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Robin McKelle: Songbird On The Wing

By Published: November 17, 2008

AAJ: What year was this?

RM: It was 2006. That was in October, and then they had me back in December to do two nights there at the New Morning Jazz Club. It's a 500-seat theater with two shows—500 people each show—with a big band from Paris. I did that. It was a local big band. It was tough, but it worked out okay. And it just kept going. Then I played at a 1,500 seat theater in May, and it was sold out. And France is quite...

AAJ: France is quite different. It has always been ahead of the time when it comes to jazz anyway.

RM: That's the truth, and a lot of people have gone there. DeeDee herself spent many years there.

And then Blue Note France decided they were really interested in me so they put the second album out in Europe. I'm still on an indie label here for this. I've worked hard for it my whole life. It's still a journey—it's still getting more and it's trying to enjoy it and stay in the moment and be grateful. And it's much different here in the U.S. It's difficult everywhere, but...

AAJ: It's still an orphan here.

RM: Right. It's very true. But you can also imagine why, because many times in our lives, you don't really know; when you always have something, you don't know what it's really worth—the value of it. And I really do think there has been a slight resurgence of jazz in today's music, with Diana Krall and Norah Jones and Michael Buble.

AAJ: Norah Jones, to many, is not jazz.

RM: Not jazz, but opens the door to people possibly hearing music in a different way.

AAJ: You write your own material—both music and lyrics. You want to do more of your own stuff.

RM: I do, definitely.

AAJ: Do you have anything definite in mind?

RM: Yes, my next album. I don't think it's going to be all originals because I think it would be straying way too far from where I'm at stylistically, so I feel like a gentle kind of progression into that.

AAJ: Maybe two or three albums down the line.

RM: Yes. But I know I'm going to have more and more. So I'll do a couple more original tunes and I'll keep introducing more. And—because I'm still new to a lot of people and, first of all, they hear this big band record and then here's me with a trio which is a totally different story—I don't want to scare them away. I think they're already surprised because it's a different thing. That's where my home is—on stage. Recording is okay for me. The stage is where I feel...I love performing.

AAJ: Well, performing and studio work are two different things.

RM: Completely different. I prefer to do everything live and, it was just impossible with a full big band and strings. We had to do it in sections and I sang with the rhythm section until after they tracked everything. It's more like a pop approach to the record and that's not really where I come from musically. I like to have it going on. It's like, right in the moment.

AAJ: Like it was in the studios in the '30s and the '40s—one track. And the band is there and just does it.

RM: That's what I want. And I really want to make a live recording at some point. I definitely want to do a live recording.

AAJ: That may not be a bad idea for your next album.

RM: Yes. I want to do it a lot. Things get complicated when you have more people on your team and they're great to help but they all have ideas and suggestions. And on labels, it's a tough climate right now. They want me to do what I want to do, but they also don't want it to be, like, I want to do an acoustic folk album and they'll say, "You can't do that." So I do have creative freedom. I'm producing it myself.

AAJ: You want creative control.

RM: I had a lot more on the second one, and that was really important to me. Choice of material. Like I said, the first one was based around this concept of the '40s. So that's what we did. And this one, it's very important for me to have creative control—not full control, but input, and a lot of it. I have a vision. I know what I want. I know what I hear. I write. I arrange. I do it. I know what I want to hear. It almost got there for me on Modern Antique. It almost got there. But there's so many things involved, and as the process goes, it morphs into something else sometimes. And you have to accept it and that's what it is when you're co-producing and then you have...I'm on four different labels. I have a manager. There are other people and you have to be okay with letting go a little bit. You have to let go. And it wasn't so hard; I feel like I work with people who I trust. But once it comes down to it, I want most of the control musically and I got a lot of what I needed. But artistically, I wanted different photos. I wanted this and I wanted that and at the end of the day, I'm like, "You know what? The music is my baby. Yes, I'll be okay with that photo for this or whatever." But people have different ideas of what they want, and sometimes it's just not worth my energy.

AAJ: You have to focus in on what's your job. It's the music.

RM: Yes. You cannot control everything because it will make you crazy. And I've got too much to worry about. I've been on tour. I've only had probably a total of two and a half months off this year, so I'm on the road all the time with my band. I've got to deal with three musicians, let's put it that way. They're great guys but they're three different personalities. We're on tour, we're all tired and I'm doing a lot of promo while we're doing shows. And I can't worry about things like that. I have people to help me with that.

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