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ANNIKA CHAMBERS


  During Annika Chambers’ 40-minute set in Porretta, Italy, on Friday evening, July the 19th this year, we were treated to many Southern soul tunes. Her first song was a funky version of a dancer called Six Nights and a Day, which some of you may remember as one of Candi Staton’s singles produced by Rick Hall in the mid-1970s. It was followed by Joe Sample’s aggressive beater, Put It Where You Want It, which actually was the Crusaders’ first hit in 1972, but Average White Band was the first act that released the song with Alan Gorrie’s lyrics a year later. With those two songs Annika built a storming opening for her performance. 

  Backed by the ever-reliable and skilful Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, Annika took the tempo down for a beautiful ballad named Put the Sugar to Bed, but after that the upbeat stimulation continued with the perky and inspirational City in the Sky, cut by the Staple Singers forty-five years ago. Still five years earlier - in 1969 - William Bell released the stomping Love’s Sweet Sensation, which Annika sang as a duet with Larry Batiste. After one self-written mid-tempo romp called Move, she closed her set with the powerful Jealous Kind, a great soul ballad, written by Bobby Charles and recorded by many but first by Clarence “Frogman” Henry in 1962. For me this was the peak moment of the entire evening.

  Only one month after Porretta, on August 20, there was a big occasion in Annika’s life, when Ms. Chambers became Mrs. Chambers-DesLauriers.  Her husband, Paul DesLauriers out of Quebec, Canada, is a blues-rock guitarist, singer and leader of the Paul DesLauriers Band, who just released its latest album Bounce in September.


Annika interviewed by Heikki Suosalo at Porretta, Italy.

FROM HOUSTON TO IRAQ

  Annika Shattrelle Chambers was born on August the 7th in 1985 in Houston, Texas, and still today that’s her home town. Annika: “My mom was only fourteen, when she had me. My mom and dad are not in music, but I have an uncle, Raymond Chambers, who’s a jazz singer back home.”

  Annika was raised by her grandparents, Joyce and William Earl. “My grandfather listened to R&B and my grandmother listened only to gospel.” Actually her grandmother was the one who introduced Annika to gospel music in their home church, Greater St Matthew Baptist Church. “My granny took me to church from a baby till I was 18. I like Mahalia Jackson. I listened to a lot of gospel. I didn’t listen to secular like Aretha and Etta... or I listened to Aretha’s gospel music but not her soul and pop side. I didn’t start hearing that till I was an adult. I started singing in a church in a choir. I never led a song till I was fifteen. I was always busy in church, because that kept me out of trouble” (laughing).

  “I went to school in Houston. I went to a private school, when I was younger, and then I went to public school. I sang in a couple of choirs there, but I didn’t know I had a gift until I went to the army.” In the late 1990s Annika moved to her mother, and she graduated in 2003. During her budding years she concentrated on singing and wasn’t so interested in other aspects of performing like learning to play any instrument. “I only recently started learning how to play piano.”

  After graduation, Annika soon enlisted in the army. “I went to Kosovo and later to Iraq. Kosovo in 2005 and 2006 was calm. I worked at a post office in Kosovo. Baghdad in Iraq was calm some days and then it was crazy other days, but for the most part we all came home, so that was good.”  During those army days Annika didn’t abandon music. On the contrary, her talent was exposed, when “one of the colonels heard me singing.” As anticipated, gospel came first. “When I was on my deployment in Kosovo, we had a gospel choir. We didn’t have any name for it.” Besides that choir, Annika also sang in a band on base.

  However, those days for the first time also the blues got a grip of Annika. “When I was in the army, I had a guitar player, Sergeant Ramirez, to teach me the blues. After that I just started learning more and more about the blues, and then I realised I had a gift. We had a band on the military base, and when I came home back to Houston I put a band together, and we started doing little gigs here and there... and we sucked. We were terrible, but I got to honing my craft. I really started figuring out my voice and stuff.”


Funky Chakra on the pic above

FUNKY CHAKRA

  “Already in the army I did a few of TV shows and I did a few talent competitions. Before I started really, really singing, I did a lot of karaoke competitions... and I won (laughing). When I got back from Kosovo (in 2006), I recorded songs with a group called Funky Chakra. They were not publicly released, and they were bootlegged. Our album was called Funky Chakra.”

  Funky Chakra was put together by Richard Varr (bass) and Jeffrey Witkov (drums) who had performed together on and off since the late 1980s. The guitarist Jonathan Levit was asked to join in 2004 and finally they found Annika through an advertisement. They describe their music as “a cross between jazz, folk, funk, blues, and, with Chambers’ strong voice, a touch of r&b.”

  In 2011 with 7 ½ army years behind her, Sgt. Annika returned to Houston and formed Annika Chambers and the House Rules Band “That was the band that we just started playing around town – bar gigs, pub gigs – and we did some mini-festivals, but mostly bar gigs. It was five members.”


House Rules

  Alongside singing and performing, studying became another important direction in Annika’s life for the next few years. “I went to community college after the Army. I have an Associate of Arts Degree from Houston Community College and Bachelor of Arts in Corporate Communications.” She graduated with that bachelor’s degree in 2013.

  In the fall of 2012 Annika and her House Rules Band took part in the Houston Blues Challenge competition. An odds-on favourite, however, she didn’t win the local contest and consequently didn’t make it to IBC (International Blues Challenge) finals in Memphis, TN. But she got lucky anyway, because there were two judges in the Houston competition jury, who were greatly impressed by Annika’s performance. Larry Fulcher is a songwriter, producer and foremost an acclaimed bass player, who has worked, among others, with Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band, W.C. Clark and Ruthie Foster. Houston Press chose Richard Cagle “Producer of the Year” already in 1994, and he has recorded and produced Carolyn Wonderland, Johnny Winter and his own Texas Voodoo Choir, to name a few. These two music vets decided to record Annika at Cagle’s Montrose Studios in Houston.  This process started towards the end of 2012, but so powerful were Annika’s live performances in that area that in August 2013 she became a Houston Press Music Award winner in the category of “Best Female Vocals” - without any recorded material on the market yet.


MAKING MY MARK

  Her debut CD, Making My Mark (www.montroserecords.net), was finally released on January 14 in 2014 and credited to Annika Chambers & the Houston All-Stars. Larry and Richard were the co-producers and Larry also played the bass on the record. Among other musicians you can spot such names as David Delagarza and Skip Nalia on keys, Tony Braunagel and Samantha Banks on drums and Darrell Leonard on trumpet, as well as in the capacity of the arranger, not to mention many guests such as David Carter, Barry Seelen, Randy Wall, Anthony Terry etc. Joe McGrath was the mixer.

  “It started as a demo. People started hearing about it in the city, so Larry and Rich were like ‘we got to add some more songs’, and so that’s how my record came about. It was just a labour of love when all those people – like 22 people – came in on my record. It’s kind of ‘hey, here I am’, an introduction of Anita Chambers to the world.”

  “We just started picking songs that I liked. Before we started recording, Larry had like fifty songs that he had picked out for my voice. So that’s where the Faye Adams tune, It Hurts Me to My Heart, and Love’s Sweet Sensation, Put It Where You Want It and Let’s Get down to Business came from. He thought that my voice would sound good on those songs.” Faye Adams’ bluesy roller dates back to 1954, and William Bell’s stomper, Love’s Sweet Sensation, was released fifteen years later. A jumpy blues number called Put It Where You Want It was one of the songs that Annika sang in Porretta, and the swinging Let’s Get down to Business was first cut by its writer, B.B. King, in 1969.

  “There are many up-tempo tracks, because I’m a party girl. I had some original tunes, too.” Annika co-wrote the opener, a slowish funk track with a loud rock guitar dominating called Move, and wrote a rocky mid-tempo romp with a sax solo in the middle named Lick ‘Er and still a smooth, even poppy beat-ballad titled Guitar Boy. Other delightful country-tinged soul ballads include Down South, written by Larry’s daughter Dominique Fulcher, and a soulful floater called Jealous Kind, written by Bobby Charles but first cut by Clarence Henry in 1962 and later by many renowned artists including Etta James, David Govan, Johnny Adams, Bettye Swann and Ray Charles. Among the rest of the tracks there’s one more outside song, a big-voiced beater named Trust Me, which was first recorded by its writer, Al Staehely (a bassist in Spirit), in 1980.

  “We got our first BMA nomination with this record. We got a lot of airplay and a lot of reviews; people started knowing who I was and I was able to start touring.” The 2015 Blues Music Award (BMA) nomination was in the category “Best New Artist Album”, but Selwyn Birchwood’s Don’t Call No Ambulance won that year.  Making My Mark appeared on quite a few blues charts in the U.S. in 2014.


WILD AND FREE

  Annika’s sophomore CD was delayed, because she got locked up in October 2015. In July 2015 thirteen members of the Texas Guard were sentenced for being participants in bribery and fraud schemes. Ten years earlier the National Guard Bureau had launched the Guard Recruiting Assistance Program, through which a recruiting assistant could receive bonus payments for referring a person to join the National Guard. Some individuals came up with the idea to defraud the program by falsely claiming they were responsible for referring potential soldiers by obtaining the names and social security numbers of those soldiers and thus receiving fraudulent bonuses. As one of those recruiting assistants, Annika pleaded guilty and she was sentenced to serve six months in prison. She now says that she took some of the blame on herself on behalf of another person. “I made a mistake, when I was 23. I just got out of the probation, so I’m free finally.” According to Annika, it wasn’t too tough. “I got to sleep, and it was so relaxing – honestly.”

  Taking into account the episode above, it’s almost self-evident that the new CD is called Wild and Free. “When my record came out after I got out of prison, people were excited to hear new music from me. I recorded this record before I went into the prison and I recorded it as if I knew how I was going to feel when I get out.”

  Wild and Free (UTR-CD-40929; http://www.utrmusicgroup.com) was released on August 26 in 2016 and one month later it peaked at # 7 on Billboard’s blues charts. It was produced by Larry Fulcher, Richard Cagle and Tony Braunagel and recorded at Ultratone studios in Los Angeles. Tony also plays drums, Larry is on bass and together with two other members – Johnny Lee Schell on guitar and Mike Finnigan on keys – they actually form the Phantom Blues Band. Add still John Cleary on piano, Josh Sklair on guitar and Melodye Perry and Nicoya Polar on background vocals. “I cut most of my vocals at Ultratone and the rest in Houston at Montrose Records.”

  The CD kicks off with the blues, proceeds into melodic, even poppy numbers and takes us to church at the end. A mid-tempo blues roller called Raggedy and Dirty was first recorded by one of its writers, Luther Allison, in 1972. Other bluesy tracks are the big-voiced Better Things to Do – a new tune – and a “shouter” named I Prefer You, cut by Etta James in 1966.

  Among other familiar songs there’s an up-tempo groover titled City in the Sky, which was made famous by the Staple Singers in 1974 and still later by Otis Clay. As stated in the beginning of the article, Candi Staton released the lively Six Nights and a Day in 1975 and a slow and sweet pop song called Piece by Piece was first cut by its writer, a British-Georgian jazz and blues singer Katie Melua, in 2005. Finally Love God is a slow inspirational swaying tune with a choir backing Annika up, and Al Green had interpreted this song on the motion picture soundtrack Michael in 1996.

  Darryl Carter wrote for Annika an upbeat, melodic number called Give up Myself and both Don’t Try and Stop the Rain and Why Me are poppy, smooth mid-pacers. “Jeff Paris wrote Put the Sugar to Bed for me. He wrote it as a baby-making tune.” Annika herself wrote a slightly dreamy ballad titled Reality.

  “We got a BMA nomination in 2017, and this year we won.” Third time lucky, in 2017 Annika was nominated in the category “Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female Artist)”, but Diunna Greenleaf won that year. However, this year among the Blues Music Award winners there was Annika in the category of “Soul Blues Female Artist.”


KISS MY SASS

  On August 9 in 2019 Annika’s third album, Kiss My Sass (VT-AC01; www.vizztone.com), hit the streets. Again produced by Richard and Larry - with some help from Tony Braunagel and Kevin Houston – there are as many as 15 musicians playing on ten tracks. Larry on bass, Anthony Terry on sax, Randy Wall on keys and The Mighty Orq on guitar are featured on most of the tracks. Nicoya Polar is again the background vocalist, and they used altogether five studios, most of them in Houston, TX.

  “This is my third record working together with Richard and Larry, and we just took our time, making a record that we would be proud of. There are some cool original songs and cool covers. It’s basically like saying for everyone, who’s told me no: ‘kiss my sass’ (laughing). Vizztone is a coop label, basically we are equal partners.”

  RB Stone, a “blues cowboy” and “roots rocker” out of Nashville, Tennessee, wrote specially for Annika  a blues romp called Let That Sass out and it opens this CD. It’s followed by a mid-tempo, aggressive blues number titled That’s What You Made Me, written by Gary Nicholson and Jessi Alexander, who also cut it first, and for the third track they’ve moulded You Can’t Win, a song that Michael Jackson charted with in 1979 (from the movie The Wiz), into a bluesy rocker. “Larry Fulcher convinced me to do that. I really loved how it came out.” Larry: “I’ll take the blame. I’ve always loved that song and had it on my list of ‘one of these days, I want to do this with someone.’ The lyrics are pure blues lyrics, the punch line delivers... and important to me recording any song – it hadn’t covered. People hear it, and through only one in twenty knows where it came from, it sounds somehow familiar. Perfect!”

  Another Texasian powerful singer, Ruthie Foster, shares vocals with Annika on a slow and intense version of What’s Your Thing, which the Staple Singers first cut in 1974. “I love Ruthie. We just asked her and she came in the studio. It’s a family thing in the blues world.” Still one more blues lady out of Texas, Angela Strehli, wrote and recorded in 1993 Two Bit Texas Town, and Annika’s fast jump version doesn’t veer away from the original too much. “This song is gritty!” Annika and Larry co-wrote the slow and emotive A Brand New Day. “It talks about all the craziness in the world.” After that it’s back to another rock-blues romp with World of Hurt, which is best known as one of John Mayall’s recordings from 2001.

  Next in the parade of talented ladies from Texas comes Carolyn Wonderland out of Austin. She co-wrote and initially recorded in 1997 a beautiful ballad called Stay, and Annika’s soulful delivery of the song makes this a personal favourite on this set. “Carolyn is one of my favourite people. The song is so beautiful!” Compared to Etta James’ and Sugar Pie DeSanto’s hit record in 1966, Annika takes the tempo down a bit for her stomping version of In the Basement. “I’ve been wanting to cover this for some time. I love it and it’s a great dance tune.” On the finishing track Annika’s husband, Paul DesLauriers, joins her on a duet called I Feel the Same. Its writer, Chris Smither, originally recorded this country blues, even folksy song in 1971 and Bonnie Raitt did it two years later.

  Although a relatively new artist in blues circles, Annika has toured quite a lot. “In Europe I’ve been to Spain, Austria and Poland, but this is my first time in Italy. I was in Rauma, Finland, last year, and I loved it. It was beautiful. In the future I want to tour more.”

ALBUMS

MAKING MY MARK (Montrose Records) 2014

Move / Barnyard Blues / Jealous Kind / Lick ‘Er / Trust Me / Down South / That Feel Good / Put It Where You Want It / Guitar Boy / Love’s Sweet Sensation / It Hurts Me To My Heart / Let’s Get Down To Business

WILD AND FREE (Under The Radar, UTR-CD-40929) 2016

Raggedy And Dirty / City In The Sky / Better Things To Do / Give Up Myself / Six Night And A Day / Put The Sugar To Bed / Reality / Don’t Try And Stop The Rain / Why Me / I Prefer You / Piece By Piece / Love God

KISS MY SASS (VizzTone, VT-AC01) 2019

I Let That Sass Out / That’s What You Made Me / You Can’t Win / What’s Your Thing / Two Bit Texas Town / Brand New Day / World Of Hurt / Stay / In The Basement / I Feel The Same

www.annikachambers.com

(Interview conducted on July the 19th in 2019 in Porretta, Italy; a big thank you to Annika).

© Heikki Suosalo

Annika Chambers photos at Porretta Soul Festival by Marjo Parjanen





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