than doing weddings. I would like to do this." I started singing standards with orchestra—totally fully orchestra. The conductor started to mentor me a little bit. His name is Jeff Prysick. He was in Rochester, New York. And he said, "If you want to do more of these, you should come up with a concept that you can sell to these orchestras." I thought this was pretty cool because I was singing on a stage and people were listening to me. I'm not singing where people are requesting "I Will Survive." I'm very rational and I thought, "This seems do-able." So I picked up the phone and I had a very small budget of about seven or eight thousand dollars that I collected. And I said, "Can we do this?" "Yes, let's do it. Can you get more money?" At first I had five thousand and I had to get a little more. Seventy-five hundred, I think I actually came up with. That's what we recorded the first album on.

AAJ: That's very good. Especially with the full orchestra you got there.

RM: Willie called in favors. It was the love of the music from all of the musicians. They wanted to play this music.

So we finished and I started getting more of the pop beat and now I had my arrangements for a big band and I got an interview on NPR, and it just popped for me. And it was by accident, because I'd originally said I was gonna do this project, but I'm recording my original music. And this was really what was my break—I didn't have a manager. I didn't have an agent. I didn't have anything. I had nothing. I'm lucky, knock on wood, that I found an agent, but it was after. It's a very confusing and frustrating business and stressful and crazy.

I started doing well here in the States and an independent label from France connected with my label here and said, "Okay, we want to sign her in France and we want to bring her over to tour." And my label said, "This is great for you because you're going to tour there." They did a really great job. The record did really, really great in France and I got with one of the best agents there. He liked what I did. He started booking me. I played at the JVC Jazz Festival in a 150 seat place the first time I was there. I did really well.



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