Lady Blackbird didn’t mean to soundtrack a revolution. But last spring, that’s exactly what she did. On May 27th, 2020 Los Angeles-based singer Marley Munroe released her debut single. Now, “the Grace Jones of Jazz,” as dubbed by BBC’s Gilles Peterson, presents her debut album, Black Acid Soul.
Minimal yet rich, classic yet timely, the album connects backwards to Miles Davis (his pianist, Deron Johnson, plays Steinway Baby Grand, Mellotron and Casio Synth throughout) and forwards to Pete Tong (he made the Bruise mix of ‘Collage’ his Number Two Essential Selection tune of 2020) and, yes, Victoria Beckham – Matthew Herbert’s remix of second single ‘Beware The Stranger’ soundtracked the designer’s Spring/Summer 2020 Fashion show.
Its 11 tracks have a sound, feeling and attitude that speak of Lady Blackbird's deep experiences in music, stretching all the way back to infancy. “I don’t ever remember not singing,” she says, recalling performances in church and at fairs from the age of five. “It’s what I knew how to do, and I don’t want to do anything else.”
By her early teens, Lady Blackbird was travelling to and from Nashville. She was signed to a Christian label but the only music that resulted was some work with rock/rap group DC Talk. After they split, she worked with former member TobyMac, appearing on his first four solo albums. “But I realized that that whole Christian world, which my parents tried to place me in, was so goddamn far from who I was. I did not want to do Christian music, I didn’t believe anything of what they did, and I quit the tour.”
A wise young soul already at the age of 16, she then found herself “in limbo, because I was in this contract ‘til I was 18.” Once legally an adult and free, she based herself out of New York while flying to and from sessions in LA. She was working with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Sam Watters, Louis Biancaniello, Tricky Stewart and The Heavyweights. A production deal led to a record deal with LA Reid’s Epic. But creative differences led to her parting ways with the label. So, the deal ended “and it was back to the drawing board and working with different people.”
One of those was artist- turned-writer-and-producer Chris Seefried, who’d been GRAMMY® Award-nominated for his work on the debut album by Andra Day (seen as Billie Holiday in biopic The United States Vs. Billie Holiday). On meeting Lady Blackbird, he recalls thinking: “Wow, I’m working with the best new vocalists there are – Andra and Lady Blackbird are two of the greatest singers on the planet.”
From Lady Blackbird's point-of-view, “I fucking loved his shit!” she hoots, relieved to have finally found a musical partner who got her. “Chris listened to me, asking, was I feeling this vibe, or that vibe? He was able to dig inside what I was feeling. Next thing you know, he had some amazing sounds worked out. We really just connected.” They took their time, working in Seefried's LA studio, feeling out the bespoke musical path that would work with the fiercely individual performer. Finally, in hitting on the idea of stripping everything back, “we cracked the code.”
“I’d written a song, ‘Nobody’s Sweetheart,’ a jazz ballad kind of thing, and asked her to do a vocal,” explains Seefried. “I laid the tune on her – and it’s quite a complicated piece of music – then I played it again. And she goes: ‘OK, I got it.’ And in two takes she nailed it, live. It’s a real natural genius kind of thing to have that kind of musicality intuitively.
A sad, elegantly simple tune, “Nobody’s Sweetheart” was, too, a pathfinder song, and was also the first one they recorded with a beautiful trumpet solo from the great New Orleans virtuoso, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. After going all out, they were going all in, deeply in, getting out of the way and letting shine the voice of Lady Blackbird.
For the singer, a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, that approach, however, didn’t – couldn’t – diminish her onstage persona. “I loved my over-the-top costumes and all this elaborate shit on stage. Chris convinced me we could be jazz and still keep that attitude.” Suffice it to say that, when Seefried played “Nobody’s Sweetheart” to Ross Allen – the British label exec, DJ and crate-digger who’s signed Lady Blackbird to his new imprint Foundation Music – he was astounded. “I also showed him this picture of her, this radical woman on stage, and it was from the back, wearing this incredible dress and Pattie LaBelle headgear. Ross was like: ‘She sings like that and looks like that? Fucking hell!’”
You can hear that personality in “Collage.” An instant earworm which she inhabits in multiple colours, it’s Lady Blackbird’s take on the James Gang original, a soulful psych-rock deep cut from 1969.
There’s more inspired reinvention on the aching “It’ll Never Happen Again,” written by Tim Hardin and which first appeared on the folk singer’s seminal 1966 debut. Forthright as ever, Lady admits, “that was one of the ones I didn’t like at first. It wasn’t boring, I just didn’t know how to give it some power or personality at first. But then I tried it, it was a beautiful session, and it’s ended up one of my favorites on the album. It just sounds magical.”
That spirit of adventure and invention is there, too, on “Beware The Stranger.” It’s a take on “Wanted Dead or Alive,” a rare groove classic recorded by funk/gospel collective Voices of East Harlem in 1973 and co-produced by Curtis Mayfield.
Rounding out the album are two killer cuts written by Lady Blackbird and Seefried, “Fix It” and “Five Feet Tall.” The former is an elegant piano ballad that was inspired by the Bill Evans classic instrumental "Peace Piece". The Evans Estate granted Lady Blackbird and Seefried co authorship on a song that sounds like a Great American Songbook standard sung by a woman on the side of the angels. Her ability to nail the song in the studio in minimal takes was clearly something to behold.
As for “Black Acid Soul,” closing the album, it speaks of both the “Jackson Pollock jams” Seefried describes in the studio and the mantric soul evocative of Hot Buttered Soul-era Isaac Hayes. Explaining how the song became the title and then, again, the vibe, Lady Blackbird says: “We used to hashtag #blackacidsoul, as our sub-genre of music. It just encompassed everything we were doing. It cemented all those ideas and genres in this made-up shit!
"And because ‘Blackbird’ is a great start to the album, because it gets dark and violent and goes somewhere spiritual, we wanted to tail the album with another expression of acid soul. So that became the title track at the end.”
This is Black Acid Soul, and this is the first crucial album of 2021. Are you ready to fly with Lady Blackbird?
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