Kelli Sae is an artist that has an authentic and colorful past. Starting out as the lead singer of international jazz/soul/experimental bands Defunkt, Count Basic and Incognito, she still performs with groups from time to time. Currently, Sae is shooting a video for the song “Brighter than the Sun,” which will benefit a Hurricane Sandy relief charity.
Releasing two albums–Kelli Sae and Heroine–prior to her latest, Pure, she’s garnered a love for world music and meshing together unsuspecting styles of music; she even plays a bit of guitar and keyboard aside from writing and producing her solo work. Touring and working with legendary names such as Ashford & Simpson, Tina Turner and Paul Simon, her goal is to break out of the shadows and into a greater appreciated realm of music. Read on to see what the funky and soulful songstress had to say about building a career abroad, the politically-charged single “No Use,” and her observations of the international soul scene.
SoulTrain.com: Was there a moment where you officially broke into music?
Kelli Sae: When I was in a group I got a chance to open up for Curtis Mayfield in Central Park, right before his accident. It was like 8,000 people and I felt like, ‘I’m really doing this.’ That’s when I started to call myself a professional singer and told people they had to pay me when I was singing.
SoulTrain.com: You’ve been in a number of groups. How did you become involved in doing music overseas?
Kelli Sae: Years ago I started out singing with a group called Count Basic. They were very international. Actually, before them I was singing with a group called Defunkt, and they took me to Europe. From there I made the connection with Count Basic and from there I made the connection with Incognito. Ever since I’ve been going back and forth from Europe. I just got back from performing in Turkey. It’s nice to be able to go around the world doing what you love to do.
SoulTrain.com: In your early days when you were asked to do a project in Europe with Count Basic, what were your initial thoughts and was it in your plans to become a part of the international scene?
Kelli Sae: It really was. Years ago when I’d hang with my musician friends they’d be like, ‘I’m gong on tour to Europe.’ In my mind I’d be like, ‘I want to go sing, too.’ They told me I could! I always hoped to make music and go around the world, meet new people and see how it touches people of other nations. I really appreciate that.
SoulTrain.com: What was your experience like going from different bands and always singing with a bunch of people?
Kelli Sae: When you get out on the road and you travel with other musicians you become a very tight-knit family. Everything becomes a group session–from eating to sight seeing, everything you’re doing, it’s together. It’s great!
SoulTrain.com: Was it weird or difficult in any way transitioning to a solo artist?
Kelli Sae: At first, yes. I didn’t know if I could do it, I had all these doubts. I thought, ‘What if I do this and it sucks? Am I going to regret doing this myself?’ My first choice was to sit in a room with a bunch of musicians, pull ideas together and come up with a great song like they did in the Motown days. When I did that I didn’t like what was coming out. I said, ‘Nobody seems to get what planet I’m on, so I’m gong to do it myself.’ No one understood what I meant when I said I wanted to marry rock and opera and create a theatrical sound.
I wanted to mix sounds together that typically don’t go together. For instance, I have a song on Pure called “Urgency” that has strings and percussion. You’d never really hear those things together. I’ve heard music from all over the world. A lot of it is nice, and a lot of it sounds the same. I don’t hear many people pushing the envelope. So many people say, ‘If I make a song like this it won’t fit the radio format.’ That may happen, but I think it’s my duty as an artist to create art.
SoulTrain.com: From your experience, do you believe that people overseas have a greater appreciation for soul music?
Kelli Sae: Yes, I really do. Overseas I see a lot more children in the audience. At an early age people turn their kids onto interesting music. Over there you go to big R&B and jazz festivals and there are people and kids there with a high appreciation for good music. If we did that I think good music wouldn’t die so fast. Now kids hear stuff and say, ‘I know that song,’ and it’s a sample Kanye made, but they think he created the [original] song.
SoulTrain.com: Do you feel there’s a separation between artists who create with real musicians all the time and artists who go in the studio and work with producers who just make beats or don’t really play instruments?
Kelli Sae: There is a separation, but I wouldn’t say one is better or less creative than the other. I do think being a beatmaker or creating samples takes a lot of creativity also. I would never think that they’re less talented or not in the same caliber. That is their instrument in a sense–it’s their thing.
SoulTrain.com: Your new album was released this spring. How would you say Pure differs from your previous albums?
Kelli Sae: The first thing would be me writing and producing everything. The second thing is, I’m singing in a different way. I found another side of my voice I really like and I went with it. I wasn’t going for an R&B or soul thing. I was just going for whatever came out of my mouth. I just played with the music, wrote songs, and said I wanted to do whatever comes naturally. I wasn’t making a record for commercial acceptance; I was making a record for people who love music.
SoulTrain.com: How did you come up with the concept for the “No Use” video and song?
Kelli Sae: It’s funny because most of my songs come to me when I’m sleep. The chorus just came to me and I was singing, “Who needs tears anymore, who gives a…” I said, ‘A what? What can I put there? F***, yeah F***. Then…I don’t know, no use!’ I left it like that then wrote the music. I bust my ass to pay for everything I do. I wanted to do a video, but didn’t have that much money. I couldn’t do a 3-day shoot in the Bahamas with empty coconuts [laughs]!
It’s an angry song anyway. A lot of people think it’s about love and it’s not. It’s about somebody who’s upset with society, the government and rules. It’s my first video that I’ve done on my own. I want to do a second one, but I had no idea which song to do!
SoulTrain.com: Ultimately, where would you like your music to take you?
Kelli Sae: I would like for my music to be heard more. I’d like to come out from the shadows a little bit more. A lot of people expect me to do music like Incognito, but I’m an artist. Why do I always have to paint in gray? I refuse to do the same thing. For all I’ve done, I feel like there’s a place for artists like me, but artists like me are not given enough exposure.
Makula Dunbar is a journalist covering music, entertainment, business and community. Founder and editor of digital culture magazine Cognizant Measure, her work has been featured in print and across the web via UPTOWN Magazine, The Atlanta Post, Sister 2 Sister Magazine, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hiphopruckus.com and many more. Follow her on twitter @Kules.