Official Biography (courtesy of Stephanie McKay)
Living in the post-millennium era of bootylicious videos and plastic grooves, the death of soul music has been greatly exaggerated. Still, no matter how much the sound changes, there is always a savior who manages to drag the rhythm back to its roots. A decade past it was all about D'Angelo, in 1998 it was Lauryn Hill keeping it real, but in 2006 the fix is on Stephanie McKay.
Already called a "gutsy" singer in the pages of British Esquire, the music offered on McKay's highly anticipated sophomore disc Tell It Like It Is happens to be that proverbial next level that most artists merely dream about. "Over the years I gathered a lot of knowledge from studying my record collection and also collaborating with dynamic performers and producers. At every stage I took notes to hone my craft and develop my voice," Stephanie says. "Those notes were constant references while I was creating the sound of the album."
Growing up in the Bronx, McKay's diverse musical education can also be heard on Tell It Like It Is. McKay says, "I have a brother who is eight years older than me, who was always playing 70's soul and funk music like Earth, Wind And Fire and the Ohio Players, while my mom was in the other room listening to Al Green and Barry White. On my own though, I was a fan of the classic pop station WABC, where I first discovered artists like Michael Jackson and Jim Croce. On top of that, the Bronx is a borough of many cultures, so I was exposed to everything from salsa to Sinatra. For me, Led Zepplin and P-Funk create the same vibration of musical joy."
Like Neneh Cherry or Jill Scott before her, Stephanie McKay has always used hip-hop as the foundation to build beautiful musical compositions, yet refuses to limit her beat-box inspirations to merely rapping over obvious samples. "Coming from the Bronx Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, were in constant rotation on the block, and Jimmy Castor and James Brown were blasting at the block party. I am a round da' way b-girl at heart- yes my baby hairs were slicked down, my head wrapped" jokes McKay.
A former dancer who grew up studying at The Alvin Ailey school, the veteran singer/songwriter has had an eclectic musical background that includes touring the world with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, vocalizing on sessions with Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Tricky, and Roy Hargrove, playing lead guitar in Kelis' band, and wailing Rick James and Teena Marie songs in the shower.
Yet, as much as McKay loves the big apple sound, it wasn't until traveling to Bristol, England to work with Portishead founder Geoff Barrow on her first album that things started connecting. Having met Barrow through her friend and former collaborator Carl Hancock Rux, the critically acclaimed album McKay was called "outstanding" by the UK's trend-setting Arena magazine.
"Geoff Barrow is a visionary," McKay told a reporter. "He had a clear understanding of how to layer things sonically and give each sound its own unique space to create a mood." Indeed, this mastermix of Bristol and Bronx proved a worthy sonic experiment. But while McKay carried over Barrow's trademarked Portishead sound, Tell It Like It Is is truly Stephanie's own vision.
McKay wrote much of Tell It Like It Is in various hotel rooms and tour buses while touring Europe with keyboardist sensation Amp Fiddler, (who once played with Prince and was then touring to support his neo-funk solo joint Waltz of the Ghetto Fly). "Going on the road was the best thing to clear my head and start generating fresh ideas. It really motivated me to focus on what I wanted to do next with my music."
Recorded in New York, Philly, and Woodstock, Tell It Like It Is, is a stunning collection of compositions that fuses her powerful urban poetics with sonic sound waves that includes splashes of rock, pop, soul, and, of course hip-hop. "For me music is all about expressing your personal truth as honestly as you can" McKay explains. "Other than just making good songs, I wanted the listener to be able to feel all the passion and pain that I could muster."
Unafraid to scream at the sun or howl at the moon, McKay's title track is a bold statement against the chaos of the world. Like any real artist, McKay knows that in order to sing soul one must be willing to bear her own.
"For me â€˜Tell It Like It Is' is very personal statement," McKay confesses. "While writing that song, I felt a lot of pain that ranged from my young niece getting pregnant, to me witnessing two young boys dead on the street after a shoot-out. Living in the city you are witness to so much chaos, noise, information. I needed to find a creative release and the track inspired me to say my peace on this song".
Opening with a gutbucket guitar that conjures windy city bluesmen wailing their ax's on aboard a speeding freight train, a few beats later Stephanie brings the pain. "People everywhere so disillusioned of the way the world is today," McKay wails, an obvious hurting in her voice. Much like the depression that plagued Marvin Gaye before he entered Motown's studio to record What's Going On, McKay more than understood that she had to liberate that angst into a the microphone while still creating exquisite music.
One of the first tracks completed was the smoldering "Fiya." An anthem of positive thoughts, big beat drums and futuristic synth sounds, "Fiya" combines McKay's rock dreams with a noisy sonic backdrop. "This is one of my favorite songs," McKay admits. For me, â€˜Fiya' is an affirmation of all that I had to overcome to get to this point in my career. A reminder to myself to stay motivated when I feel discouraged. "Fiya" reminds me that I do it for the love, no matter what"
Another superb song is the hot fun in the summertime jam "Oh Yeah." Like master blasters Prince or Sly Stone, McKay understands that a great groove can go a long way. "Riding the subway you notice so many people worked into the ground, on the grind. I imagined what would happen if those people had the money to fulfill their every fantasy and do absolutely nothing or everything they desired," she explains.
Flipping the Motown pop structure on its head, McKay's luminous songwriting skills on "The Letter" is another milestone on Tell It Like It Is. "I co-wrote 'The Letter' with DemienDesandies to express our emotions about the family members of those soldiers in Iraq who are living everyday with the feeling of not knowing when they will see their mothers, husbands, sons and fathers again. I was reading letters in the paper everyday from mothers to their sons and it would break my heart."
The steamiest song on Tell It Like It Is has to be the naked emotion and murky bass of the love struck "Your Love Is Like." Slipping into the semi-darkness, where a red light bulb dangles from the ceiling and sweat is dripping down her back, McKay brilliantly captures the rhythmic rapture of a new romance.
With Tell It Like It Is, the alluring Stephanie McKay manages to retain her integrity as a singer/songwriter who refuses to be boxed in while still creating music that will sway the masses. Indeed, this is the future of soul.