Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Brenda Russell: Soulsational

Brenda Russell
Brenda Russell Brenda Russell Brenda Russell

As part of UK soul indie Dome’s 20th Anniversary celebrations, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Brenda Russell - whose distinctly eclectic musical style has over the last 30-plus years encompassed elements of soul, pop, jazz, rock, Latin and classical - returns to London on April 14 for her first UK live date in over two decades.

Born Brenda Gordon in April 1949 in Brooklyn, New York, Brenda (whose father Gus was a one-time member of iconic black male vocal quartet The Ink Spots) nevertheless spent her formative years in Canada after moving with her parents to Hamilton, Ontario at the age of 12. Having in her late teens joined the Toronto production of the stage musical "Hair," it was meanwhile after marrying musician Bryan Russell that - as one half of husband/wife duo Brian & Brenda Russell - she would prestigiously release her first recordings (the 1976 album "Word Called Love" and 1977 LP "Supersonic Lover") for British pop/rock icon Elton John’s Rocket Records. Following which (with the couple having divorced by the late-Seventies) she would next go on to release her debut solo album "Brenda Russell" for Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in 1979 - a critically-acclaimed set which contained the US Top 30 single "So Good, So Right" plus Brenda’s original version of the ballad "If Only For One Night" later successfully covered in 1985 by soul icon Luther Vandross.

Interestingly, meanwhile, it was after releasing both her less-successful second album "Love Life" (for A&M) in 1981 and her third LP "Two Eyes" (for Warner Bros.) in 1983, that Brenda would unexpectedly decide to relocate to Sweden to begin writing songs for her next album. Which - released through A&M Records in 1988 and titled "Get Here" - would go on to become her biggest-selling project to date, largely due to its US Top 10 triple-Grammy-nominated offshoot single "Piano In The Dark." Following which even greater success as a songwriter would eventually ensue when, after the release of Russell’s fourth album for A&M (1990’s "Kiss Me With The Wind") Tears For Fears’ gospel-raised US protégée Oleta Adams would in 1991enjoy across-the-board global success with her soul-drenched cover of the title track to Brenda’s aforementioned 1988 LP "Get Here."

Since which time (alongside the release of several "Greatest Hits"/"Best Of"-type compilations) Brenda (who also wrote Donna Summer’s1987 international hit "Dinner With Gershwin") has released three more studio albums - 1993’s "Soul Talkin’’ for EMI; 2000’s "Paris Rain" for Hidden Beach; and 2004’s "Between The Sun And The Moon" for Britain’s aforementioned Dome label, with whom she still remains affiliated. While other standout achievements include co-penning the song "She Walks This Earth" with Brazilian composer Ivan Lins, which became a Grammy-winner for Sting in 2001; plus in 2005 co-writing (alongside Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) the music and lyrics for the Oprah Winfrey-backed hit Broadway show ‘The Color Purple’, which prestigiously resulted in Russell and her co-writers being nominated for both a Tony Award and a Grammy Award.

… All of which pretty much brings us up-to-date. As a soft-spoken yet forthcoming Ms. Russell (who songs over the years have impressively also been recorded by the likes of Diana Ross; Tina Turner; Dionne Warwick; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Chaka Khan) hooking up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis from her West Coast home for an insightful and revealing career-spanning interview.

How she recalls her early years of growing up as the daughter of two musical parents in Brooklyn, New York

“Well, as you say, my dad replaced one of the original members of The Ink Spots. So yeah, my introduction to music through my parents was WONDERFUL. Because they were always playing these wonderful records, there were always people singing in the house… Plus, with it being back in the doo-wop days of the Fifties, in Brooklyn there was also a lot of STREET-corner singing going on. You know, just like they show in the movies, you’d always be seeing people under the street-lights putting HARMONIES together!... And then, with my mom being a singer and a songwriter, whenever she’d be writing songs she’d always give me a part to sing because she needed another VOICE! You know, because she didn’t have the multi-track recording facilities where she could just sing all the different parts herself and then hear it back, she’d often wake me up in the middle of the night and be like ‘Sing this part, Brenda!’! Which helped me develop an ear for harmony at a very young AGE!”

How moving to Hamilton, Ontario in Canada at the age of 12 impacted on a still-young Brenda

“Well, for me as a person it made a HUGE impact! Because I went from a predominantly-black environment - culturally-speaking - in Brooklyn to a predominantly-white neighbourhood in Canada where I was the only black kid in the whole of my SCHOOL! You know, when they looked at the class picture ‘Which one are you?’ simply did not come UP! Which in turn was a great EDUCATION for me! Because what I learned from that was that all people are the SAME, and that the reason people have prejudice against each other is because they don’t KNOW each other! You know, because they don’t have exposure to other races, they just believe all the stereotypes they hear!... So yeah, what I discovered in Canada was that everyone has the same ISSUES! They all want to be happy, they all want their kids to be smart and go to school... Basically everybody wants the same THINGS!”

Making her first recordings in the mid-Seventies as one half of husband/wife duo Brian & Brenda Russell - whose two albums were recorded for, and released through, Elton John’s Rocket Records

“Oh, that was FANTASTIC! I mean, at the time - around 1975 - Elton was like King of the WORLD, and so it was very wonderful to be ASSOCIATED with him! Like I remember when we got to rehearse with him in Amsterdam and how shocked we were to discover that he rehearsed like he was doing a full CONCERT! You know, being new artists at the time keen to learn what successful artists do, to watch him come out in a rehearsal and just sing like there were 30,000 people out there was just an amazing THING! So yeah, to this day I still look upon working with Elton as a major career high - because he’s simply just one of the all-time GREATS!”

The story behind Brenda, in 1979, becoming a solo artist and signing to A&M Records

“Well, as you know, sometimes when people are married it doesn’t always work OUT. And so with Bryan and myself also being a recording duo, when the marriage broke up unfortunately so did the DUO! Which is when I realised I now had to go SOLO! So I started writing these songs like "So Good, So Right" and "Way Back When" and "If Only For One Night" - which Luther Vandross of course later ended up recording - and basically just opened up a new LEAF! Which eventually led to me getting signed to A&M Records as a SOLO artist.”

How she now looks back on her acclaimed self-titled debut solo album. Which, released in 1979, spawned singles like the US Top 30 "So Good, So Right" and the enduring UK-soul-crowd favourite "In The Thick Of It"

“I’m actually still very PROUD of it - because I didn’t let myself be influenced by the sound of the DAY, which was DISCO music. You know, because I knew I’d been given the gift of a different kind of writing than disco, I felt that if I had this gift then I should use it or LOSE it! So, though I had offers from all these marvellous, top producers of the time, I ended up having to go against a lot of people’s feelings and not WORK with them! Because I knew that if I did recordings with these people, I’d end up SOUNDING like them - and once their sound became unpopular so would MINE!... So yeah, I actually ended up working with Andre Fischer, who was the founder of Rufus & Chaka Khan. You know, after he and I had worked on some arrangements together, I just straightaway knew he was the ONE! Because he understood exactly where I was coming from and, for better of for worse, in working with him I knew that I’d be able to sleep at night knowing I was using the gift I’d been GIVEN, and that I wasn’t just copying other PEOPLE.”

Brenda’s time spent living and songwriting in Sweden during the mid-Eighties, which saw her penning (amongst other material) the all-time classic ballad "Get Here"

“Oh, that was another extraordinary moment in my life where you’re just going on pure EMOTIONS! You know, I was asked to come to Sweden to film a TV show - and I ended up just falling in love with all the musicians and producers and great talent which, prior to me going there, I had no idea EXISTED in Stockholm! And so, because of that, we decided to stay and make a RECORD there with these people. Which is when I actually wrote "Get Here"... So yeah, Sweden in the mid-Eighties was just an amazing EXPERIENCE! I lived there for about four months, broke as hell but still INSPIRED! Just eating oatmeal and writing SONGS!”

The background to what has become Brenda’s signature tune - her haunting, triple-Grammy-nominated 1988 global hit "Piano In The Dark"

“Oh, that was such an amazing SONG! I mean, to me some songs just come along and are just meant to be BORN - and you’ve just gotta stay outta the WAY! I mean, Scott Cutler and Jeff Hull - my two co-writers on 'Piano In The Dark' - wrote the music; they sent me the tape; I was listening to it, thinking how beautiful it was… And, because I save song-titles, I already had ‘Piano In The Dark’ listed down as a song-title I’d SAVED... So when they called me and said ‘What have you got?’, straightaway I was like ‘How about ‘Piano In The Dark’?’ - you know, I basically just threw it out there very spontaneously! And so of course they were like ‘What’s that MEAN?’! To which I replied ‘I don’t KNOW, but I’ll figure it OUT!’ - which of course I DID!... And the funny thing about that song is that, though it became so popular, before I recorded it I didn’t actually think I could SING it! You know, I was just sitting there in the studio listening to these notes and realising it was actually quite a rangy SONG - which is something that a LOT of singes who’ve tried to sing it since have discovered! So I called up my co-writers. But then, as soon as I said ‘I don’t think I can sing this song, it goes too high’, they practically leapt through the PHONE! They were like ‘What do you MEAN? Of COURSE you can sing it! You sound GREAT!’… And so next thing I know, they’d talked me back INTO it! And I’m very, very glad they DID!”

Oleta Adams scoring a worldwide smash with her cover of Brenda’s "Get Here" in 1991

“Oh it was AMAZING! I just LOVE things like that! I mean, one of the things that makes me most happy about life in GENERAL is the great things that you don’t KNOW are gonna happen! Because that in itself can give you so much inspiration to keep GOING, even when you don’t know what’s around the CORNER! You know, someone just called me up one day and said ‘Listen to this’ - and it was Oleta singing her version of ‘GET Here’! And I immediately just started crying, mainly out of relief that somebody had actually FOUND the song! Because I’d always known that people would love that song if they could just HEAR it! I mean, for years I’d been bugging my publishing people saying ‘Get this song OUT there! Get a cover on this SONG!’… And now here comes Oleta absolutely killing it and making it a big smash HIT - and all those publishing guys who’d been telling me to beat it are now all onstage collecting their AWARDS!... So yeah, the whole experience was just totally wonderful! Oleta did a great, great job!”

Brenda’s current musical activities

“Well, I’ve had some health issues in recent years which kinda put me off for a second as far as recording goes, because I just didn’t have the TIME. You know, I basically had to concentrate on my health, because at the end of the day it’s more important to take care of yourself than to get fresh MUSIC out - because, when all is said and done, you do wanna be alive to keep on DOING it!... So yeah, I basically just decided to focus my time on healing my body, to where it’s only now that I’m actually able to get back to the MUSIC - in terms of writing, as well as re-learning my pro-tools… Which, with me recording a lot of my music in my house in my own studio, makes it all very EXCITING for me right now!”

Brenda performs at Union Chapel, London on April 14

The album "In The Thick Of It: The Best Of Brenda Russell" is out now through Dome

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