Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finding Her Way Back Part III: Leszia Renee

This is the third and last part of our interview with Gospel singer Leszia Renee. Here she talks about her current--and first--album "What About Me?"
BBP: Tell me about your music career. I’ve got something that you’re singing in dinner theatres, apparently.
Renee: Yeah, I often perform with a theatrical production company. It’s called Stage House, musical production and they’re based out of San Bernardino as well. And I’ve been working with them over the past several years. It’s been a blast. I always—because I don’t desire to sing for the world, so the parts that I accept, I have to make sure that I know that they’re Christ-centered, they’re Christ-grounded. We also did Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and I was quote-unquote the Fairy Godmother. We’re doing the musical production of The Wiz. I’m Dorothy. We did Oklahoma. So musical theatre, I have a good time with, you know? I have really good time with. And the songs that I’m chosen to sing I can reference them to God. I can reference them all to God because they bear witness to His goodness.
BBP: And I also understand you have a CD out?
Renee: Yes I do. It is entitled What About Me? And it’s interesting because again it comes from, when you listen to it and you hear the songs and of course the fast ones, you’re going to dance to because you’re like “Hey, that has a really good beat.” And I want you to know, as God does, that you can dance for Him. And you can shake your tail for the Lord. And when you listen to the slow ones, you know, you listen to the words and you’re like “Oh wow, oh boy, you were somewhere on that song, weren’t you?” And it was. And the title of the CD again is What About Me? And that came about from me doing that God when-why-and-howcome and when-are-you-going –to-do-what-I-want-you-to-do and Lord-I’m-tired-of-waiting, and the Holy Spirit said to me one day “Well, what about Me?” and (makes a gasping noise)….
BBP: …..Wow…..
Renee: ……You just asked me “what about you” and all of this time I’ve been saying “what about me” and it just broke my heart. It broke my heart, and then you know, Jesus,that place that I was at where I was contemplating driving off of, off of a cliff. They are all living testimony of just how good God is and what he’s brought me to. There are some crazy songs on there. It shows the side of me that he’s placed in me as far as that loving to just rock. It’s like “what if?” and it’s like “what if God wasn’t on the throne and what if we were out here alone?” So I stepped back and, as he was giving them to me, I was going “Are You sure God you want me to sing it like this? Really God?” And then, especially the really personal ones, I’m like: “God are you sure you want me to tell people this, God? Really? I thought this was between me and you. I’m not supposed to be telling everybody this. You said that I can take everything to you and you’d keep it to yourself, and now you want me to do what?” And the Father was like: “Yeah. Because you’re not the only one who’s living it. You think I brought you through it so you could hold it all to yourself?” And I said: “Well I guess that’s it. I’ll open up my mouth and sing.” It is a collection of fast songs, slow songs and medium-speed songs that anybody can appreciate. There’s a song on there that’s close to my heart, because again, the love of children that I have, it’s called “Hallelujah Yeah” I specifically wrote for children. Something that they can catch on to and it’s happy. Because children need to learn from a young age it’s okay to praise God, it’s okay to go this route. You are not uncool because you love Jesus, because you love the Lord, you want to work for Him, and as a matter of fact, you’re way cool because you do so. I’m happy with it because it is a complete dedication to the Father and to just how wonderful He is.
BBP: What’s the name of that song again?
Renee: "Hallelujah Yeah"
BBP: Hallelujah? Yeah?
Renee: Hallelujah! Yeah!
BBP: Yeah, like “Yeah?”
Renee: Yeah. Exactly. Because like a little kid, like, you know, they’ll go “yeah!” And the chorus is just (sings) “! Hall-e-lu-jah! yeah!” Something that a child can do (laughing).
BBP: And when did this album come out? Is this your first album?
Renee: It is.
BBP: Oh, okay…
Renee: Yeah!
BBP: And this is all original material?
Renee: It is all original material. Oh my Gosh, and it’s released from GVR records. I have to give through God thanks to Larry (Martin Kimpel) because he’s a good guy in and of himself and the fact that God pulled on his coat strings. When I first met him and I had the opportunity to speak to him, because we have a mutual acquaintance, that’s how I heard of him. And so I sent him a couple of songs and never got a response and (you’re thinking) maybe he didn’t like it, and so we got together coincidentally at that mutual acquaintance’s birthday party and it just so happened that I sat right next to him. And I’m all talking, and whenever given the opportunity I will talk about God, I love to talk about how amazing God is, and he said “I’ll have to revisit those songs that you sent to me!” And he did. And he loved them. And he said “okay, let’s get together. We need to get together. We have to do something.”
BBP: So he produced the album? Is he the producer?
Renee: No.No.No. No. No. I produced. I co-produced with a gentleman named R.J. I am the producer and the executive producer, but his label, GVR Records, is where it’s released from. He is the one that had been working to get me out there, you know. I just finished..had the opportunity to perform at the San Diego Gospel Fest..
BBP: Yeah. Kirk Franklin..
Renee: Yes! It was cool! It was cool as all get-out! I very much enjoyed that! And I’m always, I’m always, whenever given the opportunity to minister, I will sing. I want to sing for God. I just do. I don’t care where the venue is. If you say, can you be there to sing for this, I’m like “Sure can.” Because that’s just another opportunity to let God get the glory for that. Someone can be reached, you know that, someone can find out that, in spite of me and all I’ve done, He can give her joy..He can do the same thing for me. So you know I’m just blessed. I’m grateful to be blessed by the father.
BBP: How is it to meet Kirk Franklin and did you actually sing with him? Did you get on stage and sing with Kirk Franklin?
Renee: No, No. We shared the stage. I’m the little fish in the pond. (laughs). He’s the bighuge fish in the pond! So unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to do a one-on-one with him. I shared the venue with him.
BBP: But still that must have been..
Renee: ..It was okay because I am speaking prophetically. Praise God. And yes I will. And not only will I get the opportunity, but we’ll see what God does.
BBP: Okay. Let me ask you about some of the songs on your album. How many are on there?
Renee: There’s a total of 15.
BBP: 15.
Renee: Yes.
BBP: And of those 15, which ones..I mean they all stand out, I know, for something..
Renee:…Various reasons…..
BBP: ….Various reasons. But is there one that, if you were on an island and a radio deejay came to you and said: “This is the last song of yours that will ever be played.” Which song on that album would you want the world to hear?
Renee: “What About Me?”
BBP: Okay. And why?
Renee: Because it’s God asking us the same question that we all ask Him. What about me? What about what I need. What about what I want. What about the life that I want you to live? Again, it is a knife in the heart when God audibly speaks to you and he asks you the question: “Okay Leszia, what about me?” And “What About Me?” would be that song because it’s not about me. I know with that being the title of the CD, God chooses things for the reasons only He knows why He chooses things. I’m pretty sure, especially as a gospel singer, you’d see that as the title of your CD, “well what about me,” you’d go, “My God, how vain is she? Yeah, well what about you?”

BBP: Right.
Renee: But then when you listen to it and you actually see and you actually hear that it’s God asking you “what about what I need?” We have this picture of God as—and He is—all-encompassing. He is all-powerful, He is the Alpha and the Omega, and that He needs nothing. He doesn’t need anything. But what He wants is for us to love Him. And He wants us to want Him. That’s God’s Heart. Through that song, it’s God’s Heart speaking out. It’s God saying: you know the best that I have, I gave it to you. I shed My blood, I suffered for you. And it’s like: “Wow, you’re right. Because I sent you to that cross, Jesus.” “But what about me” is what he’s saying.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about some of the other songs on the album. What they talk about and how they may have come about.
Renee: If I was given the opportunity to have two songs, it would be “I Won’t Stop.” Because while I was out in the world, I danced, I partied, I got my boogie on (laughs), you know. And just because I’ve decided to live Holy doesn’t mean I can’t dance anymore. And when you read the Bible you’ll see that David danced for the glory of God. So “I Won’t Stop” is like “hey yeah!” It’s a party tune. I’m dancing, but I’m dancing for God. I’m dancing because my soul is excited about worshipping Him and praising Him. And the dance that I’m doing, it’s not provocative, it’s nothing sexual, but it is a true joy that only God can give you, and I won’t stop until He gets enough (laughs). “Whatcha’ Gonna Do?” That was funny as well, that came from us living our lives, you know, me doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had stopped going to church. And God said “Leszia, what are you going to do? At the end of this day, meaning at the end of your life, when it’s time for you to stand before Me and you have to pay for everything that you’ve done, whatcha’ gonna do?” (She then starts singing the melody to “Bad Boys,” the theme song to the television program “Cops”) “What you going to do, when He comes for you?” Where you going to run, where are you going to hide? Where you going to run to? And I’m like “Wow. Really God? Really God?” and He’s like “Yeah, Leszia. Really.” And so “Whatcha’ Gonna Do?” came out of that. And then, another of the songs is “Didn’t You Know?” And, again, that’s an up tempo beat song, and it actually came from a sermon that I received, you know. That “Didn’t You Know” I would never leave you; “Didn’t You Know” that I would never let you fall. “Didn’t You Know” that I would never forsake you. You know He said he would never leave us, so I had to live that to know that God wouldn’t leave me. That God would not forsake me. That no matter how low I go, and how low I had gone, that He didn’t let me fall, because my life was still here. I still had the opportunity to glorify Him. And that’s where that came from. Then there is “Count Your Blessings.” “Count Your Blessings,” (laughs) “Count Your Blessings,” praise God, is not an experience in as much as a personal experience. I guess again maybe it was. “Count Your Blessings” I actually wrote for my sister. My older sister, who has four children. Who has a husband, who like myself is married but God has blessed her, but still unhappy with your life and you’re looking out, wishing and wanting for everyone. You need to count your blessings that God has given to you. One, two, three you know. And then you’re seeking and searching when Jesus is your answer. “Count Your Blessings,” that one’s dedicated to my sister. I love her (laughing). I hope she doesn’t hear this.
BBP: Well, it is an interesting part of the story, yeah…(laughs)
Renee: (Laughing); Yeah! I know! I know. I know. Oh no. Oh no. Oh My God. And then “Deliverance” was...”Deliverance” was just a question that the Holy Spirit had me to ask. You know, (quoting the song) “are you lonely, are you scared, are you tired and no one cares.” He was asking me this, you know….
BBP: …Right….
Renee: ….and I was answering Him. So that’s where “Deliverance” came from. He told me “deliverance is waiting for you,” you know, and I’m like “wow.” “Can You Hear the Spirit Call?” I was too busy doing what I wanted to do and living how I wanted to live that I couldn’t hear God speaking to me anymore; I couldn’t hear his spirit calling out to me. And it wasn’t until I shut up and I actually heard him…Oh my gosh, and then…Oh My God...I feel pretty good here, reliving all of this again. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” It’s a cry. It’s a cry. It is from a broken heart. It is from unrealized dreams. It’s from a repentive heart because at the end of “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” I end the song with where my heart was, which was crying out, and I’m saying “I’m still Your child hoping that You still love me too.” But I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know at the time if God could still love me, if God still wanted me. You know, here I am again, I’m jumping up and down God, I’m standing in the middle of this world that I’m screaming to the top of my voice because you don’t look like you see me. You don’t look like you hear me God. You know, I’m alone. I’m in the dark and I’m asking you to guide me through this. And so here I am. And then “This May Be Your Last Try” is just my heart compelling people to turn to Christ because it may be your last chance. Tomorrow—we’re not promised tomorrow. We’re not even promised the next five minutes. I’ve been given the opportunity to ask you, you know, I’m a messenger. God sent me to ask you “Will you choose Him” before it’s too late? And that’s where “This May Be Yours Last Try” you know, it came from. Oh my gosh, song after song is just a testimony that I love , or me being an empty vessel that God used to get his message through. I’m grateful. I’m very grateful. I’m honored that he will allow me to be used. Are you kidding? Me, of all people? “Lord, Do You Know What You’re Doing?” It’s the only thing I can say as I surrender my hands up. But…He’s amazing and there’s probably more songs that I could have put on the CD, but there wasn’t enough room.
BBP: Let me ask you, the style that you sing in, is it traditional gospel?
Renee: No, not at all. And that’s the weirdest thing to me. Because if I had to categorize myself, I couldn’t. I don’t sing traditional gospel because…to me, traditional gospel is singing “God, I don’t believe in you, or God, I don’t believe that You have given me everything that I need to stand waiting on You,” and traditional gospel comes from a standpoint of people begging God, and that’s not where I am coming from. I’m coming from a standpoint of standing victoriously because He brought me through. I’m praising God. I’m thanking God. So I would say—and it’s not inasmuch as contemporary Christians, because I got “Roll Up On There” which is a great hard rock song. (laughs). If I have to. If I were to put myself in a category, it would not be praise and worship. I’m not southern Baptist. I don’t do hymns. I just, I am, I’m just… Oh My God…. Oh my God, I’m… “Gospel Praise.” What about that?
BBP: “Gospel Praise.”
Renee: “Gospel Praise.” Yes.
BBP: Okay…
Renee: “Gospel Worship Praise.” Because again, I don’t do typical gospel because gospel is (sings) “Oh Lord Help me to…” Really? (chuckles). (sings) “and soon and very soon.” No, that’s not where I’m coming from.
BBP: Are there any secular artists that you like?
Renee: No. And again not taking anything from them because God has given us all of the ability to do what we do. It’s just, what you choose to do with what he’s given you the ability to do. I don’t listen to secular music, so I couldn’t tell you a Beyonce song, you know? I know the name Beyonce because it’s plastered everywhere, but I couldn’t name her song. However, if I reach back in the day, I like Whitney Houston’s voice. When Whitney sings “I Love the Lord,” oh my God! That melts my heart!That melts my heart! So I very much love Whitney’s voice. Whitney, the old Whitney. Oh… Who else? Rachelle Ferrell. She’s a jazz singer, and just her vocal ability sends chills. She can sing! She can sing. But that’s it.
BBP: The reason I asked you that was because you mentioned one song you described as hard rock, and I was thinking…
Renee: Yeah! It’s the “What if?” And again, I have no idea where it came from! I used to listen to, when I was younger…what was the name of that group…God…Eagles!
BBP: Yeah, Eagles.
Renee: It’s the words that I would classify as hard rock because rock words are just so in your face…it’s like “as a matter of fact.” (makes a sound like a guitar playing). Like, what are you going to do with that? And that is very much “What If.”
BBP: Where do you want to go now? You have an album out, you’ve had it out for a couple of months now. First album. First of all, what are you hearing and what feedback are you getting about the album?
Renee: All positive. And that’s very strange because I’m just in awe. I am surprisingly shocked and wonderfully in awe that people can bear witness, that people can receive it, because they’re living it, or they have lived it. So the feedback I’ve got, everything has been positive. Because you expect to have your nay-sayers. You expect to have someone to say, “Well how come you don’t sound like Mary Mary?” Or ”You’re not sounding like Kiki Shepard.” Because I’m not Mary Mary and I’m not Kiki Shepard. Can I blow? Yeah, I can do all things required through strength of me. Yes I can. Can I go behind them and we sing the same song and it will be two separate versions that are as compelling? Yes! Because I know what God can do through me. But the feedback has just blown me away. I’ve had people to come up and say to me “I have just lost my mother, and here I am, minister to me. Because you were able to sing exactly what I was feeling.” Again, my response to all of the feedback that I am getting is always “Wow God, really?” I mean I’m in awe of Him. In awe of Him.
BBP: Where do you want your career to go? What’s your next step? Are we going to see a sophomore album anytime soon?
Renee: Yes. Larry and I were just speaking the other day about going into the studio to do the sophomore album. I’ve written a lot of songs, and yeah, there’s like a sophomore album coming out within a year or going into production of a sophomore album, which I’m looking forward to, because, in and of itself, this is his gift, this is what God has given him the ability to do. And I understand now why God allowed me to go through so many other people before, you know, because before the original thing comes the Devil is going to deceive you. He will send people your way—I have other labels, other publishing houses saying “yeah, that’s great, and we want to work with you, and we want to do this, but we’re going to need 75 percent of your royalties, and given the fact that you’re giving up a finished product, we’re going to need you to do x, y and z and….” no..and God did not give me this just to give it away.
BBP: Do you want to experiment with different styles? Do you want the sophomore album to be like the freshman album, or do you want to take it in a different direction?
Renee: I am led by the spirit always. So if God wants it to reach people who like to listen to jazz, there will be songs on there for that. If God wants it to reach people who like to listen to hip-hop, there will be (hip-hop style) songs on there. I don’t really classify myself because when you hear this CD, there’s no category that you can put it in and say “Okay, it really kind of fits all in this, or it really kind of fits all in that, or it kind of fits in all of this,” because there’s something in it for everyone.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Finding Her Way Back Part II: Gospel Singer Leszia Renee

In the following portion of our interview, gospel singer Leszia Renee talks in depth about a ten-year period in her life in which she said she was alienated from the Lord.
Giving herself to Jesus Christ at age seven, she let the influences of the world turn her away from Him at age 24. Shopping was more important to her than spirituality then, she said, and any singing she did was more for an American-Idol style pursuit of fame than any celebration of God. All of this eventually brought on a despair that intensified after she married (she has been married to Adolphus Holcomb, an electrical engineer, for seven years) and found she could not conceive a child.
The despair was pushing her to thoughts of suicide, she said. But gently, she said, God was pushing her back to Him:
BBP: You’ve been exposed to music all of your life. But tell me when you first thought “Well, maybe I can make this music, maybe I can sing.” You said you used to listen to your mother when you were in the cradle.
Renee: I was listening to my mom, but again. I remember being a small child in the bathtub making up songs…I can remember as far back as four or five years old doing that, you know, just singing songs. And of course there were always talent shows at schools that (as if reminiscing of the time) “of course I’ll sing! I don’t mind getting up there and singing!” I’m a little bit frightened to stand in front of people to sing because again, it’s my gift; it’s what God has anointed me to do. It wasn’t again until I had decided that I want that whole American Idol dream and I want to be this superstar and let me have at it this way, there’s just so many different turns and twists that will lead you down a road of destruction and I’m not knocking anyone as far as where they have so chosen to walk. But as far as the path that God has placed me on, it’s never been that. And we can either do what the will of God says for our lives or we can do what our own will says. Okay, well I tried it my way…and I was so empty inside. There was nothing, and you get so confident and you say “Oh my Gosh, you can just sing so good and girl you know you can really kill that song,” and you’re like ”yeah.” It’s empty. It’s empty praise coming from people that are looking to be filled with whatever light you have…And I remember the very first song that I wrote, the very first song that I wrote furiously for real was “Can You Hear the Spirit Call?” And that’s one of the songs on my CD and it came from the standpoint of me doing and trying what I wanted to do and not what God wanted me to do and just feeling empty, or feeling like I’m in a roomful of people but I just want to be in the background, just quiet somewhere because no one actually really hears me. And I’m talking to God and I’mangry and I’m saying: “God where were You when I needed You and how come You didn’t answer me when I called you?” And it was through me writing to God and—isn’t God wonderful enough to allow us to always be truthful? Because He always knows what’s always going on in our hearts anyway? But it wasn’t until He allowed me and I allowed myself to get out of the way to where I was able to write up the pain in my life. Write out the experiences that I should not have taken and offer them up and literally to sing for forgiveness to my Heavenly Father, because those were the first songs. I mean I’ve got notebooks full of songs that are “Oh let’s shake it” and “Let’s Do This” but no, it’s not what He wanted for me. And I desired what He desired for me which was righteousness.
BBP: Right. I did read that you found God at the age of seven but that you kind of turned away from Him at 24 and that you were kind of on a different course for ten years…
Renee: Yes.
BBP: Tell me a little about that.
Renee: (Sighs) The loneliness. You know, the loneliness brought me back. The impatience took me away. It wasn’t moving fast enough. I’m a microwave society type of person. I can push a button, I can get my meal in 30 seconds or less. “Ok God I’m expecting you to do the exact same thing for me.” “No God, I don’t want to wait. I want this now. If you’re not going to give this to me now, I’m going to go out and I’m going to make this happen.” And it was that thought pattern that got me to the place where “Oh, My God” this is empty. I’m not satisfied, you know. There’s something in me, there’s a hole, there’s a longing, God that—I’m singing, I think this is what I want to do, you know. But I’m not being filled, I’m empty as I’m singing. So again, it’s wasn’t until God allowed to hit me what I considered in my life rock-bottom, which is I could no longer hear God. I didn’t hear him talk to me anymore. I didn’t hear him guiding me anymore. I don’t ever want to ever be where I can’t hear that small voice going “Leszia, I want you to go this way. Leszia, no I don’t want you to do that. Leszia, I need you to stop. Leszia, I need you to go over here and do this.” I donot want to be where I cannot hear God’s voice speaking to me, and I had gotten myself that way. He never moved away from me. He of course was always standing there. Always waiting for this, His Prodigal Daughter, to return. But yet His Prodigal Daughter was just out there doing her own thing, thinking I was having fun. But like I said, it was empty, I really could be at a family gathering or in a room full of people, and I feel like crying, and would often sit back and cry. And there was nothing wrong with me physically, there was nothing wrong with me mentally, but it was my soul that was crying out, my empty spirit that was crying and it was crying out for God. And it wasn’t until I literally—I stepped back, and I stopped singing for a while. Everything was just iffy, it was just all plain, it was all dull, and I shut off.
BBP: You shut off?
Renee: I shut up. I shut down. I let not a vowel come out of my mouth! It wasn’t until I stopped singing that I reached that point and then of course when you stop doing what God has given you to do, oh that’s when the enemy comes. That’s when the devil comes. And there’s the devil trying to tell me “Nobody’s going to miss you if you’re gone. You’re really not doing anything with your life. Why don’t you just go ahead and drive off of that cliff? Who’s going to care?” At that point in my life I was so empty, I was so lonely, I was so lost, and I thank God for His spirit. Because even when I held up my hand and let go, God did not allow me to be loose from his hand. And it was his love for me that brought me out of that depression. I have journals and I found one of my journals a couple of months ago, and I was in a dark place when I wrote it…and me again, having thoughts of suicide and nobody in my family knew, because, having seen me you would just think that my world was fine.
BBP: I read something in here, Song Vault, it’s a little biography of you that says (reading): Gospel Recording artist Leszia was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She gave her life to Jesus Christ at the tender age of seven. But the influences of the world got the best of her, and by the time Leszia had reached the tender age of 24 she turned away from the teachings of God. For ten long years Leszia walked in the temporary pleasures of the flesh doing whatever she felt right to her. And when I saw that I thought I’d better ask you about that, just so I can get a read on where you are now.
Renee: Oh, no, it doesn’t necessarily mean contaminating your body. My body is a temple. But selfish. Self-centered? Are you kidding? Shopaholic? Okay. Buying whatever I want. Not caring if my brother was okay. I didn’t care that you had a bill that was due. My bills were paid but yet I’m sitting up here and I’m going to Nordstrom and I’m getting ready to spend $500 on some shoes. You know? But yet you’re ready to get evicted, but I’d rather have those shoes than help you out with your bills. Seeing people on the side of the road who truly look and need to be helped and turn my face away! Are you kidding? Everybody can be there for their family, because they love their family, but you know I’m going to go ahead and cast the bigger net. Let’s cast the net beyond your family. Let’s cast the net beyond your friends. Let’s go ahead and cast that net beyond your community and let’s cast the net that encompasses your whole world. That wasn’t me. I was selfish. I was very selfish. Oh I went to clubs. I danced. Are you kidding? Come on now! God no, I did not sleep around, but I had a bunch of boyfriends. I had them doing whatever I wanted them to do under the pretense that you’re going to get what you think you’re going to get. But you’re not going to get it. By no stretch of the imagination am I an ugly person!
BBP: Right. I saw your picture. You’re very attractive.
Renee: And with that being said…you know but my father told me something a long time ago that I treasured as a child. That a man will do anything that you want him to do, so long as he thinks he’s going to get your body. The minute you give him your body, then he’ll stop doing for you, if he decides to do so. If he loves you, he’ll continue to do it. Okay, I took all of that to heart. “I know what you want from me. Yeah, you got to do this for me. I have that.” Again, it was just wrong! I knew what I was doing! I chose to do it. Again, I chose not to go to church on Sunday. I chose to completely turn away from God. Are you kidding? I’m out on Friday. I’m having a good time. Me and my girlfriends, we’re at the club. We’re just out doing our thing. We’re having a good time. But it wasn’t a good time. You know that life…being in the limelight with men really throwing money at you…it’s so empty. It is empty. Because it’s not (hesitates) love. It’s lust, it’s not love from God. It’s love from the world. And the world…it will abandon you. So I wasn’t out there on the corner selling my body. I wasn’t out there doing drugs, sniffing cocaine, smoking it.. but what I was doing was just as bad because no one sin is really greater than another, they’re all the same. So yeah sure, go ahead! I might as well have been doing it. Because in the eyes of God, what I was doing was just as bad. It was equal.
BBP: What was happening to you musically? I mean what kinds of songs were you singing? Were you singing secular songs, more or less?
Renee: Oh, yeah! (laughs heartily). Oh definitely I was! Are you kidding? Yes I was! “I can show you a real good time?” I’m like wow, “Is this what you’re doing with what God has given you?” Wow! How is that glorifying God? And again, it wasn’t until the enemy started talking to me and telling me “Leszia just go drive off the cliff. Go ‘head. Nobody’s going to miss you. You’re not doing anything really with your life. It’s not working out.” But it wasn’t supposed to work out. Not like that. Because that was not what God had planned for me.
BBP: And you really were at the point of suicide?
Renee: Yeah, I was. Yeah I was. Yeah I was. Yeah I was.
BBP: Wow. Tell me about what happened, just..
Renee: (Sighs) Just a very, very dark place. Feelings, lonely. Lonely. Lonely, lonely as all get-out. Again, not feeling my self-worth, okay? You know here I am, and I want children. The biggest desire for a woman beyond—in our flesh—beyond wanting to get married, you know is you want to have that child. You want to see a “mini-me” you know. You want to see your mirror image, your reflection, running around because then, everything that you’ve done or not done in life, you do vicariously through your child. And so when that did not happen, it just, I mean it put me into such a state of depression…it consumed my every thought. My every thought was to achieve this child. Went through everything possibly within my flesh. Went through the fertility treatments, spent thousands of dollars, you know, for it to not work. You know the first time you have this hope and it doesn’t work…in my actions, in my anger I will not sin, and I didn’t sin against the Father. But then the second time it didn’t work, it broke me down so and the pain was so intense that out of my mouth that no, I didn’t sin, but I also didn’t cry out. And it was in that silence that the devil got really loud. (laughs). And I mean really, really, really loud! And that’s when the thoughts of suicide, the feeling of worthlessness, set in. And that’s why I said, Mother’s Day is one of the hardest days for me, if not the hardest day of the year for me, every year.

(Tomorrow, we will present the third and last part of our interview with Leszia Renee. Then, she will talk extensively about her music career and particularly about "What About Me," her current CD.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding Her Way Back: Gospel singer Leszia Renee

At 24, gospel singer Leszia Renee turned herself—and her voice—away from the Lord she had been serving since the age of seven.
“Selfish? Self-centered? Are you kidding? Shopaholic?” said Renee, who is based out of Moreno Valley area of Southern California. “Okay. Buying whatever I want. Not caring if my brother was okay. I didn’t care that you had a bill that was due. My bills were paid but yet I’m sitting up here and I’m going to Nordstrom and I’m getting ready to spend $500 on some shoes. You know? But yet you’re ready to get evicted, but I’d rather have those shoes than help you out with your bills.”
But feeling empty about the decisions she was making—and driven almost to the point of suicide--Renee returned to the Lord at age 33.
Now, ten years later—instead of shopping at Nordstrom—she occupies her time with San Bernardino’s “Crossing Over Ministries,” where she teaches Sunday School, directs the choir and runs “Everyone Eats,” the ministry's food pantry.
And instead of pursuing American Idol-style dreams with her singing, she is now using her voice for the Lord. To that end, she recorded “What About Me?” her 16-song debut album as a professional gospel singer. The album’s release last June was designed to coincide with a San Diego performance in which Renee opened for gospel star Kirk Franklin.
Renee says the songs reflect what God wants her to sing, including the title song, the name of which refers not to a self-centered question from her, but a query from God asking her about His place in her life.
She released the CD with GVR Records & Entertainment, a company founded by Larry Martin Kimpel, a Christian recording artist and a bassist (if you want to know more about him check out our interview posted July 26 and July 30 of 2011) who has worked with George Duke and Anita Baker and who now plays with Frankie Beverly and Maze.
“He’s the perfect shepherd that God has placed me under. God placed him in my life so that I would not be taken advantage of,” she said of Kimpel, adding jokingly that the bassist “..has to give an account to God on how he treats me.”
A phlebotomist by trade, Renee has music in her roots. Her mother, Rosie Lee, sang in church and was a member of a couple of gospel groups. A vacuum repair and sales company owner, her father Carl was less involved in music but had a good voice when he sang Sam Cooke songs during weekend trips taken by the family, Renee recalls.
Our interview of Renee will be presented over the next three days. In the first part, she talks about what she learned about singing from her mother and about life from her father. She also talks about some of her favorite gospel singers:
BBP: Let me ask you about singing. I know that some of your influences were at least—you like Yolanda Adams and B.B. and C.C. Winans? You listed Karen Clark. I thought that was very interesting because I spoke to her about three or four days ago and you also listen to Aretha Franklin and I found that interesting because Karen Clark is apparently playing Aretha Franklin in a movie. But that’s just stuff I’ve heard. Tell me a little bit how each of these singers have influenced you.
Renee: Well, with regards to Yolanda Adams, the way that God just uses her and how you can feel the spirit move as she’s exalting God, that is just something to behold and the ability that the Holy Spirit has to touch you so that you bear witness to what she’s saying, you know…it’s just as you hear the spirit of God in someone as they sing, it’s like you are sitting at the feet of God and you’re in awe of what he can do. So again, the first voice that I heard happened to be my mom…Yes I love all of those other great vocalists, but that first voice I heard from my crib, that first voice that I heard singing in the choir, the voice that God has placed inside of me, it comes from the voice that he put inside of her. So I take nothing away from all of the Aretha Franklins, and I love Yolanda Adams…but I just break down and I cry at the glory of God when I hear my mother sing because again, it’s just an awesome thing to behold.
BBP: Tell me your mother’s name?
Renee: My mother’s name is Rosie Lee.
BBP: Okay. And was she a professional singer? Was she singing at a church?
Renee: She always sang at her church. She sang with a couple of groups. ..
BBP: Gospel style?
Renee: Gospel. (laughs) She’s always exalted God for the gift he’s given her.
BBP: And did she record?
Renee: She sang with the Heavenly Voices, yeah. They recorded. The Sounds of Grace, they also recorded. Several different groups that I can’t remember off the top of my head….
BBP: Has she helped you with your singing? Has she helped you with your career?
Renee: (laughing) I have tried to get my mother to sing with me and I just cannot get her in the studio with me…but will we in the future do something together? Definitely. I’ve written several songs specifically in mind that she and I can do a duet. But right now, as of today: not at all! I can’t get the woman to commit!
BBP: Okay. Has she though given you advice? I’m sure she pays attention to what you do…
Renee: Right..
BBP: She has. What has she told you? What has she said to you?
Renee: To sing for Him and Him alone. My testimony is I sing for an audience of one, it really doesn’t matter who’s standing before me. That comes from my mom. That comes because you’re offering up, again, praises to the Father! You’re offering up the sacrifice of praise to God and so the biggest influence that she has placed upon my life is when I stand up and I sing, I’m not trying to impress men. You know, I’m not trying to impress the critics of what I’m doing because I’m singing my heart out to the one who loves me first—that I love more than anybody—and that’s the Father.
BBP: Tell me a bit about your father.
Renee: My dad (laughs) My dad, very strong-willed. I would say that my persistence, I definitely got from him as far as being determined to not let anything get in my way or stop me. My dad is stubborn as all get-out. I love the man. He has his own walk with God, as does everyone. But his influence in my life was the introduction to our Heavenly Father as a father who provides for you. Because my father is very much a provider himself. This is the foundation that I learned about my spiritual, my Heavenly Father that God always takes care of us, because my father always takes care of us…You know so I would say by him just being a diligent provider, an excellent provider that he in his acts showed me the love of God.
BBP: Let me ask you something else about your father. Outside of music, you said he’s a self-made man, that he owned a vacuum company and everything, what lessons did he impart to you…well, musical and otherwise?
Renee: Hard work. Hard work pays off. Never second guess yourself. Trust in the God-given ability that He has placed inside of you..

(Tomorrow: Leszia talks about what took her from God, and what brought her back.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

College Park Blues

The man facing the audience in cowboy hat and sunglasses sang and played with all of the experience one would expect from an 81-year-old man who had been performing in front of an audience since childhood. But the guitar licks and singing that cut the air that night had the energy and drive expected from a much younger man.
Warner Williams was playing the Fourth Annual College Park Blues Festival, held November 12 at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum.
As the opening act, he was the perfect performer to set the bar for an evening of blues that would later feature Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner, the D.C. Blues Society Band with singer Ayaba Bey and guitarist Tom Newman and his band.
One of only nine people this year to win the National Endowment of the Arts’ National Heritage Award, Williams can arguably be seen not only as an American musical icon, but a piece of musical history. The National Endowment of the Arts describes him as a performer of “Piedmont Blues,” a storytelling style of music found in the region between Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Williams, who said he likes to play blues and spirituals, playfully calls it “front porch music.”
That evening, the rapt, almost reverential attention he received from the audience seemed to recognize his status. Hardly anyone was talking, and few were looking at anything else in the room other than Williams as he played a set that acknowledged the Veteran’s Day weekend with an instrumental of “God Bless America” and also included his version of “Blueberry Hill,” the classic made famous by Fats Domino.
You can almost feel what I’m talking about in these videos of his performance. Here’s “Blueberry Hill:”
And this segment includes the instrumental I mentioned, plus other gems:

Up next was Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner, who will represent the D.C. area in January-February 2012 at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Turner, who plays bass in addition to guitar, first learned to appreciate the blues from his father’s collection of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters records. He started playing guitar at the age of eight and was playing clubs in the D.C. area by his early teens. Starting in his early 20’s, he dropped out of music for more than ten years, but eventually returned to the blues—and performing.
His band at the festival included Sean Graves on drums, Dave Satterwhite on bass, Avon Dews on harmonica and Chuck Pearson on keyboards/organ. Here they are with “She’s 19 Years Old:”

Then came the D.C. Blues Society Band with Ayaba Bey, who had previously performed at the 2011 D.C. Blues Festival. The band includes Sam’I Nuriddin on guitar, David Harris on harmonica, David Jackson on bass and Joseph Thomas on saxophone. Catch the solos by Harris and Thomas as the band plays “I Want to Make Love to You:”

Here they come back with “C.C. Ryder:”

The show ended with guitarist Tom Newman, who started performing professionally at age 16 and began teaching at age 18 while a student at Howard University. At Howard, he recorded the hit record “Let’s Do the Latin Hustle” with Eddie Drennon and the BSS Unlimited Band. Over the years, he has played with Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers, Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett and others.
As you can hear in the following video, in which he plays “Hideaway,” there is a jazz flavor to what Newman does:

As we said before, Newman played with Wilson Pickett. Here he is with his version of “Funky Broadway:”

SHOUT OUT: By the way, the gentleman with the fancy dance steps shouting “Go ‘head” to the bands is Jeremiah. He is a big fan of the blues here in D.C. and the concerts would not be the same without him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rodeo Kings and Queens

When they formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in 1996, principals Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing were basically only thinking about making a one-shot tribute album to Canadian Folk Music Legend Willie P. Bennett, a musician they all viewed with reverence. But their effort soon took on a life of its own.
After a while the group—which takes its name from Bennett’s 1978 album Blackie and the Rodeo King—were playing live dates.
Eventually there was a second album, a double. Then a third album. Then a fourth. Along with them came awards and nominations for awards, including the Juno they received for their 1999 effort, Kings of Love. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ music even found its way to the IPod of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Fast-forward to the present, when the critically-acclaimed Canadian folk/rock/blues/country group has released Kings and Queens, its seventh album. Three years in the making, Kings and Queens features 14 songs that Linden, a guitarist known for his work with the Band; Wilson, former lead singer of the 1990’s rock group Junkhouse and Fearing, who has collaborated with high profile producers such as Steve Berlin of Los Lobos; recorded with several iconic “queens” of music, all but three American.
The high profile list includes Rosanne Cash, Exene Cervenka, Holly Cole, Emmylou Harris, Amy Helm, Janiva Magness, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sam Phillips, Serena Ryder, Pam Tillis, Sara Watkins, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson and Patti Scialfa. The songs run the gamut from pop-chart contenders (“I’m Still Loving You” with Helm) to bluesy slow burners (“Shelter Me” with Scialfa) to country ballads (“My Town Has Moved Away” withTillis) to driving Tom Petty-style rockers (“How Come You Treat Me So Bad” with Magness) to lazy country wind-twisters (“Step Away” with Harris). There are songs where band members and guests individually duet up and others where everyone sings together in what Linden calls a “wild roving gang sound.”

Maybe because of its high infusion of American starpower, the album is gaining more of a foothold in the United States than previous Blackie efforts, says Linden, a Toronto native who now lives in Nashville. The band currently has dates in several U.S. cities, including here in the D.C. area where it will play Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia on Friday, November 18. For those of you who will be in the D.C. area then, Jammin Java is located at 227 Maple Avenue East, Vienna, Virginia. The phone number is 703-255-1566 and Jammin Java’s website can be reached at
Beldon’s Blues Point had a chance to talk to Linden about the group, the new album, and many topics in-between, including his friendship with the late keyboardist Richard Bell, who was known for his work with Janis Joplin. Linden started by talking about the group’s origins, which evolved from a night in which two of its founders co-incidentally came upon the same idea:
Linden: It was a wild bit of synchronicity. It was 15 years ago and I had been producing records for a number of years. I was an artist on Sony at the time. And my wife and I were sitting around our table and one of the things that was sort of the rage at the time was tribute albums and I was looking for a project to do for our company which we had just started. And I was thinking wouldn’t it be great to do a tribute album to our dear friend Willie P. Bennett, who’s such a great songwriter? Nobody knows, people don’t know how great he is. And his songs are fantastic. Wouldn’t it be great to do a tribute album to Willie? But maybe make it like it was a tribute band with just other singers and me. So instead of having 12 different artists do it, it’d just be like a common production and two or three different singers and it could be a really stylized great project. Okay. We’re talking about this. I take a break and walk over to my computer—this is in the early days of the Internet—and I get an e-mail from Stephen Fearing, who is a friend of mine, but I don’t really know him very well. Stephen says in his email “Wouldn’t it be great to get together and do a project of Willie P. Bennett songs sometime?” Very same day. Same moment. So it was unbelievable synchronicity. So I immediately called Stephen back and said “You’re not going to believe this,” but Janice and I were just talking about the very same thing.”
BBP: Wow
Linden: And it was amazing, and that night (guitarist/singer) John Hiatt was playing in town and we both went to the concert and I said “Look Stephen, we’ve got to get together and talk about this. This is too weird. We’ve got to do this.” And he was enthused about it. So we sat down and talked and we both thought of our mutual friend Tom Wilson, who at the time was the leader of one of Canada’s biggest rock and roll bands called Junkhouse and was having a bunch of hit records in Canada, but he was also a real big fan, an old friend of Willie’s. So we suggested the idea to him and he said “Anything you want, I’m there.” So three weeks—it actually wasn’t three weeks later—well, five weeks later we were in the studio making our first album, which we thought was going to be our only album. But we had such a great time in the studio, and the guys who ran our record company—who had agreed to put it out, our good friend Bernie Finkelstein—was so enthused about the band, he said, “Would you guys be able to do a few show if I booked them?” Well, we did eight months worth of touring, got nominated for a Juno award in Canada, and fell in love with each other. And said “We gotta do this again. We gotta do another album.” So we did a follow-up album, it ended up being a double album, had six Willie P. songs, six songs of our own, or seven songs of our own, or something like that, and then a few songs of other writers who we really admired. And we ended up having a hit in Canada! And we felt “Oh man, we gotta do this again.” So a couple of years later we get together again and we make an album called Bark (the title could be viewed as initials for the group, (B)lackie (A)nd the (R)odeo (K)ings) and we have an even bigger hit. So it turns into kind of an ongoing side project that has had sort of a wonderful life of its own ever since. Which brings us to Kings and Queens, which is the most ambitious project we’ve tried to do.
BBP: Yeah, tell me what you were trying to do with that. I understand that it took three years to put that album together?
Linden: Yep. It was a little longer from inception to release. We got the idea for the record in 2006. At the end of 2006 we were playing on train across Canada with the Cowboy Junkies and rehearsing for a show which we were the host band of and I was musical director for that was celebrating the thirty year anniversary of Last Waltz (a concert by the Band held in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976). And it was so much fun kind of working towards a project together instead of just doing our own songs. It felt really good, it felt really healthy for us to be kind of working in a collaborative way. And you know we had a number of different really vocal and really positive supporters who were female artists who were so great to us: Pam Tillis being one, Rosanne Cash being one, and we kind of thought, I thought, “Man wouldn’t it be great for us to do an album where on every song we had a different female artist joining us?” And the guys said, “Yeah, that’d be really cool.” And then 15 minutes later I thought, I blurted out “Let’s call it Kings and Queens.” And we all thought it was a cool idea. And then—it was really time to do another record—but we were kind of, in the back of our minds, getting ready for that to be a big, major project for us to do. In the meantime I got called for 2008 to play guitar with Emmylou Harris, which was a wonderful thing. So the plans got put on hold for a while while I did that, and you know we all continued and made other solo albums the way we always do between Blackie albums. But we stuck with the idea and I made a few calls and sent out a few e-mails, first of all to Pam and Rosanne, because I thought they were really the reason that we were willing to do it, and when they both said immediately “yes,” it gave me some confidence. And then I got a hold of Amy (Helm), who was very, very supportive of our band and was wonderful to work with when I was in her band; and I got a hold of Lucinda Williams—I had produced a number of tracks for Lucinda when she was living in Nashville and we were still very, very good friends. And I got a hold of Cassandra Wilson; I played on the album that T-Bone Burnett produced for her called Thunderbird, I played guitar on some of that and I really hit it off with Cassandra. And of course I was friends with Sam Phillips for many years, and I just think that she’s such an incredible artist and I was friends with Amy Helm—I did a ton of work with the Band in the early 90’s, especially late 80’s, early 90’s—and so I was familiar with Amy (Amy Helm’s father Levon Helm was a drummer for the Band) from when she was a teen-ager. So we had kind of a group of people who we asked quickly and all said “yes.” So it gave me the confidence to think that it actually could happen.
BBP: Now a number of these singers that you’re working with here are American. Are you hoping that this album has more of a penetration into the American market? Was that one of the aims of...
Linden: Yes it wasn’t really. I mean it was an aim but there are three great Canadian women on it too. Serena Ryder, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Holly wasn’t specifically that we were…we actually, we weren’t specifically saying “Let’s get a bunch of American women on it.” But a lot of the gals who I had worked with already and who I was friends with and who were fans of the band and who said “yes" to it happened to be American. And so it wasn’t really done that way by design, although it has helped. We’ve certainly made much bigger inroads with this record than any other record we’ve done.
BBP: Was it hard…I mean, you’re talking about a number of busy schedules including your own..was it hard kind of coordinating all of this? Getting all these people, getting them to the studio in a timely fashion to get this out?
Linden: Well. In the one hand it was, but on the other hand I was just real patient with it. We all were real patient with it. And we just wanted it to be real, we wanted it to be the best record it possibly could be. We didn’t want to settle for anything on it. We wanted it to be fantastic. Just the very, very best record it possibly could be. So that was kind of what was on our minds about it and we just didn’t want to compromise at all. Remember the material that we had for this record was stuff, it wasn’t all by design for it. Some of it was just what we had, you know the songs that we felt were the strongest songs of us. So once we got the first number of tunes cast with the first group of gals who said “yeah,” then at that point we were dealing with a body of material that was kind of a finite body of material and it became more about saying “Hey who would be great on this song, and who would be great on that song.” So the rest of it got kind of—we worked it out based on the material that we had.
BBP: Oh. Okay. Now I understand that Janiva Magness is on one song?
Linden: JAN-i-va. JAN-i-va Magness.
BBP: I’m bad with pronouncing names sometimes. I’m sorry…
Linden: No problem…
BBP: …But what prompted you to bring her on board?
Linden: I produced two of her albums. I produced Bury Him at the Crossroads and I produced Do I Move You and I think Janiva’s a star. I think she’s really just a spectacular singer, wonderful artist, and I wanted her to be a blues player on the record because I’m a blues player, first and foremost. And I just knew Janiva would knock it out of the park, and she did.
BBP: Right. Now I understand that the song she does is called “How Come You Treat Me So Bad,” sort of a Tom Petty-type song? How did you come to use her style to make that song what it is?
Linden: Well, you know it’s an interesting thing with that one because it was kind of complete without having an extra vocalist on it because Stephen and Tom sing the whole thing throughout. I mean I chime in on the bridges, but mostly its Stephen and Tom. And it was a bit of a head-scratcher to figure out “Okay, how to make this relevant for this record?” But the song was so great, so I kind of thought if we approached it like the four of us—you know the three guys in the band and whoever our guest was going to be—it would be like a gang. And Tom sings in a real low voice, so I wanted to have someone who could sing an octave above Tom, and we would make like a harmony sandwich, just knock it out of the park with this sort of wild roving gang sound and I knew Janiva could relate to it conceptually and I knew she could deliver vocally, and she did. It wasn’t an obvious duet though, if that’s what you’re mentioning. Absolutely, that’s true.
BBP: Yeah. Well I was thinking that. I’m sure you were picking certain singers, as you said, to conform to certain songs that you were doing. You were aiming for a certain effect, and not necessarily a duet, but that you thought that a particular person’s qualities would contribute to what you had in mind with a particular song, I guess is what I’m thinking here. In terms of working with the other singers were there other moments that stand out?

Linden: I love all of them. I love all of them, I have to say. And it’s not just me saying it, but we didn’t kind of do it all in one shot. We did it piece by piece. Before we asked somebody to be on it, we were, you know, we were very excited by the prospect of having them be on it. So really everyone turned out great as far as I was concerned; I was really, really happy with it. I was blown away with Patti Scialfa on the record, I have to say. Because she is someone who, I had never even met her. And you know she didn’t know the band or anything like that, it was a complete cold call. And she was just so wonderful. She was just an absolute wonderful woman; she’s the only one who I didn’t actually record myself. I sent her the track and her engineer and she recorded it, and the only word that I got back, she did two completely different fully realized versions of her duet plus a five-part harmony at the end. The only thing that she said, the only instructions that she gave me when they sent the file back was: if there’s anything else you want me to try, to let me know and I’ll do it. So I’m just thrilled and really honored.
BBP: Wow. That’s amazing. Tell me a little about the song that she did for you, though.
Linden: “Shelter Me Lord” is one of the two covers that are on the record. And I thought I wanted once again there to be that kind of component to the album, because that’s more my style. And it’s a
Buddy and Julie Miller song and I love what they do so much. Buddy recorded it with the fantastic McCrary Sisters singing on it, and I kind of thought it would be a great thing for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to bring in, especially if we wanted to get a gospel-ish singer to sing on it, and you know there were a couple of people I had in mind. And when we had the chance to get Patti to be on the record she asked if we could send a few songs and I guess there were maybe two or three we had left at that point, and that was one of them, and I just said “Whichever one of these you feel like singing, go ahead and sing.” And that was the one that she picked.
BBP: Wow. What a story. Tell me a little bit about the tour. And what are your goals for it?
Linden: Well really it’s mostly just to get the word out in America more than anything else. We’re doing some really fantastic shows and we’ve done some really fantastic shows in Canada, which is great. We’re a little bit like a three-ring circus where all of the rings are in different places. I live in Nashville, Stephen Fearing lives in Halifax, Tom Wilson lives in Hamilton, Ontario, so we’re all over the map. So it’s always kind of a challenge for us to get together. But we really want people to hear this record and these are unusual times, so we just want to play in the places where they feel like they want to hear Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. We just want to dig in the best we can, you know, and hang on.
BBP: Now I understand that President Bush had one of your songs on his IPod?
Linden: Well, for starters, it was kind of one of those things that you think to yourself “Well, six years after it happened, someone’s going to be asking about this, because it’s kind of an unusual occurrence, and in that way it was really cool." You know my feeling about it? That we make music from our hearts, and with all of the love in our hearts and I’m not kidding when I say this. And we don’t try to be prejudiced towards anyone...if people react to our music and it makes their day brighter, it makes them happier, it makes them feel good, enriches their lives in some way, then it makes me happy to know that it would do that. Especially if it’s somebody who’s in the position of having influence on other people’s lives; boy oh boy I hope that somehow or other it can make that a positive thing. Because we need that these days. Is that an okay answer?
BBP: Hey, whatever answer you come up with. I was just curious..
Linden: I wish I could be a little more eloquent about it, to be honest with you. Suffice it to say that we—and here’s the other thing. When you’re a roots band that’s based in Canada, having anybody outside of Canada listen to your music is gratifying (laughs).
BBP: Yeah, I can see that…
Linden: Actually, having anybody period listen to your music is gratifying..
BBP: That’s true. Anything that you do, having anybody pay attention to it is gratifying! I certainly understand that. Did you ever talk to George Bush about it, or any of his people?
Linden: Oh no. No. Not a word. The whole story came to us completely by chance. It was when he was coming back from the Pope’s funeral, one of the reporters noticed he had an IPod. And the question was asked, what’s on the President’s IPod, what’s on IPod-one? So he listed the songs that were on it and there we were. He had some good stuff too. I mean John Hiatt was on it, Joni Mitchell, it was interesting.
BBP: Yeah, well I guess that must have been really a shock to find out that the President of the United States..I mean you talk about gratification and having people listening to what you do, I mean that must have really been a real rush to hear that the president is listening to what you’re doing. Doesn’t matter what your politics are…
Linden: It was kind of a wild thing. It was a little surrealistic, truth be told. But then again, such is life, isn’t it?
BBP: Tell me a little about some of the personnel changes…how has the band changed over 15 years?
Linden: One gigantic change, one unfathomable and never-recoverable change, which is that for the first many years of our band until June 15, 2007 when he passed away, we had the greatest keyboard player in the world playing with us, who was Richard Bell, who was my best friend.
BBP: From Janis Joplin…
Linden: Yep. And Richard played with me for 18 years, and when Blackie started up he was part of that too. So it was—it’s still weird going into the studio without him. I mean he’s there in spirit and we talk about him all of the time and we try to adhere to his standards of irreverence and try to adhere to his standard of unabashed joy in playing music. I don’t think any of us will ever get to the point where we’re at his level as a musician, although we’re all trying. It meant a lot to me that on the record the two keyboard players that we had were two guys who were great friends of his—that he would have approved of—one of them being John Whynot who is my other closest friend, who has recorded and engineered most of our records…he played piano on the record and Kenny Pearson played organ on the record. Ken was the organ player in Janis Joplin’s band when Richard was the piano player and they stayed close friends for the last 38 years of their lives. So I kind of felt like Richard’s spirit was there.
BBP: Oh yeah, it sounds like it was. How’d you get to know him? You said you and he were best friends. How did that happen? How did that friendship evolve?
Linden: Well, first of all I saw him play when I was ten years old at the Capital Theatre, with Janis Joplin. I saw him and Kenny, front row center, August 9, 1970..I think it was the ninth, maybe it was the fifth. I think actually it was August the 5, 1970. And it was just before I left New York and came back to Toronto where I was born and so it was a fantastic show, a totally memorable show. In the late 80’s I had become good friends with Rick Danko (a member of the Band), and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson (the Band’s organist, keyboardist and saxophonist) and was working with them and Jimmy Weider, who played guitar for them, and Jimmy was very close friends with Richard. Richard had been living in the south for about 16 years but he actually was from Toronto originally too, and Richard had decided, his mom was…getting older and he wanted to take care of her and he had a sister and four nephews and he really wanted to be around for their growing up. So he decided he would move back to Toronto, and I had met him once through the guys in the Band just a few months before and he said “I think I’m moving back to Toronto, can I give you a call?” So he called as soon as he moved back and my wife and I adopted him. And from then on we referred to him as our 45-year-old son, with every age it got a little more but..our 45-year-old adopted son, he just became a part of our lives and a part of our family and we started playing together immediately and around that time I was doing a lot of solo work and I brought Richard in on it and we played as a duo. We played with the Band together, when I got a call to put a band together for Bruce Cockburn, I got Richard and John Diamond—who still plays in my band—to be in that band. You know, he was like a secret weapon. I would bring him to a session and he would blow everybody away and come home. (laughs) And he was such a great person, it would immediately raise the bar on the quality of music for all of us. He was the greatest musician I ever played with and the most soulful…he was my best friend.
BBP: How did he pass away?
Linden: He had multiple myeloma which is bone marrow cancer.
BBP: Okay….
Linden: Which is a very, very treacherous form of cancer. He had it for 11 months and he fought like a champ.
BBP: What flavor did he add to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings?
Linden: The thing about Richard is Richard could play with Bruce Cockburn, he could play with Judy Collins, he could play with John Sebastian or Peter Yarrow. He could play with the Band or he could play with Muddy Waters or blues performers, and Richard—no matter what he was doing—he had the panache and the attack and directness of a blues player. And, no matter what he was doing—you know he could be playing a country song with somebody—there was just something about it that oozed soul. And he went for it, he was fearless in terms of what he would go for, in terms of pushing his own plan. And he was 100 percent artist and a 100 percent from the heart, all the time. So it brings an attitude. When you play with somebody like that it makes you fearless yourself, that you can go for it, that you can really play with everything you have and if you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. You just go for it with the pure love of music and let it come through you, and he was a master. He had an incredible depth of understanding about arrangements in the classical sense, sonic, sonic power of what he was doing. (He) understood completely where he fit into things; brilliant arranger and had a huge harmonic knowledge and…just an incredibly deep musician.
BBP: That’s amazing. Tell me a little bit about Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. How would you classify your group? Is it more country? More blues? Kind of a mixture? More roots?
Linden: I think we think of it as a roots-based band, because we all have different roots, but they’re all traced into the same roots that turned into rock-and-roll, in some way or other: country, blues, folk music, you know. And we…kind of come at it because we’ve been front men for such a long time. We come at it in a certain way, none of us are kind of afraid to sort of go for it or jump into the spotlight and step on each other’s toes a little bit. We have a great admiration for each others’ writing, each others’ performing ability, and there’s just a certain thing that you get when you know that, if somebody came and hit you over the head with a shovel when you were playing, the other two guys would be able to take it and do pretty good without you. I think we all feel that. And that’s a better way of classifying our music than saying it’s this style or that style. You know what I mean? You know it’s more of the spirit of it, of the thing, than anything else. And we get that from Willie too, by the way. We get that from Willie D. Because that’s how Willie was. Willie very sadly left us in February of 2008, but his spirit permeates our band in every note. And basically, when it comes down to it, we’re still a Willie P. Bennett tribute band. That’s the most important thing.
BBP: That’s amazing. What will we see at Jammin Java? How are you going to entertain the troops here?
Linden: Well, we’re going to play stuff from Kings and Queens. We’re going to play stuff from probably all of our different records. And we’re going to probably do something we’ve never done before—we don’t what it is at this point—but usually we end up stumbling onto something that we’ve never done before. And it usually ends up being fun. We’ll probably make some mistakes, have a couple of train wrecks, laugh our heads off, and hopefully play some soulful spontaneous rockin’ music that will make people feel really good. That’s what we’re aiming for.
BBP: I’m sure you’re going to hit your mark. Definitely…
Linden: (laughing) Well some people say our bar is pretty low…
BBP: No, I wouldn’t say that. You guys are playing together too long for that. No, it sounds like it’s going to be a good time.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"I Just Play What Comes on My Mind"-Warner Williams

Though the National Endowment of the Arts honored him this summer for singing them, Warner Williams doesn’t reflect too much on the technicalities of “Piedmont Blues:” what they are, what styles they evolved from or what region of the country they came from.
What the 81-year-old guitarist and singer thinks about is how much he likes making music and watching others enjoy it.
Williams has been playing guitar since he was nine or ten years old. Over the years he has played what the National Endowment of the Arts calls Piedmont blues—and what he calls “blues and spirituals”—around the D.C. area in churches, hole-in-the-wall bars and juke joints, night clubs, house parties and on the street.
Originally from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, Williams comes from a musical family.
He learned guitar by watching his father, a music teacher, he said. All of his eight brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments and the family played together at home regularly when Williams was young.
Church was his first training ground. But by his teens, he was playing in clubs and on the street. He said he once was part of a band called the Moroccos but for the most part has not been a band player. He only played music part-time for much of his life, supporting his family by driving a truck for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “I couldn’t live off music back there then because wouldn’t make no money,” he recalled.
For the last 20 years or so has played in a duo with Jay Summerour, a D.C. area harmonica player who appeared on Williams’ album, Little Bit a Blues, released in the mid-90’s.
In 2004, Smithsonian Folkways released a CD of Williams’ music entitled Blues Highway.
This summer, the National Endowment of the Arts awarded Williams a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. They described him as a singer of Piedmont Blues, a style found in the nation’s Piedmont section, which runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The style includes elements of blues, country, ragtime, jazz, gospel and fiddle tunes, and, in giving him the award, the NEA said Williams’ own influences range from Muddy Waters and Blind Boy Fuller to Hank Williams and Gene Autry.
But with his trademark sunglasses and cowboy hat, Williams views what he does with far less analysis. “I just play what comes on my mind,” he said.

Still, he likes the recognition, as he told Beldon’s Blues Point on October 24, 2011 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, after he and Summerour had just been featured performers at the 10th Annual (Montgomery) County (Maryland) Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities:
BBP: So what did you think when you found out you were getting (the NEA) award? What came into your mind?
Williams: Well, I was glad to get it. First time I’ve ever had one. But I was happy to get it.
BBP: Do you know what they mean by Piedmont Blues, what that means?
Williams: Hmm?
BBP: Do you know what they mean by Piedmont Blues, what that refers to?
Williams: No I don’t.
BBP: Okay…
Williams: I just play what comes on my mind. I’ve been playing it since I was about nine or ten years old. I heard my older brothers play blues so I got it from them.
BBP: How did you first learn how to play guitar? Who taught you?
Williams: I taught myself. I’m self taught.
BBP: When you first started out you actually played at clubs?
Williams: I played around the house. Around the house. When I got in my teens I started playing around clubs and things.
BBP: So how did people react to what you were doing?
Williams: Oh yeah. They used to give me free rides on the street car and everything.
BBP: That’s great.
Williams: They used to close the music off the Nickelodeon just to hear me play.
BBP: I understand that you weren’t a blues musician all of your life, that you didn’t make a living at it all of your life. That you did other things for work.
Williams: Well I worked, I drove trucks and everything man, but I just did that on the side. I couldn’t live off music back there then because wouldn’t make no money.
BBP: Can you live off it now?
Williams: I mean you could make music, you might get a nickel or a dime or something, back at that time. Back at the time that I was coming along, you were glad to get that. But nowadays it’s different. I used to play all out in the streets out in D.C. and everywhere. Yeah. Police run me off one corner, I’d go on the next corner. (Both laugh).
BBP: Why’d they do that?
Williams: Huh?
BBP: Why’d they do that?
Williams: Well I guess I was holding up the sidewalk for people.
BBP: So you were just out there trying to play your music and make a living and they kind of rousted you along….
Williams: Yeah. Right.
BBP: Oh. But you must have been good because you must have had an audience to block the foot traffic.
Williams: People liked it, yeah. I had a crowd every time I picked up the guitar.
BBP: So I understand you did your first album just a few years ago.
Williams: Back in the 70’s I guess. I forget what year it was.
BBP: That’s when you did your first album, back in the 70’s?
Williams: I think it might have been…might have been 70’s, yeah.
BBP: But you actually did your first album for a major label, it was like maybe seven years ago, right?
Williams: Huh?
BBP: You actually did your first album for a major label…well that’s what the newspaper said, that you did your first album for a major label, it was like seven years ago, back in the 90’s. When you were in your 70’s, you did an album….
Williams: Probably did, I can’t remember. All I know is..a whole lot of people made music off of me, man.
BBP: How would you describe your guitar technique?
Williams: I don’t know, I just …
BBP: You just play, right?
Williams: I just play, yeah (both laugh).
BBP: What’s your favorite song to do publically?
Williams: I like spirituals.
BBP: You said spirituals?
Williams: I play spirituals too. Spiritual songs. You know, hymms. I like them old songs, like “(On the) Sunny Side of the Street” and all them.
BBP: Got you. I know that you’re playing the College Park Blues Festival that the D.C. Blues Society is holding, what are you going to do there? What are you going to show us?
Williams: I don’t know. Whatever comes into my mind. I don’t never know what I’m going to play. Never know. Whatever comes into my mind is what I play. I don’t have no special song.
BBP: Now I’ve heard you mention the local places that you play at. Have you ever played around the country, gone to different parts of the country to play?
Williams: Oh I’ve played all over. Atlanta. I’ve played every juke joint around in Maryland. Down to South Carolina and everywhere. I’ve played everywhere. I’m 81 years old. I’ve been all over, man.
BBP: I bet you’ve got some wild stories too.
Williams: Oh yeah, I got some wild stories. Me and my brother used to walk the streets with a guitar back in our time.
BBP: You used to what?
Williams: Me and my brother Raymond used to walk the streets with a guitar back in our time.
BBP: Playing outside?
Williams: Playing outside. We used to have crowds lined up a mile down the road. Front porch music, that’s what we’d call it.

By the way, if you happen to be in the D.C. area on November 12—that’s next Saturday—you can hear Williams at the Fourth Annual College Park Blues Festival, a free concert put on by the D.C. Blues Society. Williams will kick off the festival, which will also feature the D.C. Blues Society Band with singer Ayaba Bey (you can find a video of them on our Sept 5, 2011 post), Clarence “The Bluesman” Turner (you can find a video of him on our October 17, 2011 post entitled “Crankin’ in the Capital”) and Tom Newman, a D.C. area guitarist known for his work with Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers, Wilson Pickett and Lloyd Price, among others. There will also be raffles, including one of a $600 Rocketeria G&L guitar. The event is at Ritchie Coliseum, across from the University at Route 1 and Rossborough Lane in College Park. Here is the D.C. Blues Society’s website for more information:

And if you are in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania on Friday, November 11, you can catch three "Veterans of the Blues" at Bethlehem's Godfrey Daniels tavern. Multi-instrumentalist Maurice John Vaughn will join horn man B.J. Emery and vocalist/saxophone player "Holle Thee Maxwell" at Godfrey Daniels, located at 7 East Fourth Street, Bethlehem, PA. Tickets are $21.50 in advance, $24.50 at the door. Godfrey Daniels is holding the event in conjunction with the Lehigh Valley Blues Network. For more information check out this website: