ANNALEE HUBBS – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
Alicia Olatuja grew up singing in the church, listening to the jazz stylings of Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves and the like. She’s always loved gospel and R&B, but her sound now is a combination of all the musical experiences she’s been able to absorb as a woman in the industry.
At 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 7 in the Amphitheater, Olatuja will perform, for the first time at Chautauqua, songs from her newest album, Intuition — Songs from the Minds of Women.
“There are many ways in which you can show up and support the movement of female empowerment, and as a woman, just using your voice and being present is its own political statement,” Olatuja said.
Intuition is an album full of reimagined compositions, originally done by legendary female composers, as well as more obscure works, Olatuja said. During her performance Wednesday night, the audience will hear tunes they might recognize from composers like Joni Mitchell, Tracey Chapman and Linda Creed — but some will be less recognizable.
The album touches on powerful issues such as love, friendship, self-love and “rising up from the society that will cram beauty ideals down our throat at any given moment,” she said. But it will also touch on deeper issues, such as the loss of relationships and the #MeToo movement.
“It’s a huge rainbow of the female experience — it’s so complicated and nuanced that, obviously, just one album couldn’t possibly do it all, but I just didn’t want an album that was one note of what a woman’s experience is,” Olatuja said.
A St. Louis native, Olatuja got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri and her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. She didn’t choose to study music originally, though.
“I was too scared to say ‘I’m gonna do music,’ ” Olatuja said.
Many of her friends as a kid were great singers, but they sang so much that they all experienced degrees of vocal damage. Olatuja went to school for veterinary medicine instead, trying not to go down the same path.
The idea of seriously exploring her voice was always there, though. So, Olatuja eventually decided to give it a shot and train classically.
“I switched my major on a whim and as a self-bet,” she said. “I gave myself two years for anything positive to come about, and if it didn’t, then I would act like it never happened.”
Opportunities began to come her way, and she stuck with music through two degrees. She graduated in 2007, and in 2013 she performed with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Olatuja is a mezzo-soprano, and she said her classical training influences her singing in terms of the immediacy of pitch and the way in which she treats phrasing.
“I’m really just squeezing out all the colors of vowels that I can find and just fully allowing the voice to be free,” she said. “It’s an unencumbered instrument, unaffected, not trying to impersonate anybody or twist the voice sound in any way than what it is naturally.”
Olatuja uses singing to connect her inner voice, the part of her that’s truly her, to her outer voice: how she “speaks, sings and shows up in the world.”
Those jazz singers she grew up listening to influenced not only her singing style, but they also shaped who she is as a person — someone who champions women.
“It’s important to share our experiences and let other women know they’re not alone,” Olatuja said. “That moment of sharing can be an empowering experience for a performer’s audience.”
She recognizes that a woman’s existence in this world can be empowering, but that it can also be discouraging and heartbreaking; the heartbreak provides an opportunity to come back stronger. She said both experiences are present within her music.
Intuition also includes work by some of Olatuja’s students from Vocal Breakthrough Academy, an online singing course she piloted. She said the tunes her students wrote were so powerful that she had to feature them on her album. The song “Transform” was written by her student Molly Pease.
Olatuja said she doesn’t have any specific plans for her performance Wednesday night because she believes the audience is “the new member of the band,” and so much of how the audience responds will affect the flow of the show.
With each show Olatuja brings a storytelling element, and she hopes that the message the audience absorbs during the show will “take root, bloom and blossom, and be able to feed their needs in life over time.”