When one utters the name Amel Larrieux, it evokes an immediate and passionate response. A woman may sigh and her eyes soften, as she recounts the day she married her beloved with Larrieux’s “Make Me Whole” accompanying her down the aisle; a wide grin slides across a fella’s face when he remembers the girl he had a crush on back when “Tell Me” was the sound of the summer. Single ladies may be as emboldened by King Bey’s dance floor anthem as they are empowered by Amel’s “Earn My Affections;” and anyone with a day job that pales in comparison to their dream job can feel the promise and power of her classic debut solo single, “Get Up.”
Crack open any of Amel Larrieux’s four studio albums (2000’s Infinite Possibilities, 2004’s Bravebird, 2006’s Morning, and 2007’s Lovely Standards), and what you find there is more than simply a gorgeous voice that epitomizes sweetness and presence, or grooves, beats, and rhythms that provide the foundation for richly textured arrangements. At the golden heart of Amel Larrieux’s work are deeply empathic lyrics that tell universal stories of love, fear, triumph, uncertainty, vulnerability, and destiny. There is a glorious authenticity to Larrieux’s words, which points not only to expert dexterity with her craft as an artist but also to her ability to incorporate, to literally embody, hopes, doubts, dreams, and worries–hers and ours alike. And so it is this knowing that endears Amel Larrieux to lovers of her music. Whether she is standing in her greatness on songs like “All I Got,” pondering things left unsaid with a tune like “Unanswered Question,” or bringing words of wisdom to Sweetback’s “You Will Rise,” that genuine emotional connection gifts her music with extraordinary accessibility and staying power.
As Amel prepares to release her brand new album Ice Cream Everyday (Blisslife) on August 27, she has already treated fans to the first single, “Afraid.” The fresh, contemporary track finds the lovely songbird breathing life into a scenario anyone who’s been in love can relate to: That urgent longing and desire for the object of your affection, the incessant need to see, kiss, and embrace him, to hold, touch, and inhale her. When she sings “where ever you are is where ever I have to be” and admits how the intensity of her feelings render her wonderfully distracted and perhaps a little anxious, there is no escaping the song’s potency. “Afraid” truly keeps it real, as is evidenced by the buzz the song has generated via social media. On any given day, Larrieux’s Twitter followers rave about the new single as well as venerable favorites, sharing personal stories about situations in their own lives where the words of her songs were the perfect complement. In return, Amel engages in lively and loving 140-character conversations, not simply retweeting their comments and compliments but taking the time to offer a gracious and often playful response.
SoulTrain.com is honored to spotlight the inimitable Amel Larrieux for this edition of our exclusive Artist to Artist series!
SoulTrain.com: We’ve missed your voice since your last full-length album release, Lovely Standards. What have you been up to in the past couple years?
Amel: I’ve been on the road a lot. So much of the new material that will be on the new album has been previewed on the road the past four years. I’ve never really gone away, but in terms of putting new material out, that’s basically what I’ve been working on since the last album.
SoulTrain.com: I know a lot of artists wind up previewing or working new songs live, long before they’re recorded in the studio and released. How do the songs evolve for you?
Amel: In terms of songs getting previewed on the road, they’re always written and recorded before I do that; they just haven’t been released digitally or physically.
The writing and recording process in general, there is no rhyme or reason or formula. In my experience working with Laru (Larrieux)–who is my husband, producer, and manager–we are lucky when the idea comes. We grasp it and try to put it down in whatever capacity we can. If it’s a track he’s already working on and I hear it and immediately start writing, or I’m sitting at the piano writing something musically without a lyric, I go record it and he puts a bass line and a beat to it and then I put lyrics with it.
SoulTrain.com: Each of your albums has showcased a diverse soundscape, representing a beautiful convergence of progressive soul, dance, jazz, and R&B. When you get ready to go into the studio, how do you determine which direction a new album will go sonically?
Amel: The only time we’ve ever done anything thematic was the Lovely Standards album. Everything else is completely organic. We look at what we’ve got, and because we are always writing and recording things, you’ll hear things on this album that I’ve done years ago. Laru and I are alike in that we don’t try to pull off a certain sound or try to write a song that feels like this or that; it’s more about doing [the song], then editing and looking at it objectively and putting together a cohesive group of songs. We’re not anti-trend, but we just got really lucky to be able to make music that comes off as timeless. Both of us are heavily influenced by timeless, classic music. Take someone as huge as Michael Jackson: I listened to Off the Wall–I didn’t know Laru at that age–but he was a total Michael Jackson fan, as was I! I got my hair cut in a Michael Jackson shag when I was 9, and my oldest, Skye–who’s in my band, had such a complete adoration for Michael Jackson but to another level. She was writing odes to him when she was 7 in her journals! He’s a timeless artist, and made timeless music…it can be played 20, 30, 50 years from now. That’s what ties Laru and I together as a writing and production team, and I’m hoping that’s what will allow me to continue to make music for as long as I possibly can.
SoulTrain.com: Go back–you said your daughter Skye is in your band now?
Amel: She’s been playing in the band now, full-time, for three and a half years! She plays keys and does full-on backgrounds with one other background singer. She is like my musical director, she’s kind of like a prodigy and a genius musically. We have similar musical sensibilities; she knows when something is off-key, she recognizes nuances that are missing that someone else might not even notice. She knows our music like the back of her hand.
When she was in 9th grade she said she wanted to be home-schooled full-time. She said, “My idol, Michael Jackson, was home-schooled and he was a serious artist. And I want to be a serious artist.”
SoulTrain.com: So she’s had time to adjust and decide this is really what she wants to do.
Amel: It seems like it. Her being in the band is totally a two-way street. I benefit because I have these quirky sensibilities, I speak with my own musical language that she gets from growing up in our household. She tells me time and time again how much she respects me as an artist and likes my music, and so she knows it really, really well. There are times when I might forget something that I arranged; I always arrange my backgrounds after I’ve done the lead, and I never do it in advance. I put a lead down, and I go in and do [the backgrounds] on the spot. So I never remember what I’ve done. But she remembers it all–she’s like a human recorder! I know that it’s a great experience for her. I know that it’s not everyday that you can play in the band of an established artist and not be worried about getting fired because you messed up. She’s my daughter, so I’m going to give her more chances.
SoulTrain.com: What about your younger daughter, Sanji? Does she seem to be interested in music as well?
Amel: She is, but she hasn’t made a decision about it being a full-time job. She’s a great singer, she writes her own songs. She loves school and is like a typical 14 year-old who wants to be with her friends and wants to have her own life. She’s also in musical theatre, and I feel like Sanji could be that triple threat; she is like the way Lena Horne was, and the women who were incredibly good singers, incredibly good actors, could dance, and possibly pick up a guitar.
I’m kind of easy about this with my kids, because they are not my kids per se; they are by law, but they are owned by the universe. Their future is their own hands, and they can do whatever they want to do.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us about the new album. What inspired the title, Ice Cream Everyday?
Amel: The title grew out of a conversation Laru and I were having, and it actually is much more metaphoric and totally apropos. This was four years ago, I was having a day, and I was like, “Ugh, I just wish I could eat ice cream everyday!” And he was like, “That’s the title of the album!” It dawned on me, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching. I became really serious about my meditation practice and serious about my yoga practice, doing a lot of work with integrated natural therapies and emotional freedom technique or tapping. I have been able to create the space to work on myself as a human being emotionally, physically, and mentally. And what that title started to become was, ‘How can I find my little respite or my little ingredient that makes everyday great?’ But in the interim, I found out I was completely lactose-intolerant and I actually couldn’t eat ice cream everyday! So I have to replace it with something else, and what is that thing I’m gonna find? I was writing to someone on Twitter who asked me, “What’s your favorite flavor?,” and I was like, “I can’t eat it anymore.” I can’t eat sugar at all…The title has a lot of implications. The way the album reflects how I explained the title is very authentic. If you look at “ice cream everyday” literally, you won’t necessarily get it. But if you look at it metaphorically, I think you’ll hear it because the songs have this range. I’m definitely referencing spiritual things, metaphysical things, and things people might consider Buddhist or Yogic philosophies. But it’s in a totally accessible and human questioning way.
I am really–sometimes to a fault–in tune with my emotions and sensitive. I’m a sponge; I absorb everything around me, and other people’s emotional experiences, and they definitely come out in song. I know that I tend to sometimes veer on the side of sadness or deep yearning in the lyrics that can even be uncomfortable for me to listen to. I know that, from my own experience, sometimes I need to hear those lyrics from someone else or read that book that was written that way to have my own epiphany. I think I’ll always be that kind of a songwriter.
SoulTrain.com: I wanted to touch on the empathic nature of your songwriting. You’ve said that “Weary” is a song that’s based on a friend’s experience, and you have this gift for making experiences that may not be autobiographical very real. There’s a great quote from Bill Withers, where he said, “A song doesn’t have to be autobiographical, but it has to be authentic.”
Amel: I think if I understood [how it happens], I would get too cerebral and too analytical and screw up the whole thing. It happens. My friend said to me, “I just wish I didn’t have to be so strong.” That’s all she said to me–it wasn’t a long conversation, and that was enough. I could build this house of a song using my imagination, and of course implementing my own experiences–but more subconsciously. I wanted to be taken care of but also to be fiercely independent. It’s a general feeling many women feel. There’s a possibility that, what makes someone an artist, is that you are a voice that can translate the feelings and thoughts of all of us, but you’re able to craft it into song. But I definitely have this incredibly empathetic streak that can sometimes be daunting. I don’t always want to absorb other people’s stuff! And sometimes I have to remind myself not to take it on. That’s why the meditation practice has been so beneficial for me, because I can just be present in this experience…What I am able to do is turn my empathy or my understanding of it into an art form.
SoulTrain.com: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our SoulTrain.com audience?
Amel: I’d like to express my gratitude for everyone who has supported me, especially since I’ve become independent and more recently, since the release of the new single, “Afraid.” It’s so great and so wide and so deep, because when people legally download the song, they are directly supporting me. They are absolutely making it possible for me to continue to make music. It’s tangible. That is everything! I never want to call anyone a fan, because I want people to know the level of respect that I have–you’re my supporters! You make it possible for me to do this for a living, which I really like. I greatly appreciate that, and want to put that out there whenever I have the chance!
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, and follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock.