Vanessa, Freeman, 4, Hero,
BY J.C. TRIPP
To soul seekers and house heads around the world Vanessa Freeman’s chocolate-rich voice is a blessing from the heavens. She’s graced dozens of tracks by highly-regarded artists like West London’s 4 Hero (most recently on ‘Blue Note Revisited’), Bugz in the Attic, Kaidi Tathum, Kyoto Jazz Massive and Nathan Haines (“Squire for Hire”) and Alex Attias. And as vocalist for the house outfit Reel People she scored the massive hit, ‘The Light’. Freeman is unquestionably at the head of her game, and fully in control of a burgeoning career. With her debut full-length, “Shades”, now out on London’s Chillifunk label, her many talents as a singer and songwriter are on full display. Heads worldwide are turning to this great nu soul talent.
With influences that range from Dee Dee Bridgewater to Donnie Hathaway, as well as her fellow-Londoners like Bembe Segue, Freeman deftly traverses a broad range of vocal styles. On “Shades” Freeman performs a diverse and balanced selection of polished tracks, ranging from “neo” soul to funk to West London’s signature broken beat jazz sound. Co-written and produced by the singular and prolific producer Phil Asher of Restless Soul, “Shades” is a defining moment for both and is certain to be a smashing success. The first single, “Shades”, a deliciously funky affair, with remixes by Los Angeles soul collective the Rebirth, is rapidly ascending the soul charts and getting airplay from tastemaking DJs like Gilles Peterson.
As she prepared for her debut performance at London’s Jazz Cafe, with an 8-piece band including Izzy Dunn and Rasiyah on backing vocals, Mike Patto (Reel People) on rhodes and Neville Malcolm on bass Mundovibes caught up with Ms Freeman. Exhibiting a sweet and uplifting enthusism for her music, and tolerating this writer’s phone card dilemmas (sorry Vanessa – ed.), Freeman gave us the lowdown on her journey as a vocalist and where she’s headed. Expect massive things ahead from this very talented singer.
Mundovibes: It’s spring, and you’ve got a new release out so you must be happy.
VF: Yeah, I’m very very happy.
MV: Give us an overview of the project and how it’s come about and how you feel about it.
VF: One of the bosses at Chillfunk, which is a label in London, saw me perform with one of their artists, Nathan Haines. I am one of the vocalists, and they were into what I was doing, how I was performing. And I knew Phil Asher from times before and that was put to me to do an album with him. And that all came to just making some great music.
JC: It’s a fabulous recording, it’s very rich and pulls in a lot of styles and influences.
V: Yeah, I’ve been told that. It’s like, it stems from the English style, the Brit style, to new soul to all different kinds of genres. Because I love people like Curtis Mayfield and Donnie Hathaway, as well as the singers here. I was trying to ingest that and send it out again, really.
MV: You have a long track record collaborating with a whole slew of artists from 4 Hero to Azymuth. How does that all make sense to you?
VF: With me and 4 Hero it was just an opportunity for me. With 4 Hero and stuff like that it’s just my work for one of their tunes from their album. And then basically it was just the case of being able to make it with them as much as I can. I’ve tried to work with different people as much as possible and get into different styles to push myself. And working with groups like Azymuth which are the guys from Brazil, to work with as many different people as possible.
JC: And, what is the desire? Just to express yourself in as many ways as possible?
VF: One of the desires for me is to stretch myself. I think as a singer you can get into a certain style and a certain vibe, which you can feel comfortable in. But I think what I really wanted to do is just work with people that would stretch me, as well as me stretching the boundaries of their music that they produce. It’s like, you can work with so many people and they just stretch you with your vocal skills, they stretch you with your writing skills, and you want to do the best you can. You want to be at the top of your game and that’s what I want to do. I want to be at the top of my performance, whether it’s working in the studio or whether it’s writing, or having a hand in production, which is something I’d like to go on to doing.
MV: Let’s talk about the “Shades” album.
VF: I’m really happy. I’m happy with the vocal performance that I’ve given because just now even I’m getting different feedback of what people feel about it. And definitely “Shades” is an album, it is my source, it is my heart, it’s the stuff that makes me feel enraged, as well as the stuff that makes me feel really calmed, you know? It’s my spirituality, it’s my happiness, it’s my joy, it’s everything for this moment, for this time. I’m trying to just express who I am and what I do through my music. And working with Phil, also.
MV: What is it that makes him so unique?
VF: The main thing, the thing that got me the most about Phil was his musical knowledge. He just influenced with his musical knowledge, meaning all of the albums and everything he’s got around him. It just sparked me into knowing the styles I wanted to use. Or, he’d play me a few different people that have gone before. It just got me into trying to develop my music style and the stuff that I listen to just make it as brilliant as it could be.
MV: I am just curious how you feel about the differences between British soul and States-based soul.
VF: I’ve heard of instances of when American artists have come here and they have been quite shocked that the English soul, and new-soul elements is as wanting to be as on it as they can. I don’t think they assume that they’re the only ones that can do it, or have the feel of the vibe. Because I was talking to someone about this, about the history. Even singers or musicians here, they all say ‘I’m in to Miles Davis or I’m into Donnie Hathaway’. A lot of our history, even though it’s not British based, what we refer to, our benchlines, where we start from, is American soul. I think the main thing is that people are accepting and ready to be accepting, because there are so many amazing singers and musicians over here, even more so now. There’s 4 Hero, there’s Nathan Haines, there’s a band I work with Reel People, there’s Bembe Segue, there’s so many that are flourishing. At the moment we’re really getting into our sound. Not just listening to the stuff, we’re trying to find our own thing and I think in West London there is their own sound. There is influence from abroad and London but everyone’s trying to hone in on their own sound and what they feel. People say ‘that sounds really Enlish, or I sound really American.’ There’s so many influences there. I think it’s just an acceptance of people in the US of knowing that British people are coming up with their own sound, as well as being influenced by abroad.
MV: I think it’s going to bust out here in the States and “Shades” is very accessible, it could certainly be played next to Erika Baduh on the radio.
VF: The playlists that I’ve gotten, it’s been played in between people like Amp Fidder, Bembe Segue, and I’m cool with that. Even the comparison, people say ‘yeah, that’s really like Jill Scott’. That’s their point-of-reference, that doesn’t bother me at all. To be compared to someone like Jill Scott is quite cool.
MV: How did you develop your vocal abilities and when did you discover that you were a singer.
VF: I was in the school choir and a lot of activities like school plays. And then I worked with a band called The Mighty Truth, which was an acid jazz band. Then the ‘90s acid jazz and the whole soul influence was coming through and I just started writing for them. But my main starting point was with the choir, the church, with school and just hanging out. That was the main thing I did and the main thing that got my confidence in singing in front of people.
MV: Your biography states that your parents immigrated from Jamaica. Obviously people would say ‘why not more of a reggae thing’?
VF: (laughs) Sing reggae? I love reggae, and my dad was very into reggae. My mother was into the ska thing around that time, and soul music. But I just never got into it. If I was led that way as a young girl, just constanly hearing reggae, I reckon I would have been into it.
MV: I’ve heard your voice on so many different artists tracks, everything from the Nathan Haines to 4 Hero to the Sun Ra dedication CD and it’s woderful.
VF: Yeah, the Sun Ra was wicked to do. His vocalist, June Tyson, she’s just phenomenal, so I was just happy to do it really.
MV: So, what’s coming up for you?
VF: I’ve got a gig at the Jazz Cafe, so I’m rehearsing and doing different things to lead up to that. And I’m working with Nathan Haines and Reel People as well. I just want to promote the music as much as possible and gain through it. I love the songs that I’ve done and I’m so happy to have worked with the people I have. They got a lot of heart and soul in what they do, so that’s just added to what I do as an artist.
MV: What about your live performance, how does that come over?
VF: It’s going to be the first time I’ll be performing with the band, at least at Jazz Cafe. It’s an 8-piece band, with keys, drums, bass, guitar, three backing singers and myself. And we just want to smash it, really! Have a really good time, get some warmth in there and just get a good mix of music. Just smash it as much as we can.