Acantha is not a very common name. Acantha: “My mom loved unique and interesting names. She had a Greek mythological dictionary. She said she opened the book and I guess on the first page she found Acantha there, and she loved the name.” According to the myth, Acantha was a nymph loved by the god Apollo, but Acantha turned him down and even scratched his face, so in revenge Apollo turned her into an Acanthus plant. Her leaves may be spiny, but they are also used as a medicine, and I can assure you that for your soul Acantha’s music is as good a medicine as any.
“I was born in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, which was heavily affected by Hurricane Katrina.” 9th Ward is located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city. Incidentally, Acantha only recently, on September the 10th, celebrated her birthday. Acantha: “It was a typical southern city. I remember it was very hot, when I was a little kid growing up. There was always music in the streets. It was a very colourful city, very laid-back and easy. People would sit out on the porch, in a rocking chair. It was a wonderful city to grow up.”
“When I was younger, music wasn’t on my radar as something I could do as a profession. That came much later, after I left New Orleans. I didn’t come from a very musical family, so music really wasn’t a big feature in my house. I was, of course, exposed to the sound of Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and other distinctive New Orleans singers and songwriters.”
Acantha moved to New York in her mid-twenties. “I wanted to experience something different. I’ve always had an adventurous spirit and I thought New York was a cool place. One of my friends had moved there a year earlier and she was like ‘oh my god, it’s amazing here, come and stay with me.’ But to move to New York not knowing anybody, you really have to hustle. I used to be a waitress, I was a hostess, I was doing all these jobs to pay my rent, but then I started getting into jam nights scene, and Cafe Wha? was the first jam night I ever went to.”
CAFE WHA? – HARLEM GRILL – THE BOX
“I was trying to work out my stage fright. I was afraid of performing in front of people, and this weekly jam night was a great way for me to practise singing in front of an audience.” Advertising itself “live music since 1959”, Cafe Wha? (NYC Live Music - Cafe Wha? | New York City) is located in Greenwich Village and hosts artists from jazz, rock and soul genres. “I performed there for a couple of years.”
After the Cafe, Acantha’s next stop was at the Harlem Grill. “My ex-boyfriend owned the restaurant, Harlem Grill, and he came up with the concept to put this Monday Night Blues together. It was my own event. It was really the real start of my career.” Acantha sang only blues during those nights. “I was singing authentic, old-school blues, like B.B. King, Little Walter, Koko Taylor – lots of those blues icons.”
Ever since Acantha dived into music more or less seriously and professionally, the list of her idols has started shaping up and includes, among others, Gladys Knight, Koko Taylor, Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Millie Jackson. “They have all influenced me in some way, and I think each one of them contributed to who I am today.”
Monday Night Blues evenings also led to Acantha’s first gigs abroad. Acantha: “There was this one promoter and booking agent, who used to come to the Harlem Grill shows. He loved my show so much that he started booking me for jazz and blues festivals in the Caribbean and Africa. He was really well-connected in that circuit – Senegal, Martinique… We were on the same poster with Salif Keita for the festival in Guadeloupe. Singing the blues really changed my life.”
The Box, close to the New Museum in Manhattan (https://theboxnyc.com ), became the third permanent and the longest-running stage for Acantha in New York. “It was really fun. It was groundbreaking in New York. It was something that New York hadn’t seen since the Studio 54 days. It was cabaret and variety, and it was really incredible. I learned so much from so many people, and it opened up a lot of opportunities for me. Basically, when the Box opened, it was a new concept. When they called me in, they wanted me just to be a singer in the show. I auditioned and I got the job, and we started building the show. Two years later the master of ceremony left. They opened up a club here in London, and he came over here and the spot for MC in New York became open and they
chose me. That’s how I became the first female MC there and that’s how I got the name ‘the Queen of the Box.’”
“That guy did about two years here in London, and then he decided that he’s had enough, and the MC spot became open in London and they asked me, if I wanted to go to London for three months. I came over here, they gave me an apartment… and I loved it so much. I kept saying ‘well, I’ll stay a few months longer’, and I ended up staying here since 2012.”
HE SAID/SHE SAID
By the end of the 2010s Acantha found in herself enough confidence to go into the recording studio. Her first session took place in February 2019 in London. There are no recordings from the New York period. “I had an offer to sign with a big house label, Strictly Rhythm, when I was in New York, but I passed that up. I just felt like I wasn’t ready. That’s why it’s taken me so long, because I just followed my instinct. When I started recording here in London and put the band together, I knew I was ready.”
“I put the band together and we started to record the music and they are pretty much the same guys that you hear on the record. My live shows are a little bit different. I use different players, for various reasons. When I’m performing with a full band, it’s usually me and eight others: myself, guitar, bass, drums, keys, two horn players and two background vocalists.”
“I’ve travelled abroad from London, too. I’ve been to many places with the Box shows, but as far as my career as an artist I did my first festival last year in France. I went to Spain and did my first festival there a couple of months ago. I just had my debut shows in Turkey and Paris and I just got booked for a headline show in the Canary Islands on October 21st. It’s all happening, and that’s without a booking agent.”
In February 2019 they started recording the track for an up-tempo stormer called He Said/She Said, and that first single was released in October 2020. The song was written by Acantha and her guitarist and partner, Emlyn Francis, and the message includes a strong statement on fake news. “It was very frustrating, especially during the Covid. We were all indoors reading reports and then find out it’s not true or it is misinformation. Then you get angry about it. That song was written out of frustration of not knowing what to believe. Information is just travelling too fast and there’s too much of it.”
The song was cut at Livingston Studios in London and among other musicians in the rhythm section, besides Emlyn on guitar, there are Andrew Noble on keys, Mike Horne on drums, Neil Raymond on bass and Karl Vanden Bossche on percussion. The horn section includes David Mian on trumpet, Ricky Mian on saxophone and Cezary Tomaszevski on trombone. Matt Clackett plays the alto sax solo, and Miss Baby Sol does the backing vocals.
This record as well as all her follow-ups were released on Acantha’s own label, Magnolia Blue. “Since I did all the work, I thought – a record label of my own. Why not? I came up with the Magnolia Blue name, because magnolia is the state flower of Louisiana and blue is of course blues. It’s a lot of hard work for an independent artist, because you have to do everything yourself, and work with multiple people. But the good news is that I have creative control of my project. No record label, no manager is telling me how should I sound. And I get to keep my profit. Why should I give the record label all the money? I rather have that direct communication with my fans and cut out the middle man” (laughing).
The second single was a beautiful tribute to Acantha’s 80-year-old mother called Lois Lang. This emotional ballad was again written by Acantha and Emlyn, and Acantha even invited her mother to listen to the song in one of her concerts in London. “She loved it. She cried a little bit. It’s a very moving, touching song, and she was very happy.”
The third single was titled Whatever Happened to Our Love? This melodic, rolling mid-tempo number has an easy rhythm and slightly poignant message. On this song Acantha had Jimmy Bralower and Johnny Gale as her co-writers. “I met them via Robert Randolph. I met Robert at the Box in New York, and he introduced me to Jimmy and Johnny. Jimmy is one of my dearest friends in the industry. He’s a pretty big name and he has given me some great music advice about the industry.” A drummer/arranger/producer/writer/remixer, Jimmy has been involved in over 80 gold and platinum recordings, including his four-year collaboration with Nile Rodgers, whereas Johnny– also a producer, arranger, composer and a guitarist – on top of that specializes in his music in the stylings of doowop, classic soul and 50s & 60s pop music.
“When I wrote the song with Jimmy and Johnny in New York, initially it was a very different song. Originally it came from a relationship that ended, but we changed the vibe of it and made it more upbeat.”
“After those three singles I put together the Sugar Woman EP.” Released in August 2021, the title tune of the EP is an attractive and soulful, mid-tempo floater, co-written by Kiris Houston (https://kirishouston.com), whose long list of credits as a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, composer etc. includes also a Latin Grammy award. “Kiris was introduced to me, when I arrived in London. I wanted to get out on the music scene here. I was really very active trying to find people to write with me. I really wanted to express myself, so I was networking a lot. Then a mutual friend introduced us, and we wrote Sugar Woman together.”
Actually, Sugar Woman was inspired by the 2012 documentary film Searching for Sugar Man about Sixto Rodriguez. “I was watching this incredible movie, and - when I heard Sugar Man - I thought that it’s a good name of the song. What if I wrote a song about a Sugar Woman – what would that song be about? It could be a nice song as well. All the lyrics came to me like immediately. I had to get off the couch, and I wrote it in a matter of minutes.”
The fifth and the only outside song on this EP is Acantha’s version of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, a civil rights anthem, first recorded by its writer, Billy Taylor, in 1963 as a gospel-jazz instrumental but best known as covers by Nina Simone and Solomon Burke a few years later. “Usually I don’t want to put any covers on my records. My cover of I Wish I Knew ended up in a TV commercial for McDonald’s and - because of this commercial coming out in Europe – we thought we probably should release this track as well, so that people who see the commercial can also stream the song on a streaming platform. We just put it on the EP for that reason.”
Unlike the other four tracks on the EP, this particular song was recorded at Kore Studios in London, which has Mike Pratt on bass and Chantal Brown and Jaelee Small on background vocals. “I released the EP independently. It did quite well, although it didn’t hit any charts.”
“After the first singles and EP, I next released singles off the upcoming album. I think that strategy for a new artist is very important, because it’s all about introducing your music to new fans. If I released my entire album, then all the music has been released. You have to kind of stretch it out, pick up fans with each release and then drop the album. That way you get more attention.”
The complete album titled Beautiful Dreams was released this summer, on June 30. “I made the entire record myself. I produced it with my partner Emlyn, who’s also my guitarist, and he co-wrote five songs. I funded it myself. I had a couple of fundraisers. It’s my baby. It’s available on CD, vinyl and on all the streaming platforms, and it’s available worldwide. I was able to sign a distribution deal with a company called Kartel Music Group.”
Once again, recorded at Livingston studios in London with the same set of musicians as on the EP, so far there are as many as five single releases off the album. One is a beautiful and emotional ballad named Come Back Home, which refers to Acantha’s father, who left the family when Acantha was eleven years old. “He lives in New Orleans. I saw him last time I was there. I took him out to lunch.” The song was co-written by a keyboard player, composer and producer named Luke Juby. “We met through an introduction, because again I was looking for a songwriting partner.”
IT'S GONNA BE ALRIGHT
Another Lang-Bralower-Gale composition called It’s Gonna Be Alright is an optimistic, laid-back, mid-tempo number. This feel-good and almost inspirational song was recorded also by the pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph with his gospel outfit, the Family Band, in 2016. “Robert Randolph did his own version of it called Gonna Be All Right. He asked me, if he could record the song for his album Got Soul. He changed it slightly from the version that’s on my album.” Acantha’s video of the song was shot in her hometown, New Orleans.
A beautiful ballad titled Carry the Weight carries also the message of hope, and this captivating song is quite fully orchestrated. “Music that we’re hearing on the radio and on a lot of records coming out these days makes you miss that live sound like they did back in the day at Stax and Muscle Shoals, and we really wanted to bring that back. We wanted to make sure that everybody in the studio plays together, as a unit. Emlyn had a big hand in arranging and getting the band sound together, because it was very important for me to have my unique sound and not to try sound like anybody else. I wasn’t trying to make a vintage sound record by using analogue tape. We wanted to make a record that captured the sound of how we play the music live on stage, because it sounds good.”
A sharp dancer named River Keep Runnin’ has an almost aggressive sound, with a rock guitar solo. “It’s a metaphor for the Mississippi River and New Orleans, with flooding and hurricane Katrina. Rivers can also be associated with gospel, baptism, washing away your sins. River can be a saviour. It can be very spiritual. River keeps running bringing trouble to me, but trouble ain’t gonna never make me run – I won’t quit.”
The concluding song, Ride This Train, is a chugging, mid-tempo, almost funky number, co-written by another talent in music – multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer - Bradley Kohn. On this track Chris Hanby plays bass, Nick Etwell trumpet and Pete Grogan saxophone and still Matt Clackett plays the additional sax solo. “It’s really about chasing your dreams and, again, never giving up. I think the total album is all about being positive at the end of the day and never giving up hope.”
BEAUTIFUL DREAMS/EVENTUALLY/KEEP ON
The title song of the album, Beautiful Dreams, is a catchy and quick-tempo dancer. “It’s about keeping your head up and having your say. I hope people can hear positivity and hope in it, and I hope it makes them feel good, makes them dance.”
With the exception of I Wish I Knew, all the songs from the Sugar Woman EP are transplanted also on this album. “My number one favourite is of course my mom song, Lois Lang, because it’s a story of my mom and it’s my history. It’s an ode to her strength as a black woman and – being a black woman myself and honouring her - I honoured myself.” Preceding the song, we can even hear her mother saying a few words in the interlude.
Eventually is a soft and atmospheric ballad, intimate and melancholic. The co-writer is Bruno Major. “The same way I went to jam nights in New York, I used to go to jam nights here. I found out that it’s a good starting point, if you want to meet people and work on things. Someone told me about the Troy Bar here in London. I went there, and Bruno was in the house band. I got up and sang I’d Rather Go Blind, and it was a really good performance.” The two started talking, and in the end started writing songs together, and one of them was Eventually. “Bruno is now on a world tour, and he’s really big in Asia – and he’s independent. His incredible story shows that a record label is not the destination. It’s not the thing everybody think it is.”
Keep On, another soft and sensitive slow song, is co-written by Phil Simmonds and Juan Ayala. “Phil is an incredible songwriter and producer. Keep On was recorded at a very dark period of my life. I felt like nothing was working and I was really down. Phil called me on a particular day, when I was going through these feelings, and asked what I want to write about. I said ‘well, I just feel like giving up’ - and we wrote Keep On, a positive song.”
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF…SOUL LEGENDS
You can also follow “acoustic Acantha” on YouTube in the series titled Standing on the Shoulders of…Soul Legends (). “Now it’s 103 episodes. It was born in lockdown, when we had no gigs and I wanted to perform and do something. A couple of artists were performing covers in their living room, and I thought ‘oh, that’s a good idea’, but my partner didn’t really want to do live streaming.”
“The idea really sparked off, when Bill Withers passed away. I’m a big fan of Bill Withers. I first decided that I don’t want to do Ain’t No Sunshine or one of the songs everybody’s going to do. I tried to find a song that wasn’t that popular, and we found this amazing Bill Withers’ song that we both hadn’t heard of called Let Me Be the One You Need. People loved it, and I thought we’re really on to something. Then we did another song and the reaction was amazing and I said ‘I think I’m going to do a weekly series.’”
For a fan of classic soul music, it’s really heart-warming to listen to Acantha’s Beautiful Dreams album – genuine melodies, real live musicians, rich orchestration and soulful vocalizing. Please give it a listen and most probably you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
“My first album is finally out. Now my next plan is getting a booking agent so I can go out and tour and perform the songs… and after that work on the second album, and continue to build and make sure that I put out great music and perform great shows.”
(EP & LP)
SUGAR WOMAN (Acantha Lang/Self-released) 2021
Sugar Woman / He Said/She Said / Lois Lang / Whatever Happened To Our Love? / I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
BEAUTIFUL DREAMS (Magnolia Blue) 2023
Sugar Woman / Come Back Home / Beautiful Dreams / Eventually / He Said/She Said / Interlude: A Word From My Momma / Lois Lang / River Keep Runnin’ / It’s Gonna Be Alright / Carry The Weight / Whatever Happened To Our Love? / Keep On / Ride This Train (Extended version)