In conversation with… Karen Bernod

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Born in Brooklyn, New York, Karen Bernod is by now well-established as an accomplished vocalist, writer and producer in her own right. It is this catalogue of work I now look to. With a three-octave range (in which she seems to have strength throughout) and the most exceptional phrasing she can also play the piano by ear.

Even if you are not familiar with her solo work it is perhaps assured that you are not hearing Karen Bernod for the first time, given her extensive and impressive vocal harmonies with the likes of Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and Erykah Badu to name but four. Indeed, it is two of these artists she refers to when I asked her about just two of her most inspiring moments.

“Oh Yesssss, ok so I was singing with Chaka, we were in Europe at the Pori Jazz festival in Amsterdam (love that place). We’d had a rough day. You know jet-lagged and everything. However when Chaka sings Everlasting Love she starts singing really low… then she goes to the middle part of her voice. Then she takes you to the sky, like an EARGASM. We the background singers, well we had some type of epiphany because WE SAAAAAAAAAAANG that nite. More so than before. And it was a beautiful Spiritual energy on stage, as if God came down and sat in the wings to watch us use the Gifts he blessed us with. Let me tell you, the audience went up in a roar. Then after all of that she gave us all solos. Well I don’t have to tell you WE took our 15 minutes… and Slayed em’ in Amsterdam. We are still taking about that nite. (sigh, as I reminisce on the Bliss)…

…Then I can remember being in London with Erykah Badu. On the “On ‘n’ On” Tour. She had just released her new Album. It was packed and people were ready to see the woman from Texas with the Head wrapped and strapped. Well once again it was an awesome show. After, backstage, a young lady (fan) dressed exactly like Erykah, I mean down to the feet, came to our dressing rooms and gave each one of us flowers and a gift. Beautiful handmade Jewelry. I still have it. I thought that was so nice and it gave me a chance to see the Blessings forthcoming for when I stepped out on my Own. And “Here I “Izz”… And I must say it’s a FAB-YOU-LUSS journey. I take my Blessings very seriously and cherish each one…”

WOW! Inspiring energy most certainly. If you’re not yet a fan of her music, whereby you can hear her faith and dedication, you can tell from how she talks it is all there standing tall.

“Music is a universal language, a soothing kind of factor that brings all people together from all cultures and all walks of life under one roof for that moment.” she says.

It is clear from how she continually references her passion and her influences through her music that it is indeed her life, done with a spirit that is set to ease and elevate yours even if it is of the most jaded. She is one of that good collective of artists who is heavily based in soul music infused with jazz, funk, R&B and African rhythms to select just a few; neo-soul if you will.

I asked her to name but three artists who inspire her the most:

“Chaka Khan, Because she is every Woman and it’s all in Me. A pioneer, soldier, and Musical Icon who has paved the way for Artists like myself. She is my Mutha, Sista, Friend who has given me great advice. Love her.

D’Angelo, Because he encompasses all of the musical qualities of Quincy Jones. Just to watch him work in rehearsals and on Live shows in and of itself is like a major Sonic high to hear and see. He plays many instruments and his ear is amazing. Love working with him.

Jill Scott, I love me some Jilly from Philly. She reminds me a lot of myself when I see her perform live. When you leave one of her shows you are LIFTED!!!! I always feel like I just left Church or a Beautiful happening of sorts. Her voice is Magic and to watch her perform live is like back in the day like my Mama use to tell me about Sassy Sarah Vaughan. She does a multitude of things with her voice and she can fix a dry wall. Whaaaaat?? Yeah, my kinda Gurrrrl!!”

Somewhat removed from this realm of sounds however was with one of Karen’s first accomplishments, co-writing and singing on the club classic ‘Motherland’, a heavy Tribal House monster released by Pow Wow Records and other labels in 1990.

Following this, whilst on tour with Erykah Badu (“Sister Karen, your voice is so divine.”), she was invited to join the impressive Incognito collective, whereupon she added her vocals to their album ‘No Time Like The Future’ on the tracks ‘Marrakech’, ‘More Of Myself’ and ‘Yesterday’s Dream’.

It was in 2000 that her debut album ‘Some Othaness for U’ was released. It had been worth the wait. A delicious collection that is both vintage and neo-soul, it has become something of a classic here at musicgspot towers, a good way to introduce her to the uninitiated ear, enthusing you with her musicality and spirit. She’s certainly got me in ‘The Pocket’.

Next up was her sophomore release ‘Life at 360 Degrees’, a mastered cheery wide-ranging divinity encompassing Neo Soul, Acid Jazz, African Beats and more besides. Celebrating love – of one, of many and of music in general – it is a defining statement that surely should place her on high with those more famous artists she holds such a good reputation for working alongside. As one reviewer on Amazon put it: “There is a certain spirituality in Karen’s voice that I love. She tends to sound like she is speaking to the gods, and they’ve sent her a message to let everyone know that its alright to “do you and be you”.”

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As always with a great album, it is hard to select just one stand-out track, so I’ve gone for just four. Firstly there is ‘Family’, a wonderful tribute to the safe harbour, whoever yours born or adopted may be, tinged with gospel as you might expect on such a subject. Indeed, when I asked who her biggest inspiration was the answer was strong:

“My biggest Inspiration is my Mother Iris. May she rest in Loving Peace. A very strong, gentle, yet courageous woman. She taught me how to stand up for myself and fight for what’s right. She inspired me to continue to pursue my Music because she believed I was put on this earth to be a messenger thru song. She is my infinite Muse. I Am Because of Her… IRIS.”

Secondly there is ‘Dreamer’ because I am definitely one of those.

Next up is ‘Truth Iz’ because I simply bloody love it.

And the last of the four is the sheer fun of ‘Subway Love Game’ because if you’ve ever had this happen (like Barbara Pennington’s ‘I Saw You On A Crowded Street’) you’ll know what a great buzz it gives you, as happened to me just last week.

So then to her latest album, ‘Planting Seeds’, which was released in 2014. A lengthy (but as is often the way with our greatest vocalists, there is no behemoth label supporting her through) yet most worthy wait it was. Since my first listen I’ve had it on regular play ever since. Here she strongly celebrates both African rhythms and all of her other musical inspirations – just listen to the infectiously catchy song of gratitude ‘Soul Pioneer’ to hear this flowing through in a sanctified name-check.

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My next selection is ‘Brooklyn Potpourri’ (both the original and The Drummers Mix are thought of here, so in effect it is two selections), a captivating rhythm of beats and sounds.

Another stand-out track for me is ‘Endangered Specie’ (the ‘s’ consciously absent before someone points out my typo) which samples the bass-line of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” and spotlights struggle and stands as her statement of support.

Karen describes the album like this: “#PlantingSeeds is a Musical Journey that takes you to many different exciting places. A look into my more matured life as I have been through some peaks and valleys since my debut in 2000 and my sophomore album in 2006. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Life has shown me many different sides some good some great some …not so much. This is a reflection of where Life has taken me. In the interim I have been Planting Seeds every step of the way. I am now watering, nurturing and tilling the soil. With the release of #PlantingSeeds, all the seeds will start to Bloom and I will continue to give perpetual care with LOVE.”. (http://www.soultracks.com)

Throughout, as indeed with all her music, is an uplifting message to hopefully raise the consciousness. Mainstream in that it is not, but what bother is that? This album is a rich treasure, a bath of most restorative waters that I highly recommend taking a regular soaking in. The track ‘Higher (Up)’ alone should testify to that.

What’s next with Karen Bernod? Well anyone who does or is now from this piece beginning to admire her musical gift will be pleased to hear the answer when I put that question to her.

“I am actually in the process of releasing a four-part EP series entitled Four Women. Paying homage to the Queen Dr. Nina Simone, it will entail different genres of music as I am a House Head, Jazz Head, Soul Sista that loves all Music. The first EP – Four Women: Side 1 is scheduled to drop on June the 3rd 2016.”

There are also the remixes of her single ‘Spirit’ currently available. Of course, as with many of my favoured artists, I wish there could be a larger output of albums from her good self, but then anyone with an awareness of the music business is well aware of the difficulty in this when you are truly an independent player. The good side of this however is that Karen has never, in my opinion, penned a simple filler or a complete dud; each track being a small masterpiece adding to the whole. May her star long continue to ascend.

I’ll leave the final word to the lady herself: “Take good care and til’ we meet again Stay Blessed… from The Karen Bernod team… Peace n Love…”

Giles Addison

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MOMENTUM

imageClass. If I were to sum up in one word Soulpersona’s ‘Momentum’ it would be that word. Sheer and utter class.

Thankfully, I’m left with the freedom to elaborate a little more freely here.

So what defines the singular priceless timepiece that is ‘Momentum’ for me. To begin with, there was the anticipation. I’d long known of its inception, of the work being put into it. I was familiar with earlier creations by its writer and producer, as well as that of cohorts thus so assigned to help him on his mission. So I kind of knew what to expect. Kind of. Because this was hardly going to be a paint-by-numbers job, it was still assured to be a revelation. Excited as I was for its arrival, ordered months before its completion, the thrill of eventually holding it in my hands was palpable. Peeling back the cellophane made me feel like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; I didn’t know exactly what treasures were awaiting me, but I knew a cd from this Willy Wonka of sophisticated soulful music carried with it an assurance of excellence. I pressed play, and slipped into auditory heaven, only regretting that I could not afford the vinyl and an almighty sound system second to none.

What is this album to me? It conjures up magical imagery of yore. It’s John Steed and Emma Peel racing through the countryside in an open-topped car. It’s Buck Rogers seducing Princess Ardala with his foxy moves. It’s Flash Gordon taking the Emperor Ming to task. In short, it’s superhero stuff, but when superheroes relied on their wit and their charm rather than some special powers or armoured suits. Or else it’s you, me and my good friends chilling by the pool at my villa in Tuscany, or perhaps bobbing about the Azures on my 18-berth yacht, playing poker in the drawing room after dinner – dressed to the nines, because it smells ‘rich’, and a true class rich at that.

I’m hoping you get the picture. Now to the actual musical content of ‘Momentum’. What to expect?

First off, let me say Pete Simpson blew me away with ‘Don’t You Think’, a truly sublime vocal that you just want to soak in again and again, seduction with love guaranteed. His later step in with ‘Your Love Is Mine’ is another modern classic in the making. I love how the triumphant uplift slips into sultry sax a little way over the half way mark. For me, both combining to be perhaps the best work Pete Simpson has delivered to us to date.

Now if you’re familiar with my pages here you’ll know I’m a huge devotee of the Olympian Deity that is Princess Freesia. Aside from her interstellar vocals she has to be one of the craziest most accomplished lyricists around, a defining edge that to me sets her head and shoulders above the rest. How she consistently comes up with such splendour is beyond me, but if she told me she had a direct through-line to that blue tentacled alien opera singer from ‘The Fifth Element’ I’d not be surprised, she’s of another world alright. She’s also her own best backing singer, with delicious harmonies. Anyway, step into ‘Open Sesame’ to discover her magic, and allow this Majestic Temptress of Tune & Melody captivate you under her spell (then delve into her other tracks there, and then on to her albums.)

Before I leave Princess Freesia, let me please mention too her ‘duet’ with the truly brilliant Carl Hudson’s keys on ‘Ride In Time’, because it’s bliss.

Guest artist the Madam Palindrome that is Deborah Bond comes in with ‘Let It Go’. Oh, we’ve all been there haven’t we? I sure have.

Have to mention ‘Unjustified’ sung by Darien, simply because it lept out, not in a jarring way, just it seemed to hold a different vibe, whilst still consistent with the whole. As I said at the beginning, there is nothing formulaic about ‘Momentum’.

Far from it. Indeed with each listen, it is as if you discover new depths. This is no eau de toilette, but a very expensive multi-layered eau de parfum, you know, like Tom Ford does in those smoked glass Art Deco Chess-piece bottles. The tracks I’ve listed above are by no means favourites above the rest, simply because there are no favourites; they are merely a sample of the sumptuous selection of tracks that awaits you. Buy ‘Momentum’, buy it.

Guess Who Is Back

It has been a year since I’ve written upon this blog. Misfortune and despair hit almighty blows in 2015, knocking me way off course. But I return to set sail with renewed vim and vigour from this date onwards.

So, before I begin this relaunch with any in-depth views, let me look at a couple of musical delights from last year, namely these two albums, both of which I highly recommend a purchase of; aside from them being masterful collections, we need to support our independent artists out there who really do produce work through blood, sweat and tears.

Momentum – Soulpersona.

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That Brighton-based galactic crusader and maestro of music production Soulpersona soared into the charts last year with this class ensemble of essential groove, recalling and thus reigniting the glory days of good soul music. The effervescent radiance of Princess Freesia (her first of two mentions on this very page) is joined here by the accomplished Carl Hudson and singer Pete Simpson to name a few.

Chasing Rainbows – Sunchaser

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The global travelling writer and producer that is Sunchaser returns with his second album of tunes, here featuring the interstellar lyrics and vocals of Princess Freesia, and guests, in a sublime set finely peppered with the beauty of the Baltic Sea. It’s a captivating achievement. In his own words: “Keep your dream alive, connect yourself with spiritual comrades, and never give up.”

Songs I currently have on repeat at musicgspot Towers includes:

Post It – Moca
Party All Night – Leela James
All Eyes on You – St Lucia
Take A Look Around – Two Bears
Sunlight (feat. Years & Years) – The Magician
Oh Lord – Mishal Moore
Liquid Spirit (Claptone Remix) – Gregory Porter

Because it’s always on repeat:

Gotta Hold On Me (That Skatt Thing) – MuthaFunkaz
In vocal jazz I’ve always loved the highly-skilled improvisation of melody and rhythm in nonsense syllables that elevates singer to instrument extraordinaire. It is finely accomplished here by Sheila Ford in this sharp slice of deliciously funky fun.

Beautiful – Peyton
An uplifting piece of Gospel that never ceases to warm me as I silently sing it out to the many wonderful friends I have in my life.

You Know How To Love Me – Phyllis Hyman
One of the most familiar hits from the late, great Ms.Hyman. To be honest, who could ever tire from listening to the many songs taken from her ten albums in a career that sadly ended all too soon; depression is a killer.

Watch Out – Brandi Wells
Another singer here who tragically was taken from us at a young age, this particular tune from her has been, for years now, something of a mantra for me. I love how she scat sings her way out at the end too.

Keep The Fire Burning – Gwen Macrae
I went to see this lady sing live a few years ago at Islington Town Hall. Being that she was by now in her late-sixties one didn’t really know what to expect; what we were given was the perfect vocals of a woman who knew exactly how to take it to ‘CHURCH’ – this track alone was a twenty-minute masterpiece that had the collective singing back to her and wanting to simply smile at and hug everyone – love set the room on fire.

Well, as is said, onwards and upwards. Expect some more from me very soon. May your music G spot be humming and vibrating with sheer ecstatic delight.

Giles