An Interview with Jazz Star Alicia Olatuja

Posted by: yetheart, August 10, 2015 3:51 pm
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Alicia Olatuja

Alicia Olatuja’s reputation has been growing since her arrival in New York in 2005. The New York Times praised her performances with her husband, bassist Michael Olatuja, in their band The Olatuja Project. She also wowed everyone at the 2013 presidential inauguration with her solo during the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Alicia has sung with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir since 2007 and often performs as a soloist with the Juilliard Jazz ensemble. She is also a voice teacher, a vocal producer, and teaching artist for the Brooklyn Arts Council, and recently released her solo debut album, Timeless.

We’re excited that Alicia will be joining us for a concert at the Central Library on Sunday, August 23, and happy that she answered a few questions in advance for us!

It’s been written that you sing with “a strong, lustrous tone that mixes elements of classical, jazz, gospel and pop into [a] fluid vocalism.” With such a broad mastery of singing styles, do you feel more at home in one than another? Which musical styles would you like to be best known for?
I suppose one of my major goals as a vocalist is to be comfortable in all of the singing styles I perform. I would like to be known best for my versatility. That's the primary reason I studied voice in college. I never wanted to be called to a performance opportunity where I did not feel ready and capable of singing freely. So I'd say I feel fairly at home in all the different styles I sing. Yay!

At what age did you know that you would become a professional singer? What gave you the best preparation to become one?
I didn't really know I would become a professional singer until I actually started getting paid to sing! After my second year of undergrad, I knew I had a shot when I started booking professional singing engagements. Early in my studies, I had two incredible voice teachers and mentors, Eric Dillner and his wife Susan Yankee. They were both professional singers and they took the time to not only train me vocally but teach me about what it really means to be an independent contractor, the CEO of my own business as a singer.

What was it like singing with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Obama’s last inauguration?
It's amazing to me how surreal that experience still is! To sing before that many people at such a historic time and place was a great honor that I continue to cherish daily.

You’ve performed with such musical giants as Christian McBride, Chaka Khan and BeBe Winans. Can you share a little about those experiences? Was it intimidating at all?
Working with Christian McBride has been such a joy. He's a jazz giant but displays humility and I find that as equally inspiring as his talent. I sang backing vocals with Chaka Khan at an impromptu performance and she has such charismatic energy on stage! You can learn a lot from singers just by sharing the stage with them. I grew up listening to BeBe Winans, so having the opportunity to meet and open for him at Celebrate Brooklyn was like a dream. And there was no intimidation at all because they're all quite personable.

When you perform with your husband in The Olatuja Project, you sing in various African dialects. Was it hard learning songs in those languages, or are you multilingual? Was learning songs in different languages part of your dramatic training?
As a voice major, I had to not only study foreign languages, but the proper diction to sing those languages without an American accent. That training definitely made it easier when it came to singing in Yoruba.

Without giving too much away, can you give us a hint of a few of the songs you will be singing at Queens Library?
I'm very excited to be singing the music from my album Timeless as a stripped-down acoustic set. I've wanted to perform with this level of musical intimacy for a long time now and I’m so glad for this opportunity!

Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?
Apart from writing new material for my next album, I’m also currently touring with Billy Childs, performing several selections from his Grammy-winning album Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. The music is brilliant and pulls on all the strings of my musical background.

Do you have any advice for aspiring singers and vocalists?
I give the advice I heard from Dianne Reeves: "Be ready so you won't have to get ready." Basically, sharpen your craft continuously because in the music biz there is no room for excuses, only excellence.