Amel Larrieux: a sure cure for the blues

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

January 15, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

It was when the winter hit -- the steel-gray sky, the sharp, merciless wind -- that I felt the weight of the loneliness.

I had just graduated from college and was living in Philadelphia at the time, working for a newspaper there. My mama, my sisters, my best friend, my peeps -- everybody I cared about was back home in Arkansas. I was fine in July, the month I moved to the city. But when that first snow fell and I had to pull out the long johns, the weary blues came knocking. And like a fool, I let 'em in.

When they became burdensome, I went to my altar: the stereo. One of the CDs I wore out that year, one of the albums that brought a little sunlight to my soul and kept my head up was Infinite Possibilities by Amel Larrieux (that's A-MIL La-ROO). The record had come out in 1999, the year before my move to Philly. The serenity of Amel's voice, the optimistic substance of the lyrics and the beauty of the eclectic, progressive arrangements made the CD a gem from start to finish. But because of poor marketing by Epic/Sony, the singer's label, not enough people got a chance to feel the radiance of the set. What a shame.

"Putting an album out means nothing," says Amel, who's calling from her Los Angeles home. "There was never any manpower behind Infinite Possibilities. Epic put no [publicity] behind it. I'm proud of the fact that it was supported by word of mouth. I was on the road all the time, pushing the record."

Bravebird, her new album and first since Infinite Possibilities, drops Tuesday from Bliss Life Records, an independent, artist-friendly company.

"I don't really answer to anyone this time," Amel says. "But I still have to do a good job. That's what I do; that's how I make my living."

The former Groove Theory lead vocalist is cool with grassroots publicity, which helped her solo debut sell 220,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's a respectable number for a record that received minimal to zilch promotion from the label. The lack of support -- artistic and business -- is one of the main reasons Amel left Epic and went the independent route.

She figured that if she could do so much on her own, why not be on her own? Plus, the woman is a resolute artist -- grew up around plenty of free spirits in Greenwich Village -- so she didn't want a label telling her what to sing, how to sing it and to hurry up with it.

"With the independent label thing, there's more freedom," says Amel, 29. "We were in no major rush. I feel that we had enough time to be objective to see if each song was good enough to stand on its own and if it could stand with the rest of the songs."

Like its predecessor, Bravebird stitches together progressive jazz, drum 'n' bass, ambient music, house and modern soul. The overall result is spare but sophisticated, propelled by Amel's stylish, somewhat detached vocals. "For Real," a standout, boasts a dreamy, piano-driven melody and the singer's multi-tracked vocals, creating shimmering sheets of Amel. Near the end of the cut, she hits high Minnie Riperton-like notes. Other selections -- the title track, "Beyond" and "New" -- are porous, atmospheric tunes that drift in and settle gently.

"The direction seems to go in no categories," Amel says. "It's not gratuitously different, but it can't be categorized, the music on the new album. Music doesn't work for me when it's formulated. I may as well be just another voice."

During the four-year interim between albums, Amel certainly kept busy, contributing vocals to CDs by Sweetback (Sade's old band), the Roots, Soulive, Stanley Clarke and two soundtracks: Down to Earth and Barbershop. She also played live dates throughout the country and abroad. But she's never away for long from her two daughters: Sky, 9, and Sanji-Rei, 5.

Her husband of 10 years, Laru, is also her manager and creative partner. The two met through Bryce Wilson, the other half of Groove Theory, a year before the duo dropped its lone album, 1995's classic Groove Theory. Although the album went gold, bolstered by the hit "Tell Me," Bryce and Amel went their separate ways soon after setting the pop and R&B charts aflame.

As a solo artist, Amel continues to deliver something you rarely get from urban and pop music: sincerity and enlightening messages.

In her songs, she says, "I think I pose the questions about the things I want for myself. I try to find the good in everything, hoping it will lead to something progressive. The kind of support I get from fans assures me that I'm doing the right thing with my music."

Four winters ago in Philly, I was beating back the blues in a city that showed no "brotherly love" to me. And I don't think I would have been able to smile under such a sad, blank sky if it weren't for Amel softly telling me to "get up," that I have "infinite possibilities" for the future.

So for that, I gotta say, I must say: Thank you.

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