I Remember When, the latest album from Ottawa jazz singer Kellylee Evans, her first on a major label, comes out today in Canada on Universal Music. Recording in the big leagues comes with bigger budgets, better promotion and, for Evans, a subtle shift to a soul-jazz sound reminiscent of Roberta Flack’s game-changing '60s release, First Take.
playListen to "My Name Is," from Kellylee Evans's I Remember When.
Evans performs covers by some of her favourite artists, including Kanye West, Gladys Knight and Alicia Keys, and offers up originals inspired by hip-hop performers including Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest and Eminem.
The career break that opened the doors to major label interest almost didn’t happen for Evans. A December storm very nearly robbed her of the opportunity to perform at the Olympia theatre in Paris, a night that Evans says changed her life. But perseverance and a little luck saved the day.
Evans related the happy ending to that story, about a perfect storm from her home in Ottawa.
Tell me about the night you very nearly missed your big chance to sing at the Olympia theatre in Paris.
The day I was to fly out of Toronto there was a huge snow storm. When I got to the airport in Toronto it was deserted. But the kind fellow at the counter somehow got me onto the last flight to Paris. I was supposed to rehearse with a full orchestra earlier in the day but didn’t arrive at the hall until the show had already started. When I got out of the cab they told me I had 15 minutes to get onstage. So I unrolled my dress from my suitcase, got ready and got out there with this orchestra I had never seen before. But it all worked out and it turned out to be a magical moment. That whole night changed my life. From that period on I started getting lots of gigs in France and it led to so many things, including meeting the producer who pitched my new album idea to Universal Music.
What was it like to perform at the iconic Olympia theatre?
Wow. I remember walking in there and it being like, oh my gosh, because you look up and there are lights all over the ceiling like stars and there’s people as far as the eye can see and it’s just gorgeous. It made me think of all the great performers who played there, including the Beatles. To be playing there was just amazing.
You don’t shy away from the occasional f-bomb on this record. Did that feel a bit different for you?
At first I was, oh goodness, what are people going to say? But I had to ask myself, have I ever used that word? Uh, yeah [laughs]. My second studio album was called The Good Girl and somebody wrote me and they were like, "Kellylee I thought you were a nice girl." [Laughs] I feel like I’m all people, you know? I guess I get to have a potty mouth some days, and other days I try to be a little bit more inspirational.”
More and more jazz artists, including you, are using pop and hip-hop to get your sound across. Do you think jazz is still a fair label to apply to your music?
Yes. There’s improvisation and freedom in there that still lends itself to a jazz sensibility. But I also think all of us are courting the world of pop in a way because that’s part of our life and our listening pleasure of our world. I think when you do something musical you want to have all of the tools in front of you to draw from.
How did you decide what songs you’d record for I Remember When?
We went with music that has given people a lot of pleasure. So we went with songs that weren’t obscure. I try not to put a value judgment on the styles. I love the idea of bringing hip-hop to a new audience and saying, "Here are lyrics put to a different sound palette." I just want to enjoy it. I just want to have fun.
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