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Interview with Miki Howard

Miki Howard Is Back!

Miki Howard’s previous CD Pillow Talk was a collection of Miki’s personal favorite soul tunes. On her latest CD, titled Private Collection, Miki covers five jazz songs, and performs five new songs with a "classic" feel. We decided to ask a few questions from Miki about the latest project – which at least for yours truly is a kind of a “dream come true project” – and sounded like an album of the year from the very first listen!

The brand new CD contains 5 standard songs and 5 brand new songs, and Miki describes it as follows: “Private Collection is my favorite songs talking about the intimate dealings in my own life. You play it in the car, play it while you clean your house, play it at cocktail parties, that's the kind of record this is. The five standards that I did on this CD are five of my favorites. The five original co-written songs have a piece of me in them. That's why I called this work Private Collection.”

Quite surprisingly, Chuckii Booker is the co-producer on the new album. I guess our readers best remember him of funk and swingbeat sounds of the late 80s and early 90s.  Chuckii has produced artists like Angela Winbush, Lalah Hathaway, Vesta Williams, Marva Hicks and Gene Rice, and he also released two solo albums (Chuckii, Nine’n Wild) in the late 80s /early 90s. But it seems that he’s a jazz lover, too?

Miki: “We come from the same places, went to the same church. We have been in each others lives for awhile.”

In my recent CD review of Private Collection, I described the new songs like the opening track Crazee, Favorite Time of the Year and Beer for Breakfast as tracks that sounded like old classics, even if they are brand new songs. We asked Miki if she deliberately aimed to create a classic kind of jazz song atmosphere, but she just replied in her modest way: “No really...  It's just how I felt at the time.” It seems then that she is naturally able to create new classic songs!

Back in 1993, when Miki her tribute to Billie Holiday, Miki Sings Billie, I wished that she would get another chance to record another “real jazz” album some day. Also, many people over the Internet forums have stated that Miki really feels at home while singing the jazz-oriented material. We asked Miki whether she considers herself more of a jazz singer than a soul singer:

Miki: “Well, I started out a Jazz singer; I was just too young at the time.” Or maybe she was simply born on a wrong decade, since I can easily imagine that Miki would have been in the same league as many celebrated jazz singers, if she had born 20-30 years earlier. However, being the “kids from the 60s”, Miki has been making a substantial musical career as a soul / R&B singer, but Private Collection is another proof that the border between soul and jazz is very thin. As a matter of fact, in recent years it seems that the albums we have raved the most in Soul Express magazine are those albums that are stylistically somewhere in the middle of soul and jazz. Also, I  have noted that more and more soul artists like Gladys Knight, Anita Baker, Patti Austin, Chaka Khan have recorded jazz albums in recent years, and even the younger generation of the so-called neo-soul artists (Jill Scott, Ledisi) have recorded jazz-oriented albums.

Miki’s own comment about the situation was that “The industry won't let us in anywhere else… They say you're too old.” Well, in my opinion Miki belongs to the same category of classic soul singers as Chaka, Patti, Gladys and Anita, so I guess they should have a 100 % freedom to choose how soulful or jazzy music to record – instead of always following the latest trends. But it may be true that the major label marketing people are more interested in young puppets that look nice on the promo pics and don’t have any musical ambitions… Also, it is pretty obvious that rootsier soul or jazz material does not get much airplay these days in the highly formatted US radio stations. When we asked Miki whether her new music gets played on R&B stations or (smooth) jazz channels, Miki’s short answer was: “Absolutely NOT!”

Even if some younger and R&B oriented listeners may have felt that the new album is only meant for “traditional jazz fans”, it really is not the case, since the album also contains its moments for soul and R&B lovers. The obvious peak for serious soul devotees has been a track titled You Made Me Love You (recent number one pick on our own Quality Time Cream Cuts chart), which I personally rate in the same category as some of Miki’s true soul classics like Love Under New Management. We asked Miki if she had the same feeling while recording the song – and simple answer was “Yes it did” – and indeed, the tracks is very close to Love Under New Management, with all the strong gospel influences in the background singing etc. Certainly a strong contender for a soul song of the year when it’s time to pick the prime soul tracks for 2008.

Also, the new album contains a track titled She, which is a dead-ringer for the (Gerald) Levert sound of the early 90s. As the fans of Miki well remember, she also had a brief relationship with Gerald, and you can really feel Gerald’s posthumous presence on this strong mid-tempo stepper. Still, the most arresting songs on the new album are the new jazz-inclined tunes produced by Miki together with Chuckii Booker. These include the absolutely brilliant opening Crazee, the equally breathtaking Favorite Time of the Year , as well as the intriguingly titled Beer for Breakfast. The latter track was funnily first misspelt by yours truly as “beef for breakfast”, but to be honest, I certainly would prefer beer for breakfast instead of a piece of thick meat… Miki even cites a couple of beer brands in the song lyrics.

If you take a look at the artist lists on any European jazz festivals this summer, the traditional jazz singers are always present as well as the new generation of soul singers like Jill Scott, Ledisi, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys but I wonder why the soul singers who made their breakthrough in the 70s and 80s like Stephanie Mills, Regina Belle - and of course Miki Howard herself - are never seen on any of these festivals? We wondered if Miki could see any reason for this and how we could change the situation – us European soul lovers are eager to see Miki on stage as well… Miki replied that “All it takes is a request… if you want to see us, just request us.” So, here you are, jazz festival organizers!

Furthermore, when Miki seems to be perfectly at home both with jazz standards and gospel-drenched soul ballads, we decided to ask her at what kind of venues does she typically perform in the States? Jazz clubs, soul clubs, theatres? And at what kind of a venue does she personally prefer to sing?

Miki: “I love the intimacy of small clubs personally, but recently I've been singing festival after festival.” Well, how about a Jazz Café gig (at London) in the near future, then…

We also asked her opinion of the current state of R&B that dominates the Billboard R&B charts these days. Are there any current artists or recent CDs that Miki has personally enjoyed? Miki: “I just love India Arie and Pharrell and of course, my good friend Rahsaan Patterson.”

Most of the new albums in recent years by  traditional soul artists have been all-cover sets of old songs, and Miki also recorded an album of her old soul favorites. Thus, we asked if she feels it is harder to get the exposure to newer material these days on the media than for the versions of classic songs? Miki: “Yes, because people these days aren’t writing for the sake of music, they are writing for the sake of sales.”

But, if you wish to hear new songs of classic stature in 2008, all you have to do is purchase Miki’s new CD. You won’t regret it!

-Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express, editor

Read also:

Miki Howard Story - album by album

CD Review: Miki's new album "Private Collection"

The complete Miki Howard discography of albums