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VOL 3. NO. 15 Friday, March 30, - Thursday, April 12, 2001
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In Conversation With Rachelle Ferrell
By Avonie BROWN

Courtesy photo - Rachelle Ferrell
One of the fundamentals of journalism is the requirement that the journalist maintains an objective distance from the story. When it comes to the music of Rachelle Ferrell I am extremely subjective and very involved in the story because I L-O-V-E everything she sings.

The connection began with her self-titled debut release in 1992 and nine years later the textures and contours of her six-octave vocal range is still awe-inspiring. In 1995 she released First Instrument and after an eight-year absence from the recording studio, she has gifted us with Individuality (Can I Be Me?). Ferrell's long overdue release is testimony to her strength as a woman and an artist. She said that she made the decision not to record because she was fighting for her creative autonomy. Fans may not have truly noticed because Ferrell maintained a steady touring schedule. She returns to the metro area for a one-week engagement at Blues Alley through April 1.

If you hoped to catch her live you are out of luck because all shows are now sold out and that's not surprising. While each recording is a timeless tribute to true musical artistry Ferrell's live performances resonate long after the last note is sung. With each performance you truly get to experience her mastery over her vocal instrument. And after spending more than an hour in conversation with her I have come away with some understanding about her creative process. Ferrell is able to imbue her performance with so much power and intensity because it comes from a deeply spiritual and authentic place. But more importantly, I came away from our conversation with a deeper respect for the woman and the woman as an artist.

Avonie Do you realize that it was only in preparing to speak to you that I became conscious that you only have three albums?
Rachelle That's it.
Avonie But given your popularity around these parts you wouldn't know it. In the last several months you've been here what three-four-five times to perform?
Rachelle I've been here a lot but DC is my home now...my home folk. I love performing here.
Avonie How do you experience the material each time you sing it?
Rachelle Each time I do I experience it as my personal truth. Whether it is a piece of material that I have written or not, I can't do it if I haven't experienced it as a personal truth of mine. Its gotta be something that I know to be true for myself or I know I wanna say to someone or say to my audience family. I have to deeply connected with it at a real core level in order for me to sing it because unless I do it from that place it is not authentic.
Avonie Are you able to draw on that each time?
Rachelle Absolutely! Because it so real there is an ever present well from which to draw. Its not something that I have to conjure or make up or put on like a sheet or piece of clothing, it's a real experience, its a real emotion and a very real sentiment so I can immediately go to that place, that well that is the source and just dip in there and each time it renews me and whoever I'm sharing with.
Avonie So you don't have any reservations, especially with an album like Individuality (Can I Be Me?) which seems so deeply personal? Is there ever any fear when you present materials like this that you will reveal too much of you? Are you ever guarded in the creation process or in performance?
Rachelle No, No, No. Not at all. It doesn't really matter what you reveal or how much you reveal of yourself, people are gonna make up stuff anyway so I just do my little thing over here. They will always come up with their own opinions, their own perceptions, some of which may be derivatives of what already out there and much of it has nothing to do with what is truth. In that respect there is no fear because it really has nothing at all to do with me, who I am, my artistry and how the two kinda meld and mesh together.

It's important for me to be true to myself and true to my artistry. The best that I can do is to offer my highest and that requires whatever it requires. I mean I don't look at the music or approach the music or writing or performing from the outside in that way, in terms of looking at consequence first, that's pretty much a waste of time for me, it all stems from the center from inside first. As within so without. So what everybody is seeing or experiencing is a result of that process of being inside first. That's one thing I can say, that with regard to myself people can always count on that.

Avonie What you're outlining is a very spiritually centered approach that is the antithesis of the business, so to speak.
Rachelle Absolutely! That's why you don't hear this on the radio that much, why you don't see and hear too much about it because it is very subversive and its very counterculture right now.

It actually a very dangerous concept to a lot of people and to I think society in general, particularly mainstream society and mainstream music i ndustry. It is extremely subversive. Where can you look now in society and see encouragement and support for individuality, for people to be who they are? I can't think of anyplace where I can turn to for that kind of support. Certainly not video, not television, the newspaper, not even church.

Avonie No because church as it is now popularly practiced requires control and conformity to the group ideals in the utmost even though your experience with your higher power must an individual and deeply personal one.
Rachelle So you can see then how this material can be very subversive and potentially very dangerous to those who are involved in religions of conformity?
Avonie To maintain this perspective Rachelle must take some real personal strength because you are in a business that requires pigeonholing, requires that you "imitate" that last successful style, performer or music and fall in line with a pre-programmed approached. What led you to this place?
Rachelle Everything I've ever experience. As we learn and grow and develop, we begin to connect the dots and put things together and come into certain awareness and it is my deepest knowing that that's why I'm here, to be of service in this way. It's not about being a star, being a celebrity or being famous or making gazillions of dollars. I could have opted for all of those things because I had the tools to be able to attain those particular goals and I'm very well aware of that. I could have made billions of dollars in the last 10 years but my choices are different because my values are different.
Avonie I think ultimately the industry will have to step in line because regardless of this very defiant stance you remain EXTREMELY popular so there is clearly and audience that wants and needs this.
Rachelle And that's why I'm still here. Because if it were for the music industry, I would not be here. So that's why my fans are my family. We have a much deeper connection than artist-fan or artist-audience.
Avonie And you push the envelope even further because you have not only shared your spiritual energy in your material, it is by definition also explicitly Afrocentric.
Rachelle All that you see, all that you experience is simply who I am.
Avonie I love your style though, so on a woman-to-woman tip, who does your style?
Rachelle Well, it's a combination of folks that are very intuitive, very open to me, very perceptive. They understand who I am as an individual and respect that so they didn't try to make me over as other folks tried to do when I first got started. IT's a result of my growth and development.

Gina Rene Williams of Kinky Creations in Philadelphia does my hair. She is a master at doing natural hair so I call her "Queen Gina" and she calls me "Queen Shelly." Cecile Parker in Los Angeles is gifted in terms of picking out clothes, no matter what the occasion she has a deeply intuitive sense about what works and she can really hone it for the individual. Like for this album and promotional pictures I didn't even go with her. She went shopping for me and I was like `Yeah!' That's how bad she is. Finally the person who does my make-up is Ruddy Talbo (sp). We were in an antique African shop in New Mexico and I showed him the book "Africa Adorned" and I explained to him what I was looking for. He looked at a picture of these brothers in the Wadabe(sp) tribe of Eastern African. They have this ritual where they make themselves up to be the most beautiful they can be to try to attract the sisters.

Avonie That's a role reversal!
Rachelle I thought that was really interest so that's why I got with that -- flip the script for a minute.
Avonie It's about time!
Rachelle You know what I mean. African is full of many things like that that are outside what we know to be the norm. We get so grounded in what we think we know and while it fine for this culture but its not the only way of thinking and being.
Avonie That's truly something that we as black people need to recognition. We just occupy a small portion of the world here...the diversity in the c ultures of black people is vast and has so much to offer us. And really all we need to do is just step outside our box and look around and truly interact with each other, because right here in DC you have black people like myself who come with differing cultural experiences.
Rachelle And while before we were forcibly boxed in, without any choice, power ability or resources, now we are just boxed in because we just don't know any better. We have access to the internet, we have much higher incomes, so much more is available to us today.
Avonie Speaking of the internet, I hear you are very hands on with your website. So are you also a "techie" and why did you choose that additional medium to communicate with your audience?
Rachelle No I'm not a techie I just think its a wonderful medium to give my family access to not only myself but to each other, to ideas, information and energy about a lot of different things. It started out mainly with the music and the particular lifestyle that I live. So many people write in because they are interested in knowing what I'm reading because they can see the tremendous growth that has occurred over the last eight years. They wanna know how to start to be a vegetarian, they wanna know what I do under certain circumstances and conditions, they wanna how do I stay up.
Avonie What kind of numbers are you getting on your site are you able to respond to everybody?
Rachelle Girl, I get tons of email and I'm already about five months behind.
Avonie I bet.
Rachelle I ain't gonna lie...I had no idea so much was gonna come in. In addition to that I have a talkboard called "People's Review" where people can post information, ideas, what have you and my brother and I respond to it to let folks know we are there its actually us. Once it gets completed, I know the maintenance will be less time consuming right now it's a process of constantly playing check up because we are trying to work on the design and the content. But I had no idea it would take off like this, we've actually n ot even given the official grand opening announcement yet. People must have gotten the information from the CD, surfing or word of mouth because they have certainly found us. Last month alone we had over 50,000 hits.
Avonie I understand completely what you're going through because we are going through some similar growing pains around here with the launch of the online edition of the paper. While it allows us to communicate directly to another group of readers directly, that may not get the print edition, it adds a whole new layer of work that I didn't realistically plan for. But even with the additional work it is exciting how interactive it is and you can get instant feedback. It's a phenomenal experience isn't it?
Rachelle I love it. My brother (Russ Barnes) is more of the techie. He learned HTML and all that. He has that kind of mind to get in there and do all that.
Avonie To switch bad to music for a moment...not that we need to because your week at Blues Alley is already sold out I was told. But isn't it a stretch to go from the vast space of Constitution Hall to a small venue like Blues Alley?
Rachelle I hadn't really thought of that but you are right. Originally I was slated to perform at the Warner Theater but when my girls Maysa and Kim Waters where added to the ticket we needed a bigger space so we moved to Constitution Hall.
Avonie I absolutely loved your show at Constitution Hall, but it is not my favorite venue for performances.
Rachelle It was a nice evening at Constitution Hall though because my engineer is just really gifted and we got a lot of comments and compliments saying they had never heard the sound that good. If anybody could do it Terry Jackson was the one.
Avonie What will be the team like for Blues Alley? Same group or scaled down?
Rachelle Same group, my same folk, engineers everything.
Avonie How do you pare down?
Rachelle I don't. I guess from being in the audience, the landscape and the parameters are a bit different and based upon that it might be a little more intense. Instead of being up front and having to look up constantly like at Constitution Hall, at Blues Alley you'll probably get spit on...(laughter)...I guess that's what they call a little more intimate. Terry is very sensitive to the dimensions of a venue and what the audience hears. There is nothing worst than being accosted by music. When the music's too loud I can't think and I can't respond.
Avonie What about your band don't they feel constrained when they can't unleash in such a small room?
Rachelle No, my band is also very sensitive to the process as well and you can tell the difference between a band that accompanies a vocalist and one that doesn't do it very well. There are a lot of great instrumentalists out there but there is a certain skill and gift a certain level of listening that has to occur to really accompany a vocalist well. So the dynamics and the quality of the sound will be just as intense at Blues Alley as it was at Constitution Hall.
Avonie What do you do to your voice now? Is it seasoned or do you have to treat it delicately in preparation for performance?
Rachelle I don't think I treat it delicately but if treating it delicately means not screaming then I guess I do. I follow the philosophy that my body is my instrument so whatever I do to my body I'm doing to my instrument. I can't put it in a case and set it in the corner until the next gig. Its a whole lifestyle. I can't smoke cigarettes and try to sing. But if you're a vocalist that has to have the same power, strength and endurance of an athlete, there are certain things you must do. I approach thing more along the lines of how a classical singer would treat their instrument as oppose to schlepping from gig to gig, smoking and screaming and drinking Jack Daniels. I couldn't live like that and still maintain my schedule and be able to put out 150-200% everytime. For me its a wholistic approach, I don't' have to think about it because it is incorporated into my whole lifestyle. That way when I open my mouth I have access to the gift.
Avonie This is intrinsically apart of who you are. That takes a lot of discipline because most of us don't pay attention to the body temple that way even though we may intellectually know that that should be out primary focus.
Rachelle We have fallen into habits and mental conditioning that don't support our health. But wholistic living is my commitment to myself and to my artistry but we all can make that commitment to ourselves because we are all worthy. I'm here to be of service so if sharing my life helps to make a difference in someone else's life that's as it should be.
Avonie We are definitely blessed for it and we appreciate your artistry and we certainly appreciate you.
Rachelle I certainly appreciate you all because it is definitely a two-way road, definitely reciprocity there. I can't even begin to explain the depth of the connection between my self and my audience and what they give to me is huge and all encompassing. The best way I can try to explain it is to try and reflect it back in my music, in my self, in my life and what I offer. Because it is a huge gift that my family gives and I'm not even sure if they are aware of it. They think I'm the one doing all the giving but that really is not the case. It really pretty amazing and it humbles me very deeply.
To connect with Rachelle you can join her web community at www.rachelleferrell.com.

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