Bees and Things and Milk and Honey: An Interview with Goapele

Milk & Honey
Skyblaze Recordings

The mention of Mos Def usually inspires something more than silence, but not tonight at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. An announcement about his rescheduled concert basically falls on deaf ears. This audience only cares about one person at the moment: Goapele. Without an opening act, a DJ keeps the crowd grooving and shuffling unassumingly in place. A string of white lights dress the balcony and illuminate couples holding hands and girlfriends chatting it up. This is Manhattan funneled through a chic, sophisticated, yet (self consciously?) edgy set. They might recognize the joints but don’t move towards the dance floor. That changes once the clock inches towards show time. By half past eight, they get what they’ve been waiting for. When Goapele steps out on the stage in stilettos, the audience, subdued until that point, express a vociferous kind of adulation. Who says New York audiences are cold? Goapele has “I Heart NY” on her Facebook page and it’s clear that the audience hearts her in return.

The Oakland, California-based soul singer has not performed in the Northeast for some time. Just enough time, in fact, for a whole new group of curious listeners to discover Even Closer (2004) and Change It All (2005) since her last appearance. Whereas many of her contemporaries have been setting (and chasing) trends in the intervening years, Goapele took a hiatus. A few singles and free downloads over the last 12 months have kept her name circulating in the online world while she’s focused on raising her child.

“I’m so happy you all came,” Goapele exclaims, wearing an incandescent grin while the opening strains of “Romantic” begin. Only two albums into Goapele’s career, fans have established their favorites and it’s easy to see which ones get the most play on iPods by the number of mouths singing along to “First Love”, “4 a.m.”, and “Closer”. Goapele tosses in a few new numbers, “Tears on My Pillow”, “Fall Into Pieces”, and the forthcoming album’s first single, “Milk and Honey”, which is followed by a smoldering version of “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross (just the slow part). Her band rocks out to a cover of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “You Got the Love” after she interpolates the “bees and things and flowers” line from “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayers into the close of “Closer”. The pulsating funk-rock of the encore, “Love Me Right”, neatly condenses the emotive range of the concert. If there is one song by which to adjudicate the “it” factor of a Goapele show, “Love Me Right” is it. The song does not disappoint.

After greeting two-dozen or so fans, Goapele retreats not to a land of “milk and honey” but upstairs to the venue’s modest, muted-color dressing room. Tonight marked her second consecutive gig on the east coast. She played Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. the night before. Goapele appears to process the scheduled-to-death pace of tour life as buoyantly as the groove of “The One”, one of the new cuts she debuted in the show. The respite from the road has clearly replenished her creative reserves leading to this year’s long-awaited release of her third full-length album.

With her own label (Skyblaze) and her own recording studio (The Zoo), Goapele relishes the flexibility of recording tracks on her timeline. There’s no major label monitoring how quickly the sand trickles through the hourglass. “I can get in the studio whenever I feel like it and just slowly work on it”, she says about her forthcoming album, tentatively titled Milk and Honey. “It’s been a much more gradual pace and much more deliberate. In the past I’ve put out almost every song that I’ve done and this time I’ll work on it and then step back and then work on it”.

Where does the past begin? For longtime Goapele fans, it’s 2001 when an EP called Closer introduced the singer’s cream and caramel coated voice to progressive soul audiences. The artist caught the attention of Sony Music after Closer sold well into the tens of thousands on Skyblaze, a label co-founded by her manager and brother, Namane Mohlabane. Sony signed Goapele and released an expanded edition of Closer in 2004 (Even Closer) on Columbia with Skyblaze retaining ownership of the masters. The album hit the R&B albums chart and “Closer” garnered substantial airplay. Change It All followed in 2005 and landed at number two on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, bolstered by the strength of “First Love” and Goapele’s coast-to-coast touring.

Change followed Change It All, however, and Goapele dissolved the relationship with Sony. How much did Sony contribute to Goapele’s already solid following? “I don’t think that Sony was bad for me”, she opines philosophically. “I had more financial support. We were able to get the music distributed in more places than it was before and I had tour support to go places that were smaller cities that I hadn’t gotten to before. I feel like it expanded the foundation. At the same time, it was hard to tell if it was making a difference.”

Because Goapele arrived at Sony as a self-contained artist, someone whose image was not created by a label’s marketing department, she challenged the company’s impulse to work her as a strictly R&B artist (Change It All included the Sony Urban imprint on the label copy). “I think people have a hard time categorizing me and I even have a hard time categorizing myself,” she observes. “Marketing is a big thing with major labels so that can be kind of tricky. I was ready to leave and it wasn’t bad. I met some good people there that I still work with.” The change clearly suits Goapele, affording her more latitude to create and collaborate.

While the paradigm of the music industry is ever-shifting, the pull to sign with a major label is still an attractive option for those seeking wider distribution and more marketing dollars. When an artist is approached by a large record company, there are a number of issues to balance between the major versus independent trajectory. Goapele has experienced both scenarios. “Think about what your priorities are,” she suggests, “whether it’s more ownership or money or touching people or fame, because there’s different paths to get there and I think that different ways of putting out your music affect how you’re received. Get a good lawyer because sometimes it’s hard to understand what you might or might not be agreeing to.”

Ostensibly a free agent, Goapele is a magnet for co-writing and co-producing tracks, even extending solicitations for remixes and beats to her peers on Twitter. As the new album continues to take shape, a dream roster of producers have signed up to work with the artist, including Tony Reyes (Janet Jackson), Malay (John Legend), and K.O. (OutKast). Jeff Bhasker, who worked on Closer, Even Closer, and Change It All, is also on board and Kanye West has already completed a track with Goapele.

Maxwell is also a natural complement to Goapele’s particular kind of free-range soul. “I’ve been talking to him about getting in the studio together”, she enthuses. “He seems like he wants to. We’ll see. He’s been touring this whole time.” She cites “Stop the World” and “Pretty Wings” as the songs that resonate with her the most from Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night (2009). Before the album’s release, Goapele saw Maxwell perform at The Paramount in Oakland and “Pretty Wings” immediately struck a chord. “It was one of the few new songs that he did”, she remembers. “It just stuck with me. It’s just so beautiful and it’s always inspiring to me to see those songs that are a little bit off the beaten path. You don’t know what category it is. It might be a ballad but it can still play on any station. It doesn’t matter — it’s good music.”

Similarly, someone in the audience at the Highline Ballroom also might have heard Goapele sing “Tears on My Pillow”, one of her new songs, and experienced a visceral reaction. Just an hour or so earlier, Goapele incorporated a bit of the blues into her set. The crowd didn’t have to dig too far to identify with the pathos in her performance. Working from a track by Bobby Ozuna (Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill), the lyrics for “Tears on My Pillow” came to Goapele in the car. With a phone recorder in hand, “it just started spilling out”, she recalls. “As I get older, my perspective changes and I just see how relationships aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s one of those sad but true things. We can see sometimes when people are becoming distant in all the things that create breaking apart, as painful as it is, and at the same time, still appreciating that person.”

Though romance, relationships, and social consciousness figure prominently in Goapele’s lyrics, the vibe of her most recent single takes things in a more sensual direction. Produced by Bedrock, who also produced “If We Knew”, “Different”, and “Find a Way” on Change It All, “Milk and Honey” ranks among Goapele’s very best. She coos over a two-chord synthesized track with drums simulating a heartbeat. Her voice oozes the sound of sweet seduction. “Like honey, it feels so warm inside,” she sings. It’s a physically charged performance that doesn’t exploit the song’s salacious overtures. The recording is hypnotizing, ideal for repeat play for any number of activities.

Hearing a skeleton track was enough to inspire Goapele. She recalls, “I was at the studio. I heard it and I left for a few minutes and I was like (sings), ‘Just lay back, relax, let me blow your mind’. I was just mumbling through — I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying lyrically. Later on, we turned it into the song. I don’t even know why I said ‘milk and honey!’ It can mean so many different things so I just went with it.”

The video for “Milk and Honey” correlates perfectly to the song’s stylized production. Directed by San Francisco-based Dahveed Telles, it’s one of the more visually delectable clips to surface online in recent years. Literally cutting in shots of milk and honey into the video, Telles creates a playground of images that have a tactile feel. Goapele mimes the lyrics with a self-satisfied smile. “I feel like I always play it safe and positive so it was kind of fun for me to do that video because I felt like a grown up”, she laughs. “We just wanted to keep it simple and sensual and have it be more about textures and vibe. It really was made on hardly anything or hardly any time. It was one of those things like, ‘Well, we don’t have anything to lose!'”

If “Milk and Honey” renders the flavor of love as something warm and tasty than “Chocolate” makes it irresistible, though the origin of Goapele’s song, which equates the cocoa bean to the sensation of love, stems from an unlikely source. Early in 2009, LG approached Goapele about recording a song to promote the brand of their “Chocolate” phone. Produced by Amp Live (the team behind “Love Me Right”), “Chocolate” was as addictive as its namesake and the carefree spirit of the song eclipsed its commercial use. Though “Chocolate” was offered as a free download in spring 2009, Goapele and her management team are still thinking about whether to officially release it. If listeners are lucky, they will have a chance to savor the song’s infectious chorus once again in late-spring 2010 when Goapele’s next album is tentatively scheduled for release.

In the meantime, Goapele continues to move forward. Actually, the definition of her name in the Sitswana language of South Africa means exactly that. “It’s a family name”, explains Goapele. “It’s my grandmother’s maiden name. I have a lot of family in South Africa but I grew up in California. I feel like my name keeps me connected to a long line of people that have been through a heck of a lot. It reminds me to stay grateful and it reminds me to try and step my game up if I’m slacking”. Anyone who caught Goapele at the Highline Ballroom, or who’s heard “Milk and Honey” or tuned into a clip on YouTube can attest that Goapele’s game is on. Move forward? Try soar to the sky.