Black revives R&B with new vintage sound; Positive thinking pays off for Canadian singer

08-Jul-2008 | SHARE:

If things weren't going so spectacularly well for Jully Black these days on the musical front the Canadian R&B singer-songwriter might consider another career as a motivational speaker.

The 30-year-old Torontonian -- who wowed the country at this year's Juno Awards with a knockout performance and a win for R&B/soul recording of the year -- is a prime example of the power of positive thinking.

In fact, she has been tapped to play a motivational role in the next season of Canadian Idol, acting as a mentor, confidant, critic and coach for the young contestants on the series.

CTV made a wise choice with that call. Black, who is embarking on a cross-country tour that brings her to Bluesfest tonight, is an inspiring woman.

Raised in a single parent home by her Jamaican mother in Toronto's notorious Jane and Finch area, Black, the youngest of nine children, rejects the notion that she grew up in a rough, crime-ridden neighbourhood.

"None of the problems found us," she says. "That's the thing about stereotypes, you only hear what they want you to hear. It's not like bullets were flying all around us. It was a wonderful, multicultural, diverse community. I had and still have friends from all walks of life and we're all like family. It was each one teach one."

She also stresses that her mother made a fine living working at General Motors. "I never went without," she says. "We just had to live in the neighbourhood we could afford to live in, and, from what I remember, our rent was still $900! Market rent is market rent."

Black began singing as a child while attending Sunday church services and she was encouraged by all the positive reaction she got from people. Soon she was performing anywhere and everywhere -- at school assemblies, community talent shows, wherever she could sharpen her skills.

She got her first break in the music business while still a teen when she put together a band and performed songs she had written at Toronto's Bamboo Club during Canadian Music Week. A publishing deal led to a recording contract with MCA Records and Black's debut album was scheduled for a 2003 release date. However, the record was shelved when MCA folded.

"That wasn't a Jully thing, it was a matter of circumstances," she says. "The company does not exist anymore so you can go and ring the bell all you want -- ain't nobody home.

"Yeah, you get frustrated, but not discouraged. I thought 'What do I do now?' I had to take a moment to quiet my mind. That's when I spoke to my mom and she said 'Jully, by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.' And I wrote a song about it."

When she rebounded in 2005, releasing a newly recorded debut This Is Me through Universal Music Canada, that song, Sweat of Your Brow, turned out to the disc's biggest single.

"You see, if (the MCA deal hadn't fallen through), I wouldn't have had that conversation with my mom and she wouldn't have quoted the Bible. And I wouldn't have run with it," Black says.

"Everything that happens in life is preparing you for the next thing, so I try to consider everything an up. Alright, this happened, now bring me to the next phase of my life. I don't think (my second album) Revival could have been born had I not went through everything I went through in life. "It's all trial and error no matter what you do. If you're trying to be a hairdresser, well, somebody's hair might just turn green before you get the right colour combo."

With Revival, it would seem Black has found that winning combo. Produced by Keith Harris, drummer for the BlackEyed Peas, the disc has a refreshingly old school R&B flavour to it, full of live-off-the-floor beats, raw, organic funk, and a sound that's not overly polished or programmed -- a quality that's exceedingly rare in modern soul recordings.

"We recorded nine songs in nine days and there's 11 songs on the record," says Black. "That was the window we had with Keith's schedule and it was do or die. It was hard on the voice, but when my voice was most tired that's when we cut Seven Day Fool (the Etta James cover that became a top 10 hit for Black) and that's what helped me achieve that gritty, real Etta type sound."

Black tackles highly personal territory on the record with songs like Temporary Insanity and the moving Catch Me When I Fall, where she pays farewell to her older sister who passed away at a young age.

The singer acknowledges that Revival is a nod to legendary black artists of the past -- inspired by old Motown, James Brown and even Jimi Hendrix -- but she stresses it's not a retro recording. "We wanted to incorporate different elements of the old but still make it sound new and I feel we did a good job," she says. "We didn't just make a vintage sounding record."

What inspired her to take this approach? It was the desire to put a little bit of soul back in modern soul music.

"I think the problem today, which shouldn't be a problem, but it exists, is technology," Black says. "We're living in a digital era where we automatically lose that warm sound of analog records.

"There's a lot of add-water-and-stir producers and artists. That's because everything is at our fingertips. You can go get a pro-tools rig and make a record in your bedroom. But the paying dues part ... we've lost that, in my opinion.

"We're getting a lot of manufactured artists. You'd think it was a General Motors Plant with (the music industry) just pumping them out. One song here, one song there and they're gone. We wanted to give our audience more than one song. We wanted to give them a record they could just put on and enjoy."

Credit: Heath McCoy; Canwest News Service

Illustration

Colour Photo: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen / R&B singer/songwriter Jully Black has found a winning sound with Revival, a disc that has a refreshingly old school R&B flavour. ;; Caption:

Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Jul 8, 2008