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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