Living Legend: An Interview with Brenda Russell

Friday, May 27, 2011 19:51
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Brenda Russell

Brenda Russell

So Good, So Right. Get Here. Piano in the Dark: These are just a few of the countless works the legendary Brenda Russell has contributed to the art of music. There are few musicians who can claim multiple avenues of expression to their musicality, however, Ms. Russell can.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ms. Russell moved to Hamilton, Ontario where she discovered and developed an uncommonly keen sense of music. Whether through songwriting, singing, or playing instruments, Ms. Russell has educated the masses with music.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Russell during her stay in San Diego and she offered great insight and wisdom on the music world as well as her own career and the lasting impression she has made.

How would you say the music industry has evolved from when you first started song writing and singing to today?

Ms. Russell: “On the business side, it has evolved. However; on another level it, has devolved. Musically, the industry has gone in the other direction. There is not enough attention paid to diversity within the Black community and music. In modern R&B, there is so much hip hop and rap incorporated. When Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder made music, a story was told; music was soulful. There were different layers to songs. Black people have always been so diversified and you could see that from that era. But now the perspective is so narrow. Younger people have no way of learning from music and what has happened. With the removal of music education from schools, exposure is non-existent and you can’t move forward unless you know from where you’ve come.”

What steps need to be taken to educate young African American children on music as classes are phased out of schools?

Ms. Russell: “It is our responsibility to play the music for them. We must play jazz and big band. My taste is very broad because I was exposed to all different genres of music. Children are also not being taught to play instruments, read or write music; which is harmful. There are countries around the world that teach music for free, but not America. Sadly in this country, we must pay for any type of music lesson. Jazz is especially important to the African American culture. It is true American music tells the story of our people. To blend this generation of hip hop and previous generations is possible as a mixture of jazz and hip hop is a very cool thing. But if you don’t know about it then you can’t appreciate it; which is why we in the African American community must educate our children.”

You are a true musician, playing instruments, songwriting and singing. How important is versatility in the musice industry?

Ms. Russell: “Years ago, you had to do everything. People were singing, dancing, doing everything. Now, you don’t necessarily have to as there are many musicians who specialize in one thing whether that is writing, composing and so forth. Musically, we’re in the middle of a transition for creative people. As long as you are good at one thing, you can collaborate together and build things together. It’s really important to try to be good at what you do and don’t settle.

With my own music I will push myself until I feel it’s a great lyric. Especially true within writing. At times people don’t believe in themselves and are therefore always trying to copy other’s styles and techniques. If you’re gifted, God is trying to bring that out, as everyone’s gift is unique to them.

People who have longevity are unique; for example, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. They didn’t try to copy anyone else.” What is the key to your longevity and success? Ms. Russell: “A passion for music and a positive attitude about life in general. You’ll have ups and downs in all walks of life, but a positive attitude can sustain you. And of course inspiration.”

What inspires you in life and how does that translate into your songwriting?

Ms. Russell: “I’ve always been inspired by real life events with myself and others. I’m very spiritual and in tune with The Creator and God, that’s what I turn to. I realized at a young age that I have a huge invisible partner [God]. I am deeply inspired by people who have passed over, such as George Gershwin, and I call on those people to help me and provide inspiration. And they help me.”

What song that you’ve written, sung or played most exemplifies who you are?

Ms. Russell: “There are many different sides to my musicality. I write in all different styles as I was exposed to different styles. I love Ivan Lins, the Brazilian composer and the song, She Walks This Earth. I love that kind of music. I also love the Oleta Adams ballads, including the song, Get Here. Of course I would include, Piano in the Dark, my most popular song.”

Out of all of the collaborations you’ve done, with whom did you enjoy working with the most?

Ms. Russell: “I love writing with Michael McDonald and Stevie Wonder, and my writing team with The Color Purple. They were an incredible writing team as we spent five years working on the music. Writing and composing The Color Purple music was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think had I known it would take five years I probably wouldn’t have done it. It was a huge test and everyone was doubtful it could be done. People thought, “How could you put music to The Color Purple?” When actually, The Color Purple was the perfect work to put to music. We wanted to honor Alice Walker’s work.”

What is the proudest moment in your life?

Ms. Russell: “The production of The Color Purple on Broadway. It was a star-studded event, with Sydney Poitier and Oprah in attendance among others. It was a proud moment in my musical life as we were nominated for a Tony Award, Best Music and/or Lyrics Written for Theater. It was beautiful seeing everyone admire your work and everything come to life. Also being nominated for three Grammy Awards for Pia no in the Dark, which was my most popular song.”

What’s something interesting about you that your fans don’t know?

Ms. Russell: “I like to sketch portraits of people with charcoal. All creativity comes from the same place. It’s a matter of desire and passion and mixing that with honoring the soul.”


WHAT: Brenda Russell
WHEN: Saturday, May 28th, 2011, 7:30 & 9:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$49 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile