SuCh a Talent, SuCh a Voice: An Interview
Not too many singers can claim that their first major performance was at the Grammys. Su Charles can. As a member of the Jazz Ensemble at her high school, she was invited to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles and got to perform with entertainment greats such as Erykah Badu, Dave Koz and Patricia Rushen at the Grammy Awards show. Upon returning home, the native Bostonian did a mental sketch of her future in her head: attending a performing arts school, getting a degree from the renowned Berklee School of Music, and all the things in-between that would help groom her as a professional singer.
And dreams do come true. In addition to having a career as a professional singer, SuCh toured as part of the cast of the stage version of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. Her latest single “Sugar Maple” took the #1 spot on the Independent Soul Chart in the UK. Her voice matches the thickness of sugar maple, and the melody is life a forest chorus; very relaxing, extremely soothing. Like, coniferous!
SuCh’s style echoes the organic style of such singers as Heather Headley, Ledisi and Goapele. There is this jazzy, blues-tinged edge to her music, and that is most manifested on “Stretch Marks”, and “Robbed”, two songs on her Stretch Marksdisc.
The songwriting on the album is very strong and personal to the point where one thinks that one is reading a torn and crumpled page from the stolen diary of Ms. Charles! Back to “Stretch Marks”! We tend to identify stretch marks with women. In some cultures, stretch marks are regarded as an indicator of a woman’s biological clock ticking. In other cultures, some regard it as a mark of child bearing. In SuCh’s version of stretch marks, it goes beyond that. She sings:
Stretch marks, signs of pain, strength and maturity Stretch marks, medals won against insecurity Stretch marks, past, present and future inked on skin Stretch marks, source of pride so embrace what’s within
“Robbed”, another song that is emotionally raw all over, speaks of betrayals, love mirages, and immeasurable hurt.
How did you get the name SuCh? SuCh is my stage name. It’s pronounced like the word “such”. That word is used for two purposes: to emphasize a quality, that is such great music, or show similarity, i.e. such as…That’s what I want my music and artistry to be, exemplify and amplify all that’s good and beautiful.
What did your parents think when they became aware of your penchant for music, and most of all, your desire to be serious about it? My dad is a pastor so he had me in the children’s choir since I was two years old. But I was 15 when I first had the inkling that I could be a musician. At the time I was invited to be a part Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble, the only non-performing arts student, for three consecutive years. While they were supportive of my enthusiasm, my parents didn’t think of music as a viable career choice, so I gave up. I never stopped doing music though; I went on to direct choirs, ensembles, and started singing groups. Music is the one thing that I have done consistently my whole life.
What do they think of your singing career now? They have been incredible. They are so supportive and proud of me. Knowing that my parents truly believe in me and what I know is my calling, means the world to me.
At which point did you decide to take matters into your own hands and start being proactive about your music? Up until January of 2012 I worked as a registered nurse. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, I was one of the first medical responders in Leogane and the devastation and loss of life really jolted me. And then soon after I had a son. These two things together were the catalyst. On one hand, I realized that life is too short and precious to not live out my dreams. And on the other, I wanted my son to know that nothing is out of his reach if he puts his mind to it. And what better way for him to get that message than to see his mother living it? That’s when I auditioned for American Idol Season 11 and I made Top 63rd After that experience, I resigned from my nursing job, recorded my debut album, and took my future into my own hands.
Have you ever gotten a “whoopin” in relation to music or singing? [Laughter] No, I’ve never gotten a “baton” for music or singing. I have two older sisters I grew up listening to sing. My father plays the sax and my mom the clarinet. I took piano and flute lessons and have been playing them since I was seven.
Was developing a style of your own something that came easily to you? I’m a work in progress, and in some ways I am still developing my own style. I love so many different genres of music and honestly the debut album is only a fraction of me and just the beginning. But I would say I am Soul woman peppered with Rock, Reggae, Pop, Jazz, Konpa, Rara, Country, you name it. If it’s good music, I’m down!
Did any adults compliment you on your voice? Or make predictions about your music? I think since the age of seven or so, people started to recognize that I could sing. One adult that stands out to me in particular was my high school choir director, Mrs. Mianulli. She always told me there was something special about me. She actually accompanied me every year to the Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble until I graduated.
Music is a creative thing, and there’s the big marketing stuff, the business part. The whole big marketing and image machine. Yes, music is a business, it’s the reality of the profession. When I worked as a nurse there were two parts to that also; there was the caring-for-patients side and there were clerical, financial aspects. I think the trick regarding music and being an artist is to learn how to navigate the waters of staying creative while learning to be business savvy.
But are there some aspects of the music business that you aren’t too fond of? One of the main challenges of an independent artist is getting your music on the radio. I wish it were a more streamlined process, with some of the major stations giving good music a shot.
Why do you think so many people turn to music when they’ve had their hearts trampled on? There is a song for literally everything. There is a song for love, a song for heartache, a song for joy, a song for fear, everything. Musicians and songwriters are tasked with putting thoughts, feelings, emotions, into words that people have no idea how to express. So people turn to music to help them deal with difficulties, to encourage them when they’re down, to party with them when they’ve succeeded. It helps heal trampled hearts. Music is a powerful thing.
What inspired the song “Stretch Marks”? “Stretch Marks” is my story. It was fitting because life’s circumstances have stretched me to make me into who I am. They’ve made me stronger, wiser, better. And I’ve learned to embrace the lingering scars and wear them as a badge of honor instead of being ashamed of them. It’s my way to say that I accept myself as I am, with all my imperfections, for there’s ultimately beauty in them. I wanted to share that with women (and men, you wouldn’t believe how many men love that song, to let them know they are beautiful with all of the scars, physical, emotional, mental, whatever they may be.
Are “Here’s To Us” and “Pledge” about the same person? “Here’s To Us” is about my best friend, who I met when I was four years old in Pre-K. It’s a true story and we’re still best friends. And “Pledge” is a love song about a significant other.
What singers did you try to emulate growing up? Since I have older sisters, I was really into 90’s music. Like crazy! So, I love Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Zhane, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, The Fugees, Aretha Franklin, Boys II Men. Mariah, Whitney, Aretha, and Celine were my favorite female singers growing up.
And what about your songwriting process? I don’t have a formula as to how songs come together…[For some] songs, I heard everything in my head and just had to tell the producer and the band; others, the music existed first and then lyrics came, and then later the melody. It all just depends. The creative process is fun and stimulating, and I’ve never written two songs quite the exact same way.
How important do you think singing is to a performer’s overall abilities? Singing plays a part in a performer’s abilities, but it’s not everything. The sincerity of an artist and that something special about them, that “X factor”, is what makes a person an awesome performer. I personally am attracted to artists who can make me feel what they feel when they are performing.
How did you discover your talent for songwriting? Growing up, I would write all these short stories. I am also a huge diary writer. One day I went through all of my journal entries and started turning some of them into songs.
Do you ever feel pressure to dumb them down to make them more commercial? Sure, I do. But will I? Probably not. Thing is, people have had commercial success with pensive, deep songs, because radio needs that too. There’s a song for everything and radio needs to cater to all our feelings.
What do you have planned next? Once September hits, I’ll be in the studio recording my next album. To find out if I’m coming to a city near you, check out my website and come on this journey with me.