Songwriter-Composer Phyllisia Ross On Identity, Female Artist Image, and The Music Industry
It was supposed to have been like any other talent show. The lights were on, the audience was ready, and a little girl took the microphone and sung a rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, off The Lion King movie and musical soundtrack. Members of the audience who had thought that the only thing big about this young talent was the hair on her head, were blown away by her equally big voice. So no, it wasn’t like any other talent show. The little girl on the mic was a born star by the name Phyllisia Ross.
Ross is far from a little girl now. But the voice that stunned the talent show audience that pivotal night is as big as ever. With her instrument, Ross gives off echoes of divas like Angela Bofill and Phyllis Hyman.
But she isn’t only interested in showcasing her voice. In the video for her song “Money Clap”, the well-endowed Ms. Ross rumps around in body-hugging little get-ups with her entourage of girls, doing, well, the money clap. The song has an anti-pushover message for women who are getting used by men for their stash. Not much is made of her voice on that track—as if she’s just another singing-dancing starlet with sex appeal.
When she belts out a song like “L’union Fait la Force”, her Creole-language composition, she sounds so soulful and so sincere, it might be a wonder to some as to whether the girl in the “Money Clap” video and the one sitting solemnly at her piano singing lyrics like “Priye, di Bondye pa kite Ayiti peri konsa” (Pray, tell God not to let Haiti die off that way) are one and the same. But that’s versatility for you.
And then there are the covers. Sade ranks among one of her best choices. Her version of “By Your Side”, featuring C.J. Hilton from the Sade classic album Lover’s Rock is spine-tingling, while renditions of “Love Love is King” and “Cherish the Day” are exceptionally memorable. Surely, those would have gotten a shy, approving smile from Helen Folasade herself. Ms. Ross directed the music video for the song herself.
Oh, and then there’s her cover of D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel”, where at one point, it seems like the power of her voice will induce her to go into a seizure. Indeed, the singer is most impressive in instances where it’s just her and her piano, and that voice. The truth is she’s at her best when she’s not belittling her artistry.
Phyllisia Ross is on her way, folks. Only God can stop her.
How’d you start playing piano? At the age of 3, after going to a neighbor’s house with my parents, they noticed that the piano really excited me. They decided to give me a chance—once-a-month lessons. I absolutely loved it, diligently practicing and enjoying classical piano studies. The rest is history. The piano is an extension of me. It brings me so much peace to play. I don’t know what I would do without it.
When you’re an artistic person, sometimes it’s really hard to put your education first above your creative urges. Yet, you managed to graduate from the University of Miami. Was it challenging to draw that balance between pursuing your career and pursuing your education? It was extremely challenging, but unbelievably gratifying for me. Both dreams were just as important—pursuing music and a degree—so I knew I had to go after them both with the same intensity, purpose, and focus. I am always trying to push myself and always think I could have worked harder.
Were you part of your school’s chorus? Absolutely. I went to arts school for seven years—Bak Middle School of the Arts and Dreyfoos School for Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida—being a member of multiple choruses. That is where I have gotten most of my technique and vocal experience. I am so thankful that I could learn from so many amazing musicians over the years. As a native of Florida, born of a Jewish father and a Haitian mother, did you sometimes feel that you had to choose between the two identities? Never. I have such a diverse, loving family. Both sides love the other, culture, food, customs. I have such a more liberated and free viewpoint of differences that exist in the world because of my family.
There’s been so many developments in the music industry, in terms of technology and marketing. Yes. It has never been easier for artists of all popularities, location, expertise to get out there because of technology. As the artist you can have way more control and connectivity to your fans because of technology. I hope that through my posts, pictures, etc, my fans can really get to know me. The real Phyllisia. Not the image that anyone might want me to portray.
Who are your influences? It would seem to some observers that you are influenced by the likes of Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce? I am influenced by so many different things. I just try to draw inspiration from anything that moves me. Can range from an experience, moment in life, artists, great work or piece, and so on.
Navigate us through your creative process. Do melodies come to you first, or do the lyrics? It totally depends. I write many random thoughts down, record a small line of a melody that might pop into my head and come back to it. I might sit down and write and compose an entire song in one sitting.
Would you say that real life plays a huge part in the creation of a lot of your songs? Real life is the number one factor in the creation of my songs. Every song I’ve ever written relates to a real life situation, experience or feeling.
You write your own songs. And you play the piano, the keyboards, in addition to the guitar. Do you think it’s vital for an artist to take part in every step of the creative process? Sometimes it seems like those who are just handed songs to sing into a microphone fare just as well or sometimes even better than those who are multifaceted? As an artist, I want to be a part of as much as I can in my “package.” I play, write, sing, but I also am involved in the editing of music and music videos, marketing online, social media regulation, business, legalities, etc. If it’s a part of the Phyllisia career evolution, I am ready and willing to put in any work I need to to get the job done. This is my career. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of every memory or moment? As much of the process that I can be a part of-creatively, business wise, etc—I will most definitely be. When was the last time you went to Haiti? This past [September]! Had such an amazing time. Lux Media and Marketing took me down there to work with some great writers and producers, Powersurge, MikaBen and we got in some studio time. I love experiencing Haiti—music, food, everything! It is so a part of me.
Let’s talk a little bit about image. How important do you think it is to the eventual success of a female artist? There seems to be different rules for males and females. The double standards of men and women sometimes trouble me, with this one being at the top of the list. I don’t think that we should be judged on our looks in order to be considered the “musical chosen ones” as women. But, I definitely believe that no matter what social or political restrictions exist in the music industry—or any industry for that matter—only become career-ending or limiting if we allow them to be. No matter what your image, man or woman, if you provide people with great, honest music, it will be appreciated. I do not believe in feeding into other people’s limitations—image or whatever else. If you are big, small, “ugly”, “pretty”, whatever you are, if you love music and have something to contribute to music then just do it!
What advice do you have for up-and-coming female artists in that respect, and regarding other aspects of the music industry? There will be many challenges that you would not anticipate. Disrespect, mental manipulation, discouragement, image issues, maintaining professional relationships with people who want “more”, the list goes on and on and on. I know men have their own issues to deal with in this business, but I want to stress to any woman in this industry that our plights are our own. Really. I salute any woman in this industry who is successful. Some go about it in better ways then others, but all of us have definitely experienced things that people will never know. Only the strong survive. If this is what you believe is meant for you, resist all these challenges and keep your eyes on the prize. I will not let anyone take my chance away from me. I will hold my head up through any situation—uncomfortable, scary, difficult, embarrassing, disheartening- with as much confidence and courage as I can. That song “L’Union Fait la Force” that you recorded for the earthquake that took place in Haiti in the early 2010s—how did the concept for the song originate? I wrote this song as I watched the news and broadcasts about the earthquake days after. It was totally organic. I hope that “L’union Fait La Force” is a song that is uplifting and touching. This song is so personal to me. Every note and word is from the heart.
What are you working on next? I am currently independent and working on a few projects. I am releasing a mix tape of Sade classics remixed. I have some new music in the zouk/konpa market that will be coming out soon and some other international sounds. Just trying to dabble in it all. Definitely keep up with me on all my social sites to see what I have coming up! Visit the Phyllisia Ross website HERE. Connect with her on FACEBOOK, TWITTER and INSTAGRAM. View her videos on Youtube.