It Like It Is is an especially apposite title for Stephanie McKay's
For one thing, it reflects
the New York-based vocalist and songwriter's penchant for penning
lyrics that reflect a lively interest in her surroundings and the
events in her life. But then, anyone who knows Stephanie would expect
On another level it refers
to the conclusion of the artist's search on her second solo album
for the sound she hears in her head when it comes to revealing her
true musical nature: a gloriously live and funky vibe that wraps
up classic soul, seventies funk-rock and old-school hip-hop influences
into one vibrant outpouring.
But the album's title
also indirectly points to the way Stephanie's rise and development
as a career artist has been fuelled by the personal recommendations
of her peers, as she's been looking to take the next step upwards.
Put simply, the people on the inside have known how good Stephanie
McKay is for years - and they've been more than willing to tell
For instance, back in
the days when Steph was playing guitar in her own band on the NYC
club circuit, it was no less than hot producer/songwriter Mark Batson's
notion to co-opt her for Kelis's world tour, an eight month jaunt
that took Stephanie to London. And it was while filming with Kelis
for Jools Holland's Later... TV show that Steph met Portishead's
Geoff Barrow, who, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, New York
performance poet and vocalist Carl Hancock Rux, had tripped down
from Bristol to check her out.
This meeting led to Steph's
2003 debut album, McKay, produced by Barrow for Go Beat/Polydor,
a project that provoked a mountain of critical approval across the
This fruitful word-of-mouth
support directly contributed to the creation of Tell It Like It
Is. For while McKay was released only in Europe, its undeniably
high qualities came to the notice, via a member of staff, of Astralwerks
Records' boss Errol Kolosine, who immediately offered Stephanie
a contract to begin work on her second album for the EMI offshoot.
What's more, she was given full charge of its direction.
Thus the most important
thing to do was to find herself musically. Says Steph: "I really
wanted to find out who I was, outside of the success of another
group. I needed to find my own voice, think about what I loved about
music, and put that onto my record."
The title track came
to her first, a pulsating, forthright depiction of life outside
her Harlem window that vocally evokes the spirits of Gwen McCrae
and Jean Knight while punching home its message via a post-hip-hop,
psychedelic funk beat, courtesy Robert 'Chicken' Burke. Burke came
to Steph's attention via his co-production of the album by Drugs,
a band featuring Stephanie alongside Parliament/Funkadelic alumni.
The track is also co-written and arranged by Pismo of Oakland, CA.
Its inspiration has two sources, says Stephanie: "The first
verse, about the teenage mother, is based on my niece. She came
to me at age 16 and told me she was having a baby. To be honest,
I was devastated. I had so many dreams for her. So that part is
really innocence lost. The second verse is about a fatal shooting
I witnessed. I went out to buy some bread at the store where I live
in East Harlem and I saw this bunch of guys arguing. All of a sudden
they started shooting. I ran down into the subway and when I came
out there were two boys, 19 and 20, lying on the ground. You hear
it on the news all the time, but there it was in front of my eyes.
I knew then that the album would have a social message, more than
anything I'd done before."
set the tone for the album: Money, which follows - another 'Chicken'
Burke production - rolls and grooves like old-school Norman Whitfield,
as Steph emotes on the pressures placed upon us by the pursuit of
the mean green.
The moving This Letter
came right out of the pages of her daily newspaper, when Steph happened
upon a column filled with letters written by the mothers, wives,
sisters and girlfriends of soldiers fighting in Iraq. [Trace magazine
called it, "Motown meets Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders."]
On the outrageously funky
Kinky Mckay and Burke team up with Steph's close friend, the brilliant
New York saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, to create a horn-fired
groove so slippery it would have made D'Angelo proud, had he been
able to borrow it for Voodoo.
D'Angelo, in fact, provides
another link in the chain of people willing to step up to the plate
for Steph: Schwarz-Bart played sax on D'Angelo's Voodoo world tour,
which is where he met soul vocalist supreme Anthony Hamilton, who
in turn contributes his wonderful voice to Tell It Like It Is on
a gorgeous, heart-broken duet with Stephanie, entitled Where Did
Our Love Go?
Say What You Feel, meanwhile,
which Stephanie co-wrote with Australia's DJ Katalyst, has Lynn
Collins-fronting-The-JB's written right through it like a stick
of rock. In contrast, the album's closer is an imaginative cover
of Willy Mason's hit Oxygen, transformed by McKay, Burke and Schwarz-Bart
into a bluesy, minor-key builder that, by the time the organ fires
up, is on its way right back to church. It's an uplifting finish
to a great album.
The story of Tell It
Like It Is then took one final twist. A couple of tracks were released
by Astralwerks in 2006 as part of a US-only EP designed to introduce
America to the McKay talent. Unfortunately, soon thereafter parent
company EMI decided to turn Astralwerks into an alternative rock
label - and so Stephanie wisely decided to up and take her marvellous
completed album over to Muthas Of Invention, who are now more than
delighted to be able to release one of the finest, most soulful
and intelligent albums you'll hear all year.
In the meantime, Stephanie
has kept right on moving.
Just as she did in the
past - when, for example, she backed up her solo projects by touring
with Talib Kweli and Mos Def, played at the Bluenote Club with special
guest Meshell Ndegeocello, recorded two albums with Brooklyn Funk
Essentials and contributed vocals to Roy Hargove's RH Factor: Hard
Groove album - Steph has spent the past few months leading up to
Tell It Like It Is release in typically productive manner.
Her collaboration with
DJ Katalyst has now grown from a couple of national tours in Australia
to a fully fledged team-up that's not only provided each artist
with tracks for their current albums - Katalyst's What's Happening
is just out on BBE Records - but has now accumulated an entire album's
worth of material for future use, perhaps as a yet-to-be-named duo.
[She describes their sound as "currently somewhere between
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and Gnarls Barkley".]
Say What You Feel, from
the new album, was recently picked up by the producers of US TV
medical drama Grey's Anatomy to feature on the soundtrack to an
Seems like talent, hard
work and artistic integrity can sometimes turn things your way after
Like It Is is the most personal piece of work I've done by far,"
says Stephanie of her album. "The things I sing about, my reflections
on life are really about my own life and my perception of the world
I see around me. It used to be that albums from the past, particularly
soul albums, would tackle life's issues and problems - as well as
the fun - in this way. It's what I grew up on. So it's nice to put
some of that feeling back on my own work."