Listening to Stephanie McKay’s beautiful and pained voice is like going through an old vinyl collection and rediscovering the classic sounds of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and old school Prince for the first time. With lyrical commentary of its day teamed with vocals reminiscent of bygone days it’s a contrast that’s both provocative and compelling, giving McKay a distinctive edge in a saturated music marketplace. The Bronx-raised singer’s new album shows her to be a creative butterfly, straddling the line between rock, pop, soul, and, of course hip-hop, making Tell It Like It Is a thoroughly engaging listen. Clutch caught up with McKay to get the lowdown on what makes her tick, professionally and personally.
Q: Tell us about your new album?
SM: My new album is entitled Tell It Like It Is. It tells stories of my experiences living and growing up as an artist in New York.
Q: How does this album differ from your first?
SM: This album has a different sound than my first. I’ve worked with several new co-writers and producers as opposed to just one producer for the entire album. Lyrically it has more social commentary than the first. My first album was recorded in Bristol, England so it had a sound that integrated trip-hop and soul. Tell It Like It Is was recorded in Woodstock, New York and incorporates more live musicianship as opposed to samples.
Q: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
SM: One of my favorites is Tell It Like It Is because it is about a personal experience in my life that addresses an issue that has affected me deeply. Random gun violence that kills innocent young people as well as innocence lost.
Q: Who are your musical influences?
SM: All the greats of classic soul who my parents played daily while I was growing up. Some of my biggest influences are James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Temptations. Female vocalists I love: Lyn Collins, Gladys Knight, Candi Staton, Mavis Staples, Margie Joseph, Bettye Davis, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and this list goes on and on…In hip hop, old school: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, Jungle Brothers and A Tribe called Quest.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from?
SM: Life experiences, people, nature, books, TV, art, personal relationships, conversations on the train, conversations with children – everything.
Q: You’ve been in the music business a long time. What’s been the most significant change for you over the years?
SM: The Information age. The Digital age. Media and Communication. The computer has revolutionized the industry unlike anything we’ve seen before. Its put the power of choice and voice in the hands of the people and allowed people to instantly communicate with each other around the world. The amount of communication an artist has to do to seems never ending as compared to before. Every artist becomes their own media communications empire. It’s exciting to be a part of this new music industry where there are so many outlets to get your music to the people.
Q: In your previous band you had three critically acclaimed albums. Was it difficult stepping out on your own and how do you cope with the pressure?
SM: The Brooklyn Funk Essentials provided me with a great foundation to grow as a live performer. After being a member for six years it was a very natural progression for me to step out on my own. I wanted to express my creative ideas more.
Q: How do you see yourself fitting in to today’s music market? Is there a place in the mainstream for quality music?
SM: The people that come to my shows are cross-generational and cross-race. That is how I see my music fitting in the marketplace. The outlets for the music getting to the people are no longer solely controlled by the bigger companies. As long as there continues to be worldwide communication, there will always be new movements of culture springing up and some of this will make it to the mainstream because the audiences will create a demand for it and bring it there.
Q: You have a unique voice that’s also quite classic. How would you describe your sound and where do you stand on the whole neo-soul debate?
SM: Thank you. My sound is the continuation of a rich musical legacy which is diverse in color, texture and feel. I’m part of a community of artists who sing soul, folk, funk, gospel, rock, pop, hip hop, jazz and even country music. As an artist I like to continually explore the full depth of my creativity. That is how I choose to focus my energy, my career. I prefer to let the business people and journalists worry about how to classify music. Call it what you like, I wanna know how the music makes you feel?
Q: What has growing up in the Bronx taught you that you carry with you through everyday life?
SM: RESPECT. Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Q: What do you consider your biggest achievement to date, personally and professionally?
SM: Professionally, everyday that I get the opportunity to keep on doing what I love to do and make a living from it. That’s a big achievement! :) More specifically, a professional career highlight for me will be this summer when I will have the honor of playing on the same bill with my band at Central Park Summerstage in NYC with the legendary Mavis Staples. Personally, nurturing a solid relationship with my man, family and friends while being in the music business is a big achievement.
Q: Describe yourself in five words or five songs?
SM: Impossible! I’m a Gemini, you’re talking to two people at once! I’m too complex for five words, five songs:) …..Well alright, I’ll play along .. Honest, hopeful, original, passionate, curious and sensitive… Darn, that’s six, isn’t it sorry?
Q: What can we expect from you next?
SM: Tell It Like It Is in stores this summer. A world tour, a new collab album with DJ Katalyst. Check out his new album What’s Happening on BBE in stores now. Thank you for your support. Hope to see you on the road soon.