Sometimes you have to go out find talent, and sometimes talent comes into your life when you least expect it. This was the case with Boston born, New York raised, Cali educated and Chicago groomed singer/actress SuCh. She contacted me in late November via a Facebook message to give a listen to her music. While 95% of random reach outs by a musician do not result in a quality listening experience, this was one of those instances where I was thankful I clicked on the suggested web links. SuCh is a renaissance woman, a prime example of a driven independent artist in the 21st Century: writing and producing great records, booking her own shows/press, cross-country shows and high-profile appearances. She is charting high in the United Kingdom on commercial/satellite radio and Music Choice Network, and in her first role in a musical, she was awarded Henry Award for Best Actress in Colorado as Celie in The Color Purple. All this after giving up her day job as a nurse to pursue music full time. And did I mention she is doing all this by herself? No agent, no management, no label, just her. An absolute pleasure to talk to, and personally inspirational for myself, SuCh’s and my conversation covered her upbringing as a preacher’s daughter, her “light bulb” moment, early Grammy/American Idol experiences, and navigating through uncharted territory in this new age of music business independence.
SoulTrain.com: In your bio, you define yourself as “Boston born, New York raised, Chicago groomed.” And now, you are currently living in Denver. How did spending time in all those big cities influence your development as an artist (songwriting, style, etc.)?
SuCh: First, I was born in Boston. Then when I was about six months old, my family and I moved to New York and we were there until I was 12; then we moved back to Massachusetts. Those were formative years that made me realized I loved music. I started singing at the age of 3 in choirs in church because my dad was a pastor, and I started playing the flute at school. I say I’m “Chicago groomed” because that is when I really started to take more of a leadership role in some of the local churches and their music assembles. I was a praise team leader and a member of up to three different churches at that time. This may sound a bit crazy, but performing at church during this time really taught me how to work a stage.
SoulTrain.com: It’s true! We have heard the story many a time where an artist grows their performance chops in their local parishes. That also brings up the question, because you came from the church, and your pops was a pastor, was there any conflict with you singing secular music coming from your family?
SuCh: Well, luckily for me, I have two older sisters. My middle sister, long before I even thought about music as a career, was a jazz artist. So whatever strife there was, they worked it out with her [laughs]. Plus, by that time I was an adult. I wasn’t under his roof, I had a child, I was operating as a grown woman, so it wasn’t something that came from left field. It has been such a cool experience to see how my dad has been. And by the time I started to get my career rolling, he had retired from preaching. So he was like “Cool, do what you do.”
SoulTrain.com: Every person has their “light bulb,” or what I like to call their “John Belushi in the Church” (author’s note: Watch the scene with John Bleushi and James Brown in The Blues Brothers for reference) moment of when they discover the physical urge and clarity to know they are called to pursue their passion. When did you have the enlightening moment?
SuCh: When I moved from Chicago to Denver, it became my time to start putting into practice what I had learned. I started to direct a youth choir, something I had been doing since the age of 15. In the midst of all this, I also at this time was trying to into physical therapy school; I worked as a physical therapist aid and did music on the side. My colleagues convinced me to become a nurse because, according to them, physical therapy was “over-saturated.” I worked as a nurse for three years until the earthquake in Haiti, and that was the moment I started to consider music as a career. I am Haitian-American, so when the earthquake hit, it was very personal for me. I actually went there 10 days after the earthquake to help because I have some family who are doctors. We were literally in the trenches of the whole disaster. Seeing the loss of life, the devastation, made me realize life is short and I should be pursing what my passion has always been, and that is music. So when I came back home, I started a non-profit for Haiti and started to perform more as a solo artist. This is when I started to phase out nursing and sing more. The catalyst, however, was when I became pregnant for—two reasons. One, I did not want to be one of those parents who lives through their child and forces their dreams down their neck; and two, I wanted to be a living example to my son that you can do anything. I didn’t want to give him lip service with the “you can be anything you want to be speech” and meanwhile, I am miserable at a day job. Once I tried out for American Idol in 2012 and finished 63rd out of 112,000 contestants, I knew it was time for me to move on from nursing and put my all into the music. I released my debut album, Stretch Marks, soon after that and have not looked back since.
SoulTrain.com: I am glad you brought up Idol because I want to ask you about your experience trying out. A friend of mine, who is also a singer, told me when she tried out, her husband, who went along with her for moral support and has no musical talent whatsoever, tried out and made it further along in the screening process than she. So I’m interested to know from your experience, your thoughts on how much of these pre-rounds are a divide between talent and gimmick, given you were able to break beyond that and finish pretty high in the competition.
SuCh: I think it has to do with what they are looking for that year. The reality is, it is a TV show first and foremost. If they say no to you, it is not because you are not talented, it’s because you are not what they are looking for. They are casting you in a role and you don’t know what they are looking for. I saw so many extremely talented singers sent home. You have to keep that in mind, because some of best success stories associated with Idol came from artists that didn’t even win the competition. Jennifer Hudson finished 7th and Colbie Caillat didn’t even make it past the preliminary round. With that said, the best advice I can give anyone that wants to try out for a reality TV music show is to have fun with it and be the best version of you. I was initially afraid to try out because I thought the possibility of being rejected on a professional level would have deterred me from singing. But it didn’t. Now, I feel as if there’s not a no I could hear that would stop me from doing what I know I should be doing. Having that confidence is liberating and freeing.
SoulTrain.com: You have been consistently performing and touring since your teenage years. You were invited to perform in the Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble for three consecutive years, leading to you attend the Grammy Nominee Dinner and the Grammy Awards where you met and performed with Patrice Rushen, Dave Koz, Erykah Badu, and Yolanda Adams to name a few. Reflect with me on those marquee moments early in your career and some of the lessons you took from it.
SuCh: My high school band director received something in the mail for [Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble] and told me I should try out for it. I thought I had a slim chance of making it because I didn’t attend a performing arts high school. But to my surprise, I ended up being accepted into the program and it was the coolest thing! The experience to me was the life of a musician, crammed into ten days. From the time we arrived, the first two days were rehearsal, then we recorded an album, then we performed at jazz clubs all over L.A. Then you perform at the Grammy Nominee party, and then to top it all off, you attend the actual Grammy Awards. Looking back, I was in complete awe watching it live and up front. I remember thinking this is super hectic, yet so much fun, I can picture myself doing this for a living. When I got back home, I remember calling my sister, the one who became a jazz singer, and telling her, “I want to be a singer. I need to convince mommy and papi I want to attend a performing arts high school. What should I do?” She said for me to come up with a plan to present to them. I did and their reaction was “No, no baby. We love you. We think you are talented and will support you, but you need a steady career” [laughs]. And I know they did that out of love knowing that how hard a musician life can be. I think this is what lead me to put it on the back burner for so long; work a steady job and do music as a hobby. But being a part of the Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble was monumental for me because it was the first time I pictured myself as a professional musician.
SoulTrain.com: Although you did not attend a performing arts high school, having this experience with the Grammy Ensemble is an example of youth music education. I am a huge advocate for the continuation of arts programs in early and late teen curriculum. Please speak on how music education played a role in your life and furthermore, why it is important to maintain those same programs for future generations.
SuCh: I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t have music education. Music was an important part of my upbringing and how I expressed myself. It doesn’t make sense to me at all why music, the arts in general, are being cut from curriculums, especially when it has positive effects on other subjects in the classroom.
SoulTrain.com: Your time leading choirs and praise teams lead to a collaboration K’naan for the choral orchestration and arrangement of his single “Wavin’ Flag.” How did you link up with K’naan? Tell me about the recording process for that record?
SuCh: A friend of mine who lives in Colorado but has connections everywhere in the industry, put the word out that K’naan was coming and he really wanted to have a choral arrangement for “Wavin’ Flag.” So I got together with my choir, came up with the arrangements and harmonies, went to the studio, recorded it, and when he had a show out here, we performed the song with him. It was real cool and happened real quick.
SoulTrain.com: That song sounds familiar to me. Didn’t it become the theme to the World Cup one year?
SuCh: Yes it did! At the time I didn’t know who K’naan was, but I liked the track and jumped at the opportunity to work on it. I had no idea it was going to become this anthem for an international event.
SoulTrain.com: “Stadium status” from the first placement! Something very important to note is that you are completely an independent artist: You book your own shows, you book your own interviews. You’re a great example of an artist using the “self made” model to build their career. What are some of the hurdles you’ve encountered in building your career, and where do you see the role of the independent artist five years from now?
SuCh: There are a lot of hurdles as an independent artist. First off, you’re everything; you wear 3 million different hats. It’s difficult when it comes to booking my own stuff because most of the time, people are not used to talking directly to the artist. They will ask, “We want to talk with your manager,” and I’ll go “That’s me, thank you.” Second, there is the balancing act of equaling time for the business aspect of your career and the creative aspect of your career. For me to successfully book shows and have a buzz, I need to create great music. It can be very overwhelming at times. But at the same time, I feel every job that I’m doing for myself right now is a learning experience. This is because at some point, when I have a team, I will know exactly what I want that person to do because I’ve done it. As far as the independent artist five years from now, I do believe artists are taking more control of their careers. Case in point, Beyoncé. That was a complete independent artist move!
SoulTrain.com: Right! While some of those ideas used to release that album have been out there for some time, especially the concept of a visual album, Beyoncé is the first major label artist with clout to embrace that model. Even though Columbia was in the middle of it, they still made a whole lot of money in the process. 800,000 copies were sold the first week from iTunes alone and you had the buy the album as a whole; there was no option to buy a song a la carte.
SuCh: That was one of the genius elements of that game plan. But as you just said, only an artist with that much automatic buzz can pull that off. Me, I still need to pump things up and build buzz.
SoulTrain.com: Of course another independent success story from this past year is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
SuCh: Oh my God, I love them! I feel proud for them as an independent artist because I see their success as carrying the torch for every independent artist, especially with their Grammy success. It speaks to the future of the music industry, especially as I read in an article the other day, because of the growth of management firms, the direct dealing with AEG Live for touring and iTunes for distribution—which completely cuts out the record label.
SoulTrain.com: This has been a major conversation between my peers and myself for the last five years. My prediction then has come to fruition now: Labels becoming large management firms and overseeing the brand of their artist. Part of that has been seen in the birth of the “360 deal.” But that is problematic, because your management is supposed to fight your label; now your label is also the management. But this new direct dealing model can balance out this potential monopoly. There are really no set rules to this now, and it’s exciting because we can create them. Now back to your own music, 2013 was an extremely busy year for you. You sang the National Anthem for the Denver Nuggets when they played my hometown Los Angeles Lakers. You also made your acting debut earlier this year as Celie in The Color Purple and from that, you were nominated as Best Actress in a Musical and Best Debut in a Musical by The BroadwayWorld.com Awards. Then there was the success of your single “Sugar Maple,” which was nominated for Best Female Vocal Performance by Colorado Sound, currently in rotation on Music Choice, and spent two weeks at number 1 on the United Kingdom Soul charts. Take us through some of those highlights.
SuCh: 2013 went by in the blink of an eye. I spent the beginning of the year though the spring touring my debut album Stretch Marks. Right when I returned from tour, I started prepping for the regional premiere of The Color Purple in the role of Celie. I had never acted before in my life, never been a part of musical nor did I have any theater experience and I was completely terrified. But it was the most incredible experience and I learned so much about myself as an artist. Then to go on and win Best Lead Actress in a Musical at Colorado Theater’s Henry Awards was completely unexpected. The award show was a complete production, and I even was given the opportunity to perform “What About Love” with my fellow cast member who played Shug.
SoulTrain.com: Do you have plans to pursue more acting?
SuCh: Oh yeah, for sure! The Color Purple opened up so many doors for me I would not have even thought about. Right now I’m understudying two different plays at The Denver Center. Both are straight head plays—not musicals, which is a new challenge since The Denver Center is the biggest stage you can be on in Colorado. This is where the touring Broadway shows come to perform. My skills are raw, but I feel with the right material and director, a great performance will come out of me.
SoulTrain.com: Now about the single “Sugar Maple” and the forthcoming album that is from. What can we expect from the LP, and how is it a growth from your debut album Stretch Marks? I like how you described “Sugar Maple” as a “summer breeze in the winter.” It does have a warm summer feel to it. Being from Los Angeles, I can understand and feel that.
SuCh: I am really excited about the new album! I don’t have a title yet, but my process of picking an album title is a long road. For me to come up with the title Stretch Marks, I had a least a list of 300 titles. What to expect from this album is growth. For one, Stretch Marks was recorded in my basement. So quality-wise, there will be growth there. In the last year, much has occurred in my life that’s has contributed to my artistry, and I am putting that into the music. I will never make the same album twice, so you will hear my growth in all aspects. I am heaving into storytelling, expressing my thoughts and experiences because music is therapy for me. So there is much to look forward to. I will be hitting the road in support for it, so you’ll have to follow me because I will be coming to a city near you! As far as a release date, the target right now is the first quarter of 2014.
SoulTrain.com: Last question, and I ask every single artist I interview this question. When it is all said and done, how do you want to be remembered as an artist?
SuCh: When it is all said and done, I want my music to be timeless. I know artists try to be relentless with the trends today, but there are certain songs where it does not matter when it was created or even if that genre of music is not your cup of tea. There is a certain feeling you get with timeless music. I believe everyone was given a gift, some way to give back. Music is my gift, my vehicle to do just that and make a difference. Whatever emotions my music creates, I still want that effect on the next generations listening to my body of work 20 to 30 years from now.
Chuck Nunley (also known as DJ Chuck “thE oLd SouL”) is a Los Angeles, California homegrown DJ/Producer/Artist, and Owner & Director of Operations of the music collective, Honor Flow Productions. Please check out the sights and sounds of H.F.P. at HFPuniversity.blogspot.com and follow Chuck on Twitter/Instagram @thEoLdSouLHFP. Soul Claps and Salutes to you all.