Black Pumas Backline Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller Maintain 20 Feet From Stardom – On Purpose
Respect and admiration remains the key to their success as co-frontwomen and backup singers
During the 2013 press blitz for Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, Lisa Fischer, a Grammy Award-winning soloist and arguably the music industry's preeminent backup singer, defiantly stated to The New York Times about the latter role, "I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more."
By that measure alone, Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller have succeeded.
The electric harmony duo for Austin's Grammy Award-nominated soul deconstructionists Black Pumas, Cervantes and Miller began their ascent together as the Soul Supporters after meeting at a holiday entertainment event as employees of the state. Now, they can't say enough about each other's talent. Continual manifestation of fundamental respect and admiration remains the unmistakable key to their success as co-frontwomen and backup singers.
"I was brand new at it and literally knee-trembling nervous to even be in that talent show," remembers Cervantes. "I remember just being intimidated at how confident she was, how big her voice was."
"It happened organically," exclaims the vibrant Miller of their instant chemistry and creative union. "It was like, 'Let's go ahead and do it, and if we're going to do it, let's do it. We all get along. We can make this happen.'"
Two months hadn't elapsed before the pair fronted the Soul Supporters side-by-side, setting forth on a most improbable path for two mothers who enunciated zero desires or dreams previously of global notoriety or anything remotely approaching their current circumstance.
"Kind of funny to me when they hit it big with the Pumas," explains Nico Leophonte, drummer for the Supporters. "The whole time, I thought they were happy to be, how do you call it? Amateurs, good amateurs. [I thought they] wanted to play on the weekends and not take it too seriously."
Even as notable session singers, both Cervantes and Miller themselves echo Leophonte's view as a matter of fact. Singing, in whatever capacity before Pumas, constituted a luxurious pastime for both women.
Also of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame, Leophonte continues.
"My experience in the music business is sometimes you want it so badly, you never achieve that success," he posits. "And then the people that want it the least, achieve success. They became successful without even thinking of doing it."
Karaoke for Jesus
Lauren Cervantes is the least likely person to become a professional musician.
Born in Waco to a pianist mother and singing father, the Houston-raised singer moved locally after graduation from Langham Creek High School. She arrived somewhat aimless, choosing to enroll into Austin Community College. The local music scene didn't interest her.
"I thought I was going to be a marine biologist," explains Cervantes. "Then I thought I was going to be a psychologist just because I'm nosy, and I love being in people's business."
Janet Hornsby describes her daughter as gifted, if even prodigious, as a child. However, she says Lauren never talked about any sort of singing career despite specializing on an Etta James song in which her father would accompany her. For her part, Cervantes is emphatic about her displeasure at the idea, citing a disinclination to perform in front of large crowds.
Hornsby couldn't even persuade her talented daughter to sing for Jesus, which became ironic soon enough.
"I told her, 'You should really at least try to sing in the church choir, or try to do something,' because when we were at home singing, she was so good," says Hornsby. "And she would go, 'Oh, just the thought of that gives me palpitations.'"
Eventually married with children, Cervantes partook in a few bashful open mics with her classical guitar and mustered up the courage to play for the Lord at a friend's church open mic, called "Karaoke for Jesus." She met Miller, a fellow state employee and choir director, at a company Black History Month talent show.
"She was putting all the voices together and assigning parts to people and all of that," recalls Cervantes. "Angie is brilliant at picking out all the harmonies. She was very confident and experienced singing in public just because of the church since childhood."
Miller sang separately with another band, but not as a lead. In fact, the first time Cervantes heard Miller in full vocal bloom coincided with the earliest iterations of Soul Supporters.
"The guys in Angie's band approached us to make a band," explains Cervantes. "So it wasn't even really our idea. It was more like, 'Do y'all want to sing for us?'"
Free Your Mind
Austin native and 1994 LBJ High graduate, Angela Miller grew up near 51st Street and Manor Road, close to the old Mueller airport. Like a nation of notable singers before her, she derives from the gospel lineage. To hear her tell it, she only broke out of her shell in high school.
"Believe it or not, and nobody believes me, but I was kinda shy, singing by myself," she says, which is hard to believe if you've ever witnessed her onstage. "I was in the marching band, but during our lunch break, some of the girls and I would go to a practice room and sing En Vogue. The choir teacher heard us and picked my voice out."
He suggested she join the school choir and the dominoes began to fall. She even entertained early visions of a professional career. Then she had a son
"And I thought, 'I don't think I can do all this,'" she admits. "I'd always wanted to do it, and if I could make it a profession, I would. I loved to sing, and I believed that you should make it your life if you love something. If you do the things you love, you live longer."
Aside from a few state-related events and funerals, she didn't begin singing seriously until the advent of the Soul Supporters. She recalls meeting Cervantes and her voice.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, she needs to be in the choir with us,'" Miller exclaims. "And she was like, 'I don't know how to sing in a choir. It's going good just to stand up in front of people and sing.'"
Miller laughs. As Cervantes sang her Etta James number, Miller recalls getting onstage and providing impromptu backup vocals. The state band asked the two vocalists to join another band they thought to assemble, which eventually led to Soul Supporters.
"I thought, 'Well, this is kinda fun," says Miller. "It was just one of those things, where if it works, it works, if not then, okay."
No Ego Tripping
Cohesion between Cervantes and Miller occurred almost instantaneously. Not that it stops Miller from describing the group's first performances at Carousel Lounge as the "scariest ever." In the time-honored tradition, woodshedding followed, including stands at the Skylark Lounge and the White Horse.
Miller's vocals ring unmistakably more polished and pliable. Cervantes, meanwhile, exhibits raw power and gravitas. Perfect meshing of their voices pivots on an innate ability to provide space for one another. No ego tripping here.
"I didn't know shit about shit," Cervantes credits Miller. "And I didn't know anything about harmonies."
"I have that ability to harmonize with anybody," explains Miller. "For us, it was easy. She would always say, 'I can't find harmonies.' I would tell her, 'You just sing what it is that you feel comfortable with, and I'll put the harmony to whatever you do.'
"There are so many songs that we do even to this day where she takes the high, and I'm low, but in the middle of the tune, we flip, and I'm high, and she's low."
Both women, but especially Miller, performed session work with other artists, including Ray Benson, Gordie Johnson, and Charlie Sexton. For Cervantes, however, life as a parent and provider began to override out-of-household obligations. She took a hiatus from the Supporters to attain a business degree from Concordia, but ultimately reconsidered in the face of steep student debt.
Even so, it took a brief Antone's run with magic maker Adrian Quesada and rising star singer Eric Burton to return Cervantes back to a serious musical career. Miller had worked with these Black Pumas for a few months. Predictably, she and her vocal partner sounded heavenly with the mood enhancing new outfit.
The rest is history currently in the making.
Obstinate truths and punishments for Cervantes and Miller being women – straining to maintain both family and a career based on travel – bore down on each separately. The former's children yearned for their mother, while the latter augmented that same life role with the unique mission and commitment as a pastor's wife.
At one point, Cervantes recognized her children acting out in response to maternal absence. Asked if she would have turned down backing the Black Pumas had her kids demanded that of her, she answers affirmatively without hesitation. Similarly, Pastor Bryon Miller of the St. Paul Primitive Church hardly relishes his spouse's frequent absences but focuses on the positive.
"Realistically, it does allow me to expand the ministry beyond the church and outside the four walls, which is really what a witness is all about," he offers.
Black Moon Rising
"My initial reaction was, 'Are they going to be cool going from lead singers and frontpeople for their own band to being the backup girls for somebody else?" wondered Supporters guitarist Scott Unzicker. "Are they going to be cool with that in the long run?"
An honest and genuine question, to which both Cervantes and Miller profess genuine clarity.
"I've had the aha moments where, because I was used to working a 9-5 or 8-4, whatever – a 40-hour-week job – so sometimes I'm at home and I'll be like, 'I need to be doing something,'" admits Miller. "Then I'm like, 'You are doing it.'
"And I still like the fact that I can go to the grocery store, and people don't bombard me."
For Cervantes, whose career remains violently opposed to her personality, being in the backline suits her just fine: "I would never ever, in any way, shape, or form, want to create something for myself like the success that Eric and Adrian have had with the Pumas. I don't ever want to be that."
The critical difference between Cervantes and Miller and other backup singers of music lore – Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hills – resides in the notion of success. 20 Feet From Stardom documents hard-fought dreams often unrealized, resurrected, or reframed. And yet, achievement, accomplishment, and realization can only be defined by the individual on whom they impact. The Austinites in question share an unusual and refreshing relation to the concept in a scene where a Black Pumas-like breakout defines the pursuit of many.
At the conclusion of 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville shows a large group of starlings called a murmuration. The phenomenon involves mutual protection, the passage of information, and other as-yet-undefinable understandings between the birds. No perceptible rhyme or reason accounts for their union.
Cervantes and Miller connect as musical starlings, flying high together in the same gorgeously inexplicable song.
The Black Pumas’ unprecedented five-night stand at Stubb’s, May 26-30, remains sold out.