Our artist feature this month epitomizes what it means to be an artist, and she is truly a 'Brave Soul' in a league of her own. Critically acclaimed R&B vocalist YahZarah returns with her long-awaited album "The Ballad of Purple Saint James," dropping May 4 on The Foreign Exchange Music.
Born Dana Williams in Washington, D.C., YahZarah (whose name loosely means "Queen Mother is the brightest star" -- itself a tribute to her deceased grandmother from Ghana) was greatly influenced as a child by soul greats like Tina Turner, Prince, Chaka Khan, George Clinton, and Minnie Riperton, as well as the music of the church. She went on to study music at both the Duke Ellington School of Music and North Carolina Central University.
YahZarah, a singer-songwriter who first made her mark as a background singer for Erykah Badu, has spent the past few years touring in support of her albums "Hear Me" (2001), "Blackstar" (2003), and 2008's "The Prelude." She worked on "The Ballad..." independently for a number of years before reaching out to Phonte (a longtime friend and fellow NC Central music student), and finally selecting +FE Music as her label home.
I had the pleasure of snagging an interview with YahZarah a few weeks ago while she was out on the road with her fellow Foreign Exchange band members. As we spoke about her excitement regarding creation of "The Ballad of Purple Saint James" as well as a host of other topics, it felt less like an interview and more as if I was speaking with an open, honest, loving friend I'd known for years. She is a maverick in her own right, a fashionista, & most importantly a musician & vocalist whose talent is unmatched. As BSC celebrates our 4 year anniversary this month, I am personally honored to have the incomparable YahZarah serve as our May 2010 Brave Soul Artist. Read on, and get to know the beautiful spirit now known to the world as Miss Purple Saint James....
"My job is not to worry about who accepts my music. My job is to make great music and leave the acceptance and the outcome up to God."
Who is Purple Saint James and how/when did she emerge out of the existence that is YahZarah?
To try to make a long story short, I kinda felt really restricted by the music I'd made under the corporate banner of the music industry and I really needed someway to kind of feel creative again and my experiences at that particular time when I first started doing "The Ballad..." which was about 4 years ago which is kind of painful for me...hearing my own name was kinda like a source of writers block and I started under Purple Saint James actually to write for other artists and do other work and the name kind of stuck and it sparked a catalyst for a whole lot of creativity for me...so after a while when they started calling me "Purple" or "Miss Saint James" and under my writing name & it just kinda stuck and I thought...you know "Purple" breathed new life into my creativity and she allowed me to write songs so why not give these new songs to my fans under this creative name so that folks can understand where I'm coming from and the new changes a bit better and they have I think that the songs I'm singing now...if I had just stuck closely to Yahzarah which has all these different expectations around her by way of her ...for lack of a better word...her alliances- me singing background with Erykah and the Foreign Exchange stuff...I just needed to set myself apart & "Purple" did that for me creatively.
How did you become involved with Foreign Exchange Music? How has the experience been working with them as a collective unit and being signed to the label as opposed to some of your past experiences?
I think that this relationship is unique in that I'm working with friends. Phonte & I went to college together, along with Pooh Bear Jones, Darien Brockington & 9th Wonder & we all kinda shared this dream together. Phonte has seen the rise and the fall of my breath in this business and we've been writing songs together for the last 10 years plus so you know its just a creative experience...you know I played the first version of the "Ballad" that I worked on, on my own...in fact the "Ballad of Purple Saint James" in its first draft was done last year---I was gonna release it in November & Phonte & I started working on Zo!'s "Sunstorm" record & I LOVED the creativity that he and I were sharing. It had been a little while since he and I had gotten in the studio & started writing songs together again...even on "Leave It All Behind" I covered a Stevie Wonder tune [If She Breaks Your Heart] which was a song that was already written, which was kinda different from how he and I usually actually work together because at the time I was doing a lot of touring, so that was easier for us but this time we were in the studio writing songs for Zo!'s record & it was just like really really fluid and at the time, I was getting ready to put the record out on a different distribution situation and I just wanted to get his opinion about the record and I let him hear it and he said "Yah...this is really great considering that you did all of this by yourself..." you know I worked with a lot of great producers---Ski, AppleJuiceKid, a lot of great people contributed to that first draft and Nic & Phonte said to me..."Look this is really good and you did a really great job and some of these songs are undeniable but we can make you a completely undeniable record..the three of us putting our creativity together, you know whatever we do burst into flames" and you know, sometimes its hard for an artist who is used to doing everything by themselves to kind of relinquish control, but I knew that in order to squeeze the very best out of me, I needed to work with people who challenged my ear and my pen & Phonte & Nic did that & there you have "The Ballad" and its just great music and they have even a higher level of excellence than I thought I had and I thought I was very hard on myself you know I call them this assembly line of excellence...they basically pushed me into being my very best on this record and it comes out in the music. That's the difference between my corporate experience where they kind of said.."We're fronting you all this money and all of this support & for that...freedom & creativity...you have to give up..." and in this case, that's not my story. The excitement for me is that really this is probably my fans--their first true introduction to me & its a great feeling. For the longest time...not with "Hear Me" necessarily, but with "Blackstar" it kinda felt like I was forced to tie myself to a record that was a good record, but not necessarily a representation of me. I fought to get the songs from "Hear Me" that I really really loved on that record and some them still didn't make it. The end result...what I lost & the price I paid was individuality & I think it kinda hurt the record. There were some songs on there that weren't as honest as I would have liked them to be because I wrote some of these songs for other artists and the label, in an attempt to make me more 'marketable' bought these songs and put them on my record and I had to go around the United States and the world singing songs that I really didn't care for & this is the difference and I can't wait to share with everybody...it's gonna be awesome...whatever the experience has for me, I'm ready for it.
What can listeners expect/hope to hear from "The Ballad of Purple Saint James". How does it differ from some of your past projects such as "Hear Me" & "Blackstar"?
Well you know, when I did "Hear Me", I was an undergrad in college I was learning a whole lot about my life and those songs represented that moment because I was with a label at the time who at least let me bring as much of myself as possible to their idea, you got a really unique and sincere record about who I was at the time...and that very shy girl talked about falling in love for the first time and all the new stuff she was learning about life and when I wrote "Firefly" I was learning about people and disappointment and learning about the power within and all those different things and so that record comes from a very young, inexperienced caterpillar and I think Purple Saint James is the butterfly but she's kinda like with her fishnet pantyhose...who has been through a whole lot and seen a whole bunch of things and she's telling her story & she feels what she likes & says what she wants.
As someone who tweets pretty often, can you speak about how important you feel it is in this day & age to connect with other artists/musicians and music lovers through social networking sites?
Well personally I think that when you are an independent artist and there's no huge label literally pulling you into people's living rooms everyday, that these social networks are imperative to our survival. The only way we can connect with our fans...people also don't have to buy music anymore...so people gotta have a personal tie into your story and into your existence and they need to know why are they supporting YOU. For me, I'm blessed in that my fans are like alright...we get this chick and we wanna support HER and we understand what SHE'S doing and that's what kind of makes those areas and those opportunities vital to us. For me, I've met so many fans & a lot of fans---I've become friends with some people & I've worked with some artists strictly because of the opportunity to be able to connect with them on Twitter. To me it's so valuable and I like to get know the people who buy my music and support what I'm doing...there's nothing better than showing up in a city and you're meeting a fan that you've been talking to on Twitter and they connect with something that you've said or something that you've experienced and I always tell the truth and I'm myself & people find a connection to humanity & I think that's what those social networks do...particularly Twitter & individualizing it...like Twitter to me is like a really great space for people to get to know YOU...cause I say all types of crazy shit & that's just who I am. Also I think it's a great way to be able to connect with folks and sometimes to get in touch with artists who you've wanted to work with for a long time and you may have not have had the opportunity to reach out to them through normal channels if you'd maybe reached out through a manager...you know I've done so much work with folks just by saying "Hey, I'm a fan"...and turns out they're a fan and the next thing you know we're doing records together...it's just great. I love Twitter...& my peers are funny as hell too...sometimes the stuff I read...you know I'm crackin up someplace I really need it and sometimes they just put so many wonderful words of wisdom and jewels up...they don't even know how they bless me. So Twitter I'm a fan of...at first I was not for it...I was like Twitter...a network that you have to keep track of...are you serious? But I'm a fan of Twitter now.
How does the creative process typically work for you when creating, writing, recording songs? Do you have a formula you tend to follow for how you go about creating a song or does it differ depending on the circumstances?
It differs depending on the circumstances sometimes I'll get a track and like BAM...there's music and then there's other moments where somebody will sit down.. and I''ll write a song from scratch and I'll sing what it is I intimately want to hear. I did it most recently on a song called "Last To Leave" that I produced with a producer named Nate Smith he did "Heaven Can Wait" for Michael Jackson...really great guy...he really could have been like "Look I'm the producer you're the artiste..." & it was raining and I heard the raindrops and I wanted these arpeggiated notes and these crazy just simple drum patterns and it was like he was in my head and it was a great catalyst for a really great collaboration. Then there are times when I get a track and its like BOOM the music comes all of a sudden and there's sometimes when I get music and it's just not there...just ain't there. Patience. You learn patience when you're in the creative process. There are times when Phonte & I will go into the studio & we might come in there at like 3 o'clock but the song may not come to us till like 7pm...and we're there and the song comes and its amazing and when I leave at 8 in the morning I've got a finished product that I know something special happened---that one thing that dropped into both of our minds at the same time that created not a song but like...not just music, but a song---a story.
If you could invite 7 people to over for a dinner party/gathering, who would they be (living or deceased), what would you serve and why?
YAAAAY! You're gonna laugh at me... I would say Nina Simone, Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Rick James, & Michael Jackson & Madonna. That's a dinner party right there. That's some spades...that's some pizza...we would jam & we would have a listening party...I would just ask them to play all the people who inspired them & I would just let them talk about who they are and soak up all the knowledge...& I know Grace Jones would be a fit because you gotta have the comedy in the room...and one more person if you'll allow me to---Minnie Riperton...because she had such a normal life...she really allowed herself to maintain some level of normalcy at some point in her career & I just wanna know how she did that. How she was able to marry, how she was able to become a mother...how she was able to maintain the spirit of normalcy in her life so that she could be a great artist and a great human being and not to mention wait as long as she did and never give up. I'm not old and grown yet & I've been in this business a long time and it comes with so many highs and lows and I bet everybody in that room could tell me some story about how they got over and I would wanna be in the room with them
Can you speak about who some of your musical/artistic influences are & for each one you list..please list your favorite album/project/era from them & why?
First off, I gotta say that all of my early writings were inspired by Stevie Wonder...particularly "Talking Book", "Fullfilliness[First Finale]", and I was inspired by his way with words. He drew pictures like they were paintings...they weren't just songs and I really wanted to be figurative and be a good storyteller. I became attracted to people like Grace Jones and Diana Ross--because of her work ethic, her glamour, I think she was very misunderstood. If you go and watch her live, at a Diana Ross show you can see that woman worked very hard for the money, not to mention...an excellent voice and she did very well and I think of these people because I want the longevity and the performance life of Diana Ross. I want to be avant garde and as inspiring as Grace Jones as a woman who's not racially ambiguous like I am. She was able to step outside of the norms and be this sexual, creative caricature and then this icon all at the same and that is something I seek is to be able to stand next to people like that and that's why she inspires me. She's very african in her features, I'm very african in my features...I'm VERY inspired by her. Rick James, I've always been a funkateer. If there is anyone I would have loved to collaborate with it would have been Rick. I think we would have gotten along really well. Miles Davis because he never came from this background where there were black folks being afraid of stuff or afraid of people. He didn't know what his place was, he created his place. He believed he was so excellent that he didn't believe he needed to face forward when playing for people. For his thing, it was like "I AM THE ART...I don't need to prove myself to nobody....I AM THE ART...& either you gon get with what I'm doin..." or for lack of a better word...he turned his ass to them. For me, what I get from him is make what makes you happy and leave who accepts it to who accepts it. My job is not to worry about who accepts my music. My job is to make great music and leave the acceptance and the outcome up to God. I feel like that's what he did. Nina Simone--she's just a bad ass chick...She's a tough lady and she came from very humble beginnings. That's a tough woman. For me, I had to learn how to assert myself. I kinda thought that saying "no...this is what I do...this is how I do it..." was me being ungrateful and I'm gonna be a diva---not diva in the form of like bitch diva...but class diva, yea--fashion, glamour, performance---absolutely. But being able to advocate for myself in a way that says..."look this is just what I'm gonna take & this is what I ain't gon take"...I took a page from her. Because I feel like she was able to do it and still maintain the authentic nature of how she wanted to be portrayed to the world and that's important to me. Having known what its like to have somebody completely put an image of me that was not out there in the world and having people like her & Grace in it, that makes sense to me. Most importantly Nina Simone's revolutionary flair for how she used her music to change the world's perception. That's why I'd want to be in a room with her. I just want to gather from that energy. Minnie Riperton---her spirit kept everyone involved in her movement & she was able to be a quiet fire and I think of myself as that individual, you know ALL these women are present in me, but if there's any personality that epitomizes me as a woman---the human being YahZarah...is a lot like Minnie Riperton. I aspire to be able to make great music, at some point have a family, and take care of them...and to make my mark on this world making something great out of myself vocally and most importantly using that to inspire and she did. She did that. She inspired her husband, she inspired her children. To me as an artist, we get all tied up in this image of artistry and we literally think that's all that life is, but she just had this wonderful, well rounded approach to living and its a shame that she died so soon.
What impact has HIV/AIDS had on you as a black woman? What steps in your opinion are necessary in order to continue to bring HIV awareness to the forefront in the black community?
It's impacted me greatly in a lot of different ways...I have a friend of mine who lost a great deal of her family...both parents & some siblings to HIV and she's probably only one of two left out of six of her siblings now. I actually just lost a good friend of mine, that I've known over a decade...actually 4 weeks ago to complications and last year I lost a sisterfriend of mine. It definitely has had a profound personal impact in that I think that black community has a responsibility to do several things. Two in particular just to instill a level of comfort in young black males in our community to be able to feel about they can be honest about two things: One, their sexuality, because if you're being duplicitous and you're lying about your sexuality you're less likely to be protected & more likely to be unprotected and you're being compulsive because you can't exist in a world where you're being honest about where you are and that's where mistakes happen. The church needs to be THE CHURCH about this...well the church needs to be JESUS about this as opposed to being the church about the issue of homosexuality. Jesus was a lover, a giver, an accepting person...the word of God speaks on his level of acceptance to ALL people and until the church which is a great part of black culture...it pretty much permeates- some people spend at least 6-7 days in church...I know that's what I did. I have seen what happens when a young black male comes out of the closet in the black church. You leave a young black male almost in a position where he's saying to himself..."was it really worth it?" Those stories exist of people living outside of their joy and that's where problems happen. We've got to inform one another. We've gotta inform our young women. When I was a teenage girl growing up in DC--you know, DC is a very sexy place. The reality is some of my girlfriends were having sex when they were 12 & 13 and thought I was a late bloomer when I was 15 and lost my virginity and I can be very frank and honest about that. I've also dated several young men who ended up later on in their lives turning out to be gay, one of which is gone now due to complications and I have to say I'm glad that in my youth I was very very selective A.) about who I was with and most importantly I love myself enough to say if I'm gonna have sex it has to be protected. Young men and young women have got to love themselves enough to say if this person really wants it, then he can put this hat on or he and I can go down to Planned Parenthood & spend 20 minutes getting swabbed down, so we can get loved down. I was saying to my assistant that I really wanna have a testing truck at my release party because I figure that's where people are gonna hook up...it's gonna be a night of love, I'm gonna sing songs that make people wanna you know get closer and get closer to one another and some of them may want to go home and kick it...and all I want them to do is to step in that van and take 20 minutes to get tested in a personal, exclusive place where if they decide they want to kick it that hard, they can kick it hard & protected. Let's just stop playing these games & be honest about who we love & how we love them so that we can stay alive. Like to me that's key---HONESTY, LOVE, ACCEPTANCE=LIFE
Lastly, this month as well as last month, on the BSC website we're examining REJECTION & ACCEPTANCE. What insight can you share with the BSC fam/readers about your general & artistic experiences as related to these two things?
If you're gonna be an independent---if you're gonna be an artist at all, you're gonna have to be self encouraged. There was a time when I thought you just gotta be great and really skilled and the world is gonna open the door for you to walk through, but chances are if you've got a gift that's unique and extremely unique at that point chances are nobody is gonna tell you and most people are gonna work to undermine it. So two things have to be done: If you've got a great team and they're on your side, that's great---you're actually a misnomer and you need to thank God every day and work as hard for them as you can. If you don't, don't funk about it because actually, you're doin the road that's mostly traveled. Nobody that ever became great didn't work very hard for what it is they got. I mean just genuinely if this is what you want, then you have to be self encouraged. You can't party all night long after the show and then do another show and smoke & drink...if you're a painter...more power to you---get ripped. But if you're a singer and you aspire to do something great, then you have to be business like you have to be ready at all times for that one moment when your opportunity needs preparation. And you can't be deterred by the word no, because so many other people are gon say it, so you gotta create your YES.