The sophisticated soul of Carolyn Malachi
The plain-spoken truth can be startling. Especially in an age when people go out of their way not to hear it. Singer, songwriter and producer Carolyn Malachi delivers candor in her wide-ranging urban and urbane soul music. The stories she tells in her music — about creativity, money and love — aren’t necessarily simple, but there’s a clarity to her declarations that adds force to them, like medicine that’s been distilled to a tincture. This week, Malachi, a Grammy-nominated, Washington D.C.-based performer, is set to release Rise: Story 1, the first installment of what’s envisioned as a three-part series of albums called Rise of the Modern Natural.
Malachi plays the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Thursday, Dec. 15. I spoke to her last week by phone from the Grand Canyon. We spoke about saying things that need to be said, about the importance of creating a dynamic between listeners and performers, about the challenge of fueling your dreams, and about the musical spirit of Washington D.C. and how it shapes Malachi’s sound.
That sound is eclectic, infused with the textures of electronica, the harmonies and phrasing of jazz, a deep sense of groove, a narrative punch drawn from slam poetry and hip-hop, and an overarching soul sophistication. There are touches of Roberta Flack, Sade, Lauryn Hill and Beyonce in Malachi’s music.
Her latest single, “If You Ever Lay A Hand On Me,” is a tough-talking bluesy acoustic declaration of independence. “I love you, but I’ll kill you if you ever lay a hand on me,” goes the refrain, which brings to mind singers like Nina Simone in its bold statement of romantic authority.
Malachi has said she comes from a long line of independent-minded and articulate women. She’s said that, when she was a kid, her mother would sometimes make Malachi go to her room to write stories as a way of focusing and ordering her energies. So, it makes a kind of sense that her next three albums will be a linked collection of narratives.
When I asked her about how those formative story-writing experiences shaped her development as a musician, Malachi said it was about her understanding her place in the world and the role that storytelling serves.
“It’s more relevant to the way I’ve learned the history of my family and the way we passed down history and customs,” she says. “Not just my family, but the whole human race.”
But in order to tell your story, to realize your vision, or to pursue your creative goals, you have to have more than just a talent for putting together words and notes. You need some cash to pay rent, buy food and free up time to allow for whatever artistic work needs doings. As pop themes go, the pursuit of romance, sex and love is a much more popular subject, but Malachi is onto something when she sings, as she does on a number of songs, about the quest for money.
“I just have never understood why talking about money is so taboo,” says Malachi. “All communities do need economic empowerment. Those conversations are missing from the media landscape.”
Another song released this year, “We Like Money,” states it pretty simply: “We go to work because we gotta get paid,” goes one line. The tune has a perky Caribbean feel, with slow-rolling and crisp percussion moving the rhythm along. The song isn’t about wanting to be wealthy exactly; it’s about the need for money to pay bills, live with dignity, and survive, and how, when that’s a challenge, the creative ways that people endure are worth celebrating.
“You have to not only fuel and fund your dreams, but you also have to fill your stomach,” says Malachi.
Malachi, who is the great-granddaughter of jazz pianist and educator John Malachi, is that somewhat rare artist who has worked in high-level corporate jobs. She knows about what goes on in board rooms and strategic meetings, and she enjoys that world. “I like soaking up the information,” she says.
After having left her office job in 2014, switching to full-time music-making, Malachi has a deep sympathy for “people who are working that nine-to-five grind and are not doing what they feel they should be doing.”
But if Malachi’s songs address the numbing fiscal realities of working people, they also deliver plenty of uplift, hope and inspiration. She sings about seeing one’s mental framework, presence, education and attitude as the keys to creating the conditions we crave. “It’s not a game, it’s a grind, wherever you are, your mind put you there,” she sings on “Free Your Mind,” a single from 2012.
Malachi was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for her 2010 single “Orion,” a dub-tinged song about communing with the cosmos. That balance of the spiritual touch with an of-the-people perspective is something that carries through in much of Malachi’s music.
Her working method sometimes consists of Malachi having a lyric and melody, which she’ll record to a click-track, then handing it off to her creative collaborators to complete. This allows for songs that don’t need a ton of extra instrumental embellishment, though assertive and deceptively minimal beats often add to the spare tension of her songs. There’s an element of confidence and trust and how she approaches the whole process.
“I never want to overwhelm the listener with sound,” she says. “As long as I’ve communicated what I intend to get across, the rest of it is really up to the listener. I think the art experience is a two-way process. It’s a conversation.”
Wanna go? Carolyn Malachi plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15 p.m. at the Crown at Carolina Theatre (310 S. Greene St. Greensboro). Tickets are $10. Call 336-333-2605 or visit carolinatheatre.com for more.