Goapele calls in from California to talk to DJ Petra about her new album “Strong As Glass,” her experience working with producer Keith Harris, maintaining success as an independent artist, coming up in the Bay Area music scene, and lots more. Originally broadcast on Friday, October 10th 2014, on WNYU 89.1FM New York.
Broadcast on Hip-Hop & Her Family on WNYU 89.1FM New York on Friday, October 10th.
Petra: So you’re about to drop an album.
Goapele: Yes – Strong As Glass, coming out October 21st. The first official date of the tour is at the Highline on November 7th. I’m also doing a jazz, soul cruise in October, going into the Caribbean. The album release is going to be celebrated throughout the tour, I’m looking at each date as a celebration – I’ll be performing my new music.
P: You worked with a well known producer…
G: Yea Keith Harris. We both went to Berklee College of Music, and used to be in some of the same jam sessions back then, but we’d never gotten into the studio together before this project. When we got into the studio it just flowed really well. He ended up executive producing the album and doing like five tracks on it.
P: What was it like working with him?
G: It was great, it was really easy. He’s first a drummer, an excellent musician, and comes from that sensitivity. As a producer, he brings together a strong overall sound. He was sensitive to what I wanted as an artist, and helped push me out of my boundaries a little bit. It was a good match.
G: I think it’s both. It’s kind of like water – it’s so soft, and we’re made of it, but it can kill you and drown you. So “Strong As Glass” is a juxtaposition like that, about the dimensions of being a woman. Feeling strong and independent at times, and also feeling breakable and fragile at times. Not wanting to be taken for granted, and not always feeling invincible. That’s the title track of the album… A lot of the album touches on different aspects, different phases, different perspectives on love and what it’s like being a woman, navigating through the world.
P: Tell me more about the sound of the album… You said you pushed your boundaries, what can we expect to hear?
G: Well I’m singing out more on this album, so that was little scary in the studio, but it’s exciting and empowering, and let me stretch out. There’s a good marriage between live music and programmed drum and synths. It’s a little more rooted in R&B. As you can hear with “Hey Boy” the single, there’s a couple more songs that are uptempo. I wanted to include that this time. For the most part, my albums are more vibey, and I wanted this one to be more dynamic in terms of tempo and range of feeling.
P: So you’re releasing this album on Skyblaze Recordings, which is your independent label. How did it come about? What is it like running it?
G: It’s a family label, and we really started it out of necessity. In 2001, when I first put out “Closer” independently, the first CDs we were just duplicating 1,000 at a time, selling them hand-to-hand at shows and local stores in the Bay Area. Before it caught on nationally, it was very grassroots. And then we realized there were requests in other areas, so we need to build it larger. So we started Skyblaze Recordings, and got distribution through Hieroglyphics. I just wanted to be able to put out the music that I believed in, and I didn’t want to be convinced of anything otherwise. I wanted to find my own voice, so Skyblaze was a way to have that platform. Since the beginning, it’s just been partnering up with different labels and distribution to continue to get the music out.
P: You have a long-standing reputation for maintaining your integrity, in the face of gaining a good amount of mainstream exposure… For most artists, getting mainstream attention is the definition of a successful music career, a holy grail of sorts. What is your holy grail?
G: My first goal is that I’m touching people through my music. That I’m singing, recording and performing music that I can feel… I know it’s a business, I need to support myself, so of course I care about it being successful. But I just try to make my own measures of success. In the beginning, being independent, I was like ‘Let me just get to 100,000 copies.’ If you’re on a major label, that might look like a failure. I had to make my own markers of what success would be mean to me. And I try to keep raising that bar. I’m not satisfied easily, but I do feel really thankful for being in entertainment as long as I have, that there’s an audience out there supporting it, that there’s people out there who believe in me.
P: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming artist trying to navigate the music industry independently?
G: I think it’s really just about trying hard. <laughs> I’m just always trying to get better. I can see my own flaws, so as I get stronger I say ‘Okay, now I’m ready to work on this.’ Sometimes, as a writer I do stuff that I might think sounds commercial, but other people don’t think it sounds that way. My background is coming from a more underground, eclectic, rebellious spirit… I’m from the Bay, my family is spread all over the world, South African roots – so my music influences are a little different. So even when I do something more straight ahead, it’s always going to be a little to the left. I just try to focus on making songs that will stand the test of time. I’ve been working with other writers in the studio so we can bring out the best in each other.
P: Tell me about your experience growing up in the Bay.
G: What I love about the Bay is that it’s pretty and gritty. It’s gorgeous, the air is fresh, and it naturally has an edge. It makes me feel stronger when I’m walking around in the world. There’s so many cultures that come together there, and there’s more of an exchange than other places. As a teenager, it was just as fun to go to a youth conference, or kick it at a rally where local rap artists were performing, as it was to go to the movies or a club. I love that mixture of entertainment and positivity and social activism and laidbackness.
P: You’ve worked with quite a lot of Bay Area hip-hop artists – E-40, Zion I, Hieroglyphics… What has been your experience in such a male dominated scene?
G: Yea it’s interesting. I just performed at the Hiero Day festival, they had like 15,000 people out there. And it was like everyone from my hip-hop history was there. It was Zion I, Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief, The Grouch, Mac Mall, Planet Asia, it was almost everyone. I was like “I’m here with all my brothers.” So many people that I looked up to, or came up with. It is very male dominated, but when you’re in that world as a woman and you’re getting respect, and it’s about collaborating with good people, it’s empowering. I always get excited to see other women really doing it, going with their vision. At this point it’s not as much a fight, or feeling surrounded by males… I feel like now the ground has been set, so I feel pretty comfortable.
P: What do you think of the current music scene in Oakland? People talk about it as a renaissance, would you agree with that?
G: Yea, I would agree with that. There’s a lot of people coming out of the Bay getting more recognition. And the other thing that’s cool is you can hear the Bay sound all over. In the production. It’s part of what influences Drake, and I think he does it in a beautiful way. A lot of my favorite songs, I’m like, “Is this from the Bay Area?” And it might not be, but it has that vibe… I like that there’s some light that keeps shining on us.
P: What do you think of the current state of hip-hop culture, not just in the Bay but all over?
G: It’s crazy because it’s just so huge now, literally every part of culture. Which is so different than it was when I started, at times it felt like a secret. I love Hip-Hop so I like hearing different elements bleed into every other category of music. There’s an imbalance in who gets the light, the airtime and all of that. That’s always a struggle. Even some of my favorite songs are really not saying much, they’re guilty pleasures. So long term, I think that’s a little scary. Short term, it’s entertaining. It makes folks like Kendrick Lamar stand out more, those doing good quality music and representing a range perspectives. Trying to represent some reality, not just fantasy.
P: Circling back to the topic of womanhood in your upcoming album – I know you’re a mother. I’m curious how motherhood has affected making music for you?
G: The hours are different now. <laughs> I used to go into the studio at 2pm at the earliest, and leave at the crack of dawn. And now I’m waking up at the crack of dawn. So I have to be a little more disciplined. Making the time to be creative, even at times I don’t know if anything creative is going to come out. Being open to that process and being flexible, that’s what motherhood has taught me. Be flexible, rise to the occasion, and figure it out. Because you have to.
Right after I had my daughter I felt strong and vulnerable too, but I also felt like I had permission to say whatever I wanted to say. I’m not a girl anymore, I’m a woman. Even permission to let myself be sexy publicly. Feeling I can let that side show in my lyrics. Doing songs like “Milk & Honey” and “Play,” that were more explicitly sexy, that was new for me. Motherhood opened me up to that. I was finally grown enough to say whatever I wanted to say.
P: I’ve always appreciated that about your music. It’s super sexy and intimate, but it doesn’t feel like it’s something you’re putting on to sell records. It’s actually coming from you.
G: Thank you! I always want it to be real. And those songs just came from me being in the studio and not writing anything down, just saying to myself “I’m feeling this! Let me get in there and record. I’m not going to be self conscious of what I’m saying.” So it came out naturally.
P: How have you navigated the pressures in the industry to use your sexuality as commodity?
G: Probably because I’m a control freak. I’m not comfortable with other people bossing me around. But it’s never been too much of an issue for me, because of how I started. I’ve been able to navigate my own way. At live shows, I really try not to think too much. I just want to bring the music to life, but leave it on the stage. At that point it’s just about living the songs and connecting with the people that are there. There’s a thin line with what’s going too far, but for me I’m more naturally a controlled person… People have been really respectful of that.
P: I know you’ve been active in human rights, and social justice is central to your work. Sensuality, pleasure and romance is also central to your work. Can you talk about how these are related for you?
G: Yea that’s something I struggle with sometimes. I’m like “Where’s my political song on this album? Am I fulfilling what I’m supposed to do as an artist?” Because we have a responsibility as artists to affect positive change. But I know that on a daily basis, I’m thinking about love more than I’m thinking about politics. And really I’m making music to connect with people and bring them together, and that doesn’t usually come through being preachy, it’s more about singing what you feel… A lot of my favorite songs aren’t the most positive, but they make me feel passionate. I think it’s just about making choices as they make sense, you don’t always have to be political, but when we have the opportunity to take a stance, take it then, when it fits.