ABIAH: Reinventing the Music

Gigi Brooks interviews singer and songwriter about his musical roots and his new album “Life As a Ballad”

One of the greatest pleasures I have found during my career is the discovery of a fresh, mesmerizing male balladeer. Recently, I sat down to talk with singer, songwriter ABIAH, (pronounced Ah-bee-yah) to comb through his years as a well accomplished and established vocal coach and recording artist, formerly known as “Jeremiah.”

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Abiah's album cover

His sophomore album, Life As A Ballad, released in August 2012 on Madoh Music, received rave reviews including from Billboard Magazine which stated, “…a singer with an innate ability for passionate songwriting that on cannot learn.” The album features artists such as his cousin, Robert Glasper, as well as Marvin Sewell, Keith Witty, Ulysses Owens, Jr. and other notable artists.

ABIAH’s story of his life, music and life experiences gave me inspiration and true understanding of what it is to be an artist.

Gigi Brooks: I must say, I have listened to Life As a Ballad over and over again and it never leaves my CD player! Your uncommon vocal ability of five octaves is phenomenal and the way you communicate passion in your music is thrilling. How did you learn to cultivate your voice to that level of talent?

ABIAH: Yes, I think it’s actually five and a half. You know I started out singing in the church and my mother is a classical pianist, but she doesn’t play anymore, but growing up she always played and she thought that it would be best at around…I guess 14 to begin studying classically. And so I got a scholarship to the Preparatory School at the Eastern School of Music in Rochester, New York and then from there I went on to have another scholarship at Syracuse University. I was studying classical music and was an opera major; so I started to be groomed as an opera singer. I also had a different passion for other kinds of music outside of classical music which was my own song writing. I’ve been writing songs since I was 9 years old. So I kind of just would cultivate my voice to classical technique and then I would take that same information and start applying it to classical music basically. It took 15 years to hone my voice you know? To make it into this instrument and not just be your average singer…that’s what my family and especially one of my aunts and my mom were very adamant about… not being like everyone else; they wanted me to go beyond that and if I did my gift would make room for me and that’s exactly what I think happened for me.

When I listen to your voice I can hear the opera training. Do you believe that you’ve had an advantage over most vocalists because of your opera background?

I think there are definitely some advantages. I come from a Christian home and one of the things that has always been instilled in me was that I need to show myself approved….and I think that coming to this was easier, because for one thing you don’t sound like everybody else which could be a good thing and also be a bad thing. Sometimes we they reward being generic versus being unique. I feel like at the time that I was growing up listening to music there was a great deal of respect for artists who sounded different…you know Anita Baker didn’t sound like Stephanie Mills and Peabo Bryson didn’t sound like Donny Hathaway; or all of these other greats singers that I grew up listening to. So, I think I definitely have had an advantage, but that was because I was dealt the right circumstances and I am very grateful for that.

I agree with you. It’s not just listening to what you are singing, but the way you’re singing that makes all the difference in the world…at least for me. Your octave range starts from…what is it falsetto?

Well…there is the falsetto, but I don’t use falsetto too much. I was kind of cultivated to use a mixed voice. I don’t want to get too technical, but basically to mix the head voice with the chest voice to make a voice that’s in between. With that you get a certain kind of beauty and power, but it’s not yelling. Although the range goes high, high, high and low, low, low, but you never hear cracks in my voice. That’s how I was taught as a singer, so that’s why my voice probably sounds a certain way and also I never listened to male singers really growing up; my real influences have been female singers, so that has given me a different kind of tone as well.

And a different ear…

Yes, absolutely.

Also you then want to collaborate that with the piano for goodness sakes!

Yeah!

It’s not just enough that you’re singing and have this wonderful gift of a voice, but then here comes the piano and the gift with that.

Yeah, yeah…I think once again you study…at first I when I playing piano when I was very young I hated it like most kids. I started playing piano and then I stopped. I hated it. It was a disappointment to having to practice, because I just wanted to sing. I didn’t realize how important it was to have both things happening. Then I went to a High Performing Arts high school and it became a requirement. If you don’t know how to play you’re not going to graduate. So I had to learn and I had to force myself to do it, but I found it to actually be such a help, because I started writing songs before I even knew any music theory I had already created my own system on piano. So it really has been a blessing to know how to play piano.

Let’s talk about the spacing you use with you vocals and on piano.

Well…actually on this record I am only playing on one song on piano, the rest is recording artist Robert Glasper. He really is the one who took the reigns on piano, but I did write and play all of this stuff for him and arrange all of this, so basically the spacing that he created was partly him and partly me, but based on what I felt and I think that’s really important.

One key element that happened with this record was that it was recorded all in one day.

I had no idea! Was that written anywhere? [laughs]

[laughs] Robert Glasper was extremely busy as well as all of the other musicians I worked with on this and it’s hard to get these people together all in one place and record a record; especially with an independent budget. I was very calculated about my delivery and what I wanted to do with arrangements and all of those things when I went into the session. We actually didn’t even rehearse until the day of the session. We rehearsed the song then recorded; rehearsed and recorded and what made them special was that they knew exactly what I wanted from them. I met with every musician privately, went over my details of what I needed from them phonically in order to create the sound that I have and that’s how the record Life As A Ballad came about.

Not only that I want to make it clear that you didn’t just appear on the scene yesterday; you’ve been around a long time.

I have.

The history of work that you have done has not only included jazz, but a gamut of genres of music with really great artists. What did you take from those experiences of working with people such as George Michael, Patricia Alexander, Yolanda Adams and others?

I learned how to run a ship from these people. I learned how to run the things that I need to happen in a rehearsal, a performance; what I need from people…how to be a student of business a little bit more. I started a business professionally at 15 years old, so I’ve been at it for a while and those kinds of things helped me keep my ship running. You know? You have moments in the spotlight, but a lot of them are really behind the scenes, but then I’ve been really blessed to work with some pretty awesome artists and also very nice people and that’s not always the case.

Yes, you can work with some really great artists, but then they may not really be very nice people and that makes all of the difference in the world; because then of course your creativity cannot flow with that type of energy.

Absolutely! Well I think my experience is this: the people, who have had the most success honestly, were usually the nicest. The ones who did not achieve all that much, even though they may have had some shine, they were the ones who were not as nice.

Well that goes back to what we were discussing earlier before the interview about sowing and reaping.

Yeah, that’s true.

That’s what it’s all about and because you can sing jazz, pop, gospel or anything else is wonderful and I wanted to make it very clear that you didn’t just jump into the music scene yesterday…the work is there.

That’s true. You know I originally started my career using my first band and it’s been six years since my last record. I left my first record deal and I started working on two different records, one with a very famous producer and I just ended up not really, really loving what it turned out to be and then I did another Indie record which never saw the light of day.

In the midst of that another artist came out with my name basically…his name is very similar to mine and I started getting calls to ask if I were him and it started to become a big mess! I thought now I have a new record and this is an opportunity to reinvent and I think the other thing about artistry is being able to reinvent yourself and not be tied to certain things...although my name is my real name, Abiah, which is my last name and it works just as well.

Now I want to talk about the album Life As A Ballad. The one that I can’t stop listening to and I’m not just saying that because I am doing this interview with you. The truth is I really can’t stop listening to this record. You have to understand that I get a lot of music in the mail and I review them all, but I get stuck on the really great ones, which stops me from doing my work of reviewing other music. So I want to tell you that I really don’t appreciate this album being so wonderful, because it keeps me from doing my work! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Oh my goodness! Thank you so much! That is a huge compliment! I hope it’s not too much for you!

Oh yeah! I have to tell you that new music…especially if it’s wonderful, is like a summer with a thousand Julys!

Oh, that’s a fantastic statement! You’ve just given me a title for a new song! [Laughs] Don’t be surprised if I start writing this today.

[Laughs] Oh yes! Please do! “September” is absolutely beautiful! “Doves,” “Foolish Heart” and I listen to “Goodbye” over and over again! It melts my heart and brings tears to my eyes.

Well “September” I wrote in about fifteen minutes. It was just one of those songs where I felt it and I just knew it was right. It was literally pouring out of my fingers. I couldn’t write the lyrics fast enough as it was pouring out of me. I wrote it last summer…just everything about it…the melody…it all just poured out. There’s no real personal story to the song; it’s more about me being a storyteller. Except for two songs on this record, I would say the record is about me being a narrator and telling other people’s stories and wanting to tell a story with a great melody and great songwriting.

You know ‘Little’ Jimmy Scott said the reason he loved Paul Robeson’s music so much was because he was a storyteller. Your music is now doing the same thing.

That’s awesome! You know, people always ask me… what kind of music is this? Honestly, it is majorly influenced by jazz, but it’s not just a jazz record; it has a lot of genres connected to it and I would call my music “art songs”. One thing I learned in classical music is how it’s important to paint a picture with the text and so that has been my desire to tell the story, because a word has so much color to it…just one word can say so much. When I say one word to one person it could mean something entirely different to another person and so my desire was to tell the story through the text and let my voice paint the words.

Again the musicians on this record are great. You’ve got Robert Glasper , Marvin Sewell, Keith Witty, Ulysses Owens Jr., David Rosenthal, John Shannon and Chris Eddleton. What was is about them that influenced your selection to perform these “art songs”?

Thank you so much Marvin Sewell is a dear friend and his guitar playing is inspirational to me…I don’t know anyone else I’d rather collaborate with, he is so special. One wants to make a record with people that you are most comfortable with. I have long standing relationships with every person on this record. I have worked over the last six or seven years with every person on this record. Robert being the first person in New York that I’ve worked with on this record; then the list goes down the line. These people have known me for so long and we respect each other and we have a brotherhood and that’s really important; to go into the studio and work with people who you respect and they respect you.

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