Accomplished singer and Harlem native Vivian Sessoms, having amassed credits as a backing vocalist for Chaka Khan, Rob Thomas, Dionne Warwick, Donna Summer, Cher, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Pink, Patti Austin, Guru, Sinead O’Connor, P. Diddy, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Towa Tei and a host of others, has proven herself a fiery and forward-thinking artist in her own right. On her releases Sunny One Day and forthcoming release LIFE, in collaboration with producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Parks, Sessoms has displayed an adventurous arranging sensibility and a refreshing disregard for genre boundaries. Her expressive, sophisticated sound draws on jazz, R&B and pop in fresh and moving ways, whether she’s presenting her own material, reinterpreting “Strange Fruit” for our own troubled times, or reshaping classic pop, jazz and soul hits with a view toward transformation and constant surprise.
Sessoms’ work has landed her on stages at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, The Beacon Theatre, The Apollo Theatre, Irving Plaza, The Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, Highline Ballroom, Joe’s Pub and many more.
The Street talked with Vivian before her Canberra show and launch of LIFE in Australia in November.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE VOICE FOR YOU?
I think of the voice as an instrument, another musical instrument that adds to the conversation of a song, a performance or what have you. I imagine it is the original instrument, and there are endless ways we can use our voices melodically, rhythmically, with notes or sound, with words, without words
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE MUSIC SCENE THAT MOTIVATES YOU?
The things that I get most excited by are the possibilities of creating. Working with favorite musicians. Writing, producing, watching a song come together from an idea in my head. It’s exhilarating when it comes together right. I enjoy the fellowship that comes with making music with other musicians. I love the oneness that you sometimes experience when you’ve played with musicians for a while and you are no longer playing from the page, but flying together. It feels like that sometimes, these are kind of magical moments…
PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT Y OUR NEW ALBUM ‘LIFE’ AND YOUR ORIGINAL WORKS?
It’s been important to me, to write and to sing about what’s happening in the world, to give voice to what many may be feeling. That has been a theme in my work for as long as I’ve been writing. It’s also important to me to pay homage to the greats that have come before me. Having said that, I seek the beautiful moments in music although at times my work is raw or evocative. I am constantly striving to challenge myself musically.
The new cd LIFE, features some of my favorite standards including Lush Life and No Greater Love, but there are also more contemporary songs like As and Superwoman by Stevie Wonder, One Thing Leads To Another by the Fixx, and People by the Stylistics. It’s a more layered project than I’ve ever done before, in that I was more particular in the choosing of material. My aim was to choose songs from the 60s and 70s, and even as far back as the 30s, that speak to the racial divide happening today. It’s a little bit autobiographical, a kind of love song to Harlem (where I’m from, shout out to St Nick❤). It’s a meshing of genres, eras, and soundscapes and it features some of the most incredible musicians on the music scene today. As Nicholas Payton would say, it’s Black American Music.
YOU HAVE SAID THAT ‘LIFE’ TELLS A STORY OF BLACK LIFE IN AMERICA. TELL US MORE. HOW HAS LIVING AND WORKING IN THE US INFORMED YOUR COMPOSING AND PERFORMING?
That’s a great question… I guess I’ll start by saying that when I started working on this cd, it was going in one direction. I was working on it for about five years, and at the end of five years it’s gone in the complete opposite direction and that is directly because of the climate and landscape in America at the moment. We have watched so many people succumb to violence, absolutely unnecessarily so. We are looking at one of the most politically dividing times in our lifetime and possibly in our history, the racial divide seems to be widening instead of closing. Women’s rights are under attack, LGBTQ rights are under attack, voting rights are under attack, and everyone is feeling the stress. People are experiencing PTSD. I have without question been influenced by what I’ve see and it isn’t only taking place in America. But the music also tells the story of the resilience of POC (person of colour) in America… Of how we rebound… and how we rise…and create beauty…and inspire…and influence. And how we love…
YOU HAVE JAZZ ROYALTY IN YOUR BLOOD AND HAVE WORKED WITH LEGENDARY MUSICIANS IN YOUR ILLUSTROUS CAREER. WHAT IS YOUR OBSERVATION ON THE RECOGNITION OF FEMALE COMPOSERS AND PERFORMERS IN JAZZ?
To be honest I’m somewhat new to the jazz arena, but I will say that I have felt for a long time that women composers, producers and even filmmakers and directors have for a long time not gotten the opportunities or the recognition they deserve. I have struggled over the course of my career to be recognized as a writer and producer of my own music. I wouldn’t say it’s a constant struggle, but it is a struggle none the less. A few years back I really got into the music of Betty Carter which led me to start reading about her life and what an incredible life and career she had. She formed her own record company, booked her own tours and took all the risk to a record albums that she wanted to make and take herself on tour but she also took home the lion’s share of the proceeds and it’s truly brilliant that she had foresight to do so. Her story has been tremendously inspiring to me. But I don’t know that she set out to be a pioneer as much as she probably just had a hard time working with people who stopped believing in her at a certain point in her career, in a business that was heavily male dominated at that time. I mean we’re talking about the 50s, 60s and even 70s.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLABORATION WITH OTHER ARTISTS?
I don’t know that I have a particular approach. For this record, I had songs I wanted people to either play on or arrange with me (Lush Life, Best Is Yet). There are a few composers that came to me with arrangements already complete (Superwoman, People). Other tunes like I Can’t Breathe was something that was floating in my head for a while, that my husband Chris suggested I flesh out with pianist Shedrick Mitchell (Maxwell, Kenny Garrett, Betty Carter). There were a couple people I asked to write a something for me like Casey Benjamin (Robert Glasper, Stephon Harris, Q Tip), who wrote If They Only Knew.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING MUSICIANS?
Don’t give up. It’s the best piece of advice I can give to anyone aspiring. I think the business is mostly a numbers game, so be in it to win it. But keep honing and learning your craft so that when the exciting moments and opportunities come, you’re prepared. Go out, make the scene, get off your devices and make music with other people. It’s important.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I think a lot of touring. This is a double cd, with the second half coming out in the spring of 2019, so I’ll be traveling for several months in support of it. I recently secured distribution for my label, and plan to release a few artists on the label next year and possibly the year after, so I’ll be in and out of the studio some.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Writing… I’m already writing and producing new music. I’m working on a film script at the moment, and been delving into acting a little. I read a lot and get a lot of inspiration from that. I haven’t had time in a long time to just sit and read the way I used to.
WHAT MUSIC ARE YOU LISTENING TO CURRENTLY?
A ton of stuff… This week, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Keyon Harold, Casey Benjamin, Christian Scott, Victory Boyd, Emily King, Blood Orange, Mayer Hawthorne, Dan Murray.