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INTERVIEW WITH KELLYLEE EVANS
By John Davenport
Photo By Rene Scotland Photography
Kellylee Evans knows how to dazzle. That the Toronto-born, Ottawa-based JUNO Award winner can dazzle you in so many ways speaks to the considerable depth of her multifaceted talents. Specializing in – though not limited to – jazz, an idiom that prides itself on personal interpretation, improvisation and fine degrees of nuance – Evans is gifted with what Jazztimes calls “a ‘stunning’ crystalline voice” both powerful and emotive, a quality that is magnified and multiplied exponentially when you see and hear the magic of her performance. The creator of three unforgettable and critically acclaimed albums –2007’s fight or flight?; 2010’s The Good Girl and Nina, recently awarded Canada’s highest honour – a JUNO Award, the nation’s equivalent to the Grammy – for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.
Evans’ intoxicating and invigorating exploration of her muse has led her down a number of paths, but those who have been fortunate enough to experience any segment of her career may be surprised to learn how organic the journey has actually been. Although Evans started singing as a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, her initial career aspirations excluded anything musical. She obtained degrees at Carleton University for legal studies and English literature, (“I had parents that worried,” she confesses), but ultimately decided her happy destiny with other alternatives. Evans initially courted tennis, but a debilitating ankle injury cut short that career dream. Ironically, it was while recuperating from that injury that the singer wrote the first songs that would eventually comprise her debut – and JUNO-nominated – album, fight or flight?
Around the same time, 2001, she met Art Blakey bassist Lonnie Plaxico at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and he invited her to join himself and Ravi Coltrane onstage for some impromptu improvisation. He was also impressed by her songwriting, and over the next few years, Plaxico and Evans struck up a friendship, with the singer flying to New York to record fight or flight? within a scant two days. “It was thrilling to watch the songs evolve from guitar and voice to a full band,” Evans recalls.
However, it was another suggestion from Plaxico that garnered her first bit of international attention: That she should enter the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition held in Washington, D.C. Evans said she actually missed the deadline, but impressed by the fight or flight? songs she included in her entry, they welcomed her into the competition. The result was a second place finish, noteworthy for the fact that not only did she impress such heavyweight judges as Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau and Flora Purim with her scintillating voice, but that it was Kellylee Evans’ first official public performance.“I literally went from singing the shower to the Kennedy Center stage,” she remembers. “I wasn’t a professional musician before that.”
With newfound confidence, and a strong determination to forge her own path with as little artistic compromise as possible, Evans shopped fight or flight? to numerous U.S. jazz labels before launching it independently, performing in venues around Canada and being regularly featured on CBC Radio 2.
A few years later, The Good Girl followed. Described as “a breath of fresh air” by Voir and heralded for its “boldness, lyricism, passion and soul,” the dozen songs of The Good Girl marked a slight change in direction for Evans, who streamlined the songs into more of an urban R&B feel with jazzy inflections. Evans said a chance meeting with Jack Johnson producer Robert Carranza at Canadian Music Week in 2009 cemented her direction for the album. “What he told me was, he really believed that your CD should be commercial, and the sound should be what people expect when they come, and that when they leave, they should be able to take the show home with them,” Evans explains. “I loved what he said because that’s how I always felt as well. So we made the CD with that in mind. “I wanted The Good Girl to be my calling card, where people are going to know who I am and what I want my music to sound like through that.” But the best of intentions are often interrupted, and so it was the case with The Good Girl.
Evans was set to promote The Good Girl, but an unexpected opportunity arose: owners of the France-based label Plus Loin Music contacted her with a special request. Would she be interested in recording a standards album? Evans tinkered with the request slightly, instead emerging with her tribute to Nina Simone, simply called, Nina. For Evans, the project was a no-brainer. She lived in a house where Simone music was constantly heard, a favourite of her mother and her husband.
The album contains songs that run the full gamut of Simone’s repertoire, including the jazz classic “I Loves You, Porgy;” Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and the evergreen pop nugget “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”. “I think why these songs are so important to me is because they’re about relationships and love,” Evans explains. “Back then I felt inspired by her political songs, but I don’t feel that same way now. These songs resonate with me.” Evans says that the material on Nina also brings back fond memories of her late mother. “Whenever I sing or hear Nina Simone’s music or even talk about her, I get to relive my time with my Mom. It’s good.”
Reviews for the album have been stellar.
“This collection properly frames not only Simone, but also Evans, whose musical vision, already established, is a formidable one,” states All About Jazz.com, while L’Actualité declared Nina “an homage rendered with much class…one of the most beautiful jazz discs of the year.” Nina and the rest of her CD catalogue, however, simply serve as teasers to Kellylee Evans’ true forte: concerts.
Whether it’s thrilling audiences in France, England, Athens and North America or warming them up for the likes of Tony Bennett, George Benson and Dianne Reeves, Evans takes an organic approach to performance: Every second is spent immersed in the moment, music coursing through her veins, as she reacts to every note, beat and tempo with fluid gyrations.
At once both charismatic and sensual, Evans opens her pores to the action around her, constantly swaying and dancing, punching the air to match the downbeat of the drumsticks; strumming an imaginary guitar, losing herself in the melody and the movement while drawing you in while weaving her hypnotic spell. It’s an insidious flair, this ability to entrance her public so convincingly, but Evans says she feels most at home on stage, performing in her bare feet. “The stage is my most favourite place to be, and performing without shoes is more comfortable.
“For me, everything in life is about comfort. When my feet are bare, everything feels right. My instrument is my whole body. It’s not just my voice.”
Indeed, it’s not just her voice: the Kellylee Evans experience can simply be defined by one word — bliss – and an unyielding supply from a woman who hasn’t yet finished grabbing the world’s attention.
John: Tell us about your early experiences in music.
Kellylee: My aunt told me that I would vocalize with the choir in church when I was just three months old. So I guess I have been singing all my life. I never really got into it professionally until I was in my twenties. I did a few things here and there but never made a goal of it. I am only in my sixth or seventh year.
John: Listening to your music it sounds like you have been singing your entire life.
Kellylee: Well, in my heart it has always been there.
John: That leads me to my next question – Is Carleton University the only school of music you have attended and are there any future plans to continue to study law?
Kellylee: I never studied music at Carleton. I studied law and had an undergraduate degree in English literature. They had a music department but I never studied music there. It wasn’t even until I was into the program for awhile that even knew they had a music department. I always felt that my parents wanted much more for me than to be a musician. They wanted me to study law or be a doctor or something like that. I never even dared to go into the music department.
John: What other influences have you had in your life, other than the great Nina Simone, which you dedicated your album ‘Nina’ to?
Kellylee: Well you know from the time I was listening to music I was just following what my family was listening to or to whatever was on the radio. When I was younger they had all kinds of music on the radio. I had this huge breadth of musical love. It was never like an encyclopedic knowledge of music, it was more like oh, I like the way that sounds and oh, I like that too. So, I would say that my influences vary greatly. I listened to Blonde, Barbara Mandrell, Willie Nelson, Sade, Calypso, Reggae, Soca, Hip Hop, and Soul music. It was only when I started going to the university that I started to listen to jazz. My mom used to listen to Nina Simone so that’s how Nina came into my life.
John: Out of your last three albums, one is more jazz, one is a jazz/pop, and the latest is jazz/blues…. which style do you think fits you the most?
Kellylee: I have no clue really, I just like to sing and I like to make music. My voice has a very jazz accent to it, but I love pop. I’m a pop girl and that’s the kind of music I love the most. At the same point, I seem to have a feel for jazz. The first two CDs were all original songs so that’s why they are kind of eclectic because I have an eclectic musical background. I just like music that sounds good and makes me feel good. If it turns out to be dance music, so be it; if it turns out to be opera, so be it. Right now my music seems to be more going towards a soul, pop, jazz mix.
John: We hear you are from Canada, tell us about your French connections there with ‘Nina’.
Kellylee: It’s funny, the French connection came about from America when I did a project in Washington, D.C. called the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition. There were some really amazing judges in the jazz world like Quincy Jones and Al Jarreau. I ended up with a second place finish. Because of this competition, it kind of gave me this worldwide focus and people started noticing me from all over the world. This label in France contacted me because of that. They asked me to send them some CDs. I sent them my new release and then they called me and asked me to come to Paris to record a CD. The CD could be anything as long as it was standards. So I had this idea in my mind already for the Nina album. I proposed the idea to them and they were totally gung ho for it. It was funny, I didn’t really speak French very well when I went over there, even though I am from Canada. Now, I’m pretty much bilingual. I just started learning Spanish a couple of weeks ago. It’s like yeah I can do this! Even if I’m older, I can still learn to speak another language!
John: The song on your album that you speak in French “Ne me quitte pas” is very beautiful and it caught my ear. When I listened to it, I was thinking is she truly bilingual?
Kellylee: At the time I made that, no.
John: Wow, you did an excellent job on that!
Kellylee: It’s funny, when I listen to it, I can hear my strong accent. Now when I sing it, I really sing it. I am so proud of how far I have come with it and all the work I put into learning the language.
John: Talk to us about your Juno & Gemini award nominations.
Kellylee: A couple of years ago, my first CD ‘fight or flight?’ was nominated for the Juno and the Gemini awards. The Juno award is like the Grammy award and the Gemini is like the Emmy’s. I was nominated for both awards in that year. Then last year I was nominated for ‘Nina’ and I won!
John: Awesome! Any plans on a US tour?
Kellylee: Well, I did a bunch of dates in NC before. Also, I played in NY at the Apollo last week. It was amazing because it was my first official show in NY and we sold out. We also played in Cleveland Jazz Festival a few weeks back and that was amazing too. I really enjoy what I do, it’s a great life.
John: Where in NC?
Kellylee: Is that were you are?
John: Yes, we are here on the beach, Atlantic Beach, NC.
Kellylee: Really, I played at Atlantic Beach a few years back and at the Beaufort Music Festival. I’ve been on tour in NC at least four or five times. My dad has a place up in Greensboro. So yeah, I’ve got my NC connections. I have been to Concord, Raleigh, Ashville, Pinehurst, Kinston and so many other places I can’t even remember them all. I’ll have to get out my map out!
John: Wow, it’s a small world and you’re from Canada!
Kellylee: Now that you’ve reminded me how much I miss NC, I need to go back! That beach is gorgeous, I love it!
John: We would love to have you back here again!