Keri Noble adds an element of pop to a soul sentiment

Newcomer sings and plays piano on 'Fearless'

Music: in concert, CDs

March 11, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The mood is indigo, and it stays that way throughout her album. But newcomer Keri Noble insists that she's more spirited than her music may project. She's just keeping it real -- pure, unvarnished, emotionally naked -- on her aptly titled debut, Fearless.

"A lot of times, you're much more inspired when you're not happy or sunshiney," says the singer-songwriter, who's calling from a promotional stop in Florida. "But what's most important is that the record is honest. I think maybe when you're happy, you don't stop to think about it or write about it, I guess."

The CD opens with Noble's aching alto and spare piano on "Look at Me," a powerful ballad in which she begs her lover to stop looking elsewhere for comfort and understanding. She has always given him the love and support he needs, yet he remains so distant.

It's the same heart-in-hand sentiment expressed by great soul women: Aretha Franklin ("Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "Ain't No Way"), Millie Jackson ("Ask Me What You Want" and "Hurt So Good"). Although she belts and croons with deep feeling, Noble is not a soul singer in the traditional sense. She may have one of the main credentials: The artist grew up singing in her father's Baptist church. But her sound and style flow in the pop vein -- the intelligent, introspective kind reminiscent of early Sarah MacLachlan.

"I always want to leave a sense of hope and faith in my music," says Noble, 26. "I don't want people to feel hopeless after listening to the record. I just wanted to share my experiences."

The same team that brought us Norah Jones helmed Fearless. The executive producer is the legendary Arif Mardin, who is also co-general manager of Manhattan Records, Noble's label. The company is under the supervision of EMI Jazz and Classics president and CEO Bruce Lundvall, who signed Jones to Blue Note, another label he oversees. But Noble is not a Jones clone. The similarities are only on the surface. Both are unassumingly beautiful with a multicultural background: Jones' mother is white, and her pops is Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. Noble's mom is also white; her dad hails from Peru.

Each woman plays the piano, writes and sings with a sophistication that belies her age. But where Jones' vocals are always tidy and subdued (to the point of numbing your nerves at times), Noble reveals more grit. Her voice even cracks every now and then under the weight of her confessional lyrics: "I've got everything we ever did / It's tattooed on my heart / But there's a colder wind coming in / And blowing us apart ..."

Jones is a little country in an uptown jazzy way. And Noble's pop is largely unadorned -- save for a modern rock backbeat here and there -- and centered on her languid piano playing.

"We wanted a sound that was as natural as possible, like you're right there," the artist says. "We didn't want a glossy, very produced album. I want it to sound like something I do when I'm onstage."

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in Detroit, Noble wasn't exposed to any secular music as a child. She was in college when a friend passed her a copy of Joni Mitchell's seminal Blue album, which inspired the young woman to explore songwriting. Soon, her journal entries morphed into poetry, which flowered into songs.

"I waited tables and kept writing," Noble says. "At some point, enough people had heard me playing at my house and said, 'I like your songs and style. You should be playing at local bars and coffeehouses.'"

Driving around the Motor City with her Roland keyboard in the back of her Neon, Noble haunted cafes and closet-sized venues. She eventually met musician Billy McLaughlin, who offered to showcase her in Minneapolis, where she now lives.

"It's a great scene for singer- songwriters," Noble says of the city that nurtured such acts as Prince, Mint Condition and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. "Besides, it's too cold to do anything else, so people on the music scene just get together and make good music."

Producer Jeff Arundel oversaw the recording of her demo, which found its way to Manhattan executives Ian Ralfini and Mardin. Noble signed with the label in January.

"I'm lucky in that I'm on a smaller label without all the pressures of a major," the artist says. "They let me do my thing, and they've been rooting for me, allowing me to be myself."

Fearless may reflect a dark, melancholy side of the artist. But brighter sounds are coming.

"It's one thing to sit and write songs at the piano for yourself," Noble says. "Putting them out there is another. I felt like I had to be fearless and not apologize for what I've experienced. But one of these days, I will write the perfect happy song."

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