DC-area based songstress/conceptualist Alison Crockett is a decidedly 21st century artist. I say that because here’s a woman who combines the political sensibility of a Nina Simone with a craft based on equal parts Sarah Vaughan and Jill Scott, blended with an approach informed by extensive work with artists ranging from DJ/producer/mixologist King Britt and the tightrope walking saxophonist-composer Greg Osby. Added to her many and varied experiences she brings exceptional music education from Temple University and an MA from Manhattan School of Music.
Alison’s latest recording is Mommy, What’s a Depression? – certainly a title that bears further exploring by inquisitive minds. There’s a strong sense of studio craft on this record, from the various news broadcast and speech samples and attention to such critical issues as immigration, to the use of technology more generally associated with hip hop and pop than with someone with her improvising skills. And dig the musicians she’s working with here; they include keyboardists like Marc Cary and Orrin Evans, the too often overlooked versatile/powerhouse drummer Terreon Gully, and his brother bassist Carlos Henderson, who alternates those chores with the ubiquitous Burniss Travis, alto saxophonist-keytar exponent Casey Benjamin (from the Robert Glasper Experiment)… and those are just a few of her fellow travelers. So what’s up with Alison Crockett? Read on…
Give us a little background on yourself and your singing efforts and activities.
I have been singing for a long time. I started off as a pianist but frankly didn’t want to practice as much as it took to get good so I moved to voice. That’s a little tongue and cheek, but still true. I started off singing straight ahead jazz in college and fully expected to do that for my life. Then I started working with DJs in Philly and it all changed. I worked with King Britt and Sylk 130 and was dubbed with the moniker, Ms. DivaBlue, an alter ego I have to this day. I then went over to Britain and recorded with Us3 and became their first vocalist. I was also recording with Jay Denes at Naked Music doing electronic lounge music. Meanwhile, I was putting out my first solo project, “On Becoming A Woman…” which started out as the EP “Azure”. The track “Like Rain” became very successful garnering a lot of praise from especially style makers like Gilles Peterson. I toured a lot, sometimes with my first daughter as a baby. All during that time I was working with kids and adults teaching, writing, arranging and conducting music. I decided early on, if I was going to be a musician, I was going to be a musician and that’s what I have done.
With the release of “Mommy, What’s a Depression,” what number is that in your discography? (For Alison’s complete discography visit www.alisoncrockett.net)
It is number 5. I did a Jazz EP titled, “That’s Where You Go“, “On Becoming a Woman…“, The Return of Diva Blue, (a remix record of On Becoming a Woman), “Bare“, and the present record out now.
There’s an obvious sense of narrative to this record, a sense of political inner-connectedness between the selections, starting with the title. Give us a sense of what you were after in putting this release together.
I have to get to the title later, because it won’t make sense if I say it first. My brother and I had a lot of political conversations and we were both news junkies. He suggested that I put my political thoughts to music. Originally it was to be a semi-tribute to Nina Simone; more of the spirit of her rebeliousness and originality. We were trying to capture all my interests in Jazz, Blues, Funk, and soul. I started off singing straight ahead jazz and then moved into Acid Jazz, Drum n bass, soulful house, and soul music. Each song I chose makes a statement about what I was thinking about an issue of the day. While we were planning and recording the record, the Great Recession hit, so there was even more material to deal with. “Gentrification” was my experience in Brooklyn being both the gentrifier and the gentrify-ee so to speak and the frustration that the people from the neighborhood feel at the changes occurring at their expense. I used the “Political Medley” to highlight what I saw George Bush do during his presidency. I just thought he did whatever he wanted, and screw what everyone else thought. He could take the country to war by saying whatever he wanted, which I thought the song “I’ve Got the World On a String” illustrated perfectly. When I heard Dinah Washington doing “Backwater blues”, the only thing I could think of was hurricane Katrina and the fecklessness of the response in spite of all the suffering. Then Obama dropped the ball totally in the same region during the oil spill a few years later. And all of that was tied into the world needing fossil fuels which has increased climate change which plays a part in the difficulties with the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana.
“H-U-M-A-N” came from the war in Iraq. We Americans can’t take it if one of us gets a hangnail, let alone death. However, if someone in another country dies, it’s doesn’t seem all that important. Though that is not completely true, when news reports were coming out about the American Soldier death tally at about 4000 it was really saddening. But then, the next number came out about Iraqi deaths and that was over 100,000! I started thinking about who we care about and what makes us care. We can see so much suffering, but as long as it doesn’t touch us personally, they are other and not truly human to us.
Each song is something in my life: being a hard working mom, having dreams for the future, being frustrated about political punditry and how self serving it is, being depressed about the present. Which brings me to the title of the record. My brother and I battled about it for months. But the news came on one day and my daughter heard about a depression, because they were talking about what was happening with the recession and how this was the worst economic downturn since the great depression. She asked me what a depression was. I tried to explain it to her. I was telling my brother about it in an off hand way and he said, that’s what we should call it. “Mommy, What’s a Depression?” I said, no, no, no, no…there’s got to be something better. But it stuck because it fit. This is a retrospective of what we as a nation have been going through for the past 10 years. It’s been really tough and who are the people that are going to be changed by it? Our children. I was going through all of this as a wife, mother and musician. My music has always been about sound pictures; snapshots of the moment. These songs are snapshots of this time, like you would see on CNN or Frontline, just done musically.
I have been performing the record as a one woman show recently and have been having the conversation with people through music about what it has been like. It makes an impact, because no one is discussing our recent past experiences with real talk. Events that have happened have changed peoples lives radically and the show has been like a release valve for me and hopefully others as we slowly climb our way out of the morass called the great recession. I’m continuing to expand and refine the show as I go until it gets to the point where literally it talks about the American dream that is not broken, but certainly has a flat tire or some problem with its engine for the majority of us.
You’ve got some first class partners working with you on this record, talk about your fellow collaborators on this disc.
I have been blessed to have grown up with some really wonderful players. I have to say that Terreon Gully made “H-U-M-A-N” what it was. I had the chart written and told him the feel and he destroyed it; pounded it into the ground. The greasiness he laid on tracks like Gentrification and the smoothness of I am a Million made everything feel so good. Then I had my Philly contingent on most of the jazz recordings. I have played with Orrin Evans, Mike Boone, and Byron Landham my entire adult life. We played gigs together when I was a young adult and so I know them and their sound well. They gave Trouble in the Lowlands the stank groove that only Philly cats can give. Marc Carey and I actually went to high school together and didn’t re-connect until I moved to Brooklyn. He has such a touch and deep understanding of how to make the piano sing. Casey Benjamin was my pianist for years and we did a tour together when my first record came out. His chord choices are epic! He puts a touch on music that makes it really unique. He made my song, “UR” on my first record into an epic journey literally with one chord change. He is brilliant. Trombonist Greg Boyer and I met while doing a workshop in Maryland, where I now reside. I asked him to listen to what I was working on, and would he be interested in doing the horns for “Talkin’ Like You Know”. He agreed and a classic was born. [poet] Ursula Rucker and I go way back to the King Britt and Sylk 130 days when we were on the record “When the Funk Hit’s the Fan”. She is my favorite performance poet. She has a way of putting words together sonically that sounds so real and uncontrived; unlike some other performance poets. I just like to listen to her talk. Then my brother, Teddy Crockett and I have been working together since we were born….
Clearly you’ve also decided to explore different means of sonic enhancement on this record, like the studio effect you get with “The Old Country”. Talk about that element of the release.
This record was to be a melding of all of my influences and that included the electronic influence. My brother, who produced the record, decided to go crazy in the best way possible. He decided to use auto-tune on my voice in a way that a lot of pop stars were using at that time. So we decided to put it into the song. We also wanted to create the picture of a a kitchen or a restaurant and a person listening to a radio about the immigration debate that was and is still raging at the time. Computers and processors allow you to make almost any sound you want, so the song morphs into a modern electronic lounge jam which I loved which represents to me the past and future melding as the issue continues to morph and change as we get deeper into the issue. Teddy also did this dope thing with the bass in “Nature Boy” where he ran the acoustic upright bass track that Mike Boone did through a processor to get the sound that you hear now. He used the same skills a producer would use in electronic music and Hip Hop by sampling aspects of the live recording and looping it so it could sound old and new at the same time. With “H-U-M-A-N”, we struggled with changing it at all. The live version was so ridiculously good, we didn’t know whether to leave it alone or not. Then Teddy went into mad genius phase and came up with the very same usage of auto-tune on my voice that he did on “Old Country” and it turned the song into a version of machine and man waring with each other about what is human. Originally it had no background vocals, but I loved the idea of the 2nds and suspended chords which added to the machine/robotic feeling even more. We are both sci-fi, star trek and star wars fans so it The effects makes a collage of sound that sonically can be overwhelming but gets the point across as much as the words do.