As the solid audience base that she has built for herself over the past eight years knows only too well, Rachelle Ferrell hasn’t had a new album release since the 1995 Blue Note release of "First Instrument," a 1990 recording the dynamic performer made for the Japanese Toshiba label. Five years is a long time between records for most artists and when you consider the distinctive kind of genre-bending music Rachelle makes, it could be cause for considering that a new record would almost be like starting over again for some. "I expected to have to start from the beginning," she notes, recalling that an appearance at the "Lady of Soul Awards" last year when she did a tribute to Natalie Cole, she was surprised at the reaction. "I came out with no make up, with wild hair…and the people went crazy! It was such a blessing to have people respond that way after being away for [such] a long time…"
The wait for a new record is finally over: "Individuality (Can I Be Me)?" a highly personal, raw, oft times funky and earthy album hits the streets September 12. More than either of her two previous records, this eleven-song set reflects Rachelle's creativity with authenticity and honesty. She was involved with the writing of all the material and accompanies herself on the keyboards on five tunes. It is, she admits, "the documentation of a transformation, both personally and career-wise. I wasn't allowed to express myself fully before but I've had enough dues now and I'm back with a product that's the result of me getting a clear reflection of who I am as an individual and not who everyone else things I am…"
Quite naturally, the burning question for any journalist and all Ferrell fans is: why the long gap between albums? Rachelle is typically candid in her response: "There were several reasons… which were kaleidoscopic in terms of complication! I was fighting for my creative autonomy. A lot of time and energy went into a legal battle of epic proportions. I was willing to give up my recording career because I know if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything! I was standing for everything I felt was right and true…"
Eventually, about eighteen months ago, when she could "see the light at the end of the tunnel," Rachelle notes, she began to write and prepare material for a possible album. "During that time away from recording, I kept in contact with my audiences by being on the road. I don't do 'performances' - for me, it's more like meetings and homecomings with the people who come to see me. I share with my audience how I'm feeling and what's going on in my life. They are like my community, a integral part of my life. My audience provided me with inspiration and support when I didn't think I could make it any further…"
Remarkably, with just two albums to her credit, Rachelle was able to be out on tour practically non-stop since 1992: "To a certain degree, I don't understand what's enabled me to keep performing and selling out at clubs like Blues Alley in D.C., The Blue Note in New York and Kimbel's East in the Bay Area. It's funny because when I first began performing, people said my music wasn't commercial! Then, I played New York and people were singing along with me. I think it was a lot of word of mouth and people connected with the honesty and openness in my music…"
That honesty is in full evidence on "Individuality" which Rachelle - who toured a great deal in the last few years under the Jazz Explosion umbrella with artists like Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum, Kenny Lattimore, Rahsaan Patterson and longtime producer George Duke - began recording in July 1999. "Some of the songs - like "I Gotta Go," "I Forgive You" and "Why You Wanna Mess It All Up" - were written as the result of a personal relationship ending. "Will You Remember Me" is about laying the groundwork and foundation for a new relationship. "Reflections of My Heart" is a duet I did with my baby brother, Russ Barnes and it's self-explanatory. "I Can Explain" is the oldest song on the album and was also written from a personal experience. It’s a tune I would pull out and do 'live' every now and again. It struck people so deeply that I decided to record it…"
A couple of songs on the new album were inspired by Rachelle's move from the East Coast to Santa Fe in New Mexico, a move she made in 1996. "Over the last few years, I've spent spent a lot of time reading, praying and meditating, searching for answers," Rachelle notes. "Instead of continuing with that 'why me, why me?' question about whatever was going in my life and my career, I was more introspective. I can understand why artists sometimes make the choices they do: the pressures that are the result of [the industry's] corporate desires can be quite overwhelming. For me, it was about stopping, acknowledging what was going on and asking myself what I could learn from the situation I was in. I felt that there were no accidents, that I had to find out what Spirit had in store for me. I moved to New Mexico to help keep from flipping out. I found a home on a hill with a 360 degree view of the whole area. It was a place where I could heal and grow, a place where I could commune with nature…"
Being in such a peaceful environment inspired the song "Gaia," a duet Rachelle sings with Jonathan Butler (with whom she co-wrote the tune) which she says "is a love to song to Mother Earth." Another tune, the oh-so-funky "Sista" is a tribute to a group of women that Rachelle met after she moved to Santa Fe: "In the music industry, I've always been around men and I didn't feel that female energy could benefit me in a male-oriented world like that. There was a group of sisters who came from all parts of the country to New Mexico and we would get together and share with each other. I wrote "Sista" out of gratitude, in honor and as a tribute to the women who were there with such generosity of spirit as we supported one another in our collective and individual journeys…"
Two songs on the new album sum up how Rachelle feels these days. With her legal woes behind her, a consistently loyal following, a record company solidly supporting her latest work and acclaim from industry insiders who have seen her during recent showcases for the new album, the song "Satisfied" is particularly appropriate. "That's about the faith I had in the midst of all that was going on, especially when I didn't know if I was going to record again. It was based on the insight I had about my life: in defiance of what was going on around me, I was experiencing being satisfied with my life anyway."
Rachelle says that the album's title track "Individuality (Can I Be Me?)" is "a personal national anthem. It's a recapitulation of my whole experience in the industry and in my personal life. I had to learn the same lessons in both areas: there's simply no escape…you have got to express who you are as an individual in everything you do."
From seeing her at a Los Angeles showcase in July, I can testify that Rachelle remains one of the most unique and fully self-expressed artists I've ever seen. Unafraid to let go, to let the muse take her wherever it wants to go, she is a channel for musical freedom that is seldom seen or heard these days. You can get a taste of that creative freedom on her latest album or check her out in concert.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.