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Stephanie McKay | Features

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Tell It Like It Is

Stephanie McKayTell It Like It Is is an especially apposite title for Stephanie McKay's forthcoming album.

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 that.

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 us so.

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 media.

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."

Stephanie McKayIt 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 episode.

Seems like talent, hard work and artistic integrity can sometimes turn things your way after all.

"Tell It 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."

Tell It Like It Is
Stephanie McKay - Tell It Like It Is

01. Tell It Like It Is
02. Money
03. Jackson Avenue
04. This Letter
05. Oh Yeah
06. Sure Feels Good
07. Say What You Feel
08. Kinky
09. Where Did Our Love Go
10. Little More Time
11. Fiya
12. Oxygen

Stephanie McKay [EP]
Stephanie Mckay - Stephanie McKay [EP]

01. Tell It Like It Is
02. M.O.N.E.Y.
03. Rising Tide
04. Take Me Over
05. Tell It Like It Is [DJ Spinna Remix]

Stephanie Mckay - Mckay

01. Intro
02. Tell Him
03. Bluesin' It
04. Sadder Day
05. Thinking of You
06. How Long
07. Rising Tide
08. Loving You
09. Take Me Over
10. Five Days of Faith
11. Thadius Star
12. Echo

Stephanie Mckay Official website
Stephanie Mckay Myspace site