Minister of Sound
Minister of Sound
A Q&A with Alexis P. Suter
By Geoff Gehman
For some reason Carrie Suter didn’t want to take her daughter Alexis to church, their favorite place to sing. The elementary schooler responded by turning a closet into a chapel, where she made up a song about Jesus moving to his great-grandmother’s cloud. Carrie was very impressed by her child’s gritty ingenuity, but not enough to bring her to the house of worship where she was grooming Alexis to be a gospel diva.
That Brooklyn closet was a lab for a formidable force. For three decades Alexis P. Suter has been sucking the marrow from all flavors of music: gospel, blues, R&B, soul and house, which she recorded for a Sony dance label aimed at Japanese fans. Her voice ranges from shimmering second soprano to burrowing baritone, her delivery from clawing to caressing, her personality from sugar mama to shepherd. Her message remains the same whether she’s performing Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” or her “In the City,” which appears with McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” on the second volume of “Songs for Sandy,” a fundraiser for victims of the 2012 hurricane that mauled metropolitan New York’s coast. Spread passionate compassion, she says from the stage, around the street. Make it your mission to make sad strangers smile. An encouraging word can improve everyone’s day, or thereafter.
On June 15 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Suter and her self-named band, which features vocalist Victoria Bell and her drummer-husband Ray Grappone, Suter’s longtime allies. The trio, or “triangle,” opened more than 100 shows for a group led by Levon Helm, the late singing drummer and Band co-founder who praised Suter by declaring “she’s got her arms around you.” She was certainly engaging and engulfing during a recent conversation from her home in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill/Fort Greene section, which she shares with her mom, a retired music teacher who sang backup for Mavis Staples and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, both members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We discussed marinating songs in life experience, setting her opera-singing daughter on a better career path, and using music to make the forgotten less so.
Q: What does the P. stand for and why do you like it to stand out in public?
A: It stands for Porterfield, my mother’s mother’s maiden name. My grandmother was a very hard-working woman, a God-fearing woman, a significant force in our lives. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was either born out of slavery or she was eight when slavery ended. I’m proud to carry the torch for the family name and heritage.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: You know, there was a song my mother taught me when I was a very little girl—four or five or six. [Recites first lines]: “A robe of white, a crown of gold…”
[Asks mother] “What was the rest of the song, Ma?”
[Carrie gives her the next line] “A harp, a home, a mansion fair.”
“And what’s after that?”
“A victor’s palm, a joy untold, are mine when I get there.”
“What’s the name of that song again?” Oh yeah, “Marching On in the Light of God.”
My mother would teach me songs and I would sing them at church for special programs. I do remember one time, when I was about six, I wanted to get to church but I wasn’t allowed to, so I stood in the closet and made up my own song [recites]: “Jesus moves to a cloud to live with his great-grandmother.” My mother said: “That was good–but you’re still not going.” [Laughs]
Q: Your mother was an active singer who trained you, groomed you, to be a singer, to be her successor, from a very early age. What’s the best lesson she gave you about making a song your own, about sucking the marrow from the melody, the rhythms and the words?
A: You know, my mother taught me many things but that part, about delivering a song, was really up to me. A song, or a story, that people perform exceptionally well is usually one that resonates with their spirit and their inner self, with whatever is going on in their lives or has gone on in their lives, or what is going on, or has gone on, in the lives of people they know. I’m not saying their presentation of every song reflects their experience. But for me, for my music, my repertoire, I always try to have a little bit of life experience in each song, or the life experience of someone I know. Even the funny songs have a personal meaning to me or someone in my band, something personal that anyone can feel, anyone can experience, maybe in a different way.
I’ve been doing “Let It Be” forever. It is one of the most emotionally reachable songs I know; it just takes me away, every time. The more I sing it, the more and more profound it is. It’s especially appropriate, and relevant, in this climate of racism and violence and hatred. I also love [George Harrison’s] “Isn’t It a Pity?” It says a lot and it’s real to me. I wasn’t really a big Beatles fan growing up. In school we’d do “Eleanor Rigby” and songs of that nature. I watched the Beatles’ cartoon [series] and I was a little bit into the “Yellow Submarine” thing for a little bit. Now that I’m an older woman I can appreciate the lyrics of their songs and what they mean. I can apply them to my own life and hopes and dreams.
Q: Keeping the musical-legacy groove going, have you sung in public with your opera-singing daughter, Carrie II, also known as “Care Bear”?
A: My daughter doesn’t really sing for me; I don’t know why. She has sung with me maybe twice, one time with the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir during a festival in Philadelphia. I’m very proud of her. She graduated from Nyack College and she sings opera in four or five different languages; I’m a professional musician and I only sing in English [laughs]. After she graduated, I had a serious talk with her about having a career in music. I said: “Look, you know I love you and I know you love music but the music industry is tough and rough; it may be too much for you. I need you to have something to fall back on; I need you to go back to school and get a degree in something [besides music], so you can get a legitimate career.” I told her she could take a year off before she went back to school but before the year was out she went back. She just graduated with a master’s in mental health from Nyack College Manhattan. Right now she’s doing paid internships and working with kids at a music school here in Brooklyn. So she’s doing two things that she loves, that inspire her.
Q: Here’s another question about musical bloodlines: What do you like about sharing a musical triangle with Vicki Bell and Ray Grappone, your partners in the Alexis P. Suter Band and Alexis’ Ministers of Sound (AMOS)? What’s so special about sharing stage, studio and space?
A: Aunt Vicki and Uncle Ray have been friends and family for 20 years, ever since I met Vicki through a backup-vocalist friend and she and Ray asked me to sing background on a record for their Hipbone Records label. I think we’re such good partners because we believe that God and love are first and foremost, in the forefront of everything. We also have such strong common backgrounds, such a strong common lineage. Ray’s father worked for the Post Office; my father worked for the Post Office. His mother worked in the school system; my mother worked in the school system. Vicki’s mother is an artist; my mother is an artist. Not only that, Ray and Vicki met during the traveling “A Chorus Line” and my oldest sister‘s ex-husband was the drummer for the original “Chorus Line.”
We put in a lot of work together and we have faith in each other and we believe in being kind and loving to our co-workers. We go through a lot of ups and downs like most families; like any family we get on each other’s nerves. We might be on the road for a few days and when we get home we may not speak to each other for a week. But when we’re together, we’re always talking, we’re always communicating. We are the ones keeping this train going.
Vicki and Ray are the most beautiful people. I mean, I just can’t imagine life without them. It was just meant to be that we were meant to be in each other’s lives.
Q: Another one of your honorary relatives is the late Levon Helm, who made you, Ray and Vicki cornerstones of his concerts. Last year I interviewed Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell, your married comrades in the Midnight Ramble at Levon’s musical haven/heaven in Woodstock, N.Y. Both of them consider Levon one of the most honest, open musicians and humans they ever met. “Levon was so true, he drew true from you,” Teresa said. “Because the place was so safe, you felt free to explore. It was a sandbox.” Did you feel free to romp around in Levon’s sandbox?
A: Oh, I definitely romped around. I was also humbled by Levon’s love for me and my band–and my mother. I remember when we played the Beacon Theater [in Manhattan] and he recognized her as the only one in the audience dressed like a church lady. That night he embraced her, he kissed her, he had his picture taken with her. He enjoyed her; she touched him. In fact, he would call my mother from time to time to see how she was doing.
Levon was always a calm and gentle man; he didn’t like drama and chaos and crazy. He would let you express yourself musically; that’s where you could get crazy. With the Ramble it was almost everything goes. I mean, hey, it’s a ramble: you’re supposed to get people excited, right?
We ended up opening for Levon over 100 times–at the Beacon, at the Paramount, at the Ramble. It got to the point where people were almost upset with us, where they would say: “You need to give other people a chance, Levon.” I would always say to him: “Levon, thank you for always inviting us back.” And he would say: “You don’t have to thank me. If you didn’t sing the way you do, and if y’all didn’t play the way y’all do, you wouldn’t be here.” And that’s as brutally honest as it gets.
The last song we performed with him was “The Weight,” at a festival in Virginia; you can see it on YouTube. Our set was after his, on another stage, but he invited us to play with him and Teresa and Larry and Amy [Helm, Levon’s vocalist daughter]. What made it even more special is that I was a little girl when I saw Levon and the rest of the Band perform “The Weight” with the Staples Singers in [the 1978 documentary] “The Last Waltz.” Seeing that as a little girl and then one day singing with this man—that’s amazing. I always felt like we were his Staples Singers from “The Last Waltz.”
Q: Can you spotlight three highlights from the Ramble, three out-of-body episodes?
A: Oh, yes. Performing with Allen Toussaint: he was magical. Singing along with Emmylou Harris: that was definitely a beautiful Ramble. Watching Levon’s dog Muddy sit on the floor in front of him as he sang with Emmylou: that was the best thing. And the Ramble with [pianist] Pinetop Perkins: it wasn’t no out-of-body experience but it was a great experience. To be in that company, with blues royalty, with musical royalty, was just amazing, period.
Q: I love discovering how musicians solve problems that have eluded them for years and have sometimes driven them nuts. Did you recently have a revelation that has made musical life easier and more satisfying, whether it’s performing or recording or writing or fronting a band?
A: I don’t think I’ve had to work on anything that took that long to solve; I’d say everything is on schedule. The problem that took the longest to solve was probably writing my song “Ride, Ride,” which is on my very first CD, “Shuga Fix” [Hipbone, 2005]. We had recorded the entire CD with the exception of this one song. We could not get anything: I mean, it took like forever. It got to the point when I tried to stir things up by reciting nursery rhymes: “Engine, Engine No. 9, going down Chicago line./If the train goes off the track, do you want your money back?” That enabled me to break through and finally finish the song; that’s the only song I can tell you that took us an extra long time.
The extra hard work paid off because “Ride, Ride” was used in a commercial in Japan for a company named How Things Work, or How Stuff Works. It was pretty fun to hear my words, and my voice, in a commercial where these conductors are stuffing people into trains.
Q: How do you want to, need to, improve yourself as a musician?
A: I don’t know if it would be under the category of improvement but I’d like to enhance my message of love and acceptance and community. I definitely want to improve my health, which I’ve been working on. I haven’t had a cigarette in 17 and a half months. My latest blood test came back normal, thank God. I’m trying to do the right things to stay healthy and relevant and working–because you can’t work if you’re sick. A lot of people depend on me, and I depend on them. Taking good care of yourself should be a requirement of a band, because the lifestyle of the road isn’t the healthiest.
Q: How do you keep himself healthy, and comfortable, on the road? Do you have any special rituals or talismans?
A: I have a lot of stones, a lot of amethysts. I meditate, and I pray. I pray about all of the time about a lot of things, to a lot of beings. I pray to God, to the archangel Michael. I pray for safety, to cover the vehicle in safety, to cover the driver. That’s part of my nature; that’s something imbedded in me.
I’m not saying that when you pray you have to believe in God. You can believe in a doorknob–if it gets you in and out of the house. My message is about abundance, about sharing and spreading acceptance and helping and love, showing the world that we should not only give love but receive love. And I say that to my audience: Do you know that a smile can save a life? When I’m walking down the street I’ll see strangers who look depressed, and I’ll tell them: I don’t know what’s hurting you but it’s going to be alright. You’ve just got to give them a boost and, you know what, it works every time. Who knows, you may have prevented that person from harming themselves or someone else. For some people something we take for granted, every day, will take them over the edge, something like: No one cares enough to open a door for me. We have to be careful how we walk in life; we have to walk the talk.
Q: So, Alexis, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I would like to sing “Let It Be” with Paul McCartney. You know the group I was telling you about, the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir? We did a special program in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I sang “Let It Be.” It ended up as a clip on “Inside Edition.” So we’re coming closer, Paul. Come on, Paul, come to Big Mama” [laughs].
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Racism. Fuck racism.
Q: Your big hats really give you an extra big dose of personality; anything seems possible when you rock that Mad Hatter. How does it suit your style; what message are you beaming?
A: I love hats, period. I especially love my top hats. The Mad Hatter is sort of an announcer’s hat–you know, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” The only thing missing is a big-assed feather [laughs]
Alexis P. Suter: The Scoop
Her older sister Andrea, a model who played the mayor’s secretary in the cult horror film “The Toxic Avenger,” helped develop her big passion for such popular groups as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Cream and America. “Yeah, I love so many of America’s songs: ‘Tin Man,’ ‘Muskrat Love’ and, especially, ‘A Horse with No Name.’ I grew up in the gospel thing and all that, but I try to get involved in as many different genres as possible. I love the different flavors of the different grooves.”
She still has the mouthpiece to the sousaphone she played in school.
Her career catapulted with “Slam Me Baby,” a 1990 house hit that produced a contract with Epic/Sony’s Japanese dance division.
She opened for B.B. King, Bo Diddley and Etta James.
Her repertoire includes Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” Marvin Gaye’s “Piece of Clay” and Big Mama Thornton’s “You Don’t Move Me No More.”
She spent nine years in the Pythons, a motorcycle club in Brooklyn. “I rose up in the ranks to be the female sergeant of arms: I was the disciplinarian over the women. I tried riding a bike once and almost ended up on my ass, so mostly I was a passenger.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He believes that Alexis P. Suter channels the wide-open spirits of Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ruth Brown. He can be reached at email@example.com.