Althea Rene is “In The Flow”


SV: I was a Motown junkie when I was a kid, when all those classic singles were coming out in the mid sixties so I totally flipped out when I found out that your dad played on those sessions.
He was in the original horn section in the Motown band. Everybody was in this mega-band that played in the studio and played the Apollo. He was in the band that recorded all the early tracks, then later on the rhythm section broke out and and decided to become a smaller unit and call themselves the Funk Brothers. They way I grew up knowing them is that they played together all the time just like my friends around Detroit do now. They were all good friends and they were playing together a lot. I knew them really well because they would come by the house and dad was playing with them and rehearsing. At the time they formed the Funk Brothers my dad was playing with them originally but right before the movie came out and they wanted him to do the tour he found out he had cancer. He was fighting that and wasn’t able to do the tour or the media stuff, so he he missed out on that. I’m really sad about that because he had gone through everything they had gone through and when they got this recognition he was not able to participate in it. That’s hard.

SV: It’s so tragic to have that happen and then the timing on top of that. When did you lose him.
AR: It will be four years on September 20th. He died of pancreatic cancer and I was right there with him so I carried all of his legacy and I carry that with every show I do. On this new CD I have dedicated a song to him. He had a pet name for me and I wrote this song because it reminds me of him.

SV: Is that “Snoochi Pooch?”
AR: (laughs) Yes. 

SV: I wondered where that title came from. Now the people who read this are gonna smile when they hear that song and get warm fuzzies and all that. What was it like growing up in such a musical environment? Do you think that just fed into your musicality?
AR: Absolutely! My mom loved classical music and my dad loved jazz, blues, standard jazz and things like that. On Saturday mornings he would always get up and play his jazz albums. He had hundreds of albums and we would listen to them and read the album covers. He was trying to teach me how to play different instruments. He was trying to teach me to play organ mostly. My sister played the flute but she never practiced it and she hated it. Of course I couldn’t touch anything of my sister’s without her screaming at me but when I picked up her flute she didn’t say anything.

SV: She was hoping you would run off with it.
AR: Yeah, and that was it. From the time I picked it up I just fell in love with the flute and it’s been that way since I was four years old.

SV: You started out playing Classical before you got into jazz didn’t you?
AR: I did. I was so afraid of the jazz thing because I had two older brothers who played. My dad had this Saturday afternoon jam session and he would take my brothers with him. I was scared of that but my mom loved classical music so I would practice and she would sit and listen and knit or crochet and as I got better they decided I needed lessons. For the first few years I was playing I didn’t know how to read music but I continued to play, and that’s when they realized I was really into it. I was fearful of playing jazz because it seemed so foreign – I would see them doing these jam sessions and wonder how they knew what to play and when to play it. Classical music had this structure to it that I felt comfortable with and I excelled at it. I ended up winning a classical scholarship to Howard University. 

SV: Did it factor in that back then there were not a lot of girls on the bandstand?
AR: There really weren’t. When I got to Howard I was studying and playing recitals and things and I started getting this inkling that I wanted to play jazz so I would go to jam sessions. I would ask if I could sit in. It was very difficult as a young woman not even out of my teens. There was no respect. When they did let me play they would play really loud over me and they would do things like change the key out of the blue to try to trip me up. It fired me up, it made me mad and it made me try harder. What I did so I could be heard was play louder and play in between the beat and in between the rhythms so I could hear myself. That was the beginning of my style, which is very syncopated and at times very aggressive (laughs).

SV: You also started your recording career on a very gutsy level. You put out a smooth jazz album in 2000 that you recorded and released independently. At that time the radio consultant who had a lot of control over most radio playlists was telling client stations that listeners did not like flute and stations were advised to not play songs with flute as a lead instruments.
AR: Yeah, for a while it was almost like a punch line in a comedy bit too. “He was playing a flute!” then the audience would laugh. And I could almost hear the comments when someone talked about me maybe saying they heard a woman playing flute and she was really good then somebody rolls their eyes and says “flute? I don’t wanna hear that.” So I had my work cut out for me. I knew my style was something that you would either love or hate. I thought of my style as street flute because that’s where I learned. I couldn’t get into the jazz band at Howard because you couldn’t play flute and be in the jazz band. If you wanted to do that you had to play sax or trumpet and double on flute. As a flutist that’s not what I wanted to do. 

SV: So here you are doing the tracks for what would become Flute Talk and aiming it at an industry that would rather have the flute shut up.
AR: Remember those MP3 websites that were popping up back then where you could put your music online and hope people would find it? That was how it started. I was working with a producer and it just wasn’t going well with him. I knew I needed to distance myself from that situation so I took the sound files that I had and posted them on that website. They started getting a lot of listens and I was feeling like it could be the start of my first CD. I got some friends together and did some more music and that became Flute Talk. From there I got the bug. I was working as a police officer in Detroit and doing gigs at night so I took all the money I made playing music and I saved it and invested in myself and started working on another set of songs for a follow-up. I was also learning as I was going along. I worked with some other talented people in the area and that became Chocolate Rush, which came out in 2002.

SV: Holding down a pretty intense daytime job while you were also trying to launch your music career had to be exhausting.
AR: I did that for eleven years, and it was. I never had a minute. I was raising two boys as a single parent. 

SV: I didn’t know that. I didn’t know you had kids.
AR: That was the reason I took the job in the first place. I had to provide for them and I knew I couldn’t depend on anyone and they were depending on me. You do what you have to do as a single parent. They had to have stability. I did that then on the weekends I did music. I took the money I made from those gigs and put it in an account that was my music account. That’s the money I used to further my dreams.

SV: When were you able to quit the daytime job?
AR: I got married to a wonderful guy and he was really supportive of me pursuing what I loved. He wanted me to concentrate on my music and we were able to do that financially – to let me play music full time. He was a web designer and he was the one who came up with the idea that I should do the CD. He designed the cover and put my website together. He has designed all my CD covers except the new one. I don’t know if I could have done what I’m doing without him because he has been just wonderful. Now he’s in project management and his job is what brought us to Houston, then to San Antonio. It’s a beautiful place, it’s slower and more serene and I can think, and create.

SV: Back then record companies still ruled and the artists who were high profile had label deals which meant they had been through the A&R process and then given a set of resources and standards to insure that their albums sounded professional. When media people got an indie record the first thing that crossed your mind was that the artist was self releasing because nobody would sign them. The second was that the quality of the songs and production would be sub-par and sound home-made in not a good way. For the most part that was true but your albums were right up with the majors as far as quality of the songs and musicianship, consistency, and production values, even on your first time out.
AR: Thank you for saying that. That was important to me, it was one of the things I wanted to come through. I was trying to get a record deal. I was trying to get the attention of the A&R people but they were telling me that they didn’t know how to market me. I was working on that too but whether or not that happened I was going to just keep crankin’ them out (laughs.)

SV: You want to talk about persistence and staying power you had it going on.
AR: There is just something in me that held me to that. My family is from the Bahamas, from the Nassau area. I had gone to where my grandparents were born on Acklins Island and I fell in love with the area. I wanted to do an album that was a dedication to my roots there. That became my third CD, In The Moment. At that point I knew radio wasn’t playing flute and that there weren’t signing flutists but that didn’t matter to me. I had something in me that was just stronger than any of that. I love to play and when I play I don’t just want people to hear me, I want them to feel me.

SV: And that’s what happens when you listen to your music which is probably why you were able to jump ahead of the curve and build a fan base very organically. There was a good buzz on your albums, you were getting some coverage online, and people were getting excited about your live gigs. And you kept writing and releasing music. Did you have national distribution on your earlier albums?
AR: Yes. I was actually with Koch for In The Moment. That was totally a distribution deal and No Restrictions was with Universal for distribution. That was a deal with a club owner in Houston who decided to get into the record business and that allowed me to work with a couple of really great producers and session players. I got to work with Rex Rideout and Michael B.

SV: Did you know Michael B before that?
AR: No, that was the first time I worked with him. My manager at the time wanted to hook me up with him and we ended up working together on a few songs for that album. He is incredibly talented and such a great guy to work with. The first time I heard “No Restrictions” I said “that’s mine! That’s my song!” 

SV: That album got a little more high profile attention than the previous ones did, possibly because it had better promotion and there were more independent media outlets to support it. And the Michael B connection was about to really bloom. How did you end up on Trippin’?
AR: I was familiar with them, mainly because of Paul Hardcastle, but I didn’t know too much about them. Then out of the blue I got an email that asked me if I had a passport and was I available to go to Dubai. I was ready and I went over. At the time I didn’t know it was Trippin’n’Rhythm and I didn’t know it was a showcase as well. I performed with a band and in a cab I was offered a record deal. From that point it was probably another couple of years before everything was put together. Then, Michael was assigned to be my producer and we were both going through things. He had just lost his mom and I had lost my dad and we said to each other that all these things, the changes and setbacks that we were going through, were going to make this project stronger. And finally we recorded the track “La Solstice” on the day that the world was supposed to end.

SV: Which time? (laughs)
AR: The Mayan Calendar thing last December. I figured that if it was going to happen then playing music was the way I wanted to go.

SV: Especially that song, which I just adore. Thankfully the world didn’t end so it got recorded and everyone gets to hear it. Michael has wonderful things with a lot of artists. What was it like to just get to hunker down and work with him?
AR: It was really fantastic. On this one he had me stretch out and get past my comfort zone. He always knows just the right thing to say. I’m not one to give up easily but there was one track where I was telling him that I didn’t have anything going and he just kept encouraging me to do what I do and know it will come together. And it did in so many ways. A lot of the material was not in my comfort zone and I loved that process. He was able to take me to that next level.

SV: What was impressive from the first note of this album is that it is out of the traditional smooth jazz comfort zone. I got this in the mail, put it in to listen and “La Solstice” totally blew me away. It is, to say the least, not what someone would lay down as the opening track if they were playing it safe. It’s got this powerful world music thing going on and a lot of intensity and energy.
AR: That’s what we wanted to do. That was the song that was a challenge because it’s not just one genre. It’s Latin, it’s Arabic, it’s got a lot of different things going on. 

SV: It’s got a lot of different scales, different rhythms, different intonations and lots of changes. It’s stunning. I’m glad he pushed you into it.
AR: That was the one. That was the “monster tune” that had me thinking I didn’t know what to do with it. And I co-wrote it.

SV: Just shows what you can do when someone is holding your hand and pushing you forward at the same time. Where did that come from. You have mostly been working in contemporary jazz and the R&B side and all of a sudden it’s like flamenco meets bellydance.
AR: I’m living in San Antonio now so there is a lot of Latin and Tejano music around, and I got to travel to Dubai. I started listening to a lot of different kinds of music and for a while I was mostly listening to world music so I had that feeling and those influences in my head when I was writing.

SV: And there is your hit single, “In The Flow,” which has been hanging out at the top end of the airplay charts for quite a while and has a lot of energy and some flashy playing.
AR: I really pushed for that one. That actually started out with just a vocal line that I wrote. So I just sent that little part to Michael and he said we could work it into something special. And we did. He wanted me to sing and I kept saying I’m not a vocalist but he pushed me there too, so I sang some on that one and a little bit on “Free.”

SV: The songs you have covered on your previous albums were mostly off the beaten path, and on this one you’ve taken a gem. John Legend’s “Used To Love” wouldn’t come to mind as either a jazz song or a flute song and you just turned it out.
AR: I play that live and I do a little skit where I choose a musician, one of the guys onstage, and I tell the story through my music about all of the reasons why I’m through with him. I’m telling him everything as to why in my melody and in my solo. Then he has to try to explain to me and weasel out of it through his solo. The audience loves it and I love playing it. It’s all about the story. It’s not just the flute playing a song, it’s me telling a story through my music. It’s the interaction of me fussing at him and trying to weasel out and then through his playing he kinda wins me over at the end. I used to love you, then I didn’t but maybe I’ll give you another chance.

SV: And all the women in the audience are shaking their heads thinking “don’t go back to that dog!” (laughs) You also put some new life into a song that has been covered a lot. You do a really fresh take on “Free.” How do you pick which songs to cover?
AR: They have to feel good to me when I hear them, and even more they have to feel good when I play them. I did go through quite a few songs. I try to do one or two of them in my show because people inherently want to hear something they are familiar with. It’s important to give them something they know and can relate to when you do a lot of originals too. I always try to find something that is not overdone. “Free” just felt so right as a flute song. If you listen to the original it’s just in that natural range for a flute.

SV: You have a really impressive group of musicians supporting you on this.
It’s like the new-school 21
st century A-list. Were you in the studio with any of them?
AR: Everybody did most of the work in their own studios or they came in on their own and did their parts. That’s the way it goes these days. It gives you a chance to work with people you want to work with. Everybody is on tight schedules and this way you can work with people who couldn’t schedule coming in to do it live, and it lets you do a lot more with the budget you have. All of these people are working and traveling all the time. Michael White is with Earth Wind and Fire and Maze, Freddie Fox and Mel Brown are on the road with everybody. Everyone has their own recording and tours and other commitments, so this works for getting the best players in there.

SV: Besides recording and touring as a solo artist you are also part of a group of female musicians who do gigs in different configurations called Jazz In Pink. How did that come about?
AR: I was on one of the cruises and Gail Jhonson was performing with Norman Brown so we were sitting around talking on the deck and got this idea. You see all these package tours – Guitars and Saxes, Gentlemen of the Night, BWB, The Sax Pack, and so on – and women are still being left out. You can count the number of female instrumentalists one one hand who are actually participating at a high profile. Half of one hand if you think about the package tours. We were thinking that if we wanted to get a piece of the pie we needed to put together a very strong female group that could be booked into some of the major shows and festivals, so that’s what we did. We put together the core group which was myself, Gail and Karen Briggs. I had worked with Karen a lot but I hadn’t worked with Gail much. They were rehearsing in LA and I was in Houston but we broke out and it was really powerful. At one of our first shows people in the audience were crying. It was amazing to see people so taken by that, that they got to see some strong women really throwing down. After that we felt like we had something special so we are continuing to put that out there. At some of the festivals we have done there have been as many as seven or eight headliners on the show and I feel like that can overshadow what we are trying to do.

SV: Yeah, because Gail has solo albums but people know her as Norman Brown’s musical director, Karen has done some ungodly work but a lot of it is really progressive so she’s not well known to the fans who came up with smooth jazz radio, you’re doing things with the flute that haven’t been done much since the early contemporary jazz and progressive rock flutists. And you have some other stunning musicians involved too.
AR: I feel like as an artist you have to thrive on surrounding yourself with the best, being in their company and playing with them. That’s what I want. I want to keep getting better and these people push me. I have taken some time off from that to do solo things to support the new CD but I absolutely love these women.


SV: You have surrounded yourself with the best – a strong record company, a killer producer/collaborator, a great lineup of supporting musicians, and these fabulous women. Your debut album was strong and every one since then has shown your growth as an artist. You’ve worked hard and you’ve got to be proud of this body of work and the success you are having with In The Flow.
AR: It is hard work but it is what I love and it is so rewarding. I was stunned that I have been two weeks at number one on the Smooth Jazz charts, it might have been even three, and I was two weeks at number two on Billboard. I was so honored to even ben number one for one week. Everything else has been a gift. Even number two is a gift. Some people go their whole lives without charting like that, and this is the first time I have been this high on the charts. All kinds of opportunities are opening that were not open before. I feel very blessed.