Robin McKelle: Songbird On The Wing

Marcia Hillman By

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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.
Robin McKelle's career as a recording artist and a performer is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. She is already a jazz star in France and has appeared at the Blue Note and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City. Exposed to music at home by her mother, a musician, McKelle began singing at an early age and playing piano at the age of five. In her early teens, she became interested in jazz. She switched from classical to jazz piano lessons, and her piano teacher also began to coach her with her singing. McKelle went on to attend the Berklee College of Music and, after graduating, taught voice there for three years. During that time, she entered the Thelonius Monk Vocal Competition and was a winner. Encouraged by DeeDee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling at the competition, Robin focused on singing and released her first CD Introducing Robin McKelle (2006) on Cheap Lullaby Records. Her current CD Modern Antique (Cheap Lullaby) was released this year and also features a big band configuration. Both CDs have fostered her growing reputation as a jazz vocalist.

All About Jazz: Both of your CDs have been recorded with a big band. Why did you choose this?

Robin McKelle: Well, the first album we did with the big band because of the producer that I was working with. He had this love of big bands; he really wanted to do a project with it. So when we met each other—I met him in L.A.—he said, "Here's what I want to do. Do you want to record?" And I was saying, "No, I'm not ready." So when I was actually finally ready—which was four years later after I had met him originally—we reconnected and we just went with the same idea. It's extremely expensive, but it was something we could do because of the resources he had in the people he was working with in L.A. So we kind of came to an idea together of the concept of the first album. And the follow-up album, Modern Antique—I had quite a bit of success with the first album and a lot of success over in Europe. And I was starting to do a lot of touring and having my fan base growing. It was something different. And a lot of times I heard it's great because there are trios and even smaller pieces. It's just more affordable. And not only that, artistically, it's just a completely different thing. So it was kind of like the follow-up to Introducing Robin McKelle, and I really felt like it was the right thing to do—another big band album but with just a little bit of a different flair, a little different touch to it. It still has some of the swing to it that a lot of the people really love and I love as well. But I kind of got a chance to go into more of a bluesy approach.

AAJ: Torchy type.

RM: Yes, which I really love. So it kind of used the big band in some of the same ways but some different ways as well. So it kind of gives a little bit of a different side to it.

AAJ: Basically, what you're doing is situating yourself in the '40s and '50s, where vocalists used to record with big bands.

RM: Yes, everybody did. And, as long as the arrangements are really great and the players are great, it can be a great experience.

AAJ: Chris Connor—who was originally a band singer—sailed over the band, and that's exactly what you do. You're not overwhelmed by the band. You're still out in front and the band is right behind you; you are not a "band singer."

RM: Well, thank you. I love her and I love her voice and she's got such a great timbre to her voice—the sound and the raspiness of it. It is hard—the big band. It's a very powerful sound and there's a lot of sound and you can't be a competition, but you do have to have a bigger voice to do the big band thing, because otherwise you're going to get overwhelmed. It is a different style of singing and I do find that I love it. But there are other times when I'm on tour and I just travel with a trio.

AAJ: Although you've recorded with the big band and you're performing that way, you're certainly not going to travel with a big band—it's not feasible any more. What do you have to do to tone down your approach when working with a smaller group?

RM: I approach it differently, usually. For some of the songs, we'll do similar arrangements, but because the instrumentation is different, the singing style is a bit different as well. It's toned down for sure. I'm not out there really—less crooning, I would say, and more freedom of interpretation. And there's much more interaction with the other musicians. When I'm playing with my trio, we do different arrangements of the tunes that are on the albums. We'll do kind of a fusion—something that sounds familiar from the album, but in a way that works with a trio. You cannot recreate the sound with a trio.

AAJ: No, it's impossible. When you've got a blasting brass section, you cannot do it with a trio.

RM: Right. And actually, now I have a couple of forms. I have a group now with three horns—trumpet, trombone and saxophone—and sometimes we have done some of the bigger concerts, festivals and shows. It's really fun as well, because it gives the elements and the sound of the horns, but it's more open because it's kept to three horns. So it's just a different approach. With the trio thing, too, when I'm touring a lot I try to change it up a little bit every night. I don't want to go out and do the same thing. We might do the same song and change the tempo or change the feel sometimes. You've got to do those things. That's the thing about jazz.

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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