Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.
Elizabeth King’s life was always centered around the church. “We had preachers in our family, my mom and my daddy was church people, and mom was a great singer,” she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “That’s just how I was brought up.” She began singing at the age of three, later recorded with the all-male Gospel Souls, and subsequently formed another singing group, the Stewart Family. But she wasn’t interested in seriously pursuing a singing career, because of her reluctance to tour while she was raising her family (she was eventually the mother of fifteen children).
Which is why it’s taken her so long — King is 77-years-old — to finally release her debut album, Living in the Last Days (Bible & Tire Recording Co.). King has a commanding voice, as is evident from the opening track, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” performed acapella to further emphasize her power. Elsewhere, she’s backed by the vibrant Sacred Souls Sound Section, who make foot-tapping numbers like the title song really jump and swing. When King and the Sacred Souls lock into a groove together, as in “Reach Out and Touch” and “Testify,” the musical force they generate is irresistible. She’s just as compelling in slow burning numbers like “Walk With Me” and “You’ve Got to Move.” This is uplifting music that will soothe your soul.
When Marianne Faithfull was hospitalized with coronavirus last year, she wasn’t expected to survive. But she beat the odds and pulled through — and went right back to work on her 21st solo album, She Walks in Beauty (BMG), created in collaboration with Warren Ellis (best known for his work with Nick Cave the Bad Seeds), and featuring guest appearances by the likes of Cave and Brian Eno.
Its release fulfills Faithfull’s longtime dream of recording an album of poetry. It’s an area she’s explored before — her 1965 album Come My Way featured “Jabberwock,” a recitation of Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” — but never in such depth. Her resonant voice is tailormade for the classics, and when set against the languid, atmospheric musical backing, the effect is sublime. The title track is the renowned love poem by Lord Byron; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is John Keats’ tale of a woeful knight; “The Lady of Shalott” is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic ballad of a doomed young woman (Faithfull chooses the darker 1833 version of the poem). Faithfull breathes new life into these timeless works, turning them into something exquisite.
Merry Clayton has the kind of music resume that could fill the entirety of this column. You’ve heard her voice on records by Carole King, Ringo Starr, Tori Amos, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Linda Ronstadt, Coldplay, and Odetta, to name a very few, as well as her riveting guest appearance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She’s released her own records too, and was profiled in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
Now, twenty-seven years after the release of her last album, comes Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Capitol CMG/Ode Records). Its appearance is even more remarkable considering the challenges Clayton has faced in the last decade; following a serious car accident in 2014, both her legs were amputated below the knee. Clayton’s resilience can be seen in her first question to the doctor: would her voice be affected? No, it would not. Beautiful Scars is the result.
Indeed, she wears those scars proudly, calling them “beautiful proof that I made it this far” in the album’s title song, so filled with emotion it moved her to tears. There’s a wonderful version of Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” her voice soaring with ecstasy. She revisits Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which she first recorded in 1971, her voice now grown in stature to become fuller and richer. And as always, there are songs of the faith that helped her persevere, such as the joyful testifying of “He Made a Way” and “God Is Love.” Merry Clayton’s indominable spirit vibrates through every note of this record.
Evie Sands launched her music career in the 1960s. But after watching other artists go on to have hits with songs she’d previously recorded (including “Take Me For a Little While,” “I Can’t Let Go,” “Angel of the Morning”), she began moving into songwriting herself. She eventually stopped performing in 1979 to pursue songwriting and producing full time, though still releasing the occasional record.
Get Out of Your Own Way, on Sands’ own R-Spot Records label, is her first solo album since 1999. It’s fairly bursting with warmth and positive vibrations; the musical mood is an engaging rock/pop mix, with elements of country and soul, and rich harmonies throughout.
Highlights include the soulful “My Darkest Days,” a powerful number about overcoming despair, and the opening track, “The Truth is in Disguise,” a solid rocker addressing the confusion and uncertainty of diving into a new relationship. The title track provides a gentle reminder that you might be getting in the way of your own success. “Don’t Hold Back” is a go-out-there-and-get-’em ode of affirmation. “Leap of Faith” encourages you to make one.
Self love – the kind that stretches far outside the limits of a bath bomb – doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of re-teaching yourself and connecting with and discovering the person that you truly are. On Flo, the debut EP from Mel Chanté, the Brooklyn-based poet, rapper and affirmation advocate shows a fully formed version of an artist in love with herself, her higher power and her practice.
On Flo opener “The Mission,” Chanté is clear about her intentions: “Know to love yourself from the soul is the only mission.” Even if the world is burning around you, even if you’re experiencing extreme loss, even if it feels really, really hard – loving yourself is the most important thing there is. Chanté outlines a few ways to achieve this, starting with manifestation. “When belief in yourself and spirit is ignited/And your dreams you envision/Then sit down and write it so it’s written.” Sometimes, the simple act of writing down your dreams and desires can be the stepping stone to accomplishing your dreams. Some people may scoff at the idea of manifestation, but no matter what you believe of its mystical powers, there is something to be said about believing in yourself. And Chanté knows that.
She also knows that part of loving your inner self is loving your outer self. “Temple” is an ode to just that – a love letter to the vessel that contains the self. Chanté describes herself in the words of someone describing a work of art. “Ain’t no stopping this melanin/Glistening /Skin dipped in chocolate topped with cinnamon/Sweet infinite eyes and prized intimates.” Her poetic lyrics are a wonder in themselves, but the perceived mastery she has over her own self-image is another.
Chanté says that this confidence is something that has taken time to cultivate. “I’m sure it’s evolved to this point and it’s still evolving. I just take it day by day,” she says. And although she dedicates “Temple” to honoring her divine self, she doesn’t close off the opportunity to others, saying, “Bringing honor to my body – if it be temple then pray somebody.” It feels like the highest form of sensuality – accepting and admiring yourself completely, and finding someone who mirrors that.
It’s clear that Chanté is a poet first. Her delivery is clear, emphatic and metaphorical, much like her debut volume of poetry, Brown Butter. She first started writing poetry at age eleven and was introduced to the piano around the same time; poetry came naturally to her, and putting it to music did, too. Her mother – for whom the EP is named – always emphasized the power of positive thinking, and her father was a musician; it seems Chanté inherited the best from both of her parents. Tragically, her father passed away before getting to see her realize her musical talents.
“My mom was always big on positive words growing up, my father too,” says Chanté. “I had moved to New York [from Boston] and six months later my father passed… I started writing letters to him every day and from there it just was a way for me to affirm things within myself and let things go and talk to him but also talk to myself.”
The loss was a huge blow to Chanté, but she says that she drew inspiration from her father’s resilient spirit. “He’s a musician, he’s the one who bought me my keyboard… he was just so passionate about his passions and his gifts,” Chanté remembers. “Even when he was in the hospital he was still posting his videos about his surgeries and stuff – it was just inspiring to see him still grasping at his dreams when he was in the position he was in. I feel like that just kind of sparked a flame in me to do what I can with the life that I have.”
Chanté found solace in her affirmations, and quickly discovered that others did, too. She started sharing daily affirmations on social media and people would reach out to her to tell her how much it meant to them. That turned into followers sharing their affirmations with her. She used this opportunity to create a platform and podcast called Vow to Self, where anyone can share their affirmations. This platform feels like an organic pairing with her uplifting and reflective rapping. She also hosts a meditation podcast on The Shine App called The Daily Shine.
Aside from infusing affirmations into her music, Chanté practices them daily. Among her favorites: “I am inspiring millions;” “I am attracted to abundance, abundance is attracted to me;” “I am present I am here I am now;” “The divine love I am seeking is also seeking me.” With affirmations that sound like poetry in and of themselves, it’s no wonder that Mel Chanté is so on point, and only fitting that Flo reflects that.
Follow Mel Chanté on Instagram for ongoing updates.
Coming of age: we all do it. But a very select few of us do it with as much grace, self-awareness and poetry as Lily Talmers. The Birmingham, Michigan native and recent University of Michigan grad combines her stunning mastery of the English language with her unorthodox classical music training to create a viscerally raw and beautiful debut record, Remember Me as Holy.
For someone who never really set out to be a songwriter to begin with, Talmers’ poetic lyrics and intrinsic sense of melody make her a very, very good one. “It’s kind of a weak thing to do,” Talmers says of songwriting. “At least in my mind, I think I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor, something so hard and objective… objective is the best word to describe what I wanted to be.”
Sure, performing open-heart surgery or aiding in developing the COVID-19 vaccine can be seen as more “objectively” utilitarian than writing a song. But, as we all know, music has a unique healing ability that can’t be found in any medication or surgery – especially, at this moment in time, songs which pull on the tender strings of a desperate nation teetering between change and stagnancy.
In “Miss America,” Talmers meets us at a moment of reckoning and rebuilding, begging her country to see through the smokescreen it’s been looking at for years. “I’ve been staring at you darling/Sitting back and wonderin’, what the hell you’re gonna do,” Talmers sings to the millions of undecided voters. “‘Cause it all comes back to you who eat your dinner with the T.V. on/And who smile thinking everybody else is wrong/Yes, you who drink your coffee with the curtains drawn/Yes, still it’s you that we’re all counting on.” It’s a simple and poignant way to describe the MAGA masses that stayed loyal to 45 throughout his hack job of a presidency without dismissing them completely. And she does all this in a voice as soothing as the ocean – even when she’s talking about a nation’s proverbial nose-dive.
Though Talmers is a multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, banjo and cello), she explains that the most important part about songwriting, to her, is the language she uses. “My compulsion and obsession with songwriting is definitely lyricism, and the spirit of a song, what it’s trying to say,” says Talmers. This focus on words is befitting for the musician who studied literature and English, although that wasn’t always the initial plan. For her first few years at university, Talmers was a neuroscience major with the goal of eventually becoming a doctor. Even with the rigorous coursework, she was still moonlighting as a musician. “I was finishing my homework so I could feed my obsession with writing songs,” Talmers remembers.
An awakening came when Talmers was in Copenhagen for a neuroscience internship in the summer of 2018 that made her question the path she was on. But the artist found solace in her songwriting. “[The internship] was so bad and tortuous that that was what compelled me to go to my first open-mic in Portugal,” Talmers remembers; she was gracious enough to share a Facebook video of the performance.
The song she played there ended up being an important one for her for the validation it would provide. “I wrote it in a fit the night before and and then the next day I found this open mic in a random bar in the middle of Lisbon,” she says, crediting the bar “full of old men” (and other encouraging voices) for the inspiration she needed her to pursue music – even though the vulnerability of it makes her uneasy at times. “Even to this day it feels sort of vulnerable to perform – I never feel good,” Talmers says. “It’s not like I’m bad or anything. I just think it’s not that glamorous if your soul is on the line.”
Talmers’ summer in Europe also held another musically formative moment; sitting in a hostel in Copenhagen, she heard Adrianne Lenker’s voice for the first time. “I heard ‘Masterpiece’ playing ambiently,” Talmers says. “And then I became obsessed.” She describes how Lenker’s songwriting style, both solo and with Big Thief, inspired her to take a more experimental approach with songwriting and trust that the listener will catch on. “She just digresses so much from normal songwriting rhetoric,” says Talmers. “The way that she writes is so sonic, the words that she chooses, I feel like she has really given me permission to express myself in an incoherent way almost, trusting that it makes sense.”
In addition to Lenker’s palpable influence, Talmers cites other folk legends like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel as shepherds of her path. In fact, she says hearing “Scarborough Fair” opened her up to listening to pop music, which she didn’t have much time or patience for at the time. As a student of the piano from a young age, Talmers revered classical music and wasn’t interested in much else. “I had this old Russian piano teacher named Yuri who was also my dad’s piano teacher growing up,” Talmers explains. “He forced me to do scales the first two or three years and nothing else… then suddenly instead of giving me, like, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ he just started giving me like insane classical pieces and expecting me to memorize them.”
She would watch Yuri play phrases and use her melodic sensibility to repeat them back. Eventually, she memorized entire classical pieces like Chopin’s “Waltz in C# minor” this way. Though she didn’t realize it at first, this intense ear training undoubtedly plays a role in her complex and clever songwriting style.
That’s how a lot of Talmers’ songwriting feels: effortless, accidental, and primal. Remember Me as Holy serves as a roadmap of Talmers’ deepest thoughts, feelings and desires. It echoes the cries of a nation and the cries of a regular old broken heart. At the bottom of her Bandcamp, Talmers writes, “I do forgive you, after all,” a message to anyone who can see themselves in one of her lyrics. “I wrote that in recognition that it’s all good. I don’t believe that you write songs about people, I think you write about tons of different relationships in your life,” explains Talmers. I think the record could be perceived as like a burn and it’s simply not that – it’s sort of like self-reconciliation.”
Humanity’s relationship to nature is a complicated one. Too often, people make the mistake of seeing themselves as masters, taming the earth inch by inch; in reality, the earth is quick to respond and fight back. Cracks in the sidewalk reveal grass gasping for breath, abandoned homes from the recession quickly fill with animals looking for shelter. The truth is we are symbiotic. Photographer Melissa Kobe and Poet Sarah Suzor explore our give and take relationship with earth in Am I Surrounding You?, a collaborative art book they debuted at Los Angeles’ Keystone Art Space Spring Open Studios last month.
To start, I’d love a little backstory on each of you. When did you decide to take up each medium as your profession?
Sarah: I was always writing. I went to college for journalism, moved to L.A. and worked for a local Los Angeles luxury magazine. After writing about $4,000 spoons for a year, I wanted to try my hand at a more creative (and rewarding) career. So, I started writing and publishing poetry. After that, I wanted to help everyone do the same with their writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction), so I created my own company INK, LLC, and dove into helping my clients get their writing published.
Melissa: I’ve always been obsessed with imagery. I felt the enormity and the power of it as a kid sitting in Catholic mass, just looking at all the super dreary images of almost all white men. Being surrounded by those images just felt so heavy and unsettling. That was definitely the darker side. The lighter side was movies – seeing how people tell stories with pictures always resonated with me, I think, because I wasn’t the best at communicating with words. I still don’t think I am, but I’ve gotten better as I get older. I really first picked up a camera in Junior High when I was the editor of the year book. From then I always did it as a hobby, but didn’t decide to try and do photography as a profession until I was an adult.
Melissa, can you tell us about the intention behind this photography series, before you brought Sarah into the fold?
Melissa: It’s so weird because the whole thing unfolded out of nothing. I read in Westways about this beach in San Diego where these sharks laid their eggs. There’s a couple week period where they all hatch and you can go snorkeling with hundreds of sharks. I wanted to do it so bad! I rented a go-pro and went down there to find not one fucking shark. I was so bummed I didn’t even look at the pictures for like six months. When I finally did, I thought they were really cool and started looking at them in a different perspective of hope, fear and disappointment… All things that didn’t really show themselves in the photos. Sarah and I had been talking for years about hooking up on a project together, so I reached out to her to see if she wanted to look at them and write something, interpreting them her own way. That’s where it all started. After it was over we both had such a great experience with the whole thing, we decided to keep it going.
How did the two of you meet?
Sarah: Melissa was working at the 50s Cafe on Santa Monica Blvd, and my ex boyfriend’s twin brother would frequent the Cafe all the time. The twins had a band; he asked Melissa to photograph their gigs. I met Melissa at Big Foot West, I believe, and we got along so well instantly. That was 12 years ago. I kept her, and the boy, he’s an ex.
Melissa: I think it was the Good Hurt.
Sarah: You’re right! Good Hurt.
Melissa: We hit it off instantly.
Sarah, have you ever worked in this order before? Drawing from source material, then crafting your poetry?
Sarah: I have worked with other writers. My last full-length collaboration, After the Fox, was written as email correspondence with my co-author, Travis Cebula. But I have never worked with anyone who uses a visual medium. It was great. I got to break a lot of my own “writerly rules.”
How has the experience differed, working with a photographer vs working with another writer?
Sarah: Well, there’s not as much pressure on the words themselves. And there’s not enough room for the words to take all the credit. A huge, vague image might need more words, a very detailed image might need less words. It’s more like a symphony than a solo. I liked taking all that into consideration, and letting Melissa’s images speak for themselves, while still adding another dimension.
The title of the book is also the name of the first poem presented. What is the intention behind the title? Are we, as the readers, supposed to infer something immediately?
Sarah: It’s taken from a line in the first piece, “Having Sprung, or Vernal.” I think that line came from the idea of the water images. Am I surrounding you, or are you surrounding me? When I wrote it, I was simply thinking about being engulfed by water, or being a foreign object in the sea (like a human, that, obviously, can’t survive there). However, I also think it translates to holding a book, reading a book or being mesmerized by an image. It’s kind of about participation. In life, even. Then again, there’s always 1400 different ways to take it.
Melissa: I loved that title because in my head, the whole “changing of the seasons” is such an important theme. Not just for this collaboration, but in life. I feel like there’s always a “life force” for lack of a better description, that connects all of it and all of us. There’s something to be said for accepting what is, and “Am I surrounding you?” perfectly represented this this feeling of yin and yang. We are not separate from nature, we are a part of it. The following line is: “or are you surrounding me?” which further punctuates the point. I think that’s what’s been so cool about this collaboration… This different point of view that can be interpreted a hundred different ways depending on who’s reading/viewing it.
Melissa: I think it’s always been about the way it feels. Spring feels different than winter… Summer feels different from autumn. We can try to go against nature, but it never works. This can be interpreted very literally, but also philosophically. Our life patterns mimic those patterns found in nature… I find it beautiful and comforting. I like those things that express a deeper internal dialogue or truth. Those feelings that are instinctual that can’t always be described in words… Or when they are, it’s even more beautiful because you’re connecting something in a way that is comprehendible. It’s the most natural touchstone that everyone can relate to.
2016’s theme was the natural elements; Earth, Air, Fire and Water. What inspired that choice?
Sarah: I think, again, it is perhaps the accessibility of binary forces, and our natural inclination to understand elemental entities.
Melissa: It kind of just happened. We talked about wanting to do another collaboration and I brought up my desire to do something with the changing of the seasons. That meant three more projects and you were like, well what goes with water… and you came up with the idea of doing all the other elements. The whole thing just unfolded so naturally.
Sarah: Also, for a writer, working with photos of the elements, I knew Melissa’s images would stand out and capture something dramatic.
Melissa: I’m constantly taking sky pictures and was stoked to have a reason to pull some of them from the depths of my computer and have a little light on them. Especially with Sarah interpreting them in her bitchin’ way.
Sarah: Swoon, the sky!
In the earth section of the book, the photography reminded me of ancient cave drawings. Melissa, can you tell me a little bit about the process behind that part of the series?
Melissa: That’s awesome it reminded you of cave drawings! For the earth section, I made actual prints of images from the first two sections. I distressed them like the earth would… left them out in the rain on a hiking trip to Escalante last fall, put rocks and sand over them and ran over them with my car… Took rocks and twigs and scraped them up. They didn’t quite distress in a way I had hoped using all natural elements which was the initial goal, so I got some paint and pushed it along a bit. I’d throw leaves and dirt on the prints and then let the wind catch the paint.
You’re both currently in “production mode,” planning a new project that centers on the theme “The Feminine.” How did you narrow your focus to that subject?
Sarah: We just get started and see where it goes! But what will be different here is I will be talking to the photography models/muses and hopefully incorporating their story and their dialog into the writing. So, in some ways, it will be up to the muses, which is thrilling for me as the writer. The words will literally and figuratively take the shape of the muse.
Models are needed for this next project, which will showcase a variety of women in various states of nudity. What would you say to a woman who’s interested in participating… but a little nervous about the nudity?
Sarah: I would say Melissa will make anyone feel comfortable and gorgeous.
Melissa: I understand that nudity is scary. I’m scared to shoot nudes! It’s all love, and it’s not about just them… It’s about all of us and we’re doing this together.
Sarah: One idea behind the book is also more about the beauty of the natural feminine form than it is about the nudity.
Melissa: We don’t know where this will take us, but that’s why we’re doing it. We want to explore a topic that meaningful to the both of us. The nudity is just a physical expression of stripping down. I see and feel the beauty in people as they are. [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][It’s] coming from a place of love and acceptance, so hopefully that helps with some of the nerves.
What do you hope readers will take away from ‘Am I surrounding you’?
Melissa: I just hope what we produced makes people think or feel something.
Sarah: I hope they take away something they can relate to. I hope they open that book, and close it feeling like they have something to talk about, share, and question. I hope they emote.
Am I Surrounding You? is now available for purchase at www.sarahandmelissa.com.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]
Emcee, poet, educator, and Detroit visionary, Chace “Mic Write” Morris is unstoppable. Mic Write’s reputation as a renaissance man pales in comparison to the weight of his message and unconstrained fervor. As a slam poetry champion, Kresge literary arts recipient and a main player in the progressive hip-hop collaboration Cold Man Young, Write has tapped into the collective social conscious, delivering striking commentary on race, community, and injustice with an impervious directness by means of jaw-dropping scholarly rhyme schemes paired with beats suitable for both grinding or marching, respectively.
Even when shining a light on systematic oppression and gentrification, Write never waivers in making it a point to remind of us of joy, hope, and gratitude. “It’s been a hell of a year/but if you hear this then you still hear us,” Write proclaims in his latest track, “blak/joi,” a song balanced with care, but not with caution. “Blak/joi” is as much of a story as it is a rap and just as much of a call to arms as it is a love-lorn sonnet to the past and future. One of the most impactful aspects of Write’s performance is that it doesn’t feel like a performance. It isn’t a callused memorization of lyrics or idle notations on cadence or emphasis, rather an in-the-moment, impassioned retelling of a dream/nightmare turned reality where words are both spilling and fighting their way through clenched teeth.
“Oh can you feel it?/ocean couldn’t drown it/chains couldn’t slave it/bullets couldn’t kill it/cops couldn’t beat it/death couldn’t tame it/government couldn’t steal it,” Write professes in what is one of the most hard hitting rhymes on the track, again, dancing the line between hope lost and hope found. The most unassumingly heartbreaking line, though, is the disjointed chorus. The song trails off to Write admitting “Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be/sometimes I trip on how happy we could be” as if he reached for the clouds knowing he would only bring down dust.
Feel the power with Mic Write’s latest, “blak/joi” below:
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