photo by David McClister
Memphis-based Southern Avenue Band is perfectly unique: with Israeli born Ori Naftaly on guitar, African American sisters Tierinii (lead vocals) and Tikyra (TK) Jackson (drums) who were born and raised in Memphis singing in church, and Memphis keyboardist Jeremy Powell. Americana Highways had a chance to interview both Ori Naftaly and Tierinii Jackson in the days before the album, Keep On releases on Stax/Concord Records.
Americana Highways: Your new album is called “Keep On,” named after the lead track. What is that song inspired by, with its lines: “you ain’t gonna win til you’ve got it all to lose“?
ON: The lyrics explain our own experiences in the last few years perfectly: of being away from home, touring around the world, not being with our families, and the consequences for this. Tierinii had this concept and she wrote the lyrics. The mood is: “we gotta keep on, gotta push through, and everything will be okay.”
AH: What’s your songwriting process as a band?
ON: It depends. Sometimes it can be a piece of music that inspires us, sometimes it’s a concept, sometimes it’s somebody’s personal story or experience, and sometimes it can be just a little hook or phrase that stays with us for awhile, in our heads, until we make it into something. When you try to write a lot of songs you need different ways to approach it so that it’s fresh every time. So we try a lot of ways.
TJ: It’s a very collaborative process. I write most of the lyrics and Ori writes the music. Sometimes I have musical ideas that Ori helps me bring to life. Or TK will bring me a song and I will help her with lyrics. Sometimes TK will also, like Ori, help me with my musical ideas. Our songs are our babies and like the saying goes, “It takes a village.”
AH: You really seem to write together!
ON: We work together. Even when I write lyrics, because I am a non-native English speaker, the lyrics need to be rewritten. I might write something that I think sounds good, but it might turn out not to sound authentic. And Tierinii needs to relate to it in the way she needs to sing it. So she might rework it, but she keeps the context intact.
AH: “Whiskey Love” is another notable song, it’s about abuse, and yet it has the most catchy, groovy music to it.
ON: That song just happened that way. Those lyrics came straight from the heart from Tierinii who has had experiences and people she’s known who have struggled like that, and the music was a combination of all of us together.
AH: Sometimes you need to dance to release something painful too.
ON: That’s right, the lyrics are encouraging and uplifting. You are halfway to solving your problem when you admit it. The woman in the song gets it, she knows where she is, and is going to stop it now. Tierinii’s songs always have characters with strong voices in them and strong personalities behind them. She writes with so much confidence. That is an important song for us.
AH: “We are Not So Different” is another one with observations like “we see brutality right outside our door.”
TJ: The amount of gun violence and lack of justice in this country is extremely disheartening. Criminals commit crimes because they have no value or compassion for human life. I wanted to write a song that would encourage the people who ignore these issues of violence to evaluate themselves. Some people turn a deaf ear because they have the privilege of not being affected by these issues. They choose not to deal with them. There is no gray area in terms of compassion for the lives lost to senseless crimes. We have to care about the things in the world that we know we can change. “We Are Not So Different” just says that we should all be on the same side fighting for our peace instead of fighting each other’s efforts for safety
ON: The lyrics are so literal, Tierinii doesn’t use a lot of metaphors, she just says it straight out.
Our band is a unique band of minority people; I am Jewish, I’m Israeli, there are 14 million of me around the world, and from a lot of angles I am always ready to debate and talk about politics and events. And I have traveled all over the world, and now we have traveled all over the world as a band, Tierinii and Tikyra and Jeremy have too.
That song was originally written with a reggae guitar and then we changed it. We wanted it to have the reggae beat and the energy to help deliver the message of the lyrics even more. It has a vibe that you can feel it to be reggae, or worldly, or islandly.
AH: How did you come together as a band?
ON: I was touring Europe and I found out about a competition on Beale Street in Memphis to represent Israel, so I signed up and came to Memphis and made contacts and toured here for a couple years on an artist VISA. And I really wanted to change things up and not be a solo artist, so I asked my musician friends here in Memphis who is the best singer in Memphis, and my friend said “Tierinii Jackson” and I saw a video of her, and in that moment I saw my entire future. Nobody in jazz or blues, is doing what we do; our original music is what drew us together. We started to work together and she brought in her sister Tikyra.
Life is too short to go through on your own as a solo artist, and when you have a team it’s better.
So that’s how Southern Avenue Band came about, and we have been playing with Jeremy Powell all along, I had met him on Beale Street the first day I arrived. I had been playing with him for four years. Without being committed to one another, just when we had the availability. But when we signed with Stax, we wanted him to be part of it too.
TJ: It was meant to be. Life brought us together at a low time that we all needed each other. Ori hired me for his solo project as a singer/songwriter. I brought my sister along. Through that writing process we bonded and became other’s support system through music. And we’ve been like a family ever since.
AH: How was it recording at Sam Phillips’ studio?
ON: It was an experience we learned a lot from. It is a place where some of the greatest hits in American music have come from. It’s like if you like to cook and you got to cook in a chef’s museum. Everywhere you go you are surrounded with historical reminders of what’s been done. And the microphones and the equipment are all full of history. It was an experience we will never forget.
Once you start actually recording, you can set aside your sense of awe, and focus and get the job done. Well, I admit I stayed kind of a fanboy during the whole process, but for the girls, they are from Memphis, this is all Memphis for them. And Jeremy has recorded in studios that are older and worked in places that are famous. For them it was cool. But for me it was more of an intense awed feeling of “wow, what am I doing here?”
AH: What is the building like?
ON: It has a really cool room that is locked all the time that has a lot of Stax’s old gear in the vaults. It’s a very cool spot.
AH: How was it working with Johnny Black producing?
ON: Again we learned a lot, and we are very proud of the result.
AH: What is the overall message of this album?
ON: This album is our testimony lyrically for our journey. It was written on the road, and in the van, and in hotels, it was written in circumstances where you’re not supposed to write but we had to to try to get the job done, and “Too Good For You” and “We’re Not So Different” and “We’re Gonna Make It” and “Keep On” those are all the stories of our journey. The album is the honesty that we always have. We talk about life and our experiences and it’s our way to let our emotions go. It’s a very personal album. Tierinii wrote most of the lyrics but she wrote them with all of our concepts and stories of the band. That’s what I really like about it.
Find out more about the album and Southern Avenue’s tour schedule, right here: https://www.southernavenuemusic.com/ For an earlier show review of Southern Avenue Band, see here: Show Review: Sarah Shook and the Southern Avenue Band Rocked the DC Wharf Zone Last Thursday