She has a distinctive sound, like no other, a voice that captivates the listener. As a songwriter, she hits the mark, time after time, painting pictures with sensitive soulfulness, an artful lyricist capable of deftly capturing imagery and emotion with just a phrase. Who else could pen the words to such tunes as “Get Here,” “If Only For One Night,” “So Good So Right” and in more recent times, “Love In Paris Rain” and “10,000 Words”? Brenda Russell is simply one of the most creative artists in contemporary music and with each new album, she displays new facets of her artistry.
Personally, I thought her last album – the 2000 Hidden Beach release, “Paris Rain” – was one of the best records I’d heard in years and I was disappointed that it didn’t have the commercial impact I felt it so deserved. The release of the album was good news for those of us who have treasured the handful of records Brenda has made since she launched her solo career in 1978 and thankfully, it signaled a return to recording after a seven-year gap. We haven’t had to wait as long for a new release: this year, the forward-thinking Dome Records label in the U.K. had the good sense to sign Brenda and the result is “Between The Sun And The Moon,” easily one of the few 2004 releases I find myself listening to time after time. It is classic Brenda Russell, a musical treat melding pop, soul and jazz flavors, a record filled with thought-provoking songs that express the writer’s obvious penchant for compelling storytelling. From the funky Brazilian-styled title cut – a wonderful duet with another superb talent, Ms. Patti Austin – to the moody “Too Cool For The Room” and the impactful lyricism of tunes like “Let Somebody Know” and “The Message,” it’s a splendid piece of work that is a reminder that quality artists like Brenda Russell still have a place in an industry where commerce too often replaces art as a measure of one’s merit or worth.
Speaking with Brenda is always a delight and the U.S. release of “Between The Sun And The Moon” is the perfect excuse. She starts off explaining how she came to sign with a British record company: “Well, actually I had a dream in which I called George Harrison about making my next record in Britain and he said it was a good idea,” Brenda reveals. “I met him in passing just once and of course, I was a fan of his music. Ten days after I had the dream, he died so it
took it as a sign. When my manager went to look for a new record deal for me, I asked him to start moving on the idea of recording in Britain. He met with Peter Robinson of Dome Records and Peter was someone I had met fifteen years earlier on a plane. Then, the first person I thought I’d want to work with in the U.K. was ‘Bluey’ of Incognito. At first, we couldn’t get a hold of him and then we found out he was with the same label, with Dome.”
With everything falling into place, Brenda began working on her first record for the company with Bluey who contributed two tracks to the album, “Make You Smile” and the R&B-flavored “Ain’t No Smoke.” Producer Simon Law (known for his work with Soul II Soul and Chante Moore among others) also did “You Know Our Day Will Come” and “When You Comin’ Back To Me” in London; while the balance of the album was done with various producers in the U.S. She notes, “It was my first time recording in London and I loved it. Being with a U.K. company is not so different – what is different is the people at the company and the level of commitment to getting the product out there.”
Brenda considers her latest album “a little more urban musically which is what we intended. As always, I tried to come up with the best songs I could and a lot of them were written before the deal was done.” One such track was the title cut: “I wrote that with Patti (Austin) a few years ago and it was during the night of a lunar eclipse. I said those words, ‘between the sun and the moon,’ and next thing we said, ‘let’s write that.’ I had the best time working with Patti: I’m happy to know her and of course, as anyone who’s ever met her knows, she’s very witty! I knew how musical she was, I just didn’t know how genius she is as a songwriter – she is amazing! The song was originally intended for Patti to record but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen – I guess it wasn’t supposed to. She does this wicked scat on the song – she sounds like Ella (Fitzgerald) on acid! I’m just crazy for the vocal she did and we used her vocal from the original demo we did of the song.”
Other gems on the new album include a rare cover of a classic, in this case Brenda’s take on The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears” which was included as part of a Motown tribute that guitarist Lee Ritenour did last year and Brenda notes, “Lee invited me to choose a song and the funny thing is that my daughter Lindsay has been singing background vocals on the road with Smokey Robinson for the past two years so you could say his music is all in the family!” Brenda mentions the song “Let Somebody Know,” written with Bunny Hull as a particular favorite on the album:“The older I get, the more I realize how precious life is. You lose a few friends and it brings it home to you: “Let Somebody Know” is a way of reminding us of the importance of telling the people in our lives that we care because there’s no guarantee they’ll be around the next day. We think people will always be there but it’s important not to wait till it’s too late. The song is intended to grab people emotionally.” As frequently happens with Brenda’s work, it does just that, as does “The Message”: “The point behind that song is that while people may see God in different ways, there’s one Creator giving us all life. It’s about helping people unite.”
There’s a distinctly Latin flavor on a couple of the cuts on the album and Brenda says, “People who really know my music know I am a Brazilian ‘baby’ from my very first record. Brazilian music is based on the heartbeat so yes, there are some songs on the album that are a little more funky.”
Its’ predecessor, “Love In Paris Rain” also had some funky moments such as “Please Felipe” (co-written with famed Brazilian artist Ivan Lins), “Walkin’ In New York” and “Move The Moon” (co-written with one of Brenda’s longtime musical heroes, Carole King) and Brenda considers the experience of making that album as positive. “I was very grateful to Steve McKeever at Hidden Beach for signing me to the label since I hadn’t made a record in a few years. He believed in me and that boosted my spirits. Prior to that, I had pretty much walked away from the recording industry because it was so rough and frankly, I wasn’t up for writing for a radio format. Doing the album “Love In Paris Rain” allowed me the opportunity to step back in with my own style. You see, for me, music is forever and when I make a record it’s for all time. I’m not really interested in the flavor of the moment.” Brenda says she hopes “people will go back to the album. The title cut (based on a Yellowjackets track) has some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard and I really liked some of the other songs on the record like “She’s In Love.” And, one of the songs, “Walkin’ In New York” has just been covered by Manhattan Transfer! Now how cool is that!”
In between promoting “Between The Sun And The Moon,” Brenda’s been actively working on writing no less than twenty-six songs for the musical version of “The Color Purple,” collaborating with longtime pal Allee Willis and drummer Stephen Bray. “That’s been one of the most challenging and fun things I’ve ever done in my life,” Brenda reflects. “It brought out things in my musicality I never knew existed. We’ve been working on the music for three years and the show opened in Atlanta in September and so far, we’ve been getting standing ovations every night. We’re looking for the musical go to Broadway in 2005.”
Meanwhile, Russell fans can content themselves with one of 2004’s best. From the cool and hip, “It’s A Jazz Day” to future classics like “I Know You By Heart” and “Different Eyes,” Brenda’s latest album is sublimely satisfying, a real treat for those of us who still appreciate music made with light and shade, music that resonates with the kind honesty and passion Brenda Russell always bring to her work. If Brenda’s intention in making the album was expressed in the title of the album’s opening, she can be sure it was realized for “Between The Sun And The Moon”made me smile a whole lot!
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.