Paula Cole On Bringing Attention To Black Music, The American Experience As Patchwork & Her New Album 'American Quilt'

Paula Cole

Photo: Ebru Yildiz


Paula Cole On Bringing Attention To Black Music, The American Experience As Patchwork & Her New Album 'American Quilt'

When Paula Cole finished an album of jazz ballads, the itch to explore American tradition remained unscratched. Now, she's back with 'American Quilt,' a mélange of folk standards and an original, "Hidden in Plain Sight," premiering on

GRAMMYs/May 20, 2021 - 10:54 pm

Can an artist of one race pay homage to the art of another? On one side of the debate is disrespectful appropriation—on another, racial essentialism. On her new album of songs—many of them important to Black communities—from the 20th-century pantheon, American QuiltPaula Cole walks the middle course with dignity and respect.

Among its mélange of Americana staples, like "Shenandoah" and "Wayfaring Stranger," American Quilt, which arrives May 21, does contain one original—"Hidden in Plain Sight (I Dream)," which premieres exclusively below via That song illuminates the role of quilts as coded guides for fleeing slaves during the Underground Railroad. As a white woman, Cole is fully aware that she's not the representative for this subject. But unlike politicians, artists can swim between these boundaries at will.

"I just felt that even though it's not necessarily my story to tell, being a white person, it's important that we remember," the GRAMMY winner and seven-time nominee most famous for 1996's smash hit "I Don't Want to Wait" tells "I created the song to reflect that because there isn't very much out there, and a lot of people don't know about them. They're mind-bogglingly ingenious." That last description could just as easily apply to Bessie Smith, Louis ArmstrongMiles Davis and John Coltrane—Black innovators that Cole highlights on American Quilt and enthusiastically praises through the course of the interview. caught up with Cole over the phone from Massachusetts about her all-over-the-place cultural roots, what compelled her to make this patchwork of American tunes and why music can help bridge the gaps between races and cultures.

Paula Cole. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nice to meet you, Paula. Where are you located?

At the moment, I'm in Rockport, Massachusetts. I'm visiting my parents quickly, so I'm conducting the interview from my childhood home, which is pretty interesting for me.

How does that feel?

It feels great. I love my parents so much. I had decided to move back to the North Shore of Massachusetts to raise my daughter nearer, so she could know them and the generations would be unified. That was more important to me than other things, like living in an industry city.

Is your childhood bedroom just how you remember it?

[laughs] No, it's different now. They changed it. We grew up in a Georgian house that was built in the 1600s. We're talking about a colonial New England house. George as in King George, you know? It's very small and poky and yet beautiful and historic.

What compelled you to see the American experience as a patchwork quilt?

It was accidental. The music informed the process. Having recorded 31 jazz standards in five days for my Balladsalbum—I should requalify that. They weren't all jazz standards. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" was actually recorded in 2016 in the Ballads sessions.

I was so pent-up as a lover of these standards that we recorded so much music. I released a double album, Ballads, and yet all these wonderful tracks were remaining and I had to shape them up. But I wanted to honor my roots and my roots are so diverse. Genetically, I'm so mixed, and musically, I'm so mixed.

I grew up with a father who was a professional bass player on weekends when I was a small child. He could play Duke Ellington songs on the piano and then folk songs on the guitar or harmonica and upright bass. We listened to country music records and everything. There was no classification or boxing-in of genre. It was meant to be self-made and fun. 

Non-musicians were the ones who classified the music, and they usually did so by gender and race and age. Which still happens to this day, based on algorithms through platforms on which we listen to music. We're classifying and dividing music for all the wrong reasons. And here I am, a mixture. I'm such a mixture. Loving all music. It's a patchwork.

My mom's a visual artist. She's a quilter, too. It just came to me that it was a quilt. That's when I needed to go back into the studio, and I recorded some more folksy Americana songs which reflect all of who I am. That's when I had the "A-ha!" moment that it's a quilt.

I needed to represent the sad parts of history and the honest part of our history. We wouldn't be who we are without the African experience. Slave quilts were these ingenious creations helping slaves flee to the Underground Railroad, to find the clues in the quilts.

The more I researched slave quilts, the more I realized that people didn't know about them. There isn't very much out there about them. Certainly, there was no music, no song I could sing to reflect them, even though there are Christian spirituals that double as protest songs, like "Steal Away." There wasn't anything about the quilts, so I wrote something into that vacancy to reflect a more full and diverse experience of America and our history.

We are a patchwork. We're all part of this diverse culture. Whether our music comes from Scotland or Africa or the cities or the mountains, it's all this American melting pot. That's our strength. [The album] coalesced intuitively. I didn't go about trying to make a concept album. It made itself.

Tell me more about "Hidden in Plain Sight."

That's the one original song I wrote for the album. "Hidden in Plain Sight" is all about the quilts. It's the cautionary tale and the advice from the quilter to the traveler. Each verse of "Hidden in Plain Sight" is a quilting square.

For instance, flying geese is a quilting square. It's a pattern used in quilts to this day. Flying geese in the context of slave quilts meant "Follow geese in spring. They lead north." Or a bear trail, which is a quilting pattern, means to the follower, "Follow the tracks of animals. They take you to water. They take you to safe places to hide."

So on and so forth. Each verse is advice to the traveler from the slave quilt. I created the song to reflect that because there isn't very much out there, and a lot of people don't know about them. They're mind-bogglingly ingenious. I just felt that even though it's not necessarily my story to tell, being a white person, it's important that we remember.

I'd like to explore your connections with all these traditional songs, too.

Sure. Sometimes, it's just because I like them!

That's as good an answer as any! That being said, what attracted you to "You Don't Know What Love Is"?

Oh, that's mostly my love for John Coltrane. I listened to so much from his Ballads album and I really feel the band channeled Coltrane on that recording. The form is the same. How it moves into double-time for the solo. The piano player, Consuelo Candelaria, just branches out so beautifully in her jazz solo. Then, we bring it back down to this very moody, almost spiritual, solemn feeling.

I just wanted to honor him. He was such a gentle giant and spiritual being.

He could play the hell out of a ballad, too.

[chuckles] Yeah. He's a hero to so many.

Paula Cole performing at Lilith Fair in 1997. Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images

How about "Wayfaring Stranger"?

See, I'm bowing to the masters here. I'm bowing to Coltrane and I'm bowing to Emmylou Harris, who I think is one of the great American voices. We shouldn't forget her. We should be talking about Emmylou Harris more. I learned "Wayfaring Stranger" from her Roses in the Snow album.

Emmylou is very dear to me. We sang on each other's sets when we were both at Lilith Fair. When I was taking my hiatus from the music business—totally disenchanted with the music business, hating the music business and wanting to leave the music business—it was Emmylou who told me in a very motherly way, "You can't. It just happened too fast."

For me, she said I'm lucky. That I've had a nice, long plateau of a career. It's true; that's the healthier way. That's the way of the proverbial tortoise, and she helped me see that. I love her so much for giving me the right spiritual advice when I wanted to leave the music business. 

I'm honoring that traditional song. Life being hard for early settlers. Life being hard and thinking about death as a place that can be beautiful, where you meet your loved ones again. People would sing these songs to console themselves, to pass time. 

And they span hundreds of years! It's so amazing! But I'm also honoring Emmylou Harris because I associate that song with her.

What made you want to quit the biz once and for all?

Like she said, it happened too fast for me. I'm very much a live performer and a catalog, legacy artist. That's how I see myself. I don't see myself as a hit-pop-song artist. My hits were so huge and there was so much attention. I was terribly introverted, so I didn't deal with it very well, and I just felt I was overexposed. I wasn't being known for what I actually was.

I wanted to have a reset and have my personal life back. I wanted to have a child and I wanted to live a sincere life and make great art. So, I just needed to shed an ill-fitting skin. It ended up, then, that I wasn't going to leave the business. I was just going to reinvent myself, reset and embark upon a more authentic second career.

How does "God's Gonna Cut You Down" speak to you?

I heard that from Odetta and from Johnny Cash. I don't have much to say about it other than it's a traditional song and it's a morality tale. It's nice to have a morality tale right now, especially told from a woman's point of view.

And how about "Shenandoah"?

It lives somewhere in our collective unconscious, right? That one's really profound because it has a lot of American history in it. From fur traders heading west to the Oneida tribal chief. These lonely fur traders going up and down the St. Louis River. Very often, they would marry Native American women and blend with tribes. And, again, people are singing these songs to keep themselves company, going up and down rivers and across oceans. So, the song lives on in an oral history, preserving this culture. The singer is singing to the Oneida chieftain about loving his daughter and wanting to marry her.

love the melody. It's so haunting and so beautiful. I was kind of possessed by it. I made this very long arrangement that includes the journey of the song. It goes across the ocean in clipper ships to the U.K. by including the pennywhistle, coming back to American soil, and by including the voices of the gospel churches.

That's Darcel Wilson singing with me and also Peter Eldridge. They're both such brilliant artists in their own rights. When Darcel sings at the end, I'm completely transfixed and the hair stands up on my arms. It is so moving to me what she does in her performance. She takes over from the lead singer. It feels prescient. The Black voice taking over the white voice.

What can you tell me about "Black Mountain Blues"?

"Black Mountain Blues," I heard from worshipping at the altar of Bessie Smith. I love her lyrics. Bessie Smith was Janis Joplin's favorite singer and also Billie Holiday's favorite singer. Bessie Smith is so influential to modern music. I don't think we quite understand that.

I like it because it's strong. It's not so much a woe-is-me blues; it's a fierce blues. It's a power-of-woman blues. I'm honoring those masters, like Janis and Bessie. 

Have you read Angela Davis's book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism?

I have it on my shelf and I've poked around in it! I haven't read it cover-to-cover. But, yes, I know what you mean. The feminism in [the music of] Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey.

"Good Morning Heartache." What's your connection to that one?

That's in the book of standards. I literally have a book of standards on my piano that I go to as a place to grow, learn and relax. I always have. I love that song. 

I just wanted it to sound spooky. I produced it in a way that was mournful and spooky. I layered my clarinets, and my clarinet is like my Alfred Hitchcock cameo appearance. I put it on every album I make, somewhere. I put an underwater reverb on it and it gave it a real mood to evoke that sadness.

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" is also Bessie, right?

Absolutely; that's where I learned it. Bessie. The queen. The Empress of the Blues.

What's the title mean to you?

When you're down and out, nobody gives you a break. Nobody wants to hear from you. Most people are fairweather friends. Fairweather fans. Fairweather business. Fairweather everybody. It's when you're down and out that you know the truth in people. That's why she says "Nobody can use you when you're down and out," because people are going to act truthfully when you're down and out.

What a weird part of human nature.

I know! When you're high and mighty and on your high horse and successful, everyone is obsequious. Everyone is trying to get your business and placate you and lie and be two-faced and be sweet and ingratiate so they can be associated with you. When you're nobody, they couldn't care less.

You're back to jazz with "Bye Bye Blackbird." Obviously, Miles had such a beautiful version.

Miles taught me so much about space and being a bandleader. Honoring the rhythm section to be part of your sound. I wanted to vocally improvise on something simple and keep it very sparse and honor Miles, too. And then, "What a Wonderful World." We think of Louis Armstrong, and he was a genius. I don't like to use that word, but there are a few in the world, and he was one. When you listen to all of his recordings, his vocal improvisations, his ears are just astounding. He unified Black and white audiences. He's a beautiful example of someone who was positive and loving and unified people. This song was written specifically for him, so it appeals to Black and white audiences.

Somehow, in my life, that has become part of my mission. To talk about race and to mix genres.

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10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Nas performing in 2002, the year of his now-iconic Webster Hall performance that will be available on vinyl as part of Record Store Day 2023.

Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage


10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More

Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.

GRAMMYs/Apr 18, 2023 - 02:34 pm

From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.

Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.

With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.

In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.

The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."

Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner

Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.

Björk — the fossora remixes

Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).

Beach House — Become

Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.

Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002

Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.

Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968

More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.

The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet

As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.

Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions

In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."

'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.

Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.

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Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
Jazz Musician and composer Wayne Shorter in 2018

Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run

The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.

GRAMMYs/Mar 3, 2023 - 10:57 pm

When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission." 

This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.

To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet. 

But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.

In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."

As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."

But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.

Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.

So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.

"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)

Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time

Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy." 

"Juju" (Juju, 1965)

Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.

As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.

"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)

After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."

"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)

Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.

All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune." 

Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.

"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)

As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel. 

The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.

"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."

But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.

"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)

"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing. 

Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.

"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)

This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.

"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.

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Ma Rainey Receives The Lifetime Achievement Award At The 2023 GRAMMYs
Ma Rainey in 1923.

Photo: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images


Ma Rainey Receives The Lifetime Achievement Award At The 2023 GRAMMYs

Late blues singer Ma Rainey was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring performers who have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.

GRAMMYs/Feb 15, 2023 - 04:17 pm

More than a century after she first discovered the blues while touring, “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey’s impact and influence is still being reckoned with, as the 2020 Viola Davis film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom attests. Rainey’s authenticity, booming voice, mesmerizing stage persona, and transgressive lyrics opened the door for the female artists who followed in her footsteps, from Janis Joplin to Megan Thee Stallion.

Born in Columbus, Georgia, in the mid-1880s, Gertrude Pridgett began singing in church at the age of 12. After honing her skills, she began performing in a local stage show as a teen before touring the American South with various Black vaudeville acts. In 1902, Rainey came across a young woman singing a somber heartbreak song. She added it to her performances, and, according to legend, when asked to describe the song, Rainey coined it “the blues.” The genre presented the audacious performer with the opportunity to tell the story of her life — raw and uncut — at a time when the narrative of the Black female experience was absent from mainstream music.   

In 1904, Pridgett met and married William “Pa” Rainey and became Ma Rainey, a play on her husband’s nickname. The pair would have success on the minstrel circuit and touring together as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues until their divorce in 1916. Rainey then set out to craft a stage persona with bulletproof confidence and swagger.  

Rainey began penning original 12-bar blues — a rare occurrence in an era when most acts sang covers. Her songs contained unconventional themes about lust, infidelity, backstabbing, drinking, and vengeance — no-holds-barred music about Black female autonomy.  

Also at the vanguard of style, Rainey would don ostrich feathers, sequined dresses, wigs, heavy stage makeup, and flash her gold teeth while moaning original songs about sexual freedom and love.  

However, sex wasn't the only theme of Rainey's music. Her song “Black Eye Blues” centers on a woman threatening vengeance on an abusive lover — a predecessor to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan’s “Stone Cold Dead In The Market (He Had It Coming)” and the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.” 

Rainey’s trailblazing didn’t end there. The early feminist icon was among the first female artists to embrace her reported queerness in her music. Academic and political activist Angela Davis has called her 1928 song “Prove It On Me” — which centers on a masculine woman who dresses in men’s clothing and dates women — “a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs." 

Rainey’s songs, many of which she wrote, have become lasting and often-covered hallmarks of the blues: “See See Rider Blues,” “Moonshine Blues,” “Prove It On Me,” and “Bo-Weavil Blues,” among others.  

Rainey made an indelible impact on mainstream music and the culture at-large. She mentored Bessie Smith to greatness and inspired Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong (whom she once toured and recorded with). Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Allen Brown, featured her in their collections, while literary great Alice Walker looked to her songwriting for inspiration for The Color Purple. 

While Rainey’s impact was not widely celebrated in her lifetime, she began receiving her flowers a few decades after her death, with inductions into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as well as numerous books and essays about her life and legacy.  The iconic blues pioneer's radical embrace of sexuality and candor in her music continues to ripple through the sounds of the Black female pop acts that succeeded her. 

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Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 


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James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."


Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.


L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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