Memphis. The city is like a place of pilgrimage for any soul, blues, or rhythm and blues fan. Robin McKelle, who went back to her first love with the album Mess Around in 2010, has chosen the city of the Stax and Hi record labels, Otis Redding, and Al Green in order to record her new album. Just a few minutes of listening to Heart Of Memphis is enough to understand that choice. Despite the time that has gone by and the museums being built in place of the legendary recording studios, the spirit of the city that, in its heyday, represented one of the best eras of American popular music has not disappeared. Robin McKelle immersed herself in that spirit for her new album, two years after Soul Flower.
“I wanted to capture the Memphis sound in the recording process and the goal was to write the music and arrangements with that sound in mind.” says Robin McKelle. By enlisting Scott Bomar’s services—the man behind the mixing console for many of Isaac Hayes' and Al Green’s recording sessions—McKelle made it clear she wanted her album to be in line with the sound of these artists.
“But I don’t think of it being a tribute album.” she adds. “I learned so much about Memphis soul after spending time there. I got to visit Stax, Graceland, Sun Studios… so many amazing places where legendary music was made! Just being there was so powerful. We walked past the Lorraine Motel (where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated) every day on the way to the studio and you couldn’t help but feel something heavy.”
With her deep voice and her earthy, frank, direct, and gut-wrenching singing, McKelle embraces the legacy of those great artists from a city well-known for its tendency towards raw expression. “Memphis soul is different from the Motown sound because has more raw emotion and being in the south it’s also influenced by country music. It’s more “in your face” than the Motown. I have a natural gritty sound or rasp in my voice so this sound suits me well.”
Regarding her explosive live performances, Robin McKelle is influenced as much by the great male soul singers as by the divas of the 60’s. Her amazing way of singing on It’s Over This Time and her poignant interpretation of Forgetting You (one of the two covers on the album, along with Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which has been rearranged in a deep soul style), illustrate perfectly where she finds her inspiration. McKelle was really keen to sing OB McClinton’s Forgetting You: “He was an African American country music singer and songwriter, which was a very rare thing, by the way. After I heard a recording of James Carr sing it, and being blown away, I really wasn’t sure I could pull it off but Scott encouraged me to do it. We both felt that it was an authentic Memphis song being written and recorded in Memphis so it brings some history to the music as well.” But she still needed to find the strength necessary to carry such a moment of intense emotion. “When I’m really going for it on a blues or something like really powerful, yes, I’m taking more from singers like Otis Redding, James Brown and Sam Moore.” she explains. As for the title song, Heart Of Memphis, it sounds country with a note of nostalgia. “I’ve been told so any times in my youth that I should be a country singer… ha ha! Well, I guess I’ve tapped into that part a little with my songwriting.”
Songs such as About To Be Your Baby, Like A River, and Easier That Way immediately bring to mind the Hi Records sessions with Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell. “I love the way the horns have such a huge part of the sound”, says McKelle. “They are mixed pretty dry and they are out front in the mix. The horn lines are simple and strong but it’s as if they almost become as important as the melody at times.”
On the frantic Good Time, McKelle pays homage to the legends of soul music. She mentions Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin as among her idols, but especially reveres Tina Turner: “I love Tina! She is an incredible performer and I most definitely look to her for inspiration! I’ve become a very physical performer and I love the feeling of freedom that I have now on stage. And Tina is the QUEEN of that!”
Robin McKelle was discovered in France through two swing jazz albums recorded with a big band: Introducing Robin McKelle (2006) and Modern Antique (2008). Both these albums happened almost by accident. They had originally been recorded as a way to help them get contracts to play live gigs. But those demos with covers of standard songs eventually ended up on the desk of an A&R executive at a label. One thing lead to another and McKelle started touring all around the world with great success. But in 2010 the woman from Rochester, New York, decided to take a courageous risk with her album, Mess Around. In this album she revisited themes dear to Leonard Cohen, Doc Pomus, and Willie Dixon. A year later she continued refining her identity as an artist with the release of Soul Flower, an album in which she took on a much larger songwriting role and which also contains remarkable duets with Gregory Porter and Lee Fields.
For Heart Of Memphis, McKelle wrote eleven of the thirteen titles. Surrounded by her loyal Flytones and helped by her bass player and musical partner Derek Nievergelt, she took up the challenge in 2013 of crafting amazing and authentic soul music songs. “I really love writing," she says." It’s important to continue to create new sounds and push ourselves into unknown places. That’s what artists are put on this earth for, taking risks and chances.” Even though she doesn’t deny her influences, Robin McKelle manages to write captivating bluesy and soulful songs without falling into the revivalist trap, and remains genuinely sincere whilst retaining a strong point of view as an artist.