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In 1967, Roberta Flack wasn’t the household name we know today. She was a music teacher in Washington, D.C., but in the evenings, she would head over to a club called Mr. Henry’s. Those occasional performances turned into a three-times-a-week gig. Henry Yaffe, the eponymous Mr. Henry, eventually transformed an apartment above his club into a room just to showcase her talent.
Her talent was undeniable — is undeniable.
You have got to hear her voice. You have got to hear the way her voice and her piano slide against each other, a conversation that she’s having with the instrument that we all get to listen in on. You have got to hear the way that her voice, her piano, her band, her arrangements all dance together, each one adding to the other, never competing, always creating. Her music — at its funkiest, its softest, its most stripped down — always contains heart. There is always a truth to it, always slyly revealing something about the artist. “For me, it’s not just singing the song well, it’s meaning every word personally,” she explained. There’s a reason that someone built a space just for her, just for her talent.
And now here we are, 50 years after the release of her third album, Quiet Fire. We’re a long way from rooms above clubs, and the chance to catch a young singer named Roberta Flack performing there some night. Here, we’re in the time when her music is part of the DNA of soul music, part of the canon. This is the time when we can marvel and say, “We were all there to hear her.”
To celebrate the selection of her album Quiet Fire as December 2021’s Classics Record of the Month, VMP chatted with Roberta via email to discuss her career, her music, her life and how, through it all, she has “focused less on style than on emotional content told [with] simplicity.”
VMP: First of all, how are you feeling? How have you been doing with all that’s happening in the world these days?
Roberta Flack: Thanks for asking — I’ve been staying in touch with friends with Zoom calls, and have done the best I can given the pandemic. Last year I went to the 2020 Grammys — I was honored with a Grammy for my lifetime achievement — it was glorious to be with so many musicians and friends, right before things shut down.
I did a fundraiser for Save the Children last year, and have been working with my team sorting out tracks from my archives that will be released (for the first time) in 2022. I have a children’s book I’ve been working on for ages that is due out late 2022 or early 2023 called “The Green Piano” about my first piano that my father got out of a junkyard. Lots of exciting things coming up in 2022…
Do you think the connections that people feel to your music made them want to know you as a person? Do you think that people get to know you through your music? Is that even your aim?
No, my aim is to tell my own story through the song I’m performing as honestly as I can. For me, it’s not just singing the song well, it’s meaning every word personally. My aim is to share my story vulnerably and encourage my audience to feel their own stories as they are moved to when they listen to my music.
Genre is such a sticky question, but you have classical roots, jazz, R&B, gospel. Where do you feel your music lives, category-wise?
I don’t feel my music lives in any category or genre. I have always aimed to play and sing honestly and well. I’ve focused less on style than on emotional content told [with] simplicity.
A reissue of an album signals that no matter how much time has passed, the music still resonates in some way. Why do you think Quiet Fire still has interest all these years later?
Love is timeless. Quiet Fire is about people loving, living, being creative and surviving. Doing all of the things we try to do everyday, especially love. Love is timeless, so whether people listened in 1971 or 2021 they hear their own stories in the music.
The musician list on this album is so full. An amazing line-up of musicians, many that are familiar to jazz fans (Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, just to name a few) Why was it important for you to have this connection to the jazz world? Was there a lot of improvisation during recording sessions?
I didn’t pick them because they were jazz artists, I picked them because they were outstanding musicians and I enjoyed working with them. Each of them in different ways.
Another of the people you worked with on this album was Eugene McDaniels. You worked with him at many points in your career, in an interview from the mid-2000s, he noted that you recorded 15 of his songs. That seems like it was a really fruitful collaboration. This album also includes one (“Sunday and Sister Jones”) and I’m curious about your collaborations. Why have his songs been such an important and ongoing part of your work?
Because of my deep friendship with Gene. Not only was he an incredibly gifted songwriter, he was a dear friend to me. He wrote songs that I connected with because I found in them my own stories — each in different ways.
While this album isn’t explicitly political, it’s hard not to feel the times in it. This album was made at a time when it would be hard to ignore politics. How have you balanced the need to speak out with your art?
I don’t know if I have. I have tried to speak out with my art, and not finished doing all that I can do. The songs on Quiet Fire about living and loving can be seen as political statements. We need to love each other more. Whether in a personal relationship, between races, religions, countries or generations, loving each other is something we need to do more of, and helping each other ease our burdens and bridge our differences is a personal and political statement, depending on how you look at it — don’t you think?
As a woman, and particularly as a Black woman, do you feel that you were able to be heard by those in power in the industry? How were you able to claim autonomy and control over your work (i.e., songwriting, arranging, producing)? Was it difficult?
All of these are true — it continues to be so difficult to be taken seriously and positively as a Black woman if what I want, need and believe differs from those in power. “Heard” is one word, “listened” [to] is another. They mean very different things to me.
Those in power — could be the labels, could be the artists, could be the audiences. depends on how you look at it. What is power? The ability to shape careers? To tell stories with music? To inspire people with music? Ultimately, I hope that it will be the artists who have the enduring power to inspire people far into the future to reach out and reach within to create change for the better.
Ashawnta Jackson is a writer and record collector living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared at NPR Music, Bandcamp, GRAMMY.com, Wax Poetics and Atlas Obscura, among others
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