Alicia Olatuja: Songstress
Using her voice to champion women composers
Picture this. You get two fortunes handed to you at birth. One, to be born in St. Louis, the seat of ragtime and the blues, and the city where such artists as Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina Turner, Albert King, Nelly and Sheryl Crow honed their crafts. And two, to be born into a family with an appreciation for music so strong you’re exposed to multiple genres as well as music in different languages. Then, while in kindergarten you sing Whitney Houston songs all day and your teacher pulls you aside to tell you “one day you’re going to have a great voice and a great career.” This is the trilogy, and some might say the trinity, that melded and forged the career of mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja.
I, like many others, had never heard of Alicia, a young woman with a captivating smile, and a voice capable of pulling you from your seat; but I can imagine screams of “sing girl” emanating from living rooms across America when she opened her mouth on a chilly January day in 2013 and issued a sound so rich and so powerful it warmed hearts around the world.
"The young lady was breathtaking... fantastic... unreal."
Performing her solo portion of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration celebration, Alicia launched a trajectory including vocalist Dianne Reeves sending a “you must hear her” email to composer Billy Childs and appearances at such storied venues as the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and most recently, Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Alicia was later featured on Billy Childs’ Grammy Award-winning Rebirth album and performed a duet with Gregory Porter on the title track of his 'Grammy Award-winning album, Take Me To The Alley.
We spoke recently about her upbringing, whirlwind career and sophomore album, Intuition: Songs From The Minds Of Women, which dropped February 22nd on the Resilience Music Alliance label.
So here’s the story.
Alicia, like many, grew up singing in church. She and her sister were passionate about music and sang all the time with encouragement from their parents. “The power of encouragement is so profound,” Alicia says, speaking of her parents and crediting her kindergarten teacher, Miss Marge. “She gave me the first affirming encouragement beyond my family and it was followed by other women in my life who deposited seeds of positivity.”
But singing wasn’t Alicia’s only love. She actually attended the University of Missouri studying to become a veterinarian. “I always loved animals as much as I loved singing, but I did not grow up around anyone who had pursued a professional music career. So I was fearful due to the unknown and the war stories of those who knew people who pursued music. “Therefore, I chose to pursue my other passion.” One day Alicia heard another student singing on stage. “Something happens when you hear something you’re called to,” she said, more as a thought than a statement. This one moment, and her love of music, moved her to switch her major to vocal performance. As a freshman she auditioned for a role in an opera with elements of musical theater. She did so believing she wouldn’t be able to compete with juniors and seniors. The casting directors thought differently and cast her as the lead. “It blew my mind since I expected to be cast as girl number 4,” she laughs. Like Miss Marge, they too had heard something in her voice that said she would be ready for a musical career down the line.
After graduation Alicia was accepted to the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. She chose New York for the challenge because she believed she would be too comfortable in Boston. “I always felt like New York was a tough place. It’s the Olympics of music. It will terrify you, and I want to be in places that make me swim faster and harder,” she said. Alicia arrived in New York in 2005 and started swimming. She earned a master’s degree in classical voice and opera and became a voice teacher, vocal producer, diction specialist a teaching artist for the Brooklyn Arts Counsel, and a performing and recording artist.
In 2014 Alicia released her solo debut, Timeless (World Tune Records), which features original tunes and an interesting mix of covers, including the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. It’s this ability to jump genres that makes Alicia so appealing to audiences. During her college years she performed musical theatre and opera roles. Now you can hear her beautifully deliver R&B, blues, gospel, jazz and pop. “I’ve found that audiences aren’t that concerned with categories. They want to have an experience,” she explains. And she delivers. Her gospel roots are heard in performances with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Her pop renditions are heard in Billy Childs’ live performances of Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro project, and her jazz abilities come through in her performances with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble and Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Songs of Freedom, which focuses on the music of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Abby Lincol
Further proving this point is Alicia’s sophomore album, Intuition: Songs From The Minds Of Women. The 13-song compilation showcases Alicia’s genre jumping expertise and focuses on the contributions of women composers: Sade, Angela Bofill, Tracey Chapman, Joni Mitchell, Linda Creed, Brenda Russell and Kate Bush. Alicia acknowledges, “Women have always been able to speak into my life and create great change and inspiration, so I wanted to create something that champions women and celebrates the opportunities we’ve all received from women composers.” In addition to songs written and/or composed by women, the album also includes original compositions by Alicia and emerging songwriters.
“Alicia Olatuja chose a wide range of songs written by female artists — from Joni Mitchell to Angela Bofill to Imogen Heap — and set about making a new imprint on each.”
—The New York Times
When conceptualizing Intuition Alicia says she wanted to accomplish three things: create something that would plant a seed of inspiration for the next generation of female composers, bring forth the understanding the future is now and infuse the spirit of the future is female. “I believe people are ready to hear what woman have to say in a new way,” she stated.
If you are ready, and in New York, you can see Alicia perform on May 4 at the Apollo Café.
© Jelani Bandele 2019