It’s Thursday afternoon on the Danforth when rock n’ soul singer/songwriter Saidah Baba Talibah rides up to Mocha Mocha to conduct the first Winehouse feature. She’s dressed in an orange and purple halter bandeau top, denim cut-offs, thick grey leg warmers, black Converse high tops, and an arm adorned with African bangles. Her brown locks are thrown casually to the side as she steps off her bicycle revealing her unexpectedly petite stature.
Here is a peculiar fact: charisma, being the master of illusion that it is, has the ability to make someone appear far taller than they are in real life. During live shows and in videos, Talibah’s soulful voice and commanding presence evoke the impression of an Amazon woman. This makes the fact that she is beset with this charismatic height all the more surprising. As we sit on the patio to enjoy one of the last balmy summer afternoons, Talibah greets this observation with a knowing grin.
“Everyone says that,” she says, perusing the menu. “I wear big heels.”
Big heels, big talent, Talibah is bestowed with both. In look, dress, and sound, she is one of those artists that can be plunked smack dab in the middle of Camden, Brooklyn or L.A.’s Venus Beach, and she’d somehow appear authentically woven from the fabric of that city. Her sound is cultivated from an eclectic and rich music history, subtly alluding to greats of the past in a form that is uniquely her own. The daughter of legendary jazz singer Salome Bey, Talibah was raised in the home of one of Canada’s greatest musical treasures. As a teenager Talibah was better known as a dancer and stage performer before moving on to back-up singing for artists such as Divine Brown. She made the leap to center stage with (S)Cream, her debut album that reveals with certainty that center stage is where Talibah belongs.
(S)Cream, an intimate and deliciously raunchy romp of an album, displays Talibah’s electric vibe in full force with songs ranging from make-you-want-to-get-up-in-the-morning and make s*** happen in your life to stay-in-bed-and-get-naughty or simply love and let go. She flings herself lustfully and wholly into each track crossing genres and emotional terrains to explore sexuality, love, and personal freedom. Much like her music icon Betty Davis, Talibah’s brand of “Fuck me funk” is authentic, empowering, and damn sexy.
Before Talibah began unabashedly singing songs about wild sex in the back of a bar as in Bang it Back, “Stuck in our corner we can please all our needs….don’t mind the waitress/she won’t care if I scream…” or the triple X, On my Knees, she faced the first important door to good songwriting, honesty. To open that door or not is the difference between fun music that fades quickly, and memorable songs that live with people for a good long time. Talibah admits that the early song writing process was littered with private questions about the self-exposure that comes with self-expression, a surprising dilemma for an artist to have in a time where much of contemporary music is constructed around barefaced sexuality.
“It really is letting people in,” shares Talibah. “How much do you want to let people see? And what are you comfortable with letting people see? How are people going to perceive me if I say this? If I do that? But when I just really owned the fact that I like sex and being raunchy, and being provocative just for my own enjoyment and pleasure that’s when I was like, ‘Ah fuck it! I’m doing it,” says Talibah, with a laugh. “This is me?’ That’s how my friends know me to be. They were like, ‘This is so you, Saidah.’ So why wouldn’t I be that on record or in front of people?”
Guitarist/songwriter Donna Grantis, co-writer on six of the albums tracks including the title track, played an integral part in (S)Cream. Talibah says their songwriting partnership felt effortless from the start.
“We’ve known each other for years just being in the scene. I’ve sung with her when she’s accompanied other people like Divine Brown. But it was when I started writing the album that I reached out to people to write with. I saw her one night and said, ‘Hey want to write together?’ And the first time we wrote together we wrote two songs. I was like, ‘Hmmm, let’s do this again.’ Six or seven, ten songs later…”
To accompany her lyrical vision, Talibah formed the soulrockestra, a term she coined, to capture the unusual blend of sounds she integrates on the album and during her live shows.
“I always wanted an orchestra, and I always wanted an orchestra to play heavy rock and soul so I called it the soulrockestra. I grew up as a [trained] dancer so hearing classical music and seeing operas and musical theater and knowing that there is an orchestra supporting the story, has always been a part of my journey and my life. But I don’t think I ever really clued in to do that until I was deciding to put together my own sound, and my own visual.”
The soulrockestra, which interchangeably consist of horns, string sections, a tuba player, cellist, and sousaphone bring the big sound to her music that she insists upon.
“My biggest dream is to have a timpani player. I want timpani’s!” She squeals with a gleeful smile as she mimics the boom boom boom boom sound of the instrument. “I’m naturally a dramatic person so I need to have the drama with me. The music needs to be dramatic.”
While (S)Cream is strong from track to track, (the empowering anthem Revolution has been featured in a Chevrolet VOLT commercial), Talibah’s sound has come with inherent obstacles especially when it comes to receiving the major label backing it warrants.
“It’s been challenging,” admits Talibah, adjusting her colourful glasses. “I am doing music that is not expected of me, as a black woman or as a woman. You cannot find many women doing rock or harder assertive sounding music, and making the name that Nickelback makes.”
Talibah’s obstacles shed light on the odd contradiction that exists in Canada, a country recognized for its cultural diversity, few genres outside of rock and folk get supported by major Canadian labels. For years mainstream genres such as R&B and hip hop have tried to garner support within the Canadian music industry with only little and sporadic success. Talibah and her soulrockestra come straight out of left field, slightly perplexing to some, and difficult to define or compare by others, especially in an industry built on definition and comparison. Her sound naturally lends itself to the U.K. or U.S. scene where soul/rock singers such as Nikka Costa or rocker/punks Skin (Skunk Anansie) have broken through musical barriers despite race and gender. Inspired by singer/songwriters who circumvented label barriers by taking a DYI approach to their music, Talibah made the decision to fan-fund (S)Cream.
“There is an artist that I really love named, Amy Correia,” explains Talibah. “I followed the making of her third album [You Go Your Way], which she was fan-funding and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ I started to do more research and discovered that the folk singer/writer community does it all the time. They’ve been doing it for years. I was like, ‘Why can’t I do it? Why don’t I just try this?”
However, there was a problem: no one had ever heard Talibah’s solo music and she knew it would take a definite dose of chutzpah on her part to get people to buy into her music vision sight unseen.
“They’d seen me around. They had seen me doing background, doing theater, dancing, but they had never heard my music. She [Correia] was on her third album [when she fan-funded]. Her first album [Carnival Love] was signed to a label. She received her initial exposure that way. So it was ballsey of me to do that.”
Talibah created the Make Me Wanna (S)Cream campaign. Fans could pre-invest in the album and depending on their level of investment be rewarded with everything from vegan dishes cooked by Talibah herself to private concerts. “I did video logs, Vlogs weekly up until the album came out and I put out the Phone Demos EP. So there were strategic things that I did to get the word out.”
The word got out and driven by mere faith and the desire to finally hear the “Saidah sound” friends, family and fans invested in droves to get the album produced and released. Talibah’s smile is radiant as she recalls the support that made it all possible.
“I was truly truly blessed to have a bunch of fans and family support the movement,” she acknowledges, with visible appreciation. “I didn’t even know what it was going to sound like!”
A by-product of her successful fan-funded album is the strong relationship Talibah has built with her feverishly supportive fan base, a mutual adoration that she continues to nurture. Talibah regularly sends thank you’s and messages to her fans over twitter, while creating an intimate soulful love fest during her live shows, something her fans have come to cherish.
While still savouring the success of (S)Cream, Talibah is diving back into the writing process, recently beginning work on her second album, and like before the nerves are back.
“I’m pretty excited and scared as fuck about it,” she laughs, excitement and anxiety evident for the first time. “I’m going to be going in deeper and it may not necessarily come out as deep to the listener as it will for me going in but if it does come out that deep to the listener than that’s awesome.”
She plans to take her dramatic side to new levels on her sophomore album by artfully sidestepping the theatrical clichés currently swimming around the industry and going back to her musical roots.
“As I rediscover the music that I grew up loving, the songs that I really grew up loving, I realize that I’m really a pop music lover. But it’s the pop music that you can put in a theatrical setting. The Elton John’s and the Billy Joel’s, and Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie. That’s pop but it’s very dramatic and you can make a show of it. That’s my dream, to do that.”
Talibah is currently working on her second album. Be part of the experience! Check her out live on April 10, 2013 @The Piston.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.
Check out Saidah Baba Talibah!
Photo Credit: In Order of appearance.
Rhett Morita~Album poster~Rhett Morita
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