Chattanooga Times Free Press spoke with blues/gospel vocalist and front woman Alexis P. Suter about her music's message, singing the blues during a recession and her friendship to Levon Helm and how his passing has affected her.
Q: You grew up in a musical family. When did you realize that you had the vocals to do more than just sing for fun, that you could make a career out of it?
APS: That wasn't until later on in my life. I was probably in my 20s at that time when I finally thought I could do it as a profession. Just growing up, my thing was just singing in choirs, and I was in a theater group. As far as being a professional, that happened in 1990. That's when I did my first 12-inch. I was doing dance music at the time.
Q: Was it a eureka moment or more of a slow realization that you could make a go of it?
APS: It was a slow realization. [Laughs.] I couldn't see this far ahead. I wasn't really prepared for what we're doing now. Back then, I just wanted to sing and do these different clubs. It was just a totally different atmosphere. As I got more and more into music and met more people, your kind of thinking changes, and you start looking at it like, " I can really do this." I've always wanted to sing, so it wasn't a hard decision, to be honest.
Q: How has the reality met up to your expectations?
APS: Especially in the genre of music we sing and perform in, it's been really more than what I could have imagined it to be with people embracing us. It's been really a fun ride so far. It really is something I embrace and that this band embraces. So far, so good
Q: You started singing in your church choir at age 4. Do you remember feeling immediately at home on stage or did it take time to feel comfortable in front of people?
APS: Well you know, even to this day, people may not believe this but I get very, very nervous before a show or stepping on stage. It's a feeling you get in your stomach. It's a healthy nervous. Once I get on stage I feel like it's where I belong, that I was made for this, and I adjust as I go along. It's a great feeling, but I do get nervous before each and every performance.
Q: How do you deal with that feeling?
APS: I meditate and pray. Me and [back up vocalist] Vickie will hold hands and pray. We'll ask for a calm situation and calm spirit. Of course, when I get out there, I'm nervous, but once I get through the first song, I'm all in.
Q: When did you branch out to performing on your own?
APS: In 1990, I had a dance record out, and that's when my first 12-inch came out and my first experience dealing with the music industry. It was an underground dance hit. I love house music - that's one of my first loves - but I had to go to the next level because I knew that there's a message that could be told, and I need to be able to tell that message any way I can tell it in a musical fashion.
I didn't want to be pigeon holed to one genre. To reach the masses, you have to really experience and experiment with things to bring the people into your world. That's what we do now. We do so many types of music, and that's what makes us a little different than the rest.
Q: So what attracted you to blues music?
APS: We were doing a recording, and I believe Jimmy Bennett did the intro. This particular song was called "You Don't Know," and the intro to the song was a cappella blues. After we did the song, Vickie and them was like, "We can reach so many people. Let's try this." We got some people together and we started doing it. We've been doing it ever since.
Q: What do you love most about the blues?
APS: I think what I love most about the blues is the history and the people who are still singing it at the age of 90 and 80. That says a lot. It's storytelling. If you could put it in books, you'd have - [laughs] - a massive amount of knowledge that comes from people who have come from way back about pain and good times as well. People often associate the blues with pain and sadness, but there's some happy blues out there as well. The blues is just a state of mind. It can cover a whole lot. It's storytelling, and people love storytelling.
Q: So are you as much a storyteller as a songwriter?
APS: Oh, absolutely, because when I write, it's about my life, about real experiences in my life or the life of someone I know. It's just being real with people. When you do that, they can feel it and have a connection with you. I can't sing about being rich and having a mansion and yacht because I'm not rich with a mansion and a yacht. I know more people can relate to my situation and my band's situation than having a yacht and a mansion.
Times are tough, and when you're real with people, they connect with you and your message and they'll never forget you because you're just like them. When someone can connect with you - when I sing the blues to you - you may not be in a car traveling from place to place to sing, but I'm singing about stories you can relate to.
Q: Are the blues more relevant now, given the recession and so many people being hard up?
APS: If you sing it from your heart, you can sing about toast and coffee and make someone cry. It doesn't matter if we're in a recession. If you're true about what you're doing, if you do it from your heart, they can feel that.
Q: Who were you listening to, growing up?
APS: Growing up, the people I was listening to were like Barry White. He was my No. 1. I love Barry White. Most of the singers I could relate to were male singers because my voice was something that could match their voice. I wasn't listening too much to the women singers, but when I did, I loved people like Irma Thomas and Aretha Franklin.
I just listen to different things. I used to listen to this group called Two Tons of Fun and one of the singers was a bass. I loved her because she could carry her vocals. I held onto that for a long time.
Q: You first met Levon Helm back in 2005. You frequently performed at the Midnight Ramble Sessions and appeared on stage with him. How has his recent passing affected you?
APS: Wow. It affected the whole band deeply. Of course, Levon was our band mentor. He gave us many opportunities to open up for him and to be there. He taught us a lot of things about the business.
His passing was very hard for us, but we're happy for him because he doesn't have to suffer anymore. He doesn't have to be of this world and in pain. It's hard, but you have to look at the blessing in it and what he left behind for everyone in this world to remember. That's powerful.
We're going to miss him, but we're not ever going to forget. That's the main thing, we have to keep this legacy going, and we're going to do that.
Q: You also seem to have a friendship with B.B. King. How did you meet him?
APS: We met B.B. King at B.B. King's. We opened up for him like three times. The first time we opened up for him - every time we've opened for him has been a great experience - but the first time he heard me sing and us play, he loved it.
We have a relationship as far as playing, and I respect him like a grandfather. He's really a very nice cat. He's very cool. Meeting him was like meeting blues royalty. I'm just thankful that, in this lifetime, I was able to open up for him and meet him and speak to him and be friends with him.
Q: The blues and gospel, even more than most other styles, are emotionally driven genres. You sing almost like you're praying to the audience or trying to woo them. What do you put in your music, emotionally speaking?
APS: When people see me sing and they see that emotion and see this beautiful energy that comes over the band, it's like we are giving to you the energy and the love that we have. When you sing gospel music, most gospel I know of is uplifting and joyful, and that's how you feel spiritually - joyful. That's what people see.
Q: Does it feel at all like praying or holding a musical sermon when you sing?
APS: Yeah, it feels like it - like a musical meditation, a musical prayer.
Q: Your particular style seems pretty draining, given how energetically you throw yourself behind your vocals. How do you feel at the end of the night?
APS: Drained. [Laughs.] Yeah, because I leave it all there. It's like, you know, going to a therapy session. You say it and leave it all there. Sometimes you feel a little drained from it because you've been carrying it and holding it, and then you let it go. Then, you need time to rest.
Q: So once you give everything away, what do you walk away with? Are you just empty?
APS: You can't keep it unless you give it away. How can you keep all that for yourself? I've got so much of it, and I have to replenish myself after each time. I have plenty. [To replenish it] I just rest and meditate and eat right and be around the people I'm around and keep a positive attitude. I am human, and I have my moments, but for the most part, I'm on the bus.
Q: You had a really busy festival season last year. How is 2012 shaping up?
APS: Yeah, it's just as busy, and it's still coming in, gigs are still coming in. It's not over. I'm just as busy as last year, if not more. We're keeping a steady stride and being thankful for each and every situation we encounter.
Sometimes, it's hard to keep my energy up on the road because I get tired. [Laughs.] But my drummer, you know, he's really the hardest working dude, and he makes sure that bags are in the hotel and that I'm taken care of. He does everything, and on top of that, he takes care of his situation with the drums and everything.
I'm thankful for him because he helps me get through and replenish myself. I wouldn't be able to do it without him.
Q: Tell me about "Two Sides." What were your hopes going into working on that album last year?
APS: Well, "Two Sides" was basically to let people know that there are two sides to this band. There's really more than two sides to this band, and we wanted to show that musically, that our mixture of music, our different styles of music, can reach the masses. That's the truth. What we do is the truth. We mix it up and it's like soup; we have a little bit of something for everybody. That's basically the deal.
Q: Are you playing material mostly from "Two Sides" lately or are you pulling for other albums as well?
APS: We play music from "Two Sides" and from everything. We pull from every direction to give people variety. Most of the songs we're doing now are from "Two Sides." We usually do a couple of Levon covers, but you know, we're going to decide which ones we'll do when we're at the show.