Composer and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles writes music that is as intellectual as it is hip. For her sophomore release, Inner Dialogue, she enlisted artistic luminary Christian Scott to help her co-produce and take her record to the next level. He did, and the result is an album that covers a lot of ground sonically and lyrically, exploring ideas deeply and on many levels. Of course it helps to have killing bandmates like Jesse Elder on keys, Burniss Earl Travis II on bass, and John Davis on drums. We got the chance to hear from Sarah herself how this collaboration happened and about the inspirations and stories behind the music.

SEC and CS
Revive: How did you and Christian start working together?

Sarah Elizabeth Charles: Well, I’ve known and been a fan of his for a long time. We first spoke about a year and a half ago, maybe a little less than that. He called me to potentially collaborate on a project that was going to be both music and potentially in film. That collaboration actually didn’t end up happening, but when we got off the phone he texted me and made clear that he’d like to work together at some point. We had a really great conversation about the opportunity and just about music in general. We connected person-to-person and we hoped that we would have the opportunity to work together again in the near future.

After stating that I felt like, “He connects to a lot of people and you never really know if it’s going to happen.” (laughs) But what was really cool was, shortly after that, I decided that I wanted to bring in a producer for my sophomore album, and I wasn’t quite sure who I wanted to go with. I was considering a lot of different people and I hadn’t contacted anyone. Then I thought about Christian. I didn’t know of his work in the producer capacity, but I had listened to his music and thought that the direction that I was going in musically and the direction that he’s been going in for a while, especially on his most recent record.

There are so many parallels, so I hit him up and crossed my fingers and asked him to be the producer. His answer to that question made me realize that I made the right decision because he said, “On one condition,” and, of course, I’m kind of holding my breath as he’s saying this. We didn’t know each other well at the time. He said, “I’ll be your co-producer, but you’re already producing your own stuff, so this needs to be a collaborative production effort.” That was really cool and that was what it was, not only between he and I but, but with the rest of the band.

R: That was actually going to be my next question, because there are so many textures and sounds explored on the record. How much of that was your vision and how much was his? Were the tunes and arrangements co-written or were they mostly his?

SEC: That’s sort of what he was speaking to; just from the conversation we had about the separate project that we were going to potentially work together on, he knew from that conversation I had already written and arranged most of the material for the record. I think that made him answer the way he did, about him co-producing. I think he knew that I had a pretty clear vision of where I wanted it to go, so in terms of the arrangements, we didn’t get together and write and do all that. Literally this was like a four to five month period of time that he spent with me. We would rehearse and we had a lot of material to go through.

Mostly his involvement, prior to getting into the studio and prior to rehearsing before going into the studio, centered around choosing material and also advising where we could potentially go in rehearsals that we hadn’t gone to yet and how we could translate the sounds that we had been performing live for so long on to recorded sound. I was very concerned with that. I wanted it to be a more produced record and I wanted him to try and translate my music, that can often times have a lot of freedom and improvisatory elements to it, onto recorded sound so that the listener, of course there were live elements to the record, but felt like they were really listening to a record and an album.

Once we got into the rehearsal studio, and I didn’t know this was going to happen, he pushed us to the edge. We would teeter on something and, you know, I’m a Capricorn and I can micromanage a little sometimes and I can be not as free as I should be at times, and obviously I’m very critical of myself and my art and that’s definitely part of it, but what he did so wonderfully was he gave me the permission, and I think the whole band permission, to not only go to the edge and sort of teeter on it but actually just jump off and just go for it. The way he described it was that we were creating this new sound that hadn’t been created yet so it’s completely in our control and up to us to introduce it in whatever way we want to. That’s what was so cool for me; he let the judgments just fly out of my head for a while and just go for it. I’m so happy that I chose him for this and that I asked him to do this because I’m afraid it would have been a more reserved project had I not got him to do it.

R: Sarah already talked a little bit about how you two started working together. Maybe you could tell your side of the story and what drew you to Sarah as an artist?

Christian Scott: The first time I heard her sing, part of what I was thinking was, “If I was a woman and I was a singer I would want to sound just like she sounds.” Initially, I spoke to Zaccai Curtis about his involvement with her project and what they were doing and what they were trying to build and everything, and I was trying to figure out or finagle a way to be involved in any capacity just because I was such a fan of her sound. Then a few months later I heard Red and I had a chance to really dig and check out what she was doing not just as a singer but also as a composer and a bandleader. I was just floored! I don’t know if this will sound weird but part of what drew me to it initially was that I could hear the work. I could hear that she was a hardworking person. I could hear her diligence. I could hear that the things she was building on as a concept were growing and that she was not only pushing her band but also pushing her voice, which is something that, for me, with most singers that I go and hear in this culture in music now, it doesn’t seem to be something that’s happening in this generation of singers. So I was really attracted to that. About, maybe close to nine months later, I ended up getting a call from her and we just pow-wowed, and she asked me – the entire time I was on the call with her I was just sitting here, “Please, please, ask me, ask me! Ask me to do anything, whatever!” At the end of the conversation she asked me if I’d be willing to come in and co-produce her record and I was like, “Of course!” I was so happy, you know. For me to actually have an opportunity to work with a like-minded artist and someone who is as hardworking as she is- I was just floored by her stuff and excited to be on board in any way. It really just started off with me just being a fan of her voice.

SEC: Well, I want to correct because the co-producer idea, Christian, was your idea. I asked you to produce it.

CS: Really? Well, yeah, I remember that, but for some reason I always think about that stuff like, it’s your baby, you know what I’m saying? She was already such a powerhouse in terms of, once I got around her and her band, I felt that what I was contributing was like pennies on the dollar compared to what it was that she was already doing, in terms of her acumen as a leader, the stuff that she was building conceptually as a band, the camaraderie that the musicians had, her ability to bring the focus in places, and certain moments. So there wasn’t so much work for me in that she already had so much covered. I had such a great time working with it.

R: Have you done a lot of producing?

CS: Yeah, some stuff.

R: You just described Sarah as a powerhouse. How does working with such a strong personality influence the way you envision the album or the way you contribute?

CS: It’s always different with each artist. The interesting thing about my career is that the lion’s share of the producing that I’ve done has been more hip-hop than jazz stuff– like hip-hop and neo-soul stuff, independent rock albums, indie rock albums. Each culture of music has a completely different style of actually building records. One of the things I’ve seen more often than not in recent years, which is sort of a little discouraging for me, a lot of times you can have really great or stellar talents in music or in this community of improvised music, but when it comes down to them actually making records the records are terrible. Even though the musicians are great and the bands are great, a lot of times you end up in situations where you realize you have to hone your craft and be really diligent in terms of the amount of work you put in to building a record, and that it is a completely different mode of operating than when you’re building a band or just trying to get your music out there. To be able to make a really good record is a very difficult thing to do.

One of the great things about her having the band that she has, and the way that she set up her band, and the way that the band communicates, and the fact that they’re– you know– the name of the record is actually perfect in multiple layers because the way that she actually operates and deals with her band, there’s always this inner dialogue between the musicians, a lot of back and forth and banter about how they can always be better or make something better. What are we trying to communicate ? Why is this section here? What do we mean when I put this phrase here when this is happening over that chord? Why is this rhythm better than that rhythm? They’re constantly challenging themselves.

The thing for me as a producer, the lion’s share of the work I’ve done in production, generally most artists are doing everything they can do to try to do the smallest amount of work possible. I felt like Sarah and I were, on a lot of levels, kind of kindred in that I come from the same sort of background in that I know the one thing I can control is the amount of work that I put into my art and my craft. I sort of felt like a kindred spirit with her once I got around her and saw how she was going about doing the work and how meticulous she was with her arrangements– how specific she was about where she wanted the rhythms to do these things, how specific she was about the timbre of this instrument in that section and how that juxtaposes this instrument in the next section– once I was really able to get around her and see her process a little bit, it really became an inspiration on a lot of levels because I felt like, well I’m not as alone as I thought I was on a general level. I bet it’s kind of silly to say, but it’s really how I felt. I was looking around as we’re going to rehearsals or in the studio checking them out and I was like, “This woman never stops working!” A lot of the guys in my band historically would always make fun of me because I don’t stop and I’m always working on something. I was just floored by her command and mastery of what it is that she’s doing musically, but also by how the band actually interacts and how they go about building what it is they’re doing, so it’s really inspirational.

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R: That must have been a lot of fun, working with that group.

CS: Yeah! It was great! Plus, I really like Burniss. He makes me laugh at everything (laughs) so that also helped.

R: What kinds of things did you do in the studio?

CS: I think one of the reasons she wanted to bring me in is a lot of what I’ve done musically is sort of mixing things that seemingly don’t go together, at least in terms of how most people listen to music. They think that one culture of music and another culture of music are not compatible. They draw imaginary lines in the sand about what is compatible and what goes together and what doesn’t. I think my path, as an artist and a musician, has been about obliterating those ideas and making sure that those don’t continue to exist. I think that’s something she saw in my music and part of the reason she brought me in.

This record is really dynamic compositionally but in terms of the sonic territory and the sonic terrain that it actually covers- it’s kind of a lot of ground for a record that has as much music as it does. It’s one thing if you make a record that’s full of vamps, it’s easier to mix these different influences in because you’re not dealing with much harmony, too many rhythms, or too much vocabulary. But with Sarah’s music, a lot of it is really dense material. Some of her charts have three or four pages of music, so I think part of the reason she brought me in was to sort of help balance what it was that they were doing compositionally and the way that they generally navigate a song and how to build a record but to also start mixing these different influences that she was trying to pull from and incorporate into her music.

For me, that was part of the most fun was to see how she navigated things that were, like, Haitian folk songs to stuff that sounded like indie rock stuff, which covers a very wide range, sonically. That was part of the more attractive thing for me was to be in the studio and watch them navigate that terrain. When people look at the group they’ll say “oh, that’s a jazz vocal group,” but they couldn’t be more wrong in that the things that they’re pulling from and the stuff that she’s pulling from compositionally is coming from every corner of the planet. I thought that was really cool.

R: Do you have any closing thoughts on the process and working with Sarah?

CS: I don’t want to put a frame on it because I hope this will be a musical relationship, a partnership, that will last for decades. It’s always hard for me to frame those things in that way even though I know we’re here to talk about this record, our musical dialogue, and the communal things we’re going to do with music are only going to keep growing. I guess if I had to have a closing thought for the conversation, my closing thought is I can’t wait to make another record. No pressure Sarah! Doesn’t have to be the next record, but at some point I want to do it again.

SEC: Me too. (laughs)

Inner Dialogue dropped March 24. Get your Copy via iTunes and make sure to check out Sarah and Christian at Le Poisson Rouge March 30 for her NYC album release show/Christian Scott’s birthday celebration. Tix + info, click here

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