By Michael Lello
Can the blues make you happy? It seems counterintuitive, but Alexis P. Suter seems downright sunshiny in a recent conversation with Highway 81 Revisited.
The powerhouse vocalist will open for Trombone Shorty on Friday, Jan. 17 at the F.M. Kirby Center, as well as perform at the Destination Blues festival in Bloomsburg on Saturday, Feb. 8. The New Yorker has played at major blues festivals, iconic venues like B.B. King’s in New York and has been an opening act at Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles more than 90 times ever since Helm saw her sing with his daughter Amy at a benefit show.
Suter, during a break from band rehearsals before hitting the studio to record the follow-up to their 2011 CD “Two Sides,” spoke with us about her musical upbringing, her association with the late Helm and what fans can expect from her upcoming shows in the region.
H81R: How would you describe your live show?
APS: Emotional. Exciting. Uplifting. My show is many different things. I can’t say one word or one thing about it that describes it. I think that what my band does is relate to the audience like we’re an audience. Like we want to give them what we would want to see if we could go to a show. What would fulfill us, what would make us want to come back for more? This is what I want from a show.
H81R: You play in a variety of settings: festivals, theaters, etc.
APS: Absolutely. We’ve done The Beacon, we’ve done B.B. King’s, we’ve done the Paramount, we’ve done a lot of awesome venues and festivals. And you know, we still get nervous every single time, because we know that we are just trying to make it different. We don’t want to be labeled as a “blues band,” we to be the band like Levon Helm was and his group, The Band. They played for everybody.
H81R: Have you played with Trombone Shorty before?
APS: No I haven’t, and it’s really awesome that this is happening, because I said, “Who is this kid, who is the guy?” I never head of this guy when he first came out. Then I was reading up on him and I got so much respect for him. I said, “You know, I would love to do something with this guy,” like really just his New Orleans style and my New York style and combine it. I’m not doing it with him, but we’ll be on the same stage as hi, and it’s a blessing.
H81R: Your last album “Two Sides” came out in 2012. Are you working on a new one?
APS: Yes, working on a new one, and it’s coming along. It’s going to be very, very, very special, this next album. We don’t have a name for it yet. We’re rehearsing, then we’ll bang it out and make it right, definitely in the very, very, near, near future.
H81R: How would you describe your writing process?
APS: Life experiences, man. It don’t take long to write a song when you have stuff to write about. What I mean is so many people in this world have so many things on their mind. Some people have journals or diaries. To be able to put it to music and share it with the world its not a diary anymore, it’s my singing journal.
Don’t get me wrong, we all get our mental blocks. Great writers have had writers block. But when you start sitting with something for a couple days, it just comes to you. And it falls right in place.
H81R: Do you play any instruments?
APS: I do. But I don’t play live. I’m not really good enough to play with the big boys. I play a little bit of piano. And B flat tuba as a kid for years (laughs). I play percussion: congas, bongos, tambourine.
H81R: Your motherwas a singer. How much did growing up with that in your life have an influence on you?
APS: Wow. Man, c’mon, my mom is 91 now, 92 in March, and has sung with some serious people. Rosetta Tharpe, Dionne Warwick, she was one of the Hall Johnson singers.
My mother carried all of us when she was pregnant, still singing and working, and I think it just came from before I was even born that I was going to sing, because she fed it to me in the womb. I just think that it came naturally because it was fed before you even saw what the world was. It was just a natural order of things. Just like my daughter, when I was pregnant with her I sang all the rime And my daughter graduated college in may and sings opera in five different languages very, very well. So I know that its something that’s in divine order and the natural order of things. I think that it happens beore we even step foot in this world.
H81R: How did you start your association with Levon Helm and the venue at his home, The Barn.
APS: To make a long story short, after (performing with Amy Helm), he had someone come over by the name of Brian Perillo who said Levon would like to invite you up to the Midnight Ramble to perform. And we started performing — we opened up for him 97 times. And we’ve opened for him at the Beacon and so many places.
H81R: How you could sum up Levon in just a word or two?
APS: (Long pause.) Business. Because he was always for the musicians. He didn’t take any guff when it came to doing right by the musicians. You pay them, you make sure they eat well, but they need to make sure they get to the gig. He was the sweetest guy ever. He would give you the shirt off his back, but if he wasn’t a good person I would say skip that question and move on to the next, because if I have no respect for someone, I’m not going to even give then my time. So I’m telling you what I now, he was great guy. He was a business guy but he as a great guy. He loved people.
He didn’t like to be around crowds too much. He was really a home person, that’s why things were in his living room, you understand? Other than that, Levon was a great guy. I can only speak for me and my band. If it weren’t for him giving us the arena and the space to do what we do, then we would probably be even more of a struggling band (laughs loudly). But we love what we’re do, and we’re doing it!