Alicia Olatuja came to national prominence with her solo at President Obama’s most recent inauguration with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, but with Olatuja the music goes a whole lot deeper than simply that performance. Between gigs with her husband, Michael Olatuja, as the Olatuja Project and backing up artists like Chaka Khan, Somi, and Christian McBride on vocals, Olatuja has crafted a unique space for her own music which she will releasing this Spring. Be sure to check out her process behind recording the album, working with incredible musicians, and more as we discuss her music below and then cop the single “In The Dark” for a sneak peak at the album!
You recently received a lot of attention for your solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at the inauguration. How did you get involved with that choir?
Well I’m usually involved in any church that I’m in; I think it’s important. My husband, Michael Olatuja , plays bass there, so I figured I might as well get involved. So that’s pretty much how I started singing with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.
You joined in 2007 and by 2013 you’re a soloist for the Obama inauguration on national television. Tell me about how you got chosen and that experience.
Actually they just came to me and said, “Well, I think that there is a solo we’d love to hear you on.” The funny thing was, when they said “hear you on” they really meant “record you on,” because the time they heard me on it was also when they recorded it for the album. They’ve worked with me long enough to have a pretty good idea of what I can do. They are excellent at what they do as well. They can hear the direction they would like to go vocally before they even approach us. It was an honor and I just said yes.
By the time the inauguration happened, I had gone through the seven stages of panic [laughs]. I don’t even know if there are that many, but that’s what it felt like. But by the time of the inauguration, I had been practicing every day and had so much encouragement from so many people. And once the music starts it’s just like, “Well, here it goes.” It’s very similar to the anticipation you feel when you’re at an amusement park and you’re waiting in line to get on this crazy ride. You’re probably more scared in line than you are once it takes off.
And now you are preparing your own album for release, which brings all new excitement. There are so many amazing musicians on the record; tell me about the process of putting that together.
I’ve been friends with a lot of these musicians for a while. I love to hear different music and I love to come to their shows to support them. I’ve never really been the type of vocalist who likes to be on everybody’s shows. I get that it makes total sense, but coming from a musical family, all of my friends and family could sing. So I’m just sort of used to going and listening and supporting what they do. I think that doing that over the years has helped me not only develop a musical relationship, but a real friendship with a lot of the musicians I work with. So when it came time to do the album, they all said, “Yeah let’s do it!” It wasn’t even an issue or anything because they were all like, “That girl supports us and comes to our shows. She never tries to push herself on any of our gigs.” I didn’t even know that was what was going on until they told me. I didn’t even know people did that [laughs].
Ulysses Owens is one of the producers and he was the one to call all of the musicians. He said he had never seen anything like it. Every single musician that he called from Christian McBride to Gregoire Maret responded within the hour, “Yes. What time? Where?” Ulysses was like, “They don’t do this for me!”
What went into the decision to bring Ulysses on as a producer for the project?
One of the things is that Ulysses is an amazing musician and he’s actually my best friend. We’ve known each for years and it didn’t make any sense to do a project without him on it. There are just certain things that don’t make logical sense. There’s no way I would do a project without my husband — he’s a genius and on top of that he’s my husband. But with Ulysses, his time is incredible, he’s very musical, he’s sensitive to what’s happening in the music, and his personality is a great one to have involved in a project like this. I’m very big on people’s talent meeting their personality, because that is what I believe creates the magic in the music.
What was the songwriting process like for the record? Was there a specific concept?
I always like to let music be very organic. I’m not the type of person who says, you know, every day I’m going to write for an hour. It doesn’t work for me. So for this album I wanted to let it happen organically. I actually travelled a lot this year with the musical theater troupe that I’m in. We were touring Italy, Serbia, and Croatia in the fall, so I used that opportunity to take in a bunch of different sites and sounds, and then use that to inspire me to write what’s deep down inside. Sometimes you have to get out of your normal surroundings to clear your head. So I wrote, wrote, and wrote, and then edited it into songs. There were also people that I wanted to work with for a long time and that shaped some of the music as well. But honestly it’s amazing, because once all of the songs were written, there was a through-line theme. That’s what I was hoping for.
The songs that I did not write are actually arrangements of people I have loved for a long time — one is a Stevie Wonder tune, another one is Chaka Khan, another one is Michael Jackson. These are people that have made a huge impact in the music world and there’s no genre that they haven’t touched.
I also met up with Laurence Hobgood and it’s funny because I didn’t actually know if he was going to want to work with me. I’ve loved him since high school, so I was like, “OH MY GOD, HOBGOOD!” He was one of the few people that I did not know personally. I’ve been to Kurt Elling shows a bunch, but they don’t know me like that. But the funny thing was that when he was asked he was like, “Heck yeah! Look, I’ve been wanting to work with more singers to have that experience, but signers don’t ask me. Most people just think I’m Kurt Elling’s guy and that’s that.” So I was like, “Well shoot, I’ll be your lady-muse.” So we hit it off and had a great time.
As a whole, what is the theme that all of these songs fell into on the record?
It’s about time ultimately. It’s about how love evolves through time, how you evolve as a person through time, and understanding who you are. The single, “In The Dark,” is so important because I remember hearing once in a sermon that who you are in the dark — that’s what integrity really is. When no one is around, it’s just you. That’s when you find out really who you are. So the single talks about if you were a fly on the wall and you got a chance to see that person, who they are in the dark when no one’s around, and then you realize that they are who they are on the outside. That’s a beautiful thing. Normally we think that if we see someone who doesn’t think they are being watched, we’ll catch them doing something bad. So it’s almost nice to see someone with integrity. You find that out about yourself over time as well.
Also on the album I’m talking about looking back in time and whether you see it with regret or you see moments that have aged into golden moments. The answers to all of these questions really change over time.
Did you have any favorite experiences between the writing and recording of the album?
Every day was a new and wonderful experience. Meeting up with Laurence was of course a monumental experience for me, but also finally getting a chance to be able to work with all of my friends. I mean, working with McBride was great; we’ve been talking about working together for almost three years. When your personalities meld, there’s no ego. It’s just the music. So when we finally got a chance to record, it was so great. We were cracking jokes and being real stupid, you know, but I don’t take myself too seriously anyways. We were extra silly that day though, so that was great.
Also getting a chance to work with Gregoire again. I got a chance to work with him many years ago on his album where I put together a small ensemble of children. So just getting a chance to work with him again and seeing him just destroy the song that he played. He played on Stevie Wonder’s “Stay Gold” that Laurence had suggested for the record. It was so funny because my camera guy stayed in the booth with Gregoire the whole time and didn’t even video me. He comes out with his eyes all red and says, “I think I’ve just seen a harmonica revolution! It was a revolution and a revelation all in one.” I was just like, “Oh my goodness.” Just witnessing that changed his whole perspective of the instrument.
Will you be releasing some of those videos with the record?
Yeah I think people would really like to see all of those amazing moments, plus all of the jokes and craziness that went on. Maybe we’ll get a shot of me and my baked goods as well because most of the musicians know me as the girl who shows up with the baked goods [laughs]. I love to bake! I’ve been friends with Christian Sands for a long time and his parents would always know that when I showed up, I would have a cake or some brownies or maybe some homemade sweet tea bread, which is my famous bread. Even at the studio everybody was just tearing into this bread. Here you are with all of these musicians and nobody was talking, nobody had anything to say. They were just tearing into this bread.
Music is one of the beautiful things that brings people together, but I think what is important is what you do once you have everybody together. Music will do the hard part of bringing everybody together, but once you’re together it is important to create that musical family that’s consistent with the music. So us coming together and breaking sweet tea bread and making music was a great thing [laughs].
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)