By Kerry DooleFor her keenly anticipated full-length debut album, Saidah Baba Talibah comes out kicking and (S)Creaming. The Toronto-based rock/soul songstress released (S)Cream this week on noted Canadian independent label Last Gang, home of the likes of Metric, Death From Above 1979, and Chromeo.
As Talibah recently explained to Exclaim!, she is quite comfortable being on a label best known for its rock acts. "That is the kind of audience I like to be part of," she says in an interview. "I don't necessarily fit the mould, but I can rock with them. I just do what I do."
Talibah had actually completed the album prior to signing the record deal. To fund its making, she followed the increasingly popular route of asking friends and fans to invest.
"I had no clue who was going to buy into it," she recalls. "It is a shot in the dark, a risk. What if no one bites and it's 'I stink!' but I got so much support and excitement from people. There were people from the States and Europe I don't know buying into it. They hadn't seen me live. Then there were others here who knew me but had never seen me play either, and they invested just as blindly. The response was really heart-warming."
The album certainly defies easy genre classification. Its songs range from raunchy and funk-inflected rock to soulful ballads, and Talibah is committed to stylistic diversity.
"I wanted to make sure the record had a lot of what I think I am on there, and what a lot of people are. They have those lustful thoughts and actions, but there is also that tender side to people. We're not all one-dimensional, and those different things dictate how the music will sound, to me anyway."
The choice of Michael Johnston as co-producer on (S)Cream is a left-field one, given that Johnston is a roots-oriented singer-songwriter (and a member of the Skydiggers). He tells Exclaim! that the pair met at Toronto club Lula Lounge in 2007, as part off a one-off band termed Sweet Sangria Orchestra.
"Our first meeting was grounded in musical discovery, and we set off to writing new songs, as well as polishing some older material she'd written," Johnston says. "We spent many mornings writing songs, listening to Minnie Riperton and Owen Pallett, talking through arrangements, and becoming friends.
"In some ways, my job producing Saidah was a cross between being one part copy editor, and one part Tony Robbins. Over time I've learned that the very best singers -- and I consider Saidah to be one of them -- can be so hard on themselves."
Talibah adds, "When I was writing with Michael, it felt just so easy to be myself. I didn't feel I had to fit into anything, so that is largely why I approached him to co-produce. He gave me the freedom to make a lot of decisions so it felt like I was producing myself."
The bulk of the album was recorded at Canterbury Music Company in Toronto, with a live-off-the-floor approach. "Most of the time we did it piece by piece," recalls Talibah. "But I like the human contact, knowing there are people there and at work, playing off each other. I thought it'd be awesome to do it live off the floor, then whatever we needed to fix we'd fix. It was organic and real. I'm not a perfect person, so I wouldn't want my music to sound pristine. Auto-Tune would sound foreign to me, as I've spent so much time getting used to my own voice. To put a mask on top, that's not me."
A large supporting cast contributed to the album, including members of her powerhouse band. Fiery lead guitarist Donna Grantis is a key contributor, with most of the songs on (S)Cream being Talibah/Grantis co-writes. Sousaphone player Rob Teehan is an integral part of her live band and is featured prominently on the disc (Saidah recently contributed a guest vocal on "Rock Me," a tune on Don't Bring Me Down, the imminent debut CD of Teehan's band, the Heavyweights Brass Band). Other musicians featured include drummer Roger Travassos (Jacksoul) and pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo.
Some of the material on (S)Cream surfaced earlier on Talibah's 2009 EP, The Phone Demos. Literally recorded on her cellphone, these songs were presented in very rough early form. "It's something for people to take home and get to know the raw beginnings of the songs," she explained at the time. "It's important to me that listeners are privy to that journey."
Talibah is also an accomplished dancer and actress in such productions as Showboat and The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, but it was likely inevitable that she would pursue music, the family business. She is the daughter of legendary Canadian jazz/blues singer/actress Salome Bey, while her uncle, Andy Bey, is a Grammy-nominated American jazz vocalist. Talibah performed with her mother from a young age, even appearing at Massey Hall at age six.
"I had no time to get stage fright," says Talibah. "This is something I was born into. I was rolling around in the womb of someone who loved what they did. I'm looking at this as my life, as opposed to wanting to have a hit.
"Everything I do in life I feel I can put in my pocket and keep for future reference. Just watching how a frontperson moves a crowd, I take in how it makes me feel, and I think, 'How can I do that so people get the same feeling?'"