Meet the Women of Austin R&B
Spotlighting five formidable soul vocalists
By Kahron Spearman, Fri., Sept. 22, 2017
Lodged just beneath the national mainstream, R&B and its ever broadening spectrum enjoys modern resurgence thanks largely to the efforts of black women. Solange, Kelela, the mysterious H.E.R., Kehlani, Scotswoman Emeli Sandé, and SZA continue setting trends while modifying baseline ideas of what soul is, or what it could and should be.
Like those acts, Austin's small but formidable cadre of soul vocalists also refuses to accept assigned gender/racial roles, fighting against the overwhelming tendency for non-black, non-POC, cisgender, straight-identifying persons to "other" black women into comfortable categories and provisional submissiveness. Whether Austin's dense, monied musical web will support the efforts of the five women profiled herein, or their contemporaries and many others before and after, is unknown. Certainly what they're offering has already proved a highly palatable counterbalance to the occasional toxic masculinity and consumption-positivity of rap, not to mention Austin's other oversaturated, less-diverse genres.
In fact, given the face of Austin's hyperactive changes, both economic and social, these women are in something of a time crunch. Will there still be a spot for them and their sound in the city's future? Potential and livelihood aside, the women of Austin's contemporary R&B scene come armed to the eyebrows with time-honored themes of love and romance, the undulating joy of ecstasy and pain of lost opportunity, and the unending difficulties of lives truly lived.
"That's what it's about – what feels good," explains Alesia Lani. "Of course, if rap makes you feel good, then that's your thing, boo. But soul music is about memories, about smells, about feelings, the ups and downs. R&B makes it okay to be sad and still be cool and hip.
"Make sure you hit the right notes, though."
Tallahassee-born blues/rock singer Jai Malano always wrote. Initially targeting politics, she joined UT-Arlington's campus newspaper. The former Ft. Worth-based Royal Rhythmaires frontwoman also indulged in spoken word performance for years, taking home poetry slam titles along the way. Words were never the problem.
Though she sang as a sanctuary from abuse during her childhood, Malano compartmentalized her voice within a persistent flux.
"I didn't realize I could sing until maybe two or three years ago," she admits of her smoky contralto. "I was still trying to figure out my voice."
Safe to say, it's developed well. 2015's local debut, retro stunner Rocket Girl, found the vocalist teamed with French guitarist Nico Duportal on booming burners from Bo Diddley, Leroy Kirkland, Ike Turner, and Joe Tex. Recorded in Germany in only two days, it left room for some originals including snappy jump blues "Schnick-Schnack Boogie." Though raised in the blues and country tradition, her next project will include more R&B and hip-hop.
It'll also star an increasingly confident writer who's lived 100 lives in her three-plus decades.
"I'm a black woman, who's obviously had to overcome things," she says. "I'm in a same-sex relationship. It takes courage to walk around every day. Now that I'm married, honestly, it's empowered me to not care more. Y'know what I mean?"
Wading through the difficulty of existence, Malano discusses domestic violence, suicide ("Never Look Down"), and drug addiction ("Party Time"). Her job is not to placate.
"I write love songs, just not, 'I also love this person and I want to spend the rest of our lives together,'" she offers. "It's more like, 'I love this person, I fucked up, I cheated on them, and God, please don't let them leave me.' Or, 'You know I didn't want to fall in love, but now I have, and even though I'm grateful for you, I'm going to make you suffer even though we both love each other.'"
Malano's also pursuant of a particular reality and social consciousness in her output, something tangible, yet nonsynthetic. She doesn't "want to step on any toes," but desires to live unfiltered and truthfully, even if her rawness makes for uncomfortable situations.
"Certain people do whatever the fuck they want, every day," she opines. "They say what they want, not knowing what they're talking about half of the time. They're protected by a particular class, a type of image.
"I'm just like, 'OK, I'm going to make my own little box of privilege, to protect myself, and I'm going to keep moving.'"
Alesia LaniOld Soul
The Springfield, Missouri-born and Austin-raised Alesia Buchanan is a little different.
For starters, she took a job at Pappadeaux's in part due to the restaurant's old-school R&B playlist. Performing as Alesia Lani, the McNeil High graduate also claims a summer 2017 opening slot for the Ohio Players, the highly influential R&B/funk group whose entire prime came and went before she was a twinkle. She finally professes to only hearing new music in clubs and mostly listens to older acts like the S.O.S. Band, Maze, and early Mary J. Blige.
Dabbling in alt-R&B and routinely covering Little Dragon at live shows, the "Intentions" singer sounds older, rationalizing through a thick Southern drawl covered in sugar dust.
"It keeps me in the right place even when there's chaos around me," she offers. "I've had a lot of bullshit to deal with and music kept me in sync, kept me sane, kept me grounded."
Knocking out choruses for her husband, rapper Marcel "PeaCe" Buchanan, the singer wanted to continue her career after he temporarily lost the juice for music, their lives happening between cracks.
"He kind of lost his dinosaur, but I wanted to keep performing," she explains. "We had a baby, but when she got older, I was like, 'Why am I sitting here only doing features?' I was tired of not working on my own shit."
That led to her slick 2015 debut First Impression, a brief listen exploring sample-based hip-hop/R&B. Though appreciative of the experience, it left a lot to be desired.
"[The album] was more like, 'This is what I have to work with,'" admits Lani.
Looking for a more organic experience, she found it recently on Resilient, an eclectic and revealing collection ranging from radio-ready jump-up R&B ("Pay Me No Mind") to thumping club and festival flavors ("Blackout") while discussing much of her personal life. "Better by You" is a sweet, Nineties R&B track about and featuring her daughter. "You Changed" delves deep into her husband's alcoholism.
"It was open creatively because there were no samples. It's all original music," she discloses. "I could own it and make it my own, do whatever I'd like with it. Before, I would have to work around the beat, instead of working [the music] to my favor."
Tree GAustin Energy
"I sing because it's the most right thing I do," says TreeAndrea Grundy, or Tree G. "I need music like I need to breathe."
Powerfully emotive on her especially unguarded first full-length, U Don't Even Call, the vocalist comes from singing. She's the daughter of industry veteran and current church organist Brenda Benson, who once released and co-produced a now-rare gospel/funk album, Life Gets Sweeter, in 1984. Her talented older sister, Ayanna, sings in the Houston area as Ayanna Soulful Rose.
Because both Ayanna and her brother A.T. are at least a decade older, this meant the future Huston-Tillotson graduate and collegiate volleyball player grew up as an only child, picking up heavier bits of information perhaps a little sooner than she would've otherwise.
"I was an old folks' kid, because everyone I was around was so much older than me," she explains.
Raised in the church, the youngest Grundy realized she could sing around the age of 8, while also learning to play piano and rap. She recalls song-filled weekends with her mother as a child, growing up in the Acres Homes area of Houston.
"My family used to communicate through song. My mom would cook breakfast, and then be on the piano. I'd be opening my eyes, and the first thing I'm doing is singing. Even 'good morning' was a song."
She recounts informing her mother of her musical desires as a teen, singing a risqué song she'd written.
"I was scared. I started crying, because I was talking about things I really hadn't experienced, and I felt like it was wrong to talk about sex," she remembers. "Then, I opened my eyes, thinking she was gonna have a belt. She was almost teary eyed, and she said, 'Tree, the world needs to hear that. You've got to pursue it.'"
Grundy's soulful debut is the album of a lifetime, derived from high school notebooks and tiering a "call" motif on three planes: failing relationships, missed opportunities within Austin's music industry complex, and a long-awaited call from her biological father, itself a complicated story. Despite her positively electric live performances, the middle issue remains particularly difficult.
"I've always been here performing, ready," she explains, even mentioning the city's larger music festivals. "I've always been available, and I continuously get passed up. I've always felt like the underdog.
"I've had to deal with self-worth issues, making sure I know I'm worthy even if I don't get the call."
Lissome and doe-eyed with flawless skin, Mélat Kassa looks the part of an alt-R&B chanteuse on the verge of inevitable stardom, which would not have been possible had she continued to say nothing.
"I used to be shy and never really spoke up," discloses the Austin native, who performs under her first name alone. "I've found power in music. It's my vehicle. That's how I speak my truth, how I speak to people."
Part of Kassa's evolving truth comes passed down from immigrant parents, who escaped Ethiopia's rarely reported political upheavals and subsequently well-publicized famine during the Eighties. Remember Band Aid/Live Aid? The UT grad's upcoming fifth album Move Me II, produced entirely by emerging California producer Jansport J, centers on her thoughts of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and equality.
Anchored by dreamy and amorous single "The Now," the project also features more nuanced ideas of passion and relationships. Kassa takes influence from Eckhart Tolle's bestselling spiritual guidance book, The Power of Now, "but from a romantic perspective." Though coy about specific application of said romantic themes, one can assume her newer rose-colored perspective comes from unfortunate prior run-ins with love's unpredictability.
"I write lyrics from [a perspective of], 'Oh my God, this is devastating, but I have hope,'" discloses the "No Bad News" singer. "You've got to leave the past in the past, and let the moment be 'the moment.' Be vulnerable, be open."
Her connection to Ethiopia and the African continent remains strong, though she was initially hesitant about channeling those sounds, "afraid of being pigeonholed as a 'world' artist before I could establish myself as an American." On the threshold of breaking out, Kassa takes to the fall festival circuit with slots at this year's Sound on Sound and ACL Fest. This will be her first time at the latter.
"A lot of what held me back earlier – and from being a little braver – was feeling like the music scene here in Austin didn't have anything to cater to me," she laments, underlining an ongoing need for black women in Austin's mainstream musical palette. "So I'm really big on showing the world what exists here. To show girls here in Austin who look like me that wherever you're from there's someone out here who looks like you."
"I've heard people say all sorts of things about whether I should sing or rap," decries Austin native Anastasia Smith of her double-threat talents.
Odd request to make of Smith, to choose a "lane" when she doesn't lack with either vehicle. It's hardly a demand typically placed on men, especially after recent and rousing successes by Drake and Bryson Tiller, for example. The other problem, of course, is a long history of women committed to both singing and rapping, including Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliott.
On top of that incongruity, she knows her unofficial advisers are likely hearing what's comfortable for them, versus what's said.
"I read a statistic that 80 percent of listeners don't pay attention to lyrics," recalls the local. "So while I'm obsessed with every word, pause, and inflection, the listener might only catch the melody. Lyrics might not sink in until years later."
Smith's gender-neutral skill set – attention to craft, songwriting, and crisp melodies – is on full display throughout the excellent and seductive Born to Love You, released early this year. The singer expresses her sexuality with honeyed confidence, sounding liberated over tracks produced by emerging 22-year-old Connecticut musician Thomas Crager.
"I found one beat on YouTube. Not only did it sound good, and current, but the sonics were ready to go," explains Smith. "It went from there. I didn't have to hunt anybody down for track outs or anything. It was ready to go."
The material itself, though, gave Smith pause. As a woman and a mother of two boys, consideration of suggestive lyrical content initially weighed on the Reagan High graduate, stemming from the illogical expectations for women to be the chaste seductress. How would her immediate family perceive her?
"At first, it made me self-conscious, in a negative way," admits Smith. "I used to hide different parts of my music to shield them. Now it's a way for them to get to know me. I think I've been able to flip it, and make it to where I can listen to my music with my boys and not feel any way about it.
"It's a combination of being me, being more comfortable as an artist, and accepting what comes out of me as my art. I don't have to ask permission to paint with any color that I'd like."