Play It Forward: Georgia Anne Muldrow On Building Worlds Through Music

May 7, 2020
Originally published on May 7, 2020 8:21 pm

In the last episode of Play It Forward, Robin Dann, the lead singer of Toronto jazz-pop outfit Bernice, sang the praises of R&B experimentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow. Sometime between 2005 and 2006, Dann saw her perform at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto for a crowd of around 30. That number didn't matter; buoyed by her commanding voice and free spirit, Muldrow delivered an unforgettable set that left Dann mesmerized. Calling in from her Las Vegas home amid quarantine, Muldrow continues the chain of gratitude on Play It Forward this week. Turns out, she remembers that show vividly. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On her show Toronto show that Robin Dann attended

I remember that show. It's so good to know somebody took something away from that show. I think now I have some type of wire frame to experiment with, but at that time I was very unbridled, so I'm glad someone could see it.

One thing I remember about that show was the quality of people who were there. I kind of focus on that. Sometimes you can play in a packed house and you don't need but two people, because you're backstage. But we were out and about, mingling and mixing.

On enduring reality amidst a pandemic

It's like a wrestling match right now. I have to literally go about my life as a pro wrestler right now. The pandemic is the sparkling glazed cherry on top of the whole deal, you know. But we're talking about the systemic issues that really, really are glaring now because of the pandemic. Those systemic issues affect a person like me on a daily basis: as a black woman, as an artist, as an American artist.

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On the world she's trying to create in her music

A bulletproof world. A bulletproof world that you can walk straight into; something that keeps away the stuff that doesn't need to stay. But the stuff that's real can come right in, you know? So I don't wanna make it with Plexiglass, but maybe some type of membrane of sound. Something that's permeable that you can walk through, but it just doesn't service no kind of inner violence. [There's a song that does this] on my VWETO II album; there's one called "Big Mama Africa Jam," and that was my experiment with if I could make Tibetan bells funky.

On the power of alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin's playing and what she would say to her

I hear an angel running through her natural habitat — that's what I hear. [Lakecia] be sangin'... If you're really playing, you sangin' on your instrument.

Lakecia Benjamin, I wanna thank you for your courageous attitude, for not giving up, and rising above and into all that you must be to find your peace. And I just wanted to say, just keep on blooming and growing into your angel self 'cause you're wonderful. And this whole world gonna know exactly what it is with you and this music.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for Play It Forward, our musical chain of gratitude where we talk to artists about the music they make and the musicians they're thankful for. Last time we spoke with Robin Dann. She is the lead singer of a genre-bending band called Bernice. They're from Toronto, and they make music using found objects and jazz theory. Robin told me she's grateful for the work of R&B singer Georgia Ann Muldrow. I asked Robin to tell me about Georgia's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBIN DANN: The first time I heard her voice, I just felt my whole body responding - you know, my whole spirit and imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

GEORGIA ANN MULDROW: (Singing) When I'm down, I just draw some roses...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANN: I saw her perform at the Gladstone Hotel, I want to say, in, like - God, I don't know - 2005 or '06.

SHAPIRO: OK.

DANN: There were probably only 30 people there.

SHAPIRO: Wow. What can you tell us about that night?

DANN: Just pure joy, basically. I was just, like, in heaven standing right in front of the stage.

SHAPIRO: What would you like to say to Georgia Ann Muldrow?

DANN: Hi, Georgia. This is Robin speaking. I want to thank you for inspiring me with your freedom as a singer and as a musician and just thank you for putting the beautiful energy into the world that you are constantly putting out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

MULDROW: (Singing) Please don't worry. We're forgiven.

SHAPIRO: And Georgia Ann Muldrow joins us now from her home in Las Vegas. Welcome to Play It Forward.

MULDROW: Oh, it's an honor to be here. And thank you, Robin.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I would love to just first get your reaction to what we just heard from Robin Dann.

MULDROW: Well, you know, I remember that show. That show was really - it was really - that - it's so good to know somebody took something away from that show because it was kind of, like...

SHAPIRO: Every musician has had the experience of playing a big hall with a small number of people in it and feeling maybe a little deflated by that. So how does it feel to know that that night with just 30 people there left...

MULDROW: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Such a mark all these years later on one of the few people who showed up?

MULDROW: You know what? I think one thing I remember about that show was the quality of people who were there. I kind of focused on that. Like, sometimes you can play in a packed house, and you don't meet but two people. But this was, like - we was out and about, mingling and mixing.

SHAPIRO: It's incredible that you remember anything more than 10 years later of some show in Toronto with 30 people in the crowd.

MULDROW: Because Toronto's rich, man. I don't think I've been able to play there much. But if I ever see Robin again - you know, if she ever sees me again, I want her to introduce herself so I can, you know, shake hands. And, like, the timing of hearing that - you don't know how much it means to hear somebody say that right now. I could really use that.

SHAPIRO: Why do you especially need that right now?

MULDROW: Because it's like a wrestling match right now. Like, I have to literally go about my life as a pro wrestler right now.

SHAPIRO: You mean because of the pandemic?

MULDROW: I mean, the pandemic is, like - it's a sparkling, glazed cherry on top of the whole deal, you know? But we talking about the systemic issues that really, really are glaring now because of the pandemic. Those systemic issues, you know, affect a person like me on a daily basis.

SHAPIRO: You mean as a black person?

MULDROW: As a black woman, yeah, absolutely - as an artist, as an American artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA ANN MULDROW'S "DAS FUNK")

SHAPIRO: There was something you said in an interview with The Vinyl Factory, which is that when you write, you're trying to affirm and create my reality in music.

MULDROW: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What kind of reality are you trying to create right now? I mean, what kind of world are you trying to build in this moment?

MULDROW: A bulletproof world that you can walk straight into, you know? Like, something that keeps away, you know, the stuff that doesn't need to stay - but the stuff that's real can come right in, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MULDROW: So I don't want to make it with plexiglass but maybe some type of membrane - right?...

SHAPIRO: Permeable.

MULDROW: ...Of sound. Yeah, something that's permeable, that you can walk through it. But it just doesn't service no kind of inner violence.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track of yours where you think that world begins to take shape?

MULDROW: There's one called "Big Mama Africa Jam," and that was my experiment with, like, if I could make Tibetan bells funky.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA ANN MULDROW'S "BIG MAMA AFRICA JAM")

SHAPIRO: This is the sound of a world that is bulletproof and also permeable.

MULDROW: And it's full of life. It's full - it's filled with life, you know? When I think of, like, sound design, I try to think of, like, all the insects going about their busywork. They have to have insects in that world. It has to be a tone. I try to make a whole world, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA ANN MULDROW'S "BIG MAMA AFRICA JAM")

SHAPIRO: Well, Georgia Ann Muldrow, it's now your turn to introduce us to someone whose music you are grateful for. Who do you want to tell us about?

MULDROW: I want to tell you guys about the best alto saxophonist in my world, and her name is Lakecia Benjamin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN'S "TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA")

SHAPIRO: What track of hers should we play to give people a sense for her music?

MULDROW: Definitely the "Turiya And Ramakrishna" song.

SHAPIRO: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN'S "TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA")

SHAPIRO: What do you hear when you listen to this?

MULDROW: I hear an angel running through her natural habitat. That's what I hear.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MULDROW: I do.

SHAPIRO: That's beautiful. She's a saxophonist, and you're primarily known for your voice. Do you think there's a difference between channeling that spirit through an instrument that is internal versus something external that you hold in your hands, like a horn?

MULDROW: Lakecia be singing. Like, she sing. Like, she - when she play, I be saying, you better sing, like to somebody who's singing. Like, she - that's what - that's how - I mean, I tell everybody, if you really playing, you singing on your instrument, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN'S "TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA")

SHAPIRO: We're going to go to Lakecia Benjamin next. What would you like to say to her?

MULDROW: Lakecia Benjamin, I want to thank you for your courageous attitude, for not giving up and rising above and into all that you must be to find your peace. And I just wanted to say just keep on blooming and growing into your angel self because you're wonderful, and this whole world going to know exactly what it is with you and this music.

SHAPIRO: Georgia Ann Muldrow, thank you so much.

MULDROW: Thank you so much for having me be a part of it. And thank you, Robin from Bernice. I'm going to check out all your stuff. I appreciate you lifting my spirits on a day like this. You have no clue how much it mean to me.

SHAPIRO: And we'll talk with Lakecia Benjamin on the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKECIA BENJAMIN'S "TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.