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COLIE WILLIAMS 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
SOUL FOR A NEW DAY
Phone interview conducted July 13, 2011

On the heels of her latest CD release, LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS, Washington D.C.-based artist Colie Williams visited the UK recently to spread her Holistic Soul. She shares her story and talks about her influences and the development of her unique voice with SoulMusic.com’s Michael Lewis…


Michael Lewis: Hello, SoulMusic.com community, it is my pleasure today to bring you a conversation with one of the rising stars in the independent soul arena. A young lady with a distinct style and voice, she’s a dynamic live performer with her own brand which she calls Holistic Soul. Please welcome Colie Williams. How are you, Colie?

Colie Williams: I’m doing great. How are you, Michael? How are you doing?

ML: I’m good, I’m good. We are impressed with your latest CD, LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS, which has just been out a couple of months, and we are excited about your recent visit to the UK for the Bristol Indie Soul Mixer, spreading your word across the Atlantic. We want to talk to you about all that, but let’s start out with some introduction for those who don’t know you. Can you tell us a little bit about your origins and the evolution of your career?

CW: Yes. I’m originally from the Bronx, New York, and I moved to D.C. I actually got a job here and started working here. I actually moved for love, though, really to be honest, because my boyfriend at the time lived in the area, and that was one of the main reasons why I moved here. But I started out really doing theatre—that’s what I majored in in school at first—and from theatre I sort of—

ML: That was at Syracuse University, right?

CW: Yes, yes, I went to Syracuse University. But from theatre I then moved into performing live with bands, and then I started writing music; met a brother named Kawani Ali and we started writing music together, and because I had that live performance experience decided to not use tracks—because actually, when we first went into the studio together we were using tracks, but then we decided we wanted the whole concept to revolve around a live sound, since that’s what my experience had been in theatre and singing with bands. And so when we went into the studio we always used live music. So that’s sort of, quickly, a summary.

ML: Now how did you come up with the Holistic Soul? What does that mean for you?

CW: With Holistic, we wanted to give ourselves a name, because we felt that if we didn’t then people would brand us themselves or say, “Well, this is this kind of music”. So we wanted to come up with our own brand, and what we came up with was Holistic Soul. My voice really has a jazz sound—can’t get away from it; it’s not something that I planned—it’s just what it sounds like. So we were like, okay, we already have the jazz sounds in your voice, but we like all these other rhythms and we’ve incorporated all these other rhythms into the songs. And so we thought that it was Holistic that we used all of music: because we have a reggae tune, we have a go-go tune, we have tunes that sound more R&B, more jazzy; so we were like, it has a holistic sound. Plus, when you think of holistic you think of healing and uplifting, and we felt that our tunes really did that. So that’s how we came up with the name.

ML: Yeah, because there’s definitely a spiritual, uplifting element to what you do that’s very, very evident.

CW: Thank you, that’s what we want.

ML: Who were some of your early influences, musically? What kind of music did you listen to growing up and what has influenced what you do now?

CW: Well, in the house my mom played a lot of Motown, a lot of funk—definitely Patti LaBelle—so I grew up with that. But also, my father was a singer and he sang with a doo-wop group, so I heard a lot of harmonies and he encouraged my sister and I to harmonize with him all the time. He also loved Carole King, and I kind of forget in interviews to mention her because she really was a big influence. My father had her album TAPESTRY, and I know that was a big hit for her.

ML: Right—all-time classic.

CW: Yeah. And she had the words in the albums, so just listening to those melodies, I would sit there with it and listen to it and read—I was an early reader—and I would sit there and read it. I was really impressed with her and influenced by that songwriting, even though I really wasn’t songwriting until later on. But that was an influence. But I would say the female vocalist that influenced me the most as a teenager was Roberta Flack. She was my strongest female influence, even though there have been so many, but she was the person that I listened to over and over again, and I would almost sleep sometimes with her music on. I loved her tone; I thought it was so sweet, and that it also, to me, had a spiritual type of… at least for me, that’s the way it touched me. And it was almost like less was more with her. She didn’t do a lot of riffs; she was very clean, very clear—I understood everything she was saying—and every time she sang a song it was like a story. I don’t think I sound anything like her, but I think I’ve incorporated that part of it, that I want to tell a story every time I sing. And I do want to be able to touch you, and that’s what she did for me. I loved her; I listened to her so much. There have been many influences, but definitely she was the main female vocalist that I listened to.

ML: So you and Kawani Ali —that’s the name?

CW: Yes.

ML: You guys have really established a strong bond, because I think he cowrote with you most of the songs on LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.

CW: Yes. We met—and it’s interesting—we met right after 9/11. I went to see a friend of mine play that’s a drummer in the area, and he invited me out to see him play; he does a lot of jazz. And it was in Adams Morgan in D.C., and I walked into the spot and Kawani was there with another brother from New York, and so we started talking about New York and wow, it’s so crazy… it was just a couple of days after 9/11.

ML: Kawani, is he from New York also?

CW: He’s from Jersey City—he was born and raised in Jersey City, then he moved to this area. And so yeah, we just started talking about that, and then I started talking about that I was a vocalist and I do theatre. And then he was asking me if I wrote and I said, “Well, no, not really. I write poetry.” And then from there he was like, “Well, we need to get together because I’m a producer and I’m a songwriter, and maybe we can do some things together.” And that’s how our friendship began. From there we just followed up. He was really the impetus for me to start songwriting—I really feel like I learned from him, because he’s an extremely talented songwriter and producer, and he actually sings as well.

ML: Cool. Now, I know you have a weekly performance spot here in D.C. How did that evolve?

CW: Wow, that was me singing at Jo-Jo’s. I have a friend that I met… actually I had a performance at Busboys and Poets, when I first started performing with my band singing my original songs—had a performance at Busboys and Poets. And I’m a Delta, and one of my sorority sisters said “Come out,” and she brought friends with her. She brought a friend who has now become my friend who really enjoyed the performance. And he said, “You know what? I think you need to sing at this spot that I go to all the time. I love it; it’s called Jo-Jo’s.” And other people had mentioned Jo-Jo’s to me just as a place to go out and hang. They said, “You’ll really have a good time. They play live music.” But he said, “I really think we should go there.” So I went there with him and I met the owner, and it took about maybe six months and then I was in there, performing. And the rest is history.

ML: Because it’s definitely an advantage and it is a great, great little spot—it really is. Now I just want to talk a little bit about LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS. You start off with a song, “Old Soul For A New Day”. That’s the name of your group, right? Your group is called Soul For A New Day?

CW: Soul For A New Day, yeah.

ML: And you start off with a reference to Ella, Sarah and Billie. What do those singers mean to you?

CW: Well, like I said I grew up with a lot of Motown, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle… and not the Motown, but definitely Patti LaBelle and Aretha had those real, strong gospel-influenced voices, and that’s what I heard a lot growing up. I loved to sing but I didn’t sing like them—I noticed that I did not sing like them—and I was just disturbed by this [laughs]. I was really disturbed, because my mother loved them and I was just, “I don’t sing like them.” So when I discovered, I think just in watching television, Billie Holliday and heard some of her records—then heard Ella and then Sarah—when I heard them I was like, “I can sing like them—black women that I can sing like.” I was like, wow. And so as I got older I really began to listen to them and study their music. Definitely I don’t consider myself a jazz singer: I can sing jazz music, but I would never define myself as a jazz singer because I like to sing R&B as well. But they were a strong influence because I realized that I had that sound just naturally.

ML: It’s really interesting, because that’s the interesting thing about the CD is because there are some classic R&B elements, some reggae elements; you even have some go-go in there, but it all has a subtle jazz overtone that comes through in your vocals, and that’s what’s really distinct about it to me. Another great song on there is Patti Austin’s “In And Out Of Love.”

CW: Yeah.

ML: And I’ve also heard you perform that live a few times. You really like that song. What is it about that song?

CW: I love that song. Well, the first time I heard it on the radio, I just loved it: I loved the melody. But it really speaks to me because honestly—and I’m not trying to tell you all my business, but I have been in and out of love—that really has been… I think folks when they have that experience may be sort of negative about love, or finding love. I was married, I’m divorced, but I would love to be married again. So I’m real positive about finding a future mate, but it was my story—she was speaking to me. I was like, “This is my story—I’m always in and out of love.” So I was like, I need to sing this song. I was singing in a band—-it wasn’t a group that I put together, but I was singing in a band and the keyboard player really loved it. Somehow we started talking about some new tunes to do and he said, “Well, I heard this tune by Patti Austin that I love,” and I said, “I love that song too.” So we said, let’s go ahead and do that song. So that’s how I really started covering it. And then wherever I went, whatever band I sang with, I always said “Let’s do ‘In And Out Of Love’.” So when I got the musicians that play with me together I said, “We have to cover this song.” And I wanted to record it as well, because I had kind of made it my own.

ML: And you do a great job of it, thank you.

CW: Thank you.

ML: Another of my favourites on there is “All You Need”, also known as “Cup Of My Love”. You know how we like to rename songs [laughs]. Tell me about the origins of how that song came about? It’s a great one.

CW: Kawani and I were just writing, and he actually came up with the hook—because he can write anything, but he is a really great hook person. And so he came up with that hook, we heard some chords, and we were just chillin’… this is when I was putting my own band together, and the keyboard player was just playing some chords, and then it progressed from those chords into “All You Need”. But we heard that, and Kawani came up with the hook and I came up with the verses—just from hearing the chords and listening to his hook. And it just progressed into “All You Need”.

ML: That’s great—great, great. Another song that’s not on the CD but you actually performed this at your CD release event was Teena Marie’s “Out On A Limb”.

CW: Yeah, yeah.

ML: Talk about that a little; what does that song mean to you?

CW: I always loved Teena Marie as a young person, but I didn’t listen to her a lot. There were certain people… I was always in awe of a Billie Holliday and an Ella Fitzgerald—certainly Ella when she scats, I’m just in awe—but I could wrap myself around that. I was like, “I can do this.” But like a Teena, I was like, “She’s great and I’m in awe. I’ll just listen to her and move on.” I never really tried to sing her songs. But as I got older and people would listen to my voice, particularly on “All You Need” when I do it live, they were like, “You sound like Teena Marie.” And I was just like, “Sound like Teena Marie? What are you talking about?” So when I actually listened to it—particularly, like I said, when I sing it live, because I kinda lay into it more—I was like, okay, I do hear it. I do hear it—in sort of the vibrato I can hear it. So I was like, let me not be afraid, and let me go ahead and try to sing some of her tunes. I was like, “Okay, I can do this.” I think that as you get older and you get more confident, then you’re not… at least for me; I’ll sing any song and try to make it my own.

ML: You do, you do.

CW: I have to make it my own song. But I used to be more afraid, you know: “I’m not gonna touch that; I’m not gonna touch that, because that’s Patti LaBelle.” But I’m going to do it my way: I can’t be Patti, I can only be me. So then I started doing Teena Marie, and I actually am going to do some more. I was able to go see her in August before she passed away, and she was just outstanding.

ML: Oh, at the The Birchmere?

CW: At the The Birchmere, it was awesome.

ML: Oh man, I didn’t get to see them but I heard her speaking on the radio the day after, and it sounded like a really, really phenomenal event the way she did those shows where she kind of performed freeform for the audiences.

CW: Yeah, just sat down and sang. And she had said, “I don’t usually get to perform like this, I’m usually up, moving around and playing.”

ML: What a blessing that was.

CW: But she actually just sat down and sang and we were like, “Is this really coming out of her mouth?” Seriously, I was like, “Is this really happening?” I’ve gone to see many vocalists perform, but her range, the tone… it was just beautiful. And what she had, that maybe I can see how I would have a sound that people would say, “Okay, I can hear that in there,” is the classical training, because I did come up classically trained even though I never wanted to sing classical music. But that is the basis of my vocal training, and she did talk about that. So I have learned that from her, to not shy away from that classical training but to use it—to use it in the R&B and to use it in the jazz. She took it and she used it in the R&B, and that’s what makes her sound so distinct. So as I learned more about her I could see how people maybe would hear that similarity.

ML: Now a big step with the release of this recording is, you recently went to the UK for the Bristol Indie Soul Mixer. How did that come about?

CW: Well, Mike Ashley does the soul mixers in Atlanta and in New York, and he decided to do it in Bristol this year, and reached out to my manager, who is the wonderful Keyonne Brooks, and myself, and asked if we wanted to come. And because we had gotten so much support from the UK, we decided that that would be something that would be a great move for us, and also to reach back to them since they have really extended themselves to us. So it was a wonderful experience. We met many artists from the UK and from the United States that were over there. I got to perform and network and did several interviews while I was there, so it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

ML: I saw you did some radio spots too—I saw a couple of YouTube postings on, what was it, 98 FM?

CW: Yes, yes, yes—Ujima 98 FM. And they also have a TV show: I don’t know if it’s up and running yet or if that’s something new for them, but they did interview us on camera because I know that they were going to be… I think it’s something new for them, but I’m not sure. But they actually interviewed us on camera as well, so they have a television station, or at least something. Maybe it’s online, but they had us on camera as well, interviewing us, so that was excellent.

ML: It also involved—what was it, workshops and performances? What kind of things did you do?

CW: Yeah, there were performances Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday during the day, and we were there for the Friday night performances. And yes, we did just networking and talking. There were some young people there that were asking us… the folks who were actually out there performing, we were sort of mentoring them. It involved all of that. But a lot of networking between the artists, and that was fantastic.

ML: Did you make any lasting relationships there that you plan a return visit to the UK?

CW: Well, I actually got to go out with David Nathan, which was wonderful.

ML: Oh, cool.

CW: That was wonderful, meeting him, and he actually gave us a tour of London, and got to spend time with him. He has definitely been very supportive of myself and Keyonne Brooks. So definitely I will always remember that he was there for us while we were there, and that will be a continued friendship. And of course Mike Ashley, and he’s coming here in Atlanta to do the Soul Mixer, so I definitely will hope to go to that and hope to go back to Bristol again when he has an event. And there are other artists there in the UK that I definitely connected with: Bashiyra—

ML: Definitely; we’ve done interviews with her on SoulMusic.com also.

CW: Yeah, she’s wonderful. Juliette is another artist there that I connected with; Godfrey Fletcher I already knew, but I actually got to meet him for the first time, so that was wonderful—someone that you talk to but then you actually get to sit down and chat with them—and he offered me some great advice. So yeah, definitely made some friendships over there and had people I already considered friends who I actually got to meet, so that was wonderful.

ML: How did you find the audiences there?

CW: I thought everyone was very friendly and very, very supportive, and definitely want to go back and perform some more. I didn’t like the weather, but I can deal with that—if I’m performing I can deal with that.

ML: Okay, cool. Let’s talk about R&B music today. What do you think about the R&B situation today, and how do you think you fit into the overall landscape?

CW: I don’t listen to the radio much; I just have my CDs—I buy my music and listen to it. So sometimes I feel like I really can’t comment on it, because there’s a lot of music that I don’t even know. When I do listen to it, I can’t help swaying to it—the music does have a good beat, and it’s clean and it does have a good sound—but the music that they play on the radio, I just don’t feel it speaks to me, because I really am more into music that says something.

ML: Who are you listening to right now?

CW: There are some indie artists, but the mainstream artists that I listen to would definitely be Jill Scott, Chrisette Michele; I love Mint Condition. Let me see who else I listen to… I love Eric Benét, I love Musiq Soulchild, I love Anthony Hamilton, I love… see, there’s a lot of mainstream artists that I really do listen to and their style is more, I think, old-school compared to some of the other stuff that’s like—am I saying the name right? Rihanna? And Drake—that is more old-school compared to that younger audience. So yeah, I love that music: that R&B, jazzy sound that brings in elements of what we grew up with. And I like music that kind of speaks to love but also some socio-political-type stuff. Anthony Hamilton’s song, I started covering it… gosh, why is it escaping me right now? I almost want to sing it. [hums] …“Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ ”.

ML: Oh, right, you did sing that, right?

CW: Yeah, yeah, I covered that. I love that song because I like music that—like a Curtis Mayfield. I can write a good love song, but I also want to talk about what’s going on—like a Marvin Gaye—what is happening right now around us and how we can use music to soothe folks, but also to help make people think and try to change things. So that’s important to me. So as far as even though some of the music on the radio sounds good, it’s not always saying anything, so it’s kind of empty for me. I would be the first one to say that if I’m not really paying attention, I will start bobbing my head. This sounds good, but I may not buy it.

ML: It’s not the nourishment for your soul that you need, right?

CW: Right, right.

ML: Is there any artist that you would like to collaborate with?

CW: Wow, there’s so many folks that I would love to collaborate with.

ML: Or tour with? Open for?

CW: Yeah. Who I think I would fit with…well, I love Anthony Hamilton; I would love to open for him. I love his live performance. I actually have never gotten to see him, but I have seen it on video and I love him. There’s plenty of people that I would love to—like I say, all the artists that I mentioned—but I think that he is a great combination of what I mentioned: someone that really will do a love song or a song about family, but will also do a song about the community. And that’s important to me, to combine all those things.

ML: What do you see as your biggest obstacles right now, and what do you actively do to overcome them?

CW: My biggest obstacles?

ML: In the industry and in your musical career.

CW: I would say, just to be honest, being an indie artist: money. Being able to sustain yourself—yeah, that would be the biggest obstacle. Because I think there’s always room to grow, I’m always trying to get better, I’m always trying to improve on my vocals, I’m always trying to be a better songwriter, because songwriting is new to me—performing isn’t new to me but songwriting is, so I’m always trying to be better at that and grow as a performer. I never feel like this is it, you know? There’s always room to grow. But I feel confident about where I’m at right now as a performer; I feel confident about my live performance, but it can improve. But as an indie artist, the money aspect of it—making sure that you have everything you need to look right and to pay the musicians—that is a challenge.

ML: We just recently had a Voice Your Choice interview with Al Jarreau, and he talked about the major difference between when he got started and what happens with artists now, because you don’t have a record company. An artist has to not only create the music, record the music, but they also have to figure out how to get it out there.

CW: Right.

ML: And it’s a tough egg to crack—you have to really be dedicated and put everything you have into it, and everybody’s not able to carry that out. But you seem to be doing a pretty good job of it, as far as I can tell, and your performance aspect is just stellar.

CW: Oh, thank you.

ML: I love to see you perform; you just really put everything into it. Do you have any plans in the immediate future? Anything major coming up that you need to let people know about?

CW: We just have some stuff in the works—there’s stuff we can’t talk about yet, but we have a lot of stuff that we’re working on. Keyonne Brooks—I just can’t say enough about what a great manager he is—

ML: A very dynamic guy. He’s the kind of manager anybody should want, as far as I can tell. A great guy.

CW: And it’s just been a blessing. We met by—well, I don’t believe in chance, but we met at a music conference and just said hi and just started talking. I know that I had wanted someone that had his energy and someone who I knew would just be out there and go the extra mile for me, and I saw that in him—whatever he saw in me is something he would have to tell you. And it’s just been a great experience.

ML: That’s good. You guys do make a great match, as far as I can see.

CW: Thank you.

ML: Well, I know you’re very active on Facebook. Is that the best place for people to tell what’s going on with you?

CW: Yeah, folks can reach out to me on Facebook, and I have a fan page on Facebook as well: fans of Colie Williams. I do have a website, www.coliewilliams.com, and then you can find out information about the CD. I’m on iTunes and Amazon, so you can download the CD from iTunes and purchase the CD from Amazon. But yes, I am on Facebook. I do belong to Twitter but I just can’t seem to wrap my brain around it yet. I’m going to try before the summer is out, but… I don’t know why, it just seems like for me to be tweeting every couple of minutes—or maybe I don’t have to do it every couple of minutes, but I don’t know, it just seems like… why would people care about what I’m doing? But Facebook has worked for me. But I’m going to try Twitter, because I haven’t actually tried it enough to knock it.

ML: Okay, well, keep at it—keep at it, I’m sure it’ll come. But you’re doing great; I wish you all the best. You’ve got my full support and SoulMusic.com’s full support. I also want to thank you so much for spending a little time with us today.

CW: Thank you, thank you so much. And thank you for… you gave me my first real review, so I just want to thank you again. I know I always thank you, but I just want to thank you again.

ML: Okay, cool. And I look forward to seeing you perform again soon, Colie.

CW: All right, thank you.

ML: All right. Have a great day, now.

  
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