Sandra St.Victor Embraces Winds Of Change (Interview)
“I’m very much into this wide expression of creativity”
Sandra St.Victor’s Mack Diva Saves The World is a womanist missile of pure soul that helped her transition from being The Family Stand’s front woman into a critically acclaimed solo voice in R&B. The Netherlands by way of Dallas, Texas based singer had spent years with the funk rock band making edgy jams that climaxed with the commercial notice of “Ghetto Heaven.” Mack Diva’s sultry sensuality was devoid of broken-hearted self-pity and Victor never apologized for being a complex but comprehensible woman. And just as soon as Mack Diva was released into the public it almost instantly became an underground classic because the record company infrastructure decamped. Victor returned in 2002 with the independently released Gemini and most recently with Mark de Clive Lowe for their 2010 collaboration At My Spheres. Some soul devotees call her the best back-up singer ever for Chaka Khan and Prince and Tina Turner have utilized her songwriting. This year she has re-connected with Mark de Clive Lowe for Oya’s Daughter, which is a collection of songs, inspired by life’s changes and sonically guided by Lowe’s avant-garde soul. Vibrant and aware, Victor has concerns about the state of the world as always but she is excited to offer her new collection aided by the transforming turbulence of the Yoruban orisha Oya.
Why Oya’s Daughter?
I was going to call it Spirit Talk. I’ve been listening to myself for several years now to see who I am at this time in this whole thing, music business, and who I really am as an artist and a woman. Right when I was about to complete the album I just decided to start googling spirit talk for some quotations and stuff came up and it was so vague. You know like there are gym classes called spirit talk. I needed to more clearly define what spirit it is that is speaking mostly through this music, and I defined that as Oya. Then it really came full circle for me. Just where I’m from and the way I live my life, that orisha is very representative of my beliefs and my belief system. Even as a child how I felt. I don’t claim to call myself Oya, so Oya’s Daughter, as I think so many of us are, one of the children of that energy. I thought that was a perfect title to give the full description of what I’m really trying to say here. Oya is the owner of the winds, she’s the change-bringer, and what I’m talking about on this record is change and freedom and movement, forward motion, children, protection of our kids. When that hit me I knew that was it, I just knew that was it, that’s what I needed to title the album.
I know that “Stuff Momma Used To Say” is about your mother’s passing which is a major change in life but it also has a jazzy feel and that’s a change from your past sound.
Mark de Clive Lowe is so super super talented and it has these African elements and it’s even more jazzy now because he added this incredible introduction. I asked him to put an introduction that would bring me into the track. It’s this incredible piano introduction to the song. He mixes this African tribal foundation and jazz chords and I just thought, yeah.
I know you and Mark de Clive Lowe worked previously on At My Spheres, did you feel like he had the language to exclusively produce Oya’s Daughter?
Absolutely. I’m very much into this wide expression of creativity. He’s not locked into “This is what something should sound like” he’s just not locked into that. We don’t have chorus bridge chorus bridge chorus out. Most of the songs are just not in that form. They’re very natural, very organic flow and feel and I’m totally drawn to that.
Did your mom really serve black-eyed peas in china bowls?
Yes she did. My momma was a trip she wanted to be pretentious and the whole thing. Where’s she’s from you can’t do that!
Do you have a favorite song from Oya’s Daughter?
That would be it, “Stuff Momma Used To Say” I wrote that because my mom met my 10-year old she was just turning one, and she did not meet my eight-year old because she died when she was four-months old. I’m living in Amsterdam, so I wasn’t back here enough before she passed. It really hit me that I would like them to have some more of that side in their life because they’re living there in the Netherlands. All of my people are here. I sat down and wrote down word for word stuff my momma used to say and I put it in a song. I tried to sing her energy and I imitated her voice. The speaking part, that’s my mom. So this is for my girls. Those are my kids’ names Maanami, Irisa and Naima.
I noticed that “I Prefer” is different, it’s like you are preaching.
Yes it is something like the corner preacher but standing in the sky. It really is that sort of encompassing the ideas of protecting the children and going through difficult things to get through that to the better side. This song speaks to what I see right in front of all of us. The prison industrial complex, our denial of environmental issues is criminal. Personally I would love to put on some rose colored glasses and see things in another way but that’s not my nature. I see them as they are but I can also see clearly where they are on another plane, and I just want us all to get there.
Were there any specific current events that inspired you?
Yes, The prison industrial complex thing has obviously been an issue for several years but I have a very close dear friend of mine whose son got caught-up in a wrong place wrong time kind of thing and he was just stuck in prison five years without a trial. It was unbelievable. That was part of my daily meditation to change the situation. He finally got bail, the trial was just starting six years later and that bugged me. And also I’ve lived in the Netherlands now for 10 years and what I’ve seen from my vantage point is a lack of focus of our people here. We seem really to be veering away from true north. We’re focusing so much on material things and so much on self preservation, individual acceleration. And the fact that so many intelligent people are into these reality shows that are so unbelievably dumb I just shake my head. That’s just one example that bugs me.
So you’re seeing Americana differently from the vantage point of Europe.
Absolutely. I am an American of course so I’m speaking to us but of course the whole idea of universality is not an American concept. I have always said that America in the scheme of history and the world, Americans we’re the adolescents. Europe has been around for hundreds of years the crap we’re going through they went through this already. We’re at another level of difficulty, we’re at the adolescent level.
What’s Black life like in the Netherlands?
It’s different. Because we don’t have the same background and upbringing we don’t share the same historical content. There is the former Dutch colony, Suriname, a lot them have grown up in the Netherlands, basically Dutch people.Then there are the immigrants that come from all over. It’s different, I live in Arnhem. There are not that many people of color in my world there. I so very much miss that, it’s just not the same. You don’t realize what you miss until you don’t have it. And the importance of little things becomes quite evident. To reference a Richard Pryor joke and everyone in the room knows what you are talking about. Not having that can be very annoying sometimes.
What has your musical life been like in the Netherlands?
My guitar player who is from over here moved over there which was perfect because at least I have some of that home vibe with me on stage. I’ve done some incredible projects there. I did a touring outfit called Daughters Of Soul and we toured all over Europe. Then I did Amsterdam Celebrates in 2011 and it was a Bill Withers concert. I brought Bill over and his daughter. We had the stars of Holland singing all his songs to him. When I’m in the Netherlands I don’t do a lot of my own shows but I go to Italy and Spain and France and that sort of thing. And I’ve been taking my guitar player and doing this acoustic thing with him which is really beautiful. It’s an intimate way to hear yourself better. So I’ve been doing that but at this moment I’m really looking forward to doing these songs live. We just did the songs from Oya’s Daughter in New York a couple of weeks ago, debuted those songs they come off so seriously dope live.
Are you going to tour the album?
Shanachie is putting together something right now and I feel so strongly about being in the right place for this album. Shanachie is in it for the long haul and that’s important because this is not an average R&B record.
Well you don’t make average R&B records which brings me back to Mack Diva Saves The World. There are not a lot of female R&B singers with that kind of sensual self-possession because I feel like a lot of the music is the women crying about the man who left them.
I think unfortunately a lot of us are dictated by what we believe people want to hear. I don’t blame anybody for making sure they have a hit, and also I understand that for some folks, this is really what they like. I get that too. That’s what they dig and people want to come to the show and hear you sing that kind of thing. But I have to be true to who I am. We live in a society that is still very sexist. Matter of fact, sexism and racism seem to be growing. Or at least people feel more comfortable expressing it openly. Something else I’ve noticed from my vantage point. I’ve always been very aware of my womanness and I want us to claim that. Womaness is the force, that’s the core and the fact that in so much R&B music we haven’t been able to make that an economic success for anyone yet. Tina can do it in rock and roll but where are the sistahs in soul music. Why we gotta be singing about my baby done left me all the time. You know when I sing about it I’m like ‘You know what? You’re going to get it together or I’m out” that’s how I come at it.
What is the story behind “Since You’ve Been Gone?” and what was going in your life at that time because that album is like a glowing orb?
When I look back at Mack Diva it was definitely a culmination of things in my life. Probably the main thing was it was the end of Family Stand. I love The Family Stand, if you were to ask me my favorite group I would say Family Stand. Being surrounded by these two mountainous men I always felt safe and protected. And I allowed that feeling to sort of lessen my shine because I wanted to be in the group. So I stepped back just a little bit to make sure everybody got equal shine and that was difficult because you know people always want to talk to the lead singer. But when Mack Diva came about I felt like letting my hair down and I showed my spiritual ass. The people I worked with were all on point in bringing everything together. The Warner Brothers Black music department was going strong and I was able to put that record down the way it was supposed to happen. Unfortunately that whole department got tossed right after my record came out so it didn’t get the recognition at all. But I’m very very pleased and satisfied that I made the record. “Since You Been Gone” is one of those songs I wasn’t sitting in a corner crying and trembling. You know I left this dude for another guy. I thought “OK this guy is safer” so that’s the last time I made that kind of mistake. And the safer guy turned out not to be safer at all, totally the wrong guy. That’s why I don’t mess around like that anymore. And that song was sincerely about him and he knew it. I spoke to him years later and he was like “I knew that song was about me.”
Do people run up to you and rave about Mack Diva?
Yes. A lot. They tell me that some of the songs are some of their favorite songs of all time. “Since You’ve Been Gone” is one of them. Sometimes I like to tell stories about people I know and that (“Knocked Up And Locked Down”) was one of those issues. I’ve never been “Knocked Up And Locked Down”. I usually write from my own personal vantage point but that one was definitely a story, and the story came through me. The other song that people love on that record which is my favorite is “Don’t Bring Me Down.” That’s my theme song right there.
What’s going on with The Family Stand?
We’re all still friends. Peter’s out in Cali working on screenplays and Jeffrey’s in New York playing around with everybody and they mama. I’m in the Netherlands. So we’re spread out all over the planet and doing our thing. We got together in 2007 and started doing some shows and put a record out. We had that moment and not going to try to recapture that but three is the magic number. The three of us in a room creating in the right places are unparalleled. I don’t think we’re going to be doing stuff together again soon, but you know I’m always open to it.
You’re one of the few R&B singers that can and has sang rock.
Yes, sometimes I put stuff in the show and people go crazy. A Family Stand song, “Sweet Liberation”, I’ll do “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix because that’s absolutely a part of me as well. My foundation is certainly soul, then I’m equal parts, believe it or not, of rock and classical music.
What was it like working with Curtis Mayfield?
I look at that experience as the crowning jewel of my history to date. Just being able to connect with him on a musical level and a caring person level in times when I needed somebody to lift me up. There’s this man laying on his back giving me encouraging words. I miss him and I miss that kind of thing between artists. Because everybody’s now, it’s always been competitive, but now it’s competitive to the point of ‘I got mine, you get yours’. I don’t know. It’s different. Maybe I’m old school.
Maybe it’s hyper-capitalism.
The decade that I was away over the pond I saw that hyper-capitalism explode. I’ve seen it swallow up beautiful people. I’ve seen souls diminished and that saddens me but I’m ever the optimist. I believe it’s all cyclical and it’ll come around and it will continue to evolve. The next thing will be different, it will be better.
What do you remember most about Sekou Sundiata?
His voice of course when I did those sessions with Sekou I’m in the studio with Sekou and Mark Batson. Mark Batson produced “Knocked Up and Locked Down” and he produced that last Sekou album. But Mark’s voice is very similar to Sekou’s. These booming brotha voices in the studio vibin’, throwing ideas back and forth. We’re just talking we’re in the studio figuring out what we’re going to do it’s a very organic process. And when I get in the booth and I got the headphones on and Sekou’s voice in my ear was a spiritual experience. You know so they put me in there and said sing. I had the inspiration and life in my ears to pull from his lyrics. He could tell it, he would reach to the core of a situation or idea and he would bring it out in ways you never thought of it before. And he could say things I guess that would be offensive to somebody, but it just can’t be offensive coming from where he’s coming from. You knew exactly where his heart was. That experience of having to answer him with melody and tone was beautiful.
Are there any contemporary artists you listen to?
I do listen to a lot of old school stuff. I also listen to different styles of music. I listen to Ella Fitzgerald, there’s this Somalian her name is Maryam Mursal, she has this album called The Journey and when I put that on, I get lifted. So I put on Maryam Mursal, Kim Burrell that kind of thing. LOVE Janelle Monaé. I just like for people to sing from the spirit and take you there, not necessarily with vocal acrobatics. I just need the spirit to be pure. I love Adele’s voice you know, I think it’s very warm and tender. There’s this girl Kimberly Nichole in New York I like her voice a lot I like her energy, I like her live energy a lot. She’s got a wide musical library inside her. Mixing up the rock, the old school, the new rock, soul, I did that a lot. There’s so much music in and around us and I listen to everything of course. If I’m digging something, I am one that will purchase stuff that I dig. I’m not about free downloading.