Amel Larrieux Shines On
Interview by DJ Rahdu
In 1995 two genre defining albums were released: D’angelo’s Brown Sugar and Groove Theory’s self titled album. Groove Theory’s album not only helped to usher in the popular Neo Soul movement, it inserted the name of Amel Larrieux into our musical lexicon. After releasing the popular single, “Tell Me”, and gaining popularity the group disbanded. Amel reappeared, however, in 2000 as a solo artist with another well regarded single, “Get Up”, from her album Infinite Possibilities. Amel has not stopped creating albums for our listening pleasure, and has continued to create great music that transcends genres and challenges its listeners. Currently, Amel is embracing the ever changing face of music distribution with her straight to download singles of which “Orange Glow” has already been released.
Nu-Soul: I like to begin by going into the origin, getting into the root, about the artists that we’re interviewing. So where are you from?
Amel Larrieux: Born and raised in New York City.
Nu-Soul: Alright, how did you decide to choose singing as your art form?
AL: I came from a family of artists. My mom was a dancer and an actress, and professor of dance history. My dad is a photographer and I grew up in the artist building in Manhattan, and all my friends were children of artists. I just, kinda think I was a product of my environment, I danced for the first twelve years of my life and always, always wrote songs, so, I guess I just ended up going with the one I liked better, which turned out to be music.(laughs)
AL: Yeah, yeah.
Nu-Soul: Now, we were introduced to you, with Groove Theory, in 1995, which happened to be one of the harbingers of the Nu Soul movement. I know your album was released the same year as D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar in 1995. How did you meet Bryce Wilson, who was a member of Mantronix, which was a hip-hop group?
AL: Well, I had a job in a music publishing company when I was 18, and the publisher was actually the person that signed Bryce as a producer. And, she knew that I was, was a singer songwriter, and he was trying to put together a group, and he was shopping around this tape, at that time when there were tapes, with a female singer, a male singer and stuff, and, his publisher said; “look, you wanna try writing a song? You know I can give you one of the tracks, and you can do it, and if you don’t mind, you can demo it.” So I wrote it, and I demoed it myself. And when I did it Bryce was interested in having me as the singer and songwriter of the group instead of having a bunch of singers, and a bunch of different songwriters. It seemed easier for him to invite me in the group, and I wasn’t doing anything else at that time, so I was like Sure! So I went ahead and, became the other member of Groove Theory.
Nu-Soul: Cool so, what was your inspiration or the group’s inspiration when you were recording the album? I mean it’s timeless; it still stands to this day.
AL: Well, I mean, inspiration was being young and green and having years and years of songs written before then, and never being in the studio before. It’s a live combination of inexperience, excitement, innocence, and a lot to say, you know being years and years of writing stuff, and watching things, and I grew up at the time, that the Native Tongues was really popular, that really influenced me. I think I grew up in the hey day of Hip Hop, the best hip-hop, the late 80’s, early 90’s, so I had a lot of stuff to inspire musically that was going on. And, it was inspirational, for me, as a songwriter, to be able to have, all my own material that I was writing, as opposed to, being in a group where some things are written for you.
AL: And being produced as a vocalist. I didn’t have that. I was producing my own vocals. And I was arranging everything, and doing all my own backgrounds. That in itself was inspirational because it let me carve out my own niche. You know?
AL: Control my own sound.
Nu-Soul: One thing that really made an impression on me, in 1995, while listening to the Groove Theory album was the substance in your writing! Were you ever asked to tone that down as a member of Groove Theory?
AL: Yes, (laughs) many times. And I was asked to tone it down as a solo artist, which is one of the reasons why I was really glad to leave the major label where I was signed because, they wanted, they definitely wanted me to do stuff that wasn’t necessarily so, maybe such “thinking music” or something. Like I wanted to protest at different times, but yeah, I think it just comes with the territory, I remember thinking “they got a stereotype of what a black female’s supposed to do, or a female’s supposed to do, or a black artist in general’s supposed to do”. So when you, when you have something else to say or you have another way of presenting yourself; there’s sometimes some friction and it’s just about persevering, how much you wanna be, you know, like the statement says, if you wanna do you. It’s about how bad you wanna do you, so, it was cool, I mean it was nice.
I had already, I had met my husband, he was co-writing with me at that time, when, in Groove Theory we had already gotten married by the time Groove Theory came out, and, we were kinda like a team, you know, the two of us. He understood where I was coming from, and where I felt like everybody else was questioning my theories of, you know, how to write, how can I present myself, how I was gonna vocalize…he was really supportive of me finding myself and nurturing myself as this like growing artist. I was young; I signed the demo when I was 19. So, saying all that to say, I think all that stuff is necessary to make you into an artist. You know, being questioned, you’re gonna be questioned once you put yourself out into the public.
Nu-Soul: OK, So are those some of the things that made you decide to leave Groove Theory?
AL: (hesitantly) Yes, I mean I really wanted to be able, you know, if you don’t, if you’re always this person, and then you enter a group and you have another person to think about.
AL: Of course you have to make a bunch of compromises and that, you know, I just couldn’t go on forever. We wanted different things and a combination of that and the label wanting different things from us just made me decide that it was time to move on and you know, kinda like I’d been in the group since I was 19, and you know it was like maybe graduating from college or high school or something.
Nu-Soul: So 2000 we get Infinite Possibilities, so, how did you come up with that title?
AL: I don’t know its music that Laru, my producer, my husband was working on and I just started singing it as a chorus. I think I was actually, yeah I think I started singing the hook before I even started writing the verse.
AL: But I just kept singing that line, it was something, it’s one of the mysteries of song writing, when lyrics just pour out with melody, and you’re signing it, you don’t really know how it happened, but you know, you just go with flow, try to write it down quickly, capture it and move on.
Nu-Soul: Ok, now throughout your music career, looking over the course of your next albums, we see that you really don’t stay inside of a certain type of box, and we begin to see that with Infinite Possibilities with songs like “Down” and “INI” with different musical compositions, for lack of a better phrase. So was that …
AL: yeah, I’m sorry, (laughs). Did you wanna finish your question?
Nu-Soul: No, go ahead, go ahead…
AL: I think that you’re asking if that was intentional.
Nu-Soul: Yeah, I was.
AL: It’s not; I mean I’ll tell you this, I’ve figured out now, you know, I’ve been in this business right now for 14 years like you said, I’ve figured out by now that I’m not into conforming, I’m not into doing formulaic things per se’, but I do have some kind of formula which is, doing things, some how collecting, channeling into the thing that flows out of me naturally, and I’ve figured out that that thing, is not easily put in a box. And I do make the conscious decision maybe to go against the grain so, so I don’t, you know, write songs to be different.
I said earlier I think I’m a product of my environment, but my environment was an anomaly. It’s not just the norm, or not usual to grow up in a huge apartment building where they’re all kinds of visual artists; musicians, directors, actors, dancers, and then their kids and they’re all from different walks of life. You know economics, different economics, different racial backgrounds. You know I grew up at a time when the West Village of New York and artists were still coming here because it was cheap. You could take your studio or loft and you know, do their art inexpensively, and it was a Mecca for these kind of people and their kids. This is how I grew up, I didn’t have the usual upbringing, and I didn’t have the run of the mill musical environment. I had a lot of different sounds, and a lot different artistic expressions coming at me from different directions. And that is part of the reason why I go in a lot of different directions with my songwriting, with my singing. I feel like I’m all over the place and there are times in my life when I felt that I was teased about it as a kid, I didn’t fit into situations, but now that I’m an adult, I feel like that’s me, you know, take it or leave it. I choose to take it; otherwise I’d be pretty miserable.
Yeah, you can go from a song like “INI” to a song like “Tell Me.” I can’t really tell you why it happened the way it did, and I don’t think that it has to be, my upbringing that shapes you. You know it shapes the kid whose father is a basketball player he might really, probably become a basketball player. So, you know, I grew up around the artistic parents that were definitely not mainstream, and I guess that kinda happened to me too a little bit but not trying to be mainstream, it’s kind of where I’ve ended up.
Nu-Soul: I was looking at the Bliss Life website, and I saw that someone described your style as “having eclectic sensibilities”, and on 2004’s Brave Bird; there are a lot more styles starting to get introduced. You have a dance type feel with “Brave Bird”, there’s a slight rock edge with “All I Got”, and somewhat of a world influence with “Congo”. So, I know that this was your first album with Bliss Life, was this your way of spreading your wings or like an expression of freedom. Sort of like your Ha Ha, I can do what I want to do now, I got my own label.
AL: Totally, it definitely might be. You get freedom and you’re like, ok, now I can start doing things without constraint. Sometimes people will say; well it’s so different than this album, and this album is so different than the next album. Well I’m kinda planning to be around for awhile, I really love doing this, and I would love to keep making music. So I was considering each album to have a chance to do its own things, have its own flavor and then the next one might not be exactly the same, there might be some other stuff going on. I see each album as an opportunity to express what I didn’t get to do the last time. I guess I’m not, and Laru and I both feel the same way that we wanna find a blue line so that people can feel like; they’re not getting lost when they listen to the album, I want there to be some kind of clarity. We also feel like, we just like to edit down all the best stuff that we work on, because we’re always working, and put it together and group it, because that’s what albums are. Now of course, the world is downloading, even my 14 year old daughter and I were talking about this, she doesn’t download albums, she downloads songs. So they can stand on their own, and it’s even more beneficial for me to be independent and be able to put things out, expressing the way I want and not have them in a box, they all stand alone completely now.
Nu-Soul: I know in 2006 you returned to us once again with the album Morning, and this one has more of a return to an R&B type feeling, I know you actually had two songs that broke radio; “Weary” and “Gills and Tails.” Was that intentional or did it just happen like that?
AL: It happened like that…with each album it’s nice to have a song that’s radio friendly, that’s like with Bravebird’s “For Real” from that album that was on radio, you know it’s helpful because it sells albums. Again, you don’t intentionally do songs to stay off the radio.
AL: (laughs) You wanna get songs, you wanna get them out to people and it’s definitely a bonus when radio picks up on something. Again, we just put together the songs we had recorded roughly, edited them down to the group that feels most cohesive, that was the album, and if 2 of those songs made the radio that was great, again that was a bonus.
Nu-Soul: It’s so amazing looking at your career, to see the things that you’ve done. I know earlier you mentioned that you wanna have longevity, you enjoy doing this, and you wanna stay in the game. The choices that you’ve made have definitely made it easy to remain relevant, and to remain in the game especially with 2007’s Lovely Standards. Were you worried about the fans’ reaction to you making a jazz album?
AL: No, because when we did that we knew that it was gonna be a real niche album. It was gonna be about people that were truly loyal to me as an artist and willing to go wherever I was going and it was also gonna be those people that, who say they really do like jazz for jazz, not because the artist that they know is doing it, but they listen to jazz and they’re understanding of being experimental within that form so… we purposely only pressed up a small amount of albums, and you know, didn’t go huge with it. We kind of wanted to feel our way around it, and view it as a kinda small intimate thing. It did it open up doors for me in the jazz world somewhat, jazz venues definitely. There are music cliques wherever you go; it’s just as hard to be allowed into the jazz world as it is to be allowed into mainstream pop, it’s all cliquey.
Nu-Soul: Actually it’s quite an epiphany because I never thought about it that way.
AL: It’s like when you talk about people who are like, “we do alternative”. Well, once you do alternative then it’s like the alternative people have their noses up at the mainstream people, the mainstream people have their nose up at the hip hop crowd. The hip hop crowd is like “you can’t be coming here if you don’t have a hard beat”, and then the classical crowd thinks that everybody…you know, they’re just on and on and on. It’s so anti everything, everywhere I’m coming from, and it’s just the complete opposite of my angle. If I have an angle it’s to be able to be everywhere, and soak up everything, cuz that’s what we’re there for. Life is a wasted chance if you can’t enjoy a lil bit of everything. At least try it, you know, if you don’t like it you don’t have to have it.
Nu-Soul: I know one thing that’s different musically now, is that our parents used to listen to everything. I was speaking to my dad the other day and I was actually surprised my Dad told me that he used to listen to Pink Floyd. Our parents and grandparents used to like country, they listened to rock and roll, they had a vast amount of music they listened to, but nowadays we have to be a certain thing…I’m a hip hop guy, or I’m a neo soul guy, or I’m a house person, or I’m an alternative cat, and it’s so difficult now, I’m assuming, as an artist to try fit in all those boxes without being considered to be flighty or trying to cross over to a certain extent.
AL: Well, I’m sure I’ve already been accused of that, luckily, I think one of the benefits of being on a major label and having this big cross over song, and gold records and a gold single, and stuff and all that is that I got to get into people’s heads. Laru has a saying, “You put the cod liver oil in the orange juice, and they get it, and they don’t know what they’re getting, they don’t know that they’re getting a good thing, or they don’t know that they’re getting this other thing. You slide it in there. I remember from the very beginning when Groove Theory was like, “well the rest of the album is not like Tell Me”. But, there were enough people that did accept it, and like it for what it was, and liked “Tell Me” and a song like “10 Minute High” from the album or some of the other songs. I want to keep mentioning how the internet, Laru got us involved in that way before, when I was with Epic, he started our own website before the label even got hip to it. They didn’t even know what he was talking about, and he knew that that was gonna be a world for me, that would span across the globe and across time. It would give me that freedom and the longevity, and the space to be able to be whoever I wanted to be and make the kinda music that we wanted to make. So, it’s kinda cool because I can be considered, on iTunes, a folk artist, a singer song writer, R&B, hip hop… you know, I don’t know what it’s gonna be, as long as I’m in the category is what I’m saying.
Nu-Soul: Ok now, I know earlier you were talking about the conversation with your daughter and the internet, and you were saying that she doesn’t download albums, she downloads songs. I read that you wrote that music is being consumed differently now, so I’m assuming that that’s what you were talking about…
Nu-Soul: In 2009 you’ve decided to do a total of at least 4 downloads in 4 months, releasing 1 a month. You jumped it off with “Orange Glow”, and I know on April the 14th we’re gonna get “Don’t Let Me Down.” I was reading that you’re listening to Tony Allen right now…can we expect any Afro Beat from you anytime soon?
AL: You never knooOOoow.
Nu-Soul: So what else can we look forward to from Amel Larrieux in the future?
AL: I just told you, everything and more, cuz I really do feel like this one…it’s the benefit. It’s what makes artists the envy of so many people, it’s that you can’t. You can’t express yourself; you have to wear a suit to work. That in a nutshell, I don’t have to wear a suit to work, meaning metaphorically, that I don’t have to conform; I can say and be what I want, and how I want. I will always want to give the very best I possibly can, if nothing, but to have people experience 5 minutes of joy, or laughter, or movement, or whatever they choose to my music. I’m trying to give a little escapism and a little something soothing from whatever they’re experiencing in their life cuz that’s what music does for me. I hope that I can continue to, and that’s what I’m gonna try to do.
Nu-Soul: Well thank you so much for your time, thank you for the music, and good luck in your future endeavors.