Composer and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ Inner Dialogue is one of the most hauntingly beautiful albums that we’ve heard in a long time. It’s the perfect combination of hipness and really smart compositional techniques on SEC’s part. We ran an interview featuring Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Christian Scott a few weeks ago in preparation for the release of Inner Dialogue, here’s the second part of our very insightful chat with SEC.

SEC and CS
Revive: Is there a message or a theme to the album?

SEC: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a theme. The messages are vast I think, from song to song, but the main theme actually is embedded within the lyrical messages that exist within each of the songs. The title of the album, Inner Dialogue, really speaks to the inner dialogue that has been taking place within my spirit and that’s been translated into my songwriting. For a really long time I was much more reserved in terms of my lyrical content and writing about personal experiences and personal curiosities and it wasn’t until I started writing for this record, about two and half years ago, that I decided to get a little more specific, and a little more gritty and started writing about things that potentially were topics that people don’t always write about.

You know, you have your love songs on the record and you have, “And Now I Know,” which is like the quintessential break up song, but it was written from a very different perspective because I’m me and somebody else is them, but I’m also writing it in a way that sort of, I’m writing it about a time way after the break up took place. It’s not even “I’m heartbroken and this happened”, it’s not written from that perspective. It’s like, “all of this time has gone by and I’m still effected by this”. I’m finding things out and realizing things now that I didn’t realize or didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand before. I was really just allowing myself to exist in whatever space I was in and deliver the messages for each song in a way that was very genuine and true to how I was feeling them. There’s also a song called “after life” that’s about my curiosity about where we go when we leave this earth and there’re Haitian folk songs that are such a huge part of my creativity.

My father is originally from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and that music and culture has been really informing my writing and my self-exploration for the past three to four years. The list goes on, I could kind of go track by track, but really Inner Dialogue speaks to the lyrical content on the record and the way that I chose to write the lyrics that are on this record, which is a way that really just reveals what goes on in my own mind. It’s sort of me speaking to myself and me actually hearing the words as they’re said in my head, without a filter.
What’s funny is as time went on, the title ended up having a double meaning because I realized that it was also speaking to the way we exist as a band. John, Jesse and Burniss and I, we’ve been together for over four years now and we really share extremely well musically and non musically, and it’s really interesting to me because it’s such a fitting title for our first record because it’s the way we make music as well. Things now are definitely much more, the tunes are much more through composed. I don’t have as many dance-y sections as I did on Red or as I used to in my tunes but at the same time there’s such a freedom and I write only as much as I possibly need to for them to understand the ideas that I’m trying to convey and I like to just let them loose to interpret and explore, so I guess it definitely speaks to that as well but it originally it was the lyrical content of the record, that’s where the name came from.

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Revive: Your father is from Haiti, right? How does Haitian culture and tradition influence your music?

SEC: On my EP, Red, two Haitian folk songs and on this record we recorded and have released two Haitian folk songs. When I first moved to New York I met a lot of Haitian jazz musicians and just Haitian musicians in general. My whole life I’ve been curious about my dad’s culture. I didn’t go to Haiti until 2013, until about two years ago, for the first time. There was this constant curiosity, and when I decided I was going to go into music, the curiosity that was festering came to the surface even more, especially after moving here and meeting those musicians because once they found out I was Haitian it was kind of all over. It was like, “all right, if this is something you’re curious about, if this is something you want to explore, the time is now. You’ve got to do it.”

I had some people who were very motivating and some of those same people were very supportive in terms of turning me on to particular material. I really wanted to explore the folk material, specifically because I grew up listening to Kompa music, which is a style of Haitian dance music. I, you know, listened to that in the house with my father when we were cleaning or doing chores or working outside or something and we would dance to it, but I didn’t speak Creole fluently, so I never really…you know I connected in terms of the fact that it got into my ears and penetrated my spirit and made me more curious about exploring that part of myself and my background, but it never got past that. So, Pauline Jean actually helped to really connect me with certain recordings, and Melanie Charles connected me with Pauline, and she also sat with me and we went through the Creole lyrics. She and Pauline especially I thank them, on my last record, because they were so giving of their time and for them it was all about perpetuation of the music and the tradition. Once I started it took me a while, and I went through different songs and decided what I wanted to cover. I was pretty meticulous about what I actually choose because it’s part of myself that I’m still exploring. I’ve definitely jumped in, but I don’t want it to ever feel arbitrary, I want it to be a very natural process and it has been, so far so I’m happy with that.

What’s been interesting for me are the arrangements that have been coming into my head after hearing these songs. I’m approaching them and arranging them in a completely different way perhaps because I’m coming from a very different place, you know. I didn’t grow up in Haiti, I’ve now been there two times, I’m going for my third time this coming May. I’m experiencing the music and the culture and the country from the perspective of a person who belongs to the Haitian Diaspora, within this country and also someone who doesn’t speak the language and someone who , you know, is just learning. It has really been interesting to me. Maybe my desire to tread softly and slowly when it comes to actually releasing my arrangements of this material comes from the first visit I had there.

I went there in 2013 to develop an early childhood music education program for an organization called rise to shine. It’s essentially an early education center, a day care center, for children in Fonds Parisenne, Haiti.

There’s a large population of single mothers in particular in that community, so there’s a huge need for childcare, but the founders of the organization are also extremely committed to providing a quality education to these kids. Again, it’s a day care center so they’re all 5 and under for the most part. It was really cool for me to be able to go there and collaborate with the teachers because there was already so much music in the classroom. After going there and learning their repertoire, some of which I knew actually from growing up, in terms of them being children songs, I was able to expose their teachers to a slightly different method of teaching these kids music, at a very basic level of course. Actually naming some of the things that the kids already know and are already doing because music is such a huge part of that culture.

For instance we were doing a rhythmic activity, and the kids are clapping various rhythms. They were copying me and then I gave them the opportunity to copy each other, and one of the girls, she was one of the older kids, they were using, “ta, ta, ti-ti, ta” that sort of classical method, and she made up a rhythm in seven and they repeated it like, right away! (laughs). It was no thing, you know. Music is such a huge part of Carribean culture in general, but Haitian culture more specifically, it just comes out of people. So having that personal experience be my introduction to the country was really interesting and different than I ever could have imagined it to be, so I’ve gotten so much inspiration from those kids and from that community, and have learned a ton from them and the way that they sing and the way that they move their bodies when they’re do things like singing and clapping and counting rhythms. That’s been that process for me.

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Revive: Any closing thoughts on the record or about working with Christian?

SEC: That’s a good question, how do I put this? For me, this record has been a really long time coming. as an artist, we’re all very emotional about our craft and about our work and all that, but it feels really momentous and I feel very proud of where we ended up going with this project and I just really hope that people listen to it and listen again and actually feel something listening to it. I hope people experience it and feel differently after they listen then they did before. I don’t really care what that feeling is (laughs), to be honest, but I really want this record to elicit some sort of emotional response or spiritual response or whatever it can.

In regards to Christian I also want people to know how selfless he was throughout this entire process and how committed he’s been to the presentation of this music, of Inner Dialogue. It’s really been special and, it stopped being surprising I guess, but it still takes me by surprise just how committed he’s been to this project and I just want to thank him for that. It really humbled me to know how much he believed in this project.

Order your copy of ‘Inner Dialogue’ via iTunes. Catch Sarah Elizabeth Charles at Jazz at Lincoln Center for the “Celebrating Lady Day” tribute concert. Tickets + info, click here

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