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Singer Robin McKelle

Interviewed by Fred Wasser
(September 12, 2008)

Photo by Yann Orhan

Robin McKelle is a big band singer with a twist. For her first album, Introducing Robin McKelle, she sang arrangements of such songs as “Deep in a Dream,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “Night and Day.” Her current recording is Modern Antique. It has a big sound, too. But, as the title suggests, her music brings together the past and present in exciting new ways.


It seems that there’s more variety on the current album than the first. Is that accurate?
Definitely. The first album was basically a concept album. They’re Nelson Riddle arrangements. It was a whole concept of the forties, which was cool and it was fun.  But this album really gives me a chance to stretch out a little bit more and give my listeners a side of what I do and what I like – really what my show is like in a live performance. I do like to mix in some blues and some of my original material as well.  

I love the title of the current album:  Modern Antique.
It kind of fits with the way the music happened on the album. We’ve combined the old and the new and together I thought that the name, Modern Antique,was a kind of a fun play on words.  Some of the songs have a newer kind of sound.  Like the version that we did of Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra.” We’ve treated it with a forties big band swing feel. And then I have tunes like the famous “Lover Man” that we do with a kind of a funky, groove-based kind of rhythm-section thing.

I think I read somewhere that the idea to do “Abracadabra” came to you when you heard it on the radio or you were listening to a CD of it.
I heard it on the radio. It was during the time I was choosing the songs for the record. I turned off the radio and I just started hearing it with a swing feel.

I think it really works. I think you really captured the bounciness of the song.

Overall, is the second album perhaps more introspective than the first?
I think there are more ballads on it. And I think I get a chance to have a little bit more room to sing.  I had some songs that I really wanted to sing on this record: “Save Your Love For Me,”  “I Want To Be Loved,” and “Remember.”

Reviewers have compared you to Anita O’Day and Nancy Wilson and Nina Simone. Is that kind of comparison a compliment? When you hear that, what’s your reaction? Is it scary? Is it exhilarating?
I’m honored to be compared to singers like that. These are singers I grew up listening to and was very much inspired by. With that comes a big responsibility to continue to keep the level of artistry at a certain place musically. I’m not scared by it necessarily. If I lived in the fear of it, it would take the joy out of it for me. People always compare people to other people. It’s a way for the public to relate and to understand what it is that you do in the beginning.

It’s kind of a shorthand.

When you're on the road, how many musicians do you travel with?
I travel with three musicians: piano, bass, and drums.  I love singing with a smaller group. I think it’s great. It’s a lot more intimate. And, interestingly enough, it’s still really quite energetic and powerful.

I’m really glad you’ve chosen the standards and songs from the American popular songbook. But isn’t it an idealistic choice for a singer today? There is a following, but it’s not mainstream music. What’s your take on that? The odds are that you’d have better success with a more pop direction.
I think it’s difficult no matter what genre that you choose as an artist. Jazz has a much smaller audience than pop and R & B. With jazz, I’m drawn to the freedom of interpretation and the freedom of improvisation. It depends on what kind of success you’re looking for. Probably there’s a small audience out there for standards, let’s say. Or even jazz. For original jazz it’s probably even less. For me, I’m having a lot of success in a small genre. For me it’s important to just stay true to who I am and what the music is that I connect to. And that way my listeners will feel connected, because it’s true and real to me.



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