Monday, February 22, 2010

Jocelyn Ellis & The Alpha Theory

photo by David Foster III

Jocelyn Ellis And The Alpha Theory are an experimental group of musicians, that fuse rock, soul, hip hop, and other various genres to define the sound of Urban Folk. Together they seek to create a movement of music that breaks down all barriers. My conversation with Jocelyn was a wonderful journey into the mindset of someone who wants to make a difference through the gift of music.

DC: Why did you say yes to this documentary?

JE: It's an exciting concept that gives voice to so many of us that don't get an opportunity to discuss our craft and our passion and love for music. It's a chance to hopefully network with women who have the same passion.

DC: How do you define your music?

JE: I classify it as Urban, Folk & Rock, more Urban Folk mainly. Urban Folk is a little obscure as a genre but I think it fits more of what we do. When you listen to folk songs you think of stories being told, and string instruments, and sitting on the porch and someone singing. I started out that way, where it was just me singing and doing everything. Then you add the band (the Alpha Theory) and they've helped to bring a big part of the Rock elements that make the sound unique to what we do as a collective.

DC: How did you discover that you wanted to pursue this genre more so than R&B?

JE: I'm a creator who doesn't like boxes, labels, names, titles or even genre's. That's why I like Urban Folk because it's undefined in a sense and still questioning. With my music you may hear a little jazz, a little soul, gospel, rock, pop it just depends on the mood that I'm trying to create with the song at hand. Not labeling the music allows me to be free to just create and go with it, without worrying if I'm creating within the box. To me R&B has gotten to a point where they are so boxed in and restricted in terms of where they can go musically. I knew that with my style I wanted to go everywhere musically. If I want to sing operatically one day and then throw in some guitar licks, with African percussions, to make it what it is then so be it. I just see limitations with R&B. I just want my music to resonate with people regardless of the label that is attached to it.

DC: So if the industry did away with genre labeling do you feel like the doors would open up for you?

JE: Definitely! I'm so anti- labels and the needing to put any kind of definition on what the music is. I mean it helps us as artist to try and articulate it because the question is always being asked of you "What is your music?" But in the same since it limits the expression of where your music can go, because once you say my music is this, then you become boxed to that. I think the best scenario would be to create a scenario that has no walls, no doors, no windows, no ceilings, and no floors, so that it allows artists to be as free as they can. I think if it were open an free like that, people would come to you regardless to listen to the music, instead of you trying to break down someone's door to show them or tell them what your music is.

DC: So how do you avoid the label?

JE: It's hard because the industry is so label driven. When I started cultivating my music and my style I knew that my music didn't fit in R&B and I couldn't be just classified as jazz, or rock. So we had to define and find a place where our music could be free and breathe and exist for what it is beyond a label. We as a band took control of how we promoted ourselves.

DC: So you started as a solo artist. How did adding the band enhance your sound?

JE: I started as a solo artist singing and playing piano and being labeled as an R&B artist, because as an artist playing piano you are either Jazz or R&B in the mindset of record labels. I knew that my music was something else. I met the drummer in one of my classes and he came out to fill in for another drummer that was out. After that gig he told me about his band and that they were looking for a lead singer. I went down to practice with them one day and it just clicked. From the moment they started playing and I started singing it just clicked. We've been together ever since. I always wanted to explore the rock side of my music with live instrumentation besides just the piano. I never thought I would find a group of individuals who were as dedicated to their craft as I was and learning to perfect their craft on their own. To me it's more than talent, it's more about passion and the need to study your craft to the fullest. We've been together about a year and half and it's been wonderful.

DC: So how does your audience perceive your band?

JE: When we first got together it was like people saw it as an R&B soul singer playing with a rock band, but after people got used to me being a part of the band they realized that we were a rock band. We weren't separate entities coming together we were just one.

DC: What are some of the issues that you are faced with in this industry as a Black woman?

JE: It goes back to having to prove yourself. As a black woman fronting a predominantly white band you are faced with having to prove that you belong in that band. Once they see you perform and hear the music, that all goes away. It's just getting past the hurdle that maybe you don't belong in that spot through the perceptions of others. I love this band and it is the perfect fit for what we do. The ethnicity of who we are doesn't matter because the music speaks for itself.

JE: It's interesting because none of us in the band see color. We see notes, we see melodies and rhythm. We don't bring that into our world or even notice it until someone else brings that up and honestly no one has really brought it up. There maybe the curious looks of some, but like I said that goes away the minute we begin to perform.

DC: I read somewhere that you wanted to start something called the "Jenesis Movement". What is that?

JE: It's basically a movement of community and universality through music. It's the new birth of sharing music and to basically revolutionize how we perceive music and the images that we put out. It goes back to the bible and genesis. In the bible genesis is the first book, it's the beginning. So with the Jenesis Movement it represents a new beginning and community of creators and sharers that just love the art of making music, and support one another no matter where your from, what you believe in, or where you live. For me that's why I do music, that's what I represent. I love life and people and my gift is music and I want to share that in a pure way.

DC: Are you self produced?

JE: We are unsigned so we produce and promote ourselves. We do talk about it as a group on whether we want to pursue a label deal, but we also would like to maintain and keep control of our content, which is hard to do within the structure of most mainstream deals. From my stand point the structure of record labels is dying anyway. The other thing is that with all of the technology that's out there you can do a lot of what a label does, and if you can find the capital to start your own, there is no need for a mainstream label.

JE: If we could find a good indie label with the same vision as the band, then that would be something to look at, but for right now we are still self producing and promoting ourselves. The main goal is to be able to live off of what you do and for some that's where being signed to a label comes into play but they give up a lot for that deal. They say for every five to six bands signed to a label, only one is really successful.

DC: Did your music grow once you became part of the band?

JE: It definitely grew. Adding those additional instruments adds so much to the sound and the richness of a song. I can only do so much on a piano with ten fingers and the song is wonderful, but when you need to add the depth that you're looking for, sometimes you have to add additional instruments to bring that forth. It helped me expand creatively. There's something magical when you play with live musicians that resonates and pushes the music further. My band came with a breathe of musical knowledge and they've taught me so much about their own instruments and being around those instruments. I can hear bass parts so much more in songs, distinguish the difference between live drums and synth drums, it's just been an amazing musical journey working with these guys. My ear is more refined having worked with these guys. When you have four energies sharing it just takes the music to an entirely different level.

DC: Where are you trying to get to musically?

JE: I think as a group we are trying to get to a place where we can share our musical globally. It would be great to be at a point in our careers where we can our and share our music in other countries and to be able to grow culturally through those experiences. It's experiences, traveling and life that make you grow as an individual and for us as a band. I think that's part of where we would like to go musically.

DC: Who are some of your musical influences that keep you motivated?

JE: When I was growing up my mom was a huge influence, because she listened to everything. Whether it was a soundtrack from a movie, George Michael, Stevie Wonder or the Police, it was just a breathe of music that she introduced me too. As I started discovering music myself I would say, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Janice Joplin, Michael Jackson, Sade. I love Sade! Alicia Keys was inspiring because I never saw a female artist that sang and played the piano. She let me know that it was ok to be that type of artist. As I grew older I discovered other women that sang and played at the piano, but Alicia Key's was within my generation and refreshing to see.

DC: What is it about Janis Joplin?

JE: It was her passion. I mean when she sang you felt every single tear that she ever cried, you could feel her pain, her laughter, her love. She sings with so much depth and passion and soul. Her music is gritty and heavenly at the same time. I love listening to her because she created music that people felt, and that's something that I strive for with my music. I want people to feel my music. When I listen to Prince or Aretha, their music moves me. I want to move people.

DC: What was it about Prince?

JE: Prince is one of the most innovative artist that I've studied. He goes from singing straight pop rock to a sound that you can't define, to being so diverse that he is just Prince. He's an artist that experiments with instrumentation, he's brilliant at production, the way that he arranges his songs and the methods of composing and playing all of the instruments, I mean he has it all. He's just a genius.

DC: What do you think needs to change in the industry to give artist like yourself and equal platform for getting your music out there.

JE: That's a good question. I don't think the industry is going to change. I think it's always going to be what it is. It will evolve because of technology and the way that they market, but it's like any other industry, it's still going to be the industry. I think that for us it's really not about the industry changing for us, but us changing the industry.

DC: So how would you change it?

JE: What comes to mind is breaking the machine. Like breaking the machine and building it back up from scratch, because I think that we've squeezed so much of the pureness and the creativity out of the music to make it an industry. People aren't getting the creativity anymore, their getting whatever is left after the industry molds you into what they want you to be. I would like to see a breaking of the system, because if the system breaks then that means that the gates are really open for all of this music that is out here and still pure but no one gets to hear.

DC: So it's like processed food. You keep eating what's put in front of you and then you get your taste of some organic and you're like what is this?

JE: It's the same thing. You can hear the same thing over and over and then one artist will come out that makes your ears stand at attention and you start searching for who that artist. It takes you out of the day to day rotation of what your ears have been conditioned to. We need that on a more regular basis. We need people to be hungry for something new and daring instead of the dame cookie cutter music we are fed.

DC: Tell me about our EP "In The Begining".

JE: "In The Beginning" was a wondrous experience. It was my first time producing an EP. I started the EP just as I met the guys, so when you listen to it, it's a combination between my solo work and my collaboration with the band. You will hear tracks with the synthesized music and some hip hop elements, and then you will hear the tracks with live instrumentations and that's when the guys come in. It gives people a chance to see what I did as a soloist and also what we've done as band. It's a good taste of who we were at that time.

DC: What do you think your second album will be like?

JE: We really just create some really great things together. I think the next album will be just a great embodiment of us growing together and highlighting our different voices within the album. We all have great ideas and sensibilities that help to enhance our band's sound. It's going to be different and out of the mold and out of the box. It will be a very diverse album that will resonate with a lot of people. I'm excited about it.

DC: What's your favorite song from the EP "The Beginning?"

JE: It would be "Sugar Rose" because it's a song that derives from the things that I took from my family including the lessons, words of wisdom, and just things that inspired me growing up.

DC: What do you want your listeners to walk away with when they listen to your music?

JE: I want them to walk away rediscovering that they are human. I want to rekindle emotion and humanity in us, and if I can do that through music with the band that would be an amazing thing.

DC: So what's going on with the band?

JE: Currently we are on tour in North Carolina, which is where we're from, as well some other cities on the east coast. After the tour we're taking a writing break for a couple of months just to finish and tighten up some pieces that we've been putting together, and it's a really good time because it's busy and we're learning a lot, but we are also experiencing the pains of the underground where you're wanting to do 10,000 things, but only having ten hands. It's a great experience because we get to keep our feet on the ground and we get to learn about all sides of the music industry, from the promotions, marketing, financing, it all teaches you what this business is all about for yourself. So it's just a good growing period for us. It's exciting right now.

You can learn more about Jocelyn Ellis and The Alpha Theory at their website:

Video of Jocelyn Ellis and the Alpha Theory performing "Sugar Rose":

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