Interview: Sandra St. Victor
by Couch Sessions
There are not a lot of lovers of music in the industry anymore, there’s just a lot of people trying to be in the music business…
What makes a legend most? For some, it’s all about how far you’ve risen to the top. But for Sandra St. Victor, it’s a different story. Her rise to musical prominence is indeed legendary, but , the road she took to get there is way off the beaten path, which allowed her to have lots of adventures along the way. I had the pleasure of picking her brain about her new set of multi-genre EPs, her extensive musical family, astrology, and the legacy of soul music.
Sandra St. Victor is performing tonight at Blues Alley in DC. Buy Tickets here.
Uncle Funkle: Let’s talk about the new EP, called At My Spheres, which is the first in a series of 5. Is that correct?
Yep, at the moment. It’s gonna keep growing, but I have 5 planned.
I wanna talk about the lyrics. I really like the wordplay on these songs.
Thank you, thank you. And thank you for noticing, actually.
You’re welcome. I’m one of those mature people that you refer to on “FMAO-ocity.”
Oh baby! That’s what I’m talking about! You got that one. See, people are always like, “what the hell are you talking about?” and I say, “okay, let me explain.”
Well, you know, I’m a little slow on the uptake, but…
…once I can sink into what the song is really about, then it’s cool. At first I was like, “what the fuck is she talking about?” Even before I heard the first note of “At My Spheres,” I was like, “what kind of stuff is she on?”
But the more I listened to it, the more I got it. It’s straight hotness.
(laughs) Thank you.
I was confused about it at first. I thought that “At My Spheres” was sort of a play on the word “atmosphere.”
It is, it is. That’s the first layer, yeah. When you hear it, you go “is she saying Atmospheres?” What is an atmosphere? It is an atmosphere, but I’m talkin’ about at my atmospheres. Just my cipher, my circle, my own thing, you know? Yeah, you right, you right.
That’s wussup. I read an interview you did with David Nathan for SoulMusic.com, and I thought that was an excellent interview. It was very comprehensive. One of the things that you pointed out was the very first line in “At My Spheres.” It goes: “You can’t see stars if you look below/Like the sun can’t see it’s own shadow.” Which philosopher did you say that was by?
That is by Da Vinci, and it’s funny because that’s such a cool point to bring up, that the sun can’t see it’s own shadow, you know what I mean?
It’s that clever wordplay that I was referring to. I really enjoy that because it’s missing in a lot of music today, I feel. And I listen to a lot of music.
It’s really good that you appreciate it still because unfortunately there are not a lot of lovers of music in the industry anymore, there’s just a lot of people trying to be in the music business, you know what I mean?
Yeah, they just like that lifestyle, the perception of that lifestyle and what comes along with it.
Right, exactly. It’s all the illusion and none of the substance. That is unfortunate.
Let’s get back to the At My Spheres EP. I wanted to talk about “FMAO-ocity” [which means “For Mature Audiences Only] and the fact that towards the end of the song, you bust out with “Auld Lang Syne!” Is there a particular reason why you chose that song to put in there?
Well yes and no. One, it just came sorta came organically when I was recording it. When I was writing it, I just started singing it and it fit. But when I started thinking about it, I thought it worked with the concept because “Auld Lang Syne” is talking about letting go of things that are out of your hands and let them be forgotten, you know what I mean. My whole point with this entire project, and especially with “FMAO-ocity,” is just letting go of the constraints of what you’re supposed to be and who you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to present yourself as an artist. Let go of all of that because at the end of the day, you gotta sleep with you at the end of the night. And that’s how I see my career, at the end of this journey, it’s just me I gotta look in the eye and my God and my creator, and I wanna be able to say to myself, “YEAH, well done!!!” (laughs) “Yeah girl!”
You can look at yourself and say “Yes, I am very proud of myself and my career.”
At this point in life and more than any other time, I’m so much there. And it’s not about dollars or anything. It’s never been about dollars for me…that’s probably why I’m not a rich woman but (laughs) it’s never been about that for me. It’s always been about the music. But more so now than ever I feel that I am truly grabbing the reigns and I ain’t lettin’ go for no reason or no obstacle. I’m really just gonna speak totally from the depths of my soul and from nowhere else, and if only myself and my daddy get it, so be it.
Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography? Because I’m sure you’ve got a whole lot of stories to tell.
Man, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached to do that for at least a decade now. I mean, eventually…yeah, yeah…(laughs). You know, the thing about biographies is they’re fun. Especially when you’ve been in the circles that I’ve been in. It’s fun to talk about all the things that happened and the things you experienced yourself along with other people. If you have to keep other people anonymous, then it’s sorta this cryptic and vague. I’m the type of person, I’m not gonna write some tell-all, “oh guess what we did? Guess what happened?” I don’t mind telling on myself, but if I tell on myself I gotta tell on other people (laughs). It’s not like bad stuff, you just go through a lot of stuff with a lot of people some good, some great, some bad, some fantastic. When you start talking about your life, there’s a whole lotta people that you come in contact with and I’m always very respectful of people’s privacy. I’m not really ready to do that yet. If anything, I would write a book about helping an artist become a background singer or what life on the road is like, to give a clearer view so that people can have a better understanding before they try to jump into the business.
Speaking of you being in this circle of people throughout your career; when you look back and see that your name is associated with, either through performing with or writing for, the likes of Chaka Khan, Prince, Tina Turner, The Temptations, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield. These are people that everyone knows as legends…
Do you ever think to yourself, “I am truly the shit” or “damn, I’m a bad bitch!”? (laughs)
(laughs) No, but I definitely like being called that (laughs).
You know, everybody can’t name that roster and say “I’ve been associated with all those people.”
When I start thinking about those things, it’s usually if I have to submit my credits to an interviewer, which to me is like “Aaarrrgh” because I would rather an interviewer come to me already having done his own homework. I gotta like, tell you everything I’ve done so you can have questions for an interview, you know? I feel sorta silly, so actually what I did was I made this video called Egomentary, where I just listed all the things I did in a sort of fun way and as I was making that video I was like “Wow!” Those things just make me feel blessed. I don’t really wanna say lucky, but whenever those moments come up with doubt or insecurity, if I can bring those moments back like, “You know what? Even if you have to stop and not do another thing right now, remember where you’ve been and realize the significance of that.” And that can make you stand a little firmer in those moments, so I recognize the immensity of the names that I can say that I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure and the pride to have worked beside and along and with, it’s amazing. It really is. When I think about it, I don’t think that I’m a bad bitch, I just think “Girrrrl, you better shut up and be happy (laughs).”
One of the people that I named, Curtis Mayfield, like you said that wasn’t luck. You were both label mates on Warner Records.
So you were referred to him. I’m bringing that up because you said that collaborating with him was the one of the pinnacles, if not the pinnacle, of your career. I wanted to acknowledge the song that you guys did, which is on the last album he made New World Order, and the song is called “I Believe In You.” I have to assume that it was an important part of your career, because you weren’t singing background for him or just the songwriter, but you were actually singing with him.
With Curtis Mayfield!!!
Somebody that you admired for years. I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like.
Surreal. Absolutely surreal. His warmth made it real.
There’s such a great chemistry on the song. There’s so much chemistry that it sounds like y’all kinda had something going on.
(laughs) You know what? To be honest with you, I was in love with Curtis, ever since I can remember, okay? Even as a little girl, looking at him on the cover with that yellow pimp suit on…(laughs)
…where he was laying down, I was like “ooh I like him Mama.” (laughs) So yeah, when I was singing with him, and he’s still got that same beauty and that same sweetness, and he was just…oh my God. When you meet him and you realize that all that sweetness that you hear is real, you know what I mean? It’s not like you step back and fall less in love with him, I was more in love with him. And the way he excepted me and how he treated me. He used call me his special rose.
He called me his lil’ perfect…perfect rose is what he called me. He would be there for me when I needed him. And that period, I definitely went through some, “oh, poor me” phases and this is crazy because here’s a man laying on his back not being able to move and I’m calling him to lift me up. But he would be there and he’d say “Call me anytime (in her best Curtis Mayfield voice). He would just make me feel so much better. A lot of the reason why I feel like I’m not gonna waste time doing anything that I don’t have the deepest and utmost respect for myself, I have to really present myself as an artist sincerely. If I do nothing else, I have to do that, and he was the one who really really really plugged that into my head more than anybody else that I worked with. He was beautiful. So yeah, when we sang that song, it was some real love in there, absolutely. Real, real love.
Do you think that the soul and R&B music of today is living up to its legacy?
I would say some of it, yeah. I’d be hesitant to, you know, name names (laughs). But I absolutely believe that there are some cats, some artists coming up that have something real in ‘em because it’s really about what the artists have. Sometimes even their first project may be something that their record company put together, but you can hear that the artists themselves have that thing and it’s just a matter of time before it develops into something substantial. Living up to a legend is hard, obviously. We’re all trying to make sure they’re smiling down on us.
The fact that the industry itself is changing so much, it’s really taking a turn for the we-don’t-know-where, but that’s gonna give artists the opportunity to feel more confident with what they feel as opposed to what they feel they’re expected to look or sound like. The fact is that…the industry, the record companies, or videos and big t.v. shows…if you’re looking towards that, if those are your goals as an artist, then you gotta really direct yourself in a certain way artistically. If that shit is all a shambles, which it is becoming rapidly right now, then the vapidness is gonna become less, because there’s no reason for it. Well shoot, if I’m not gonna get rich quick, then I may as well be me. So it’s really gonna shake out the realness from the clutter, and I do believe that. It may not happen this year, next year, maybe next decade, but it has no choice but to come back around. That’s just the cycle of life.
Let’s get back to some of your music. It seems like your connection to the universe has been an ever-present thing, ever since your early days with The Family Stand. Y’all had the hit song “Ghetto Heaven,” the third album was called Moon In Scorpio. Then you guys had an album called Super Sol Nova, then you had a solo album called Gemini: Both Sides. Then with your Sinner Child project, you’re singing songs like “At My Spheres” and “Cosmos.” So are you just a big ole’ hippie or are you really just deep into astrology like that?
(laughs) A little bit of both. I wouldn’t say hippie in the old sense, but maybe new age-y hippie if you wanna call it that. More than anything, the foundation is that, like Donny Hathaway said, I believe everything is everything. I’m very spiritual. With astrology, I’m not deep. I don’t look every morning to see what house Venus is in so I know not to look any men in the left eye or nothin’ like that. It’s not that deep. But I do acknowledge my Gemini-ness and my Leo Moon and my Aquarius rising and all of that stuff. I never call myself religious, because religion is about buildings and rules, man-made, set up to control and manipulate. So you know, that doesn’t sound very spiritual to me (laughs).
You better preach that! I’m about to join the Church of Sandra St. Victor…
…because that is really on point.
I’ve always felt like that even since I was a kid going to Baptist church 2 or 3 times a week. I remember I went in my pastor’s office one day and I said to him, “Dr. Clark? Here in the Bible it says blah blah blah but then on the front part of the Bible it says this, and that’s the opposite of this, so then how does that…?” He looked at me…he’s this well-respected pastor, world renowned, and he said to me, “Sandra, you can’t question God!” and I was like, “Oh really?” So you’re saying that the creator of all things is intimidated by my question??!?!! Gimme a break! You want us to be lambs? We have what we’re given…a mind, so that we could THINK! So it’s like, you’re telling me I’m not supposed to think? What am I supposed to do with all these thoughts?
We know that you’re big on thinking right?
I’m kinda big on thinking. I kinda like thinking. It’s one of my favorite things to do, frankly.
Thinking is fundamental right?
Thinking is fundamental, isn’t it? I mean, you breathe, you think. I try to think at least once a day, I really do. And if I skip a day, I’ll think twice on Tuesday.
I wanted to talk about the Daughters of Soul tour, which included Lalah. The concept of that was you, along with a few other seasoned artists performing alongside daughters of famous soul singers. Lalah Hathaway was a part of it, she’s Donny Hathaway’s daughter. There’s Chaka Khan’s daughter, Indira Khan. There’s Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, and Syl Johnson’s daughter, Syleena Johnson.
Right. Also Leah McRae who’s the daughter of George and Gwen McRae.
Did these daughters sound as though they had been influenced by their parents? Kinda like how Lalah sounds like the female version of her dad.
I think talent can absolutely be inherited with DNA and I think I’m a living witness and testament to that because I’m an adopted child. I was adopted at 6 months old. There was no music in my household. My parents couldn’t carry a tune in a basket. None, no music in my house, but here I am. What I found out as a grown woman was that my [natural] mother was a choir director, played piano, and taught music and sang and all of that stuff. And it’s like, ok, well obviously, it’s in you. Of course it can skip a generation, so I’m not saying that every person born to an icon is gonna pick that all up. But if you got it and if it’s in you and you recognize it and you work on your craft, then there it is. Now absolutely with Lalah, she couldn’t be anything else, you know? When you look at the cover of this new album, I love the way they did the split face with her and with Donny. One of the songs we did on her new record is called “Make It Truth” and I wanted it to sound like she was singing a duet with her dad. So I had her sing octaves, so she’s doing [starts singing in alternating octaves] “Under my skin/I feel you/Deep in your soul/I can’t let go,” so she’s just sort of answering herself and it’s really deep to hear because she sounds like Lalah and Donny, you know? (laughs)
Down to the vibrato.
Yeah, the vibrato, the tone, the timbre. And also, just her inflections. But you know she also has her own thing because her ear takes her into different places that even Donny hadn’t gotten to. She’s goes into a more jazzy tone. Her choice of placement of notes and adlibs and melodies is very interesting and totally sets her apart from anybody that you hear on the radio. And of course Indira as well. If you hear Indira, especially if you hear her live, man she sounds like lil’ Chaka! We call her Khan Teeny or Khan lite (laughs). You hear it, you hear mama up in there. Simone has absolutely taken some things from her mom. With her, it’s more about her presence and her energy and her seriousness and her depth as opposed to literally her voice or her style musically. My thing is, it’s not about finding people with the right last name. They gotta have the right thing going on inside of them, otherwise, I’m not trying to get over on somebody’s name. I don’t want us to throw a package together and say “look look look. Here’s the daughter of Aretha Franklin. She can’t sing, but she can tap dance though. Come on girl!” (laughs) These girls are the real deal, and it was such a fun tour.
Tell me more about the experience, having you, Nona Hendrix, Deniece Williams, and Joyce Kennedy from Mother’s Finest. You guys are the seasoned vets. How was it interacting with these, you know, they’re grown women but they’re still “the kids?”
It was an enormous amount of fun. Sometimes you might think you get 6 big personalities like that together that there’s gon’ be some friction and stuff. Man, we just had fun, we giggled. My God, between Lalah and Indira, they need to take their show on the road. They are comedians! They need to just go and do a comedy club tour. And Nona is cri-zazy! And Joyce is like my southern aunt. We had a blast…and you know I’m insane. I’m certifiable. Just all together, it was not be believed. So we wanna do it again. I’m working on trying to get us some more gigs in Europe next year because it was just too much fun.
Is it true that this tour never came to the U.S.?
Never been to the states, and it’s unfortunate. Outside of the U.S., other acts, other than huge huge names, get more respect, and therefore can command more salaries. We’re talking about 6 lead vocals on stage. It’s not a cheap show. Venues in America, they too cheap (laughs). They just too cheap. We all would do it for free, but it’s probably not good for our careers to be doing that too many times (laughs). We would need a sponsor in the States to pull that off. The funny thing is that I know that there is a major audience for that. I mean come on, The Essence Music Festival? That, with the Daughters of Soul? It’s a no-brainer to me. But since I’m not a programmer, I don’t have that DNA, I don’t understand how they think (laughs).
What can D.C. expect from you at Blues Alley?
Aww, it’s gonna be a trip. My daddy’s coming, so I’ve said I’m gonna have to tone my show down, but of course that’s a lie. I’m gonna have a blast and do what I do which is with this Sinner Child project, I’m going against the grain of expectations as usual. I’m mixing up all kinds of influences and genres and doing different vibes all on the same show. So if you come in expecting some Mack Diva….well, maybe. You’re gonna get some Mack Diva, some Gemini: Both Sides, some Family Stand, some Mark de Clive-Lowe, hell you might get some Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, so just be ready. We’re gonna go wherever the spirit leads, and for me right now it’s been a fantastic journey feeling that freedom offstage and just being able to do what I wanna do musically is an incredible feeling. You can’t really beat that. So I hoping that D.C. comes out and let’s enjoy the Chocolate City in style. I was there last year. I did an afternoon thing out in the Promenade next to the White House, but I haven’t done a club date in D.C. in over a decade. So, this is kinda heavy. I’m really excited about it.