Brenda Russell Interview
A Delightful Conversation With
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
It’s always a pleasure to speak with one of the world’s most delightful and charming human beings, one that always has a presence of elegance, she’s synonymous to the Grammy’s and she’s certainly one of the top singers and songwriters in the business. Case in point: her fabulous new CD entitled Between The Sun And The Moon. We spend a few moments with Grammy nominated Dome and Narada Jazz recording artist, Ms Brenda Russell.
Smitty: How are you Brenda?
Brenda: Thank you so much Smitty for that beautiful introduction. I’m fine, thank you so much.
Smitty: You are so welcome; it’s great to have you in the spotlight. Let’s talk about this great career of yours, and let’s step back to the beginning. I know you grew up in Brooklyn, but talk about how you got mixed up in this great business.
Brenda: Well, both of my parents are musicians, so I really just kind of grew into it. There was always singing groups around my house, and my Dad always had music books that I would always go through and “Sing this one daddy, sing this one” (laughing). I kind of grew up with music, I thought everybody’s parents sang and wrote songs and I didn’t realize that it was a unique thing until I got older.
Smitty: Now your first instrument was a piano?
Brenda: Actually it’s embarrassing to say this but my very first instrument was the accordion (both laughing). When I was about twelve years old, I moved to Canada with my Dad and they didn’t have money for a piano. So the closest thing they could get was an accordion, because the Accordion salesman came to our door one day and he was selling lessons. I was so musical, I was like….”I’ll take it, I’ll take it”! Up to that point, wherever I was, where there was a piano, I would jump on it and start plucking out songs by ear. You know, I’m a totally self-taught musician, as the accordion lessons didn’t take me too far, but I was always writing my own tunes; my Dad would knock on the door; “Get back to your lessons”. But they were so boring, I always heard more music than was presented to me through the lessons. So I’m really a self-taught musician today.
Smitty: How about that. Speaking of hearing more music than was presented to you in those lessons; You of all people was quoted as saying that you “Worried that you would never write another song”.
Brenda: Yes, that was after I wrote the very first one. That was because I didn’t know where it was coming from. I knew that I hadn’t had any lessons, and I was confounded that, oh my God, because everybody just loved my first song so much. I was working with a lot of musicians in Toronto, and they were shock at the chords and words I would use. And then I panicked and I thought “Oh, I’ll never do it again” (both laughing). Then I had this revelation, I was about 19 at the time, it just came on me that I wasn’t really FULLY responsible, but inspiration was involved. I call it heavenly inspiration. And that I was really just a channel that tuned in to the right frequency and then I could translate the music just from hearing it. That’s how I was doing it; it wasn’t just coming from me, my own body. It was something that I was being used for, and I thought; “Oh, well if that’s the case, I can write anything”. You know, my whole confidence level shot up when I realized that I could rely on the eternity, the ethers and things like that.
Smitty: And look at you now.
Brenda: (Laughing) Yes, well you know, each time I sit down to write a song, my approach… it’s already written. So if I get a little seed of an idea, I know, if it’s a good seed, and I know that there’s a song in there that’s already written, so it takes the pressure off of you as a writer that you have to….”come up with something”. You just relax and let it come through you; let it come out, what’s already been done.
Smitty: Isn’t that amazing. Have you encountered others, perhaps younger aspiring musicians that have experienced those types of feelings that you had early on, of not knowing where the next song will come from?
Brenda: Oh yes, all the time and I always inspire them by saying what I just said. Really because even writers of my own generation, when I’ve told them that it’s already written, a little light bulb goes on for them, they’re like; “Oh”! I know my friend Lisa Loeb who is a wonderful songwriter, I told her that one night, and she said “You know, I’m going to try that, that’s a whole new way of thinking that I never thought about before”. It just takes the pressure off because music is something that should flow through you. It shouldn’t be a head-banging experience if you are doing it right. And you don’t want to spend too long on an idea, like if you get stuck on a something, whatever you are doing creatively speaking. When you get stuck, walk away, experience some living, and then come back. Maybe I was too tired. All of the great minds that have created things in the past have always said ‘4 hours, and then take a break, and I have learned from people like that.
Smitty: Yes. So you have been an inspiration to so many around the world in many ways when you think about it.
Brenda: Oh thank you.
Smitty: And that’s a wonderful thing.
Brenda: It is and I have been totally inspired by so many others that I feel that it is very logical and self-fulfilling really to share that with other people.
Smitty: Indeed it is. Speaking of inspiration, let’s talk about some of this great music of yours. We can go back to So Good So Right back in 1979.
Brenda: Yes, that was my very first solo album. I had done two previous albums with my ex-husband Brian Russell with Elton John’s label. That was a very exciting time. Then, when we parted, I became a solo artist and I was just so frighten that it was like I was just thrown to the wolves so-to-speak. “But So Good So Right“, I wrote a bunch of songs at that time in my life when we separated. Because usually when you going through an emotional upheaval, it’s a very good time to create, because you can write about all of the experiences that you’re feeling, and that’s a great material (laughing). It may be killing you, but it’s great material! The song So Good So Right came to me while I was washing dishes. So I don’t even have to be at a piano, you know. I was washing dishes and I was having a dinner party, and this (She’s singing) “So Good So Right, be with you tonight” just came right through, and I thought WO! I sat down at the piano, middle of my dinner guest, because I knew if I didn’t write it right then, it would be gone. And I never wrote in front of people before. It was very self-conscience but I knew that was a stronger pull. So I just wrote that song while people sat there (laughing). And it became a good thing for me.
Smitty: Yes it did, so when the feeling moves you, you have to go with it.
Brenda: Yes, absolutely.
Smitty: You’ve had so many great things that’s happen to you, as you mentioned that things were going well and started to click.
Smitty: One of those things I’m sure, was be meeting and working with Herb Alpert.
Brenda: Well yeah because Herb, I used to love him when I was a kid, when he did “This Guys In Love” and I just thought that he was the cutest thing on the planet at the time. Years later, to be with A&M Records who, of course for those that don’t know, Herb Alpert is the “A” of A&M. And Carole King was signed to that label at the time, and I was so enthralled with her. She was so inspiring to me, as she was one of the few women out there singing and writing, and playing her own songs. And I thought, I want to be on that label. It took a minute, but I ended up there (laughing).
Smitty: Yes you did. Talk about what it was like working with Herb Alpert.
Brenda: Well unfortunately its part of a dying breed that you have record execs that are musicians and musically inclined. Because it’s become more and more corporate as the years have gone on and the decisions are made by bean counters as they say, as opposed to people that are musical. Which could be why some of the music is suffering a little bit today, the quality of the music. Some of the music that’s out there is just not as good in my opinion, as it could be if they would let the doors open for certain types of artists. Herb was very musical. He helped artists, he understood artists, and it was a great place to be, I wrote a lot of songs there.
Smitty: And it shows when you think about your album Two Eyes, what a great album, and Piano In The Dark, what a great song.
Brenda: I have Herb to thank for that song being a hit, because when I made that album Get Here, which is the album which a lot of people know the song “Get Here” by Oleta Adams, who recorded it after I wrote and recorded it. Herb is the one who picked “Piano In The Dark” as the single at the very last minute. They had another song they were going with. Everyone loved “Piano In The Dark” at the record company, but it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, so nobody had the guts to really go for it even though it was their favorite song, which is how the record industry works sometimes. So at the very last minute, after we had pressed up this other single Herb said you know what, I’ll never forget it, he was in his office and he called me in, “Brenda I think we should go with “Piano In The Dark, I really do”. Because he was the “A” of A&M he could make that change. It’s the reason why people know this song today.
Smitty: And what a decision!
Smitty: And Oleta Adams, she’s such a great singer as well.
Brenda: Yes, she’s fantastic and I was so happy that she picked that song up (Get Here). I wrote that song in Stockholm, Sweden when I was recording over there and ironically enough, that’s where she first heard the song in a record store while she was working in Stockholm. They were playing it and she heard that song for the first time in the city where that I wrote in, which I thought was pretty ironic.
Smitty: I’ll say, that’s scary.
Brenda: Yes it was, it was weird (both laughing).
Smitty: Well that was meant to be.
Brenda: Meant to be. People may know that that song became very popular during the Gulf War and people were dedicating messages to their love ones who were in the Gulf. That was very inspiring to me that I could help ease anyone’s pain of missing someone through my music.
Smitty: Well it’s such a heart gripping song and so real.
Brenda: Ahh, thank you. What a gift. Certain songs are gifts. That song was determined to be written, because at the time my record company was saying “We need a hit song, we need a dance tune, and we need pop”. And this song started coming to me (she’s singing), and I thought “well this isn’t what they want”. So I didn’t really pay any attention to it, I went to bed, I woke up the next day, and that melody was still there. That never ever has happen before or since. When I get an idea….well now I have learned (laughing) to write it down immediately. But at that time I was ignoring it, and it was like, no, no, here I am again, and I wrote that song looking out over the city of Stockholm.
Smitty: Very cool! Well let’s talk about your versatility as an artist because you not only have several great Grammy nominated hits, and then you jumped into doing movie scores, and one that comes to mind is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple. I believe that it opened back in September 2004 in Atlanta.
Brenda: Yes, yes, that was so exciting. For those that don’t know, The Color Purple, the novel written by Alice Walker, and the film by Steven Speilberg, is now a Broadway musical. And we have been working on it for about three and a half years. We had a six week run in Atlanta which was spectacular; we broke the theatre records there, people just gave us standing ovations nightly. It was just a huge blessing to be a part of a work so great, and to have people respond to it so positively. Now we are just tweaking it, rewriting things that we feel could be stronger, and we are opening on Broadway this fall.
Smitty: Wow! That’s incredible.
Brenda: Yes, it was a major leap to write, to go to theatre from pop music, because what I found was all the walls came down. Because you’re very confined when you’re writing for pop music because there are certain genre’ let’s say, that pop music refuses to except. With theatre, you could just really stretch your wings and write so many different styles; we have big band, front porch, foot stumping music. We have everything in this show from 1900 to 1940. It’s the most incredible music experience I’ve had so far. Wow, that’s saying a lot because what just came to mind is the song Justice Of The Heart, for the hit movie John Q, starring Denzel Washington.
Brenda: Yes, I wrote that song with Stevie Wonder. That was really a thrill, of course who isn’t a fan of Stevie. It takes a while to get to him but when he finally called me one day, “Ok Brenda don’t say anything”, that’s how the call started. And he starts playing this melody and singing to me, and all I could think of is; “I need to be recording this”(both laughing). He sounded so amazing and it was just a moment that I have to remember.
Smitty: Oh that will make your heart beat faster.
Brenda: It did.
Smitty: Well it just doesn’t stop with you Brenda, there’s the Ivan Lins song…She Walks This Earth, which is a unbelievable song.
Brenda: Yes, he’s one of the most brilliant Brazilian Jazz artist, composers, that I can think of. They did a tribute album to Ivan and Sting recorded this song and I had to write a lyric for Sting, to Ivan’s music….only my two favorite artists on the planet. The producer called and said “Ok Brenda, we need a lyric for Sting in two days, can you do it?” I said “Oh yes of course” (both laughing). Now that’s when the praying begins! Ok God this has got to be really good. And Sting won a Grammy for that record. I was very thrilled, even without the Grammy, I was so thrilled because I love collaborating with people that I admire and respect musically.
Smitty: Well I must say that your career has taken so many turns, but each turn has been just an adventure and a fabulous one at that.
Brenda: Thank you. I’ve been a very blessed child (both laughing).
Smitty: Yes you are. So let’s talk about this new record.
Smitty: Between The Sun And The Moon. For all of your great fans around the world, please talk about how you came up with this title.
Brenda: Oh yes, that’s a really cool story. Patti Austin, one of my favorite people first of all, we decided to write a song together and she came to my house….This is a very underrated woman by the way, people don’t realize how brilliant she is. Vocally she’s outstanding. So she came over and there was a lunar eclipse that night, so we said “Well let’s go look at the lunar eclipse before we began writing”. So we were watching as the earth began covering the moon and I said “Patty, we’re Between The Sun And The Moon“, and she went “yeaaaah” (both laughing). So we went downstairs to my studio and wrote that song in about an hour and a half. And it just flowed and it’s so spiritual, and so female, and African, and jazz, and Latin, and all of these elements mixed together. And she does a scatting riff at the end. That was the most fun and that’s how the title came to be.
Smitty: And that’s my favorite tune.
Brenda: Oh good, I’m glad.
Smitty: You just get so pumped up from that song.
Brenda: Oh yes, you start dancing around the house like a wild person.
Smitty: Talk about the first song on this album that was released in the UK. Make You Smile.
Brenda: Make You Smile was written with Bluey from Incognito, who was someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. He’s a very well established R&B figure over there. I just walked into his studio and he had this track up and we barely spoke, and we were just snapping our heads and singing, and we just got right in it (laughing). It was beautiful and that’s a pretty exciting track.
Smitty: Yes, and it seems to be doing quite well in the UK.
Brenda: Yes they really love it over there and that’s very cool.
Smitty: And I must give some props to your photographer for your album.
Brenda: Thank you. Considering that I was running between two countries, writing a Broadway Musical, recording an album between England and the United States, I was so wrecked (laughing) and I thought “Look good, you’d never know that I hadn’t slept in two months” (both laughing).
Smitty: Ah come on, you always look good Brenda.
Brenda: Oh man, I don’t know, it was the most chaotic time in my life, and I will never do that again. But it was fruitful.
Smitty: Well it was nice to pause for the shots, because it just rounds out the album and set the tone for the music.
Brenda: Thank you so much, yeah I got lucky (both laughing).
Smitty: Tell me, how are you doing all of this? You have this great Broadway Musical about to take off this fall and it just opened up in Atlanta at Alliance Theatre as you just described, it’s been a total hit. And then you have this great new album, you are normally on tour with Dave Koz..
Brenda: Well here’s a little bit of a sad story in all of this. I was working so hard and so run down that I actually got very ill, and I was diagnosed with diabetes this summer. Just before we opened the play, bam, I was in the hospital. It just took me so down, I just had to change my life, I have to take meds now and I’m just dealing with this disease, which IS doable. But it took a couple of months to really get balanced again. So I had to cancel the tour with Dave Koz and Patty (Austin) sat in for me on that tour with Koz. Because it became more important to focus on my health.
Smitty: Well here’s to you continuing to progress.
Brenda: Oh yes, I’m doing really well now. Sometimes you’ve got to hit a rock before you realize…..”Ok I’ve got to take better care of myself.” I got my lesson and I’m working with this.
Smitty: Oh that’s great, and we all get those lessons in different times and different situations from time to time, and it’s those that listen that actually are successful.
Brenda: Exactly, and there are so many brilliant people out there who are working with diabetes that amaze me. I was so shock to find out that Halle Berry and Salma Hayek and all of these amazing people are suffering with this disease….many people, actually millions of people with a high stress kind of gig like me. It really takes its toll on you, and you really have to work very hard to keep your health together.
Smitty: As long as you make that the foremost thing in your life and work around that…..
Brenda: Yes I have learned how to say no (both laughing).
Smitty: It’s great that you’re doing that, we need you around girl!
Brenda: Thank you so much, because I was almost not here. I was like three steps from the Grim Reaper, they said “Oh it’s a good thing you came in when you did”.
Smitty: When you reflect on all of the things that we’ve talked about, your career, is there a defining moment in your career and if there is, what would that be?
Brenda: Mmm, wow that’s a good question. I’ve had so many magnificent moments, so many things to be grateful for. I guess the defining moment was the fist time I was able to be recognized as an artist, on that first album. That was a major defining moment for me because there was a lot of faith and hard work that went into making that record. This is the So Good So Right album, and also on there was Way Back When which a lot of people love, and If only One Night, which Luther (Vandross) recorded. It was a bunch of songs that really set a tone for what people would expect from me throughout the years, so that was pretty special.
Smitty: And rightly so, that record was just stuffed with great songs.
Brenda: Thank you.
Smitty: Given your health, are you going to be getting out on tour?
Brenda: Right now I’m still writing on the Musical, so when you are doing that you just can’t do anything else. I think I will be going out this summer, we are talking with some really cool artists….we’re going to put a little tour together to get out there to see people LIVE!
Smitty: Yes, there’s nothing like it. Brenda, this new record is so good. I expect so many great things from this CD, I can really feel your heart and soul in it. It’s very strong.
Brenda: Thank you very much. It was really a wonderful experience, I collaborated with a lot of very cool people and recording in London was really a great thing. And just to tell you briefly, this whole London thing came to me in a dream, because I didn’t know where I was going to do my next record or what I was going to do. And I had this dream about George Harrison, and in the dream I told him that I was making my next record in London, which I had no plans of doing. I didn’t know where that was coming from. When I woke up, I thought “Wow, what a great idea”! And I just started moving on it. I called my manager and said “Come on let’s get a deal in London, I wanna do a record over there.” And ten days later he passed away. And I thought, that was a special message for me to move on this idea, for whatever reason, I don’t know how these things work, but I knew it meant something.
Smitty: And did it ever mean something.
Brenda: Yes. I didn’t know him, for people who may be wondering, no I did not know him. I met him once many years ago and it was just “hi how are you”, but it was pretty special. So I’m an instincts girl (chuckle).
Smitty: Yes I can tell, and great instincts at that. We hope to see you out this summer on tour, and the best of everything with the musical, it’s so cool!
Brenda: Thank you, I’m very, very excited about that. I just hope that everyone can come out and support us when we open up there (Broadway), and also to support the folks that have been effected by the Tsunami disaster, I just have to say that because what has happen is so devastating and I just hope people will find it in their hearts to just reach into their pockets and give some money to one these wonderful organizations that are helping these people out.
Smitty: Yes, and it doesn’t mean that we have to match what someone else is donating.
Brenda: No. Five dollars.
Smitty: And it doesn’t mean that we should give some outrageous amount, beyond our means.
Brenda: No, not at all! Little children are making collections and I think it’s the least that we can do for the sake of humanity. So, I just wanted to share that and inspire people.
Smitty: Well thank you so much that’s a wonderful thing to say and to be thinking about at this time. Brenda, it has been such a pleasure talking with you….
Brenda: Thank you and you too.
Smitty: Your great career, the wonderful things that you have done over the years, and the inspiration that you have been to so many….your fans, colleagues, and peers. Please come back and see us again.
Brenda: I will and thank you for having me.
Smitty: You are so welcome. We’ve been talking with Dome and Narada Jazz recording artist Brenda Russell, with her fabulous new CD Between The Sun And The Moon. It is in stores now and I highly recommend this CD for your listening pleasure. Brenda, thanks again and the best of everything with all of the wonderful things that you are doing in 2005.
Brenda: Thank you so much and the best to you too.
Visit the web site at brendarussell.com.