A FEW MINUTES With… Kellylee Evans
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Canadian jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans – appearing at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday (June 28) – admits she was scared when she came out with her first U.S. album, I Remember When, in 2014. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m covering Eminem. What’s my audience going to say? We’re going from Nina (Simone) to Eminem.’”
On her 2010 French CD release, Nina, this effervescent and wildly eclectic singer covered “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” one Nina Simone’s most poignant statements about white rejection of African Americans in the ’60s disguised as remorse over a failed relationship. And of course, Eminem turned the mirror around as the most widely accepted white singer in the black world of hip-hop.
Evans covers Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” on I Remember When. She also offers a breezy,
contemporary take on Gladys Knight’s soul classic “If I Was Your Woman.” She covers Belgian rapper Stromae’s light percussive “And So We Dance.” She also does numbers by John Legend, Kanye West and includes nine originals that appeal to a wide audience that might ordinarily find hip-hop to be jarring.
Evans considers herself one of the “others.” Comparing Simone’s ’60s-era to now, she says, “We’ve been given space.” She regards “others” in a broader context than black and white. When we talked recently, she’d just returned from a gig in Calgary where she performed Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
“Lou Reed was singing about transvestites and transsexuals,” she says, “and now the biggest stories we have are Bruce Jenner and ‘others.’ I was on the plane yesterday traveling back and watching this show ‘House Hunters International’ or something like that, and it was about this gay couple from New York who was looking to move to the Hudson Valley, and they were just looking for a place. Five years ago, we would not have had that show on television.”
A 40-year-old mother of three, Evans was 24 years old with bachelor degrees in both law and English and well on her way to a master degree when she decided to throw in the towel on education and take up music full-time. Her mother, a nurse originally from Jamaica, had been one of those parents who when her daughter brought home a 99% on a test wanted to know what happened to the other 1%. Then her mom died of cancer. “There was just no way of me doing anything to disappoint her,” she explains. “So, honest to goodness, it’s the most horrible thing to say, but when she died, that was when I was free.”
Her dad was separated from her mom. “The day I called to drop my masters, I called my dad afterwards. He said to me, ‘Well, I can’t say that I’m not disappointed.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can. You know I’ve got two undergraduate degrees. I’ve got a family. I’m married. I’ve done so much.’
“He didn’t talk to me for five years.”
I Remember When is Evans’ fifth album, and even though it’s her U.S. debut, she says it was not produced with an American audience specifically in mind. It was recorded in France, where she has her biggest following and was co-produced by Parisian artist Eric Legnini and radio programmer Sebastian Vidal. “We’re each from the same time period. We really wanted to have music that reflected that even though it was from the jazz idiom, it would have that thread of hip-hop and soul running through it. It’s so funny. If somebody would ask me to sing some standard stuff, people my age would talk to me all the time. (She takes on a nasal voice.) ‘My grandmother loves your music. She’s just like my mom. I’m thinking I’m gonna give my mom your CDs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great!’”
Evans has had three life-threatening experiences including being struck by lightning and
experiencing an Epileptic-like fit to an emergency room medication. Each has taken her deeper into her dedication to music. “I need to stop telling that story about how I need (those experiences),” she says. “I don’t need that. I can make changes. You can make incremental changes on a given day. I think the idea that you have to stay entrenched in crap before you actually want to get out (is wrong.)
“I think the moment you start smelling crap, you should be ready to leave.”