I confess to being unaware of the work of vocalist Alicia Olatuja until just last week, when Grammy-award winning producer Kamau Kenyatta called to let me know she was going to be in town and available for an interview. Experience has proven to me that Kenyatta doesn’t call unless the artist in question is something special, so I quickly signed on and spent the next 24 hours learning everything I could about this vibrant talent. Ms. Olatuja turned out to be a delightful conversationalist.
Robert Bush: You’ve obviously studied classical music. How does that background inform what you are doing now?
Alicia Olatuja: Classical training is great because it gives you this foundation of healthy technique for your instrument without necessarily assigning it to any genre. Healthy vocal technique is really important to me. I teach voice as well, and my students sing all different types of music.
For me, I started singing in the church. I love gospel music. I love R&B and soul, but I found that a lot of my friends started having calluses on their vocal cords and polyps and nodes and all kinds of health issues that can shorten or discourage a promising career. So I decided to go to school and learn classical singing because I wanted to know my instrument so I could have the freedom to do what I wanted to do. And through that, I learned classical repertoire. I was in a few operas, and I had some really amazing opportunities come about in the opera world that were completely unexpected. I made my professional debut when I was just three years into studying, and I still do classical music once a year -- just to keep my chops up. But whatever you’re singing, if you’re singing from a healthy bed of technique, you will have control and the freedom to express yourself without damaging your vocal cords. A lot of singers out there, even famous pop singers, have had some really scary issues, and that’s terrifying to me.
RB: Who are some important influences on you?
AO: You can’t really get around the influence of somebody like Ella Fitzgerald or Abbey Lincoln in the jazz world, and I really enjoy artists of all genres. I listened to a lot of male vocalists coming up like BeBe Winans and Larnelle Harris, and Take 6. Whitney Houston was obviously -- some people, you know, some people you can’t escape their influence. In the classical world, I was impressed by Leontyne Price and Renee Fleming, so the breadth of influence in terms of genre has been pretty wide. But they all had one thing in common -- they were coming from this really natural, organic place of singing that really hit close to the heart.
RB: After watching your concert video "Alicia Olatuja: Live at BRIC House," I was struck by your stage presence. Have you always been so at ease with performing?
AO: [Laughs] Oh no. I used to be as stiff as a nutcracker, you know, those little dolls. I remember one of my first voice teachers and mentors, his name was Eric Dillner, he said you just have to give yourself permission to be expressive. You have to give yourself permission to enjoy the music. I’ve always been an expressive communicator when I’m talking to my friends -- but when you get on stage you think that something has changed, and it really hasn’t changed. Everybody is coming to hear you say something. People want to connect with what you are saying, even if it’s in a foreign language, even if it’s just background "oohs" and "ahhs." You have to give yourself permission to just relax and enjoy the moment, which is so short compared to everything else that’s required of you as a performing artist. The traveling is so long, the shuffling around and driving is so long, going online and doing your promotion and having meetings, those are long and drawn out – only about 10 percent is actually happening onstage.
RB: You mentioned singing in different languages. How did that come about?
AO: I developed an early appetite for languages. When I was in fourth grade, I started gravitating towards tunes in different languages. The first tune I ever sang was in Spanish, and I fell in love with how the message transcended the language. So when I decided to go and study classical music, I had to study Italian, French and German -- diction and language. Because of that I learned the diction necessary to become that key that unlocks pronunciation and other things you need when you’re learning other languages. I love singing in Portuguese and Yoruba and other languages as well.
I went to Brazil when I was still in school, and by the end of nine days, I was pretty conversational. Once you have that early exposure to foreign languages it seems a little easier to pick up new ones.
RB: You recently guested on Gregory Porter’s new album. What was that experience like?
AO: It was great. I mean, I had a feeling it was going to be great because anything with Kamau Kenyatta involved is going to be great. I had never met Gregory before, but of course I knew who he was and I knew his music. But whenever you meet an artist you admire for the first time you’re thinking, "Oh god, please let this be a good experience!" It felt really natural and organic and comfortable. It’s such a beautiful piece, and he’s such an amazing vocalist -- unaffected beautiful phrasing, heartfelt soulful approach to the music. I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from people who love the track. You never know how people are going to receive the gift you give them. You just give it. Give your gift and walk away [laughs].
Alicia Olatuja performed at the Loft on May 12, 2016.