Mama’s Girl: “I am ever aware that I am standing on her shoulders and those of all the women in the house I was raised.”
I was sitting in my mama’s living room in post-Thanksgiving satiety flipping through the Washington Post when I came across a listing about Abby Dobson’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage the very next day. Since we’d met through her college chum, writer Nicole Moore, time had never permitted me to check her live (including her release party at the Blue Note in November.) Bet. Another chance.
Abby’s got some pipes; her resounding voice a compass directing me to the venue as I arrived just after she, bathed in purple light, began her set. Including songs from her independently released Sleeping Beauty: you are the one you have been waiting on, as well as a couple of covers (her rendition of Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore scorched) she both glided on gossamer wings and plunged deep into a place of earthy excavation. At set’s end I went to say hello and the floodgates opened to a stream of grateful listeners, stupefied by her vocal prowess, who queued up to commend her. Abby and I quickly agreed to meet for coffee while we were both in town and I left as she greeted her fans.
View the performance on the Kennedy Center website.
We met up the next day at her hotel, the quirky Hotel Helix (count on Kimpton Hotels for modern rooms with personality) “My mom loves it, she feels like a rock star,” Abby laughed as she gathered her things. We strolled to nearby Mid City Caffè for delicious coffee, tea and pastries and settled in for a chat about her gumption-finding journey from childhood timidity (hiding behind the refrigerator to sing) to securing some of the best musicians in the business to record her music and belting it out before large audiences.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Abby’s first inkling of her gift was at “5 or 6 years old, singing to the radio in the living room, when my aunt shushed the adults at the dining table to listen to me.” When she was seven, her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn. “Migration is an interesting thing,” she says. “I think it can change your personality. I became quiet, shy and very observant.” Growing up amid a mix of Jewish, Italian and African-American residents she learned to not to speak Patois. Her folks “knew how to turn the accent on and off,” where necessary. She has become one not easily “placed” by how she speaks. “I feel very Jamaican, but I’ve never really spoken Patois– maybe when I’m angry or with just family.”
She attended Plymouth Congregational and “the voices I heard in that church really influenced me. The Jamaican churches preferred classical singing,” a by-product of “Anglican colonization, which was very different from the bluesy Baptist singing” of African American churches. Another influence was her “visionary” elder cousin Colin who introduced her to Sarah Vaughan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman. Though she listened to “a lot of Bob Marley,” she became indoctrinated in the music of Black America and developed a love for Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston and Prince.
Her mother, Theda was “an incredible influence. She has always supported my brother’s and my creative pursuits…She was a closet artist,” providing her daughter with voice and piano lessons early on. In high school Abby received private voice lessons from her Chorus teacher who invited her to sing in the Salon Series he held in his home in Bayside, Queens. All nerves and “scared shitless,” Abby traveled with her mom to perform, the only child amid a gathering of adults. “It was cool, I was in the tenth grade.”
She went on to study History and Political Science at Williams College, singing all the while. “I directed a gospel choir there.” Though she knew she wanted to sing, she was “afraid of failing and being unable to sustain myself. When you come to America from an immigrant family, you are expected to succeed in a profession.” So she entered Georgetown Law School intending to establish a career in law or public policy, whilst performing cover tunes at every “open mic” she could. She graduated but declined to take the bar exam knowing that she really did not want to become an attorney. She would commit to building a music career while sustaining herself as a paralegal. Realizing that the best route to landing a record deal is not in performing covers, she began writing her own songs, which was a revelation, opening her to all she had to say. “I grew up in a very female centered household with my mother, grandmother, aunt, my aunt’s kids and my brother. I was an avid reader of feminist and womanist literature which really shaped my point of view.”
Her debut as a singer/songwriter at Nuyorican Poets Café led to appearances at S.O.B’s, The Knitting Factory, The Cutting Room, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note. Her song, Deeply, a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, was featured on TV shows, “The Shield,” “Jack & Jill” and “Any Day Now.” She has provided backing vocals for artists from John Legend to Talib Kweli; opened concerts for Rahsaan Patterson, Ledisi, Dwele, Chrisette Michele, Floetry, Kindred, Leela James and Robin Thicke and performs with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, the interdisciplinary, improvisatory ensemble led by Greg Tate.
The genesis of her current release was in a realization that she’d been trying for a long time to get notice from a major label. That she’d been waiting to be “spotted across the room by Clive Davis and signed as his pet project.” This notion of a sleeping beauty awaiting awakening by an external source resonated with her. She’d fallen “asleep” in her romantic life, waiting for fulfillment. “As much as it is about not expecting someone else to make me who I’m supposed to be in my personal life,” she explains, “it’s also about not waiting on a record company or music producer to deem me worthy of making music I was ready to share.”
There was a long planning process before she actually began to record in early 2007. She continued her paralegal work. “My 9-5 was part of my story, I needed it. I made good money,” which allowed her to self-fund her record. “If I could afford to do something, I did it. No compromises.” Like recording and mixing in analog. “People thought I was crazy,” but she wanted her release to have the old-school authenticity of her musical influences. When she got to the mixing stage, she cashed out on a sou-sou, calling on that ‘financial touchstone’ of her Caribbean heritage.
The release is available for download on Amazon & iTunes, but if you enjoy the tactile experience of poring over liner notes, order the disc from CDBaby. Abby put her heart into the packaging and you can peep Greg Tate’s glowing review. Photo by Piper Carter.
Drawing on her literary shero Alice Walker’s “We Are the One’s We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she weaves the musical tale of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening, not to the kiss of a Prince but to her own inner light. With heralding horns that call to mind the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez, the disc begins with Cool Rain giving way to a heritage nod, the reggae-tinged I’m Drownin (witten with her percussion-playing, ethnomusicologist brother, Robert.) Sleeping Beauty continues her 13-track journey on the strains of Robert Glasper’s piano, Lonnie Plaxico’s bass, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Teo Avery’s sax among others. Rounding out the mélange of genres, Abby completes the song cycle with bluegrass-inflected anthem of reclamation and affirmation, Sleeping Beauty: go make the world you dream.
And she is doing just that. She’s now interested in a distribution deal, not signing to a label. “People are coming back to entrepreneurship. Motown, A&M, that’s how they started.” She shares the story of her moving visit to Detroit’s Motown Museum. “I was in tears. The beauty that was created from a small loan from family is nothing short of miraculous–that they were able to do that in those times.” She admires the forward-thinking vision to protect the brand. “No matter where they were licensed in the world– Japan, for instance– it remained ‘Motown’ not the native language translation.” She plans to uphold her musical integrity through her company, LadyBraveBird Music.
The songbird shares her ten favorites with The Trove:
1. The Color Purple. “Although I love Alice Walker’s book of the same, one of my favorite things is the color purple. It is regal and warm at the same time. It lifts my spirits. It puts a smile on my face. My luggage is purple. My winter and spring scarves are purple. I just adore the color purple. And, wearing purple makes me feel special.”
The color associated with royalty, mysticism, creativity and feminism.
3. Books and Reading. “I love the experience of browsing a bookstore…libraries too,” she gushes. Books, newspapers (New York Times,) magazines (O and Success), love them…I just love reading!”
4. Spices. “I enjoy savoring food with alot of flavor. My favorites are thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg.”
Botanical print via the wonderful blog Honest Fare.
5. Sexy boots. “I have a thing for boots. Whether thigh high or booties, I enjoy wearing them with everything. What more can a girl ask for?”
Abby’s got winter covered, so she can look forward to the sizzling boots coming as the weather warms. Here, Sessilee Lopez’s great gams and open-toe booties in BG Magazine’s selects for Resort. Photo by Will Davidson.
6. Massages. “I love giving and receiving massages. I give them to my family and friends all the time. I enjoy making people I care about feel better. If I’m stressed and need to relax, I’ll get a 20 minute at a nail salon to relax, relate and release.”
“Touch is very powerful. It soothes and comforts,” she says.
7. Great Music and Musicians. Natch. Though inspired by all forms of art she loves “great music and artists who create for the love of their craft and passion as opposed to money. Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Streisand, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few.”
Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for West Side Story (Presented by the Sederbergh School)
8. Good Wine. “I enjoy German Rieslings and Argentinian Malbecs.”
9. Family and Friend Gatherings. “I love getting together with my family and friends for gatherings to celebrate each other and special events and holidays… the experience of breaking bread, our conversations, and our laughter.”
And laugh she does.
10. Solitude. Although she enjoys the communal experience, she also enjoys her “own company” and is “often inspired by moments of solitude…thinking, walking, dreaming.”
“Solitude – La Dame des Sables.” Photo by Tiquetonne.