Clutch loves music. We love everything from hip-hop to neo-soul to R & B to rock to whatever Janelle Monae is cooking up this week. So when I caught wind of a black country singer, I had to grab my editor and ask her to take a listen. Now, I have no history with country music at all. Raised on a steady diet of hip-hop, I fueled my teenage rebellion with rock & roll and have nurtured a dual love for both genres ever since. As I grew older and my life expanded, I came to love classical, some electronica (think the Verve Remixed), house and lounge music and jazz. I listen to everything…except country and western. Stumbling across CMT while flicking through channels, I get three messages – it’s white. There is normally a fiddle. And I probably need a tractor.
At first listen, I couldn’t stand the CD. The single “Country Girl” was alright, but by track seven I was counting down to the end of the album and promising my ears a little Tribe Called Quest to make up for immersing them in the sound of the heartland. By the second listen, I was nodding my head to a few of the tracks. During a rain soaked afternoon at my day job, I found myself reaching for “Anybody Out There.” By the time “Mr. Ooh La La” got stuck in my head, I had to admit it – Rissi Palmer’s sound had grown on me.
Featuring bouncy and infectious fare like “Mr. Ooh La La” (lyric: he holds me like a Sunday Morning/ rocks me like a Saturday night / He’s my Mr. Ooh La La gimme what I want) and “Country Girl,” Rissi Palmer’s self-titled debut album serves up country with a few interesting twists.
Heartbreakingly tender tracks like “All This Woman Needs” and “Heart Don’t Know When to Quit” take characteristic blues of country and deliver heartache and pain with a sweet touch of soul. Track seven – “Flowers on My Window Ledge” – paints a beautifully tragic scene of lost love juxtaposzing cut flowers and severed dreams. Rissi waxes existential on “Anybody Out There” and then dives deep into her faith with “I’m Not of the World.” The latter track is truly amazing, managing to fuse traditional country sound with the kind of soul, reverence, and attitude one would expect from Sunday morning choir practice.
While following her hectic touring and album promotion schedule, Rissi still found time to trade a few emails with Clutch. Below are her thoughts on country music, race, and the music industry.
Clutch: Country music doesn’t seem to have a lot of African-American fans – why do you think African-Americans shy away from exploring country music?
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think its that blacks shy away from country music, I think its because you don’t get to see a lot of the artists and fans. I hear from black country listeners quite often and was raised by one. There are also quite a few very talented Black country music artists out there that just haven’t had mainstream exposure.
4 years ago I was in a documentary called “Waiting in the Wings that aired on CMT and focused on African Americans’ involvement in Country music from the roots to present day. They presented evidence that not only did two mainstays of Country music, the banjo and the fiddle, originate in Africa, but much of early country music is related to the music that the slaves would sing. So, we’re just as much a part of country music history as anyone.
Clutch: What about county music appeals to you specifically? What helped you make your decision not to go pop?
I have always loved the songs. Country songs tell the most amazing stories and they’re done in such a way that everyone can relate — black, white, old, young, male, and female. I remember being a little girl listening to my mom’s Patsy Cline records and trying to figure out how to write songs like that. I also love the emphasis that is placed on musicianship and singing in country music. It’s less about the image and more about the music.
While I love pop and R&B, that’s not what I want to sing. I couldn’t imagine having to sing or write about something I didn’t believe in. My genuine love for country music is what motivated my decision not to go pop.
Clutch: What were you trying to accomplish with this album? How would you describe the mood of the album?
I co-wrote 9 of the 12 songs on the album and I feel it is a great representation of who I am as a person, as well as an artist. Everything stays true to my personality; down to the way the songs are worded. There are moments when it’s funny and lighthearted, serious, honest, and vulnerable; everything that I am. It also showcases my influences. There are traditional and contemporary country songs, as well as a little old soul and gospel. I think the listener will walk away from this album with a better understanding of who I am. The album is scheduled for release on October 23.
Clutch: How have the responses been to your song? What about the music video?
The response has been really great. The single and video, “Country Girl” is an anthem of sorts for women who feel like “down home girls” but may not fit the typical profile, and I think it has resonated with a lot of people. I get messages all the time from women saying “You wrote that song about me!” Surprisingly enough, guys like the song, too, I think because of the touch of rock the song has. A lot of people have seen the video before hearing the song on the radio, so they were introduced to the song and me that way, which is great because I think the video showcases my personality and the spirit of the song really well.
As far as the African-American community, the feedback has been extremely positive and supportive. So many people say: “finally there’s someone out there that looks just like me that I can relate to.” Also, a lot of African-Americans who maybe aren’t necessarily country fans are just happy to see someone venture outside the box and simply like the music I make.
Clutch: What inspires you?
Life inspires me. I draw a lot of my material from my personal life and the lives of my friends and family. My love of creating something new and fresh is what drives me. I’m constantly thinking of song ideas, so I always carry a notebook with me.
Clutch: I noticed on your blog that you wrote about the Jena 6 issue. That blew one of my main misconceptions out of the water, so it was good to see that a black girl doing country could still be racially aware. (Going by popular perception here that African Americans and C & W don’t normally mix.) Do you think your race has influenced your treatment in the music industry? How does race impact you in your daily life? (Or does it?)
Let me start by saying that I’m extremely excited someone read my blog! Seriously though, It saddens me a little to know that people would assume that because I sing Country music, that I must be going through some sort of identity crisis. I am a proud Black woman who is racially aware and very cognizant of the issues that affect myself and other human beings. I decided to write about the Jena 6 in my blog because I know that many different people, from various racial backgrounds, read it and I felt like it was an issue that affected EVERYONE and that they should be aware, if they weren’t already (I also posted a link to the petition). I don’t want to go off on a tangent but it blew my mind that in this day and age when a black man is running for president, there is still discussion of unequal justice between whites and people of color. It saddens and frustrates me, but the one bright spot was the way everyone came together peacefully to show support in Jena. I hated that I wasn’t able to go but I did wear black in support.
I can say honestly that for the most part I have been treated very kindly in the Nashville/Country Music community. From time to time, there will be an idiot in the bunch with a negative comment, but overall, I’ve been blessed in that I’m judged primarily on my talent more than anything, that’s all you can really ask. I can also say that 95% of the comments I get from the public are overwhelmingly kind.
Clutch: You have a very pure sound – something that is missing from a lot of music makers. How do you condition your voice? What does it feel like when you prepare to sing?
Thank you very much for that compliment, I appreciate it. I’ve had some really amazing vocal coaches over the years teach me little tricks to save my voice and maintain its tone and texture. I do vocal exercises pretty much everyday to build strength and stamina. I also try to have “silent days” a couple days a week to keep my voice from being fatigued. People don’t realize how sensitive the voice is. Maintaining your voice is like trying to become physically fit: you have to eat the right things, you have to exercise it, and you have to let it rest.
Clutch: What has been the most difficult thing about working and promoting yourself in the music industry?
I think the most difficult thing has been trying to be understood. Sometimes, no matter how talented you are, people just don’t get you.
Clutch: Who would you like to sing a duet with? Are there any producers/musicians you would like to work with?
This is going to sound really strange, but I’d love to either sing with Vince Gill, who is one of my favorite Country music vocalists of all time, or Prince, who is one of my idols. How’s that for variety?
Clutch: How do you describe your personal style? What (ideas/magazines/events/people) influences your style?
I think my overall personal style is very eclectic. I am extremely open-minded when it comes to life and I love to experience things that are new and different. I’m fascinated by history and religion, so I read a lot of books dealing with those subjects. Though I hate to admit it, I am also a pop culture junkie, so I frequent blog sites like Concreteloop and Perez Hilton.
As far as fashion is concerned, I love to mix vintage and vintage inspired with a touch of trendy. I used to call it “hippie glam”. It’s a bunch of bangles or a big medallion over a white man tank with cute jeans and heels or a sundress with a pair of vintage cowboy boots.
Clutch: What’s in your Clutch? [Assuming you’re walking around with a clutch purse and not tons of luggage!]
These days its become hard to travel lightly (I always think of Erykah Badu’s song “Bag Lady” when I grab my huge “purse”), so in my very large Great China Wall bag that I’m in love with, I carry my favorite lip gloss, body lotion, my iPod, sometimes my computer, my blackberry (that I’d be lost without), wallet, address book, idea notebook, gum, and lots of other stuff that’s too useless to even name.