Interview and photographs by Eric Gleason
There’s an underlying spirituality when Alexis P. Suter talks about her music and the mission she’s on. That soulfulness runs deep in both her personality and her music, as you can see and hear for yourself when the Alexis P. Suter Band takes over the stage at WAMC-FM’s The Linda in Albany at 8pm on Friday (June 21). And when talking with her you can’t help but feel like you’re talking with a preacher after hours. She’s that passionate, that uninhibited about talking about the ideals that drive her musical quest. And like a true New Yorker, this Brooklyn native needs only the slightest nudge to get her talking at length about what’s on her mind:
Q: So how long were you singing in your church before you started singing more secular music?
A: Wow (laughing)! I was singing in church for a long time before I started singing any other kind of music. I mean, I was into different theatrical groups and stuff, and we used to do different music. Not music like on the wide range like I do now with the band, but we did do other music besides gospel music. (Laughing) I don’t want anyone to think I was like this church robot or anything like that. I did do other stuff. [My parents] didn’t want us to listen to any other kind of music but gospel music, so I really didn’t have any other kind of music playing in my home.
Q: Your mother was a music teacher and deeply involved in the church. Was that her influence?
A: Well, I think it was my mother and my father. They just wanted us to be involved with that, you know, and stick with that influence. But as you get older, you get curious, and you want to listen to different things. You know, I’d go to school, and I had friends that weren’t as church-going as I was in my family, and they listened to different kinds of music. I’d go to different people’s houses and hear different things, and your mind gets curious. You grow up, and you’re like ‘I want to listen to this, I want to listen to that,’ so eventually I got to listen to different things because my music range started to become larger. I wanted to know more… and in order to do that, you have to listen to more than one kind of music.
Q: Was there a moment when someone introduced you to something you hadn’t heard before, and you said, “I really want to start singing more like this?”
A: My older sister — she’s deceased now. A lot of people I grew up with listened to Motown and stuff like that… My sister was listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and America.
Q: More of the hippy bands?
A: Yeah, she was on a whole ‘nother trip, in a whole ‘nother head, and there things that she listened to that blew my head, like the band Cream. Just different things like that really blew my mind that I had never heard. I would always try to listen to different things that she had, you know.
Q: Was there anyone whose style in particular you were trying to emulate as you developed your own style?
A: Wow… I’d say… It’s really weird because growing up, my voice wasn’t as deep as it is now, but I always had somewhat of a different range than most girls. Most of the artists I really gravitated to were male artists. One of them was Barry White. I was in his fan club, I was really big into Barry White growing up. And Isaac Hayes, and I’d listen to Donny Hathaway… just different people of that nature, but the one that I always wanted to be like really was Barry White, because he always talked about love — and at that time I didn’t really realize what kind of love he was talking about! (laughing).
Q: So how has your listening evolved over the years as you’ve been recording and performing. Are there a lot of artists you’re listening to now?
A: One particular artist that I love very much that I look at her career from time to time is Ruth Brown. I love her style. And there are so many, I can’t just… I love Levon Helm. I love the sound of the Band and the different music that they did. I used to look at “The Last Waltz” not even realizing what I was looking at. I thought it was just a bunch of artists, a bunch of people until I realized getting older who these people were.
Listening to folks now… really, the music that I’ve known to be R&B just isn’t that anymore. To tell you that I have an artist that moves my soul that does R&B today, I can’t even really tell you, man, I can only go to the greats. I know I’m starting to sound my age, but I’m just so blessed that I grew up in the era of music that I grew up in, because I’d totally be lost now. I wouldn’t have an idol. I wouldn’t have someone to look up to.
Q: Let’s talk about your band. You’ve been with them for a long time. How did you get together with this line-up?
A: We’ve been together about eight or nine years now. I knew Vicki Bell first, who is one of the singers in the band. When I first met her I was doing dance music and house music. At that time, her and her husband Ray Grappone (producer, drummer), they had their own record label, Hipbone Records, and they invited me to do a song with them. I have a friend that’s in the dance music world who was a friend of Vicki’s. He was doing a show and Vicki was singing with him and I met her through him, and through that I did a song with Vicki, and through that we did a couple of 12 inches that were very successful. We decided we’re much more than a 12-inch record.
Q: That was a dance record?
A: We did a dance record with a blues opener, a blues a cappella opener called “You Don’t Know.” And from that point I said, “Vicki, you know, we need to get a band together.” Her and I and Ray, we spoke about it, and before you know it, Ray had some old friends that he played with throughout the years, and we sort of formed a band.
I was doing some blues stuff before that situation on Long Island, I would do different things out there. And then we started slowly doing stuff together here and there, and from there it became what it is.
First, it was the Bennett Brothers band featuring Alexis Suter, and then Jimmy, the guitar player, he had to take care of some family business in Florida and had to leave the band for a minute, so then it became the Alexis P. Suter Band, because they didn’t want to disband the band. Levon wanted us to stay at the Ramble. He was like, “You can’t go on as the Bennett Brothers Band because one of the Bennetts ain’t here, so now you need to be called the Alexis P. Suter Band.” Basically, Levon made that decision.
Q: You’ve said in past interviews that you felt that the label “blues” was too restricting and not really descriptive of your music.
A: Let me put that out there, I don’t just do blues. I do all kinds – I do blues, I do soul, I do gospel, eclectic stuff, I do jazz. I just want to touch on a little bit of everything because you never know who you can touch doing those things. You can’t be in one type — and I don’t knock anybody for just being honest and honorable with the craft that they have, with the style that they have, God bless them it’s a wonderful thing. I’m just so glad I can reach people on so many levels. It’s a gift to me to share myself with the world in that manner, and to be able to let them know, “Yeah, I got a little bit of that. That’s what you like to hear, come on, I got you.” That’s what I want to do, I want to be able to bring people in like that. It’s not always about the money, it’s about the souls that you can open up to experience you, to see where you’re coming from through the music and be able to relate to it and make it their own.
Q: I think some of that shows in your lyrics, too. A lot of your lyrics seem like they’ve got a social conscience; they talk a lot about social issues and sometimes urban issues. Does that come from your background as a counselor or growing up in Brooklyn, or where does that come from?
A: All of our songs are true to life. Even the cover songs that we do from other artists are true to our life, our journey. Not one song in our catalog is about just one person, but all of us. Sometimes it is about growing up in Brooklyn, or the strife or the love or the hate or whatever it is that I had to go through growing up, like everyone else in the band. I think that’s why people feel it so dearly into their hearts, because it is real. It’s like real shit to music. It’s the real deal, you know what I mean? I’m not trying to make anything bigger than what it is or badder than what it is…
Q: You’re trying to be genuine.
A: Right! I’m trying to be genuine and let people know this is real. I come from it, you know, and I’m humbled by it, and I’m sharing it with you now. Maybe you can relate to some of it. Everybody’s not going to relate to everything you put out there, but there might be a line or a word or a scenario or situation they may relate to.
Q: That honesty and genuine quality leads me to my biggest question for you. I was at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock back in December when you performed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and you were very emotional during that song. It was very touching for me, and I think everyone in the theater that night. Is it still that emotional for you?
A: Yes, it’s very, very emotional because we started doing that song about the time that Levon wasn’t feeling well, like really not feeling well. And a lot of things were going on in our lives…
Q: Did you do that as tribute to Levon at the time, or was it just coincidental?
A: It was just coincidental. It was something that just really moved us to no end, ‘cuz you know Levon, he was like a father to us. Things were starting to happen, we were spreading our wings, and Levon wanted us to go far and beyond. We had already opened up for him 97 times. He felt like “You’re ready now, go out there and spread your wings.” It was just really hard for us when we were out there and getting word about his health, because we knew Levon was a very private guy.
Q: So is “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” one of your favorites to perform? Are there others? Or is it like your kids and you can’t choose just one?
A: You know what, to say my favorite right now… right now my favorite is “Let It Be.” All the songs that we do… I’m not going to say that we have a favorite, which I just did, that’s like the flavor of the month for me and the band. All the songs that I do, they all have a message, and if you ever come to our shows and check out our set list, it tells a story. It tells a story from the very opening song to the very last. I just dig what we do. All of our songs are my favorites because I love to do them and try to do them to the best of my ability.