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Sharon Rae North Has It All, Talent, Beauty & A Song Landing On The Billboard Smooth Jazz Charts!

As a seasoned and skilled jazz vocalist, Sharon Rae North has collaborated with some of smooth jazz's top musicians, including Marion Meadows. Her impeccable voice has led to her being named a 1st nominee in the Jazz Vocal Album category for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. In addition to Lonely Nite, she has also had the title track of Sincerely Yours reach the Billboard Smooth Jazz Chart. In an interview, she spoke about her career. This is what she said about her career in jazz.

Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? I’m originally from Youngstown, Ohio. I knew when I was a little girl that I wanted to sing. I could sit for hours listening to my parents’ albums. Some of my favorites were Nancy Wilson, King Curtis, and the Kingpins, Barbara Streisand, Della Reese. I’d be home with my mom because I wasn’t old enough yet for grade school and while she was busy around the house, I’d be sitting on the floor next to the stereo just listening. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was studying the voices more than listening to the instrumentation. I was intrigued by the phrasing, tonality, cadence, and breathing, just everything. Though I no longer sit on the floor to listen, I still study voices very much the same way. Voices just amaze me, especially when they’re good.

When did your professional career begin and how did it happen? The professional route was a bit circuitous. I was kind of off and on for a while. But, as I recall, my first gig was a Black History Month event in my hometown. I was in my late teens and my cousin, Osei, asked me to sing Lift Every Voice and Sing, a cappella. I remember standing at a podium and looking down at the words the entire time because I was too nervous to look out at the audience. I was grateful the podium was there because it kept them from seeing my legs shaking. I got quite a few compliments when the program was over with people telling me I had a beautiful voice. I just didn’t know if I’d get on stage again, because I was so scared. I laugh about that now, because I never have stage fright. I’m not sure how or when I conquered that fear, but I did. Now I’m always eager to take the stage at showtime.

In your opinion, what does it really take to “make it” in this business? If I knew that, I’d have cracked that code a long time ago. I think there are quite a few components. The major ones are to remember this is just as much a business as it is an art. That said, you need professionals who may be able to get you places that you can’t on your own. For example, a good radio promoter who knows how and where to get your music played. Having a strong team and building a large fan base is key. Having patience and realizing success is something you orchestrate, and it takes time. No overnight sensation really happens overnight.

Notice I didn’t put that you must have talent up higher. That’s because there are zillions of talented people who we’ll never know about. They’re good enough to make it; they just may not have the means or the connections they need. We’ve all heard that old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Also, having an extreme amount of discipline, being willing to learn, being open to criticism, and keeping your ego and attitude in check can go a long way.

Do you think that making it in smooth jazz is more difficult than in other genres? I don’t really think so. I think the Jazz, Smooth Jazz, and Adult Contemporary genres lend themselves to all ages, nationalities, genders, races, etc.

Who have you worked with? My current single was produced by two-time Grammy nominee and super-producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. The upcoming album, Silhouette, will have songs produced by Big Dog and two-time Grammy winner and hitmaker Paul Brown. Paul and I already have one song finished and we’ll be working on a few more. Big Dog also produced my last EP and a single called Moments (featuring Marion Meadows) that will be on the new album. I did an EP of jazz standards back in 2012 on the 32 Bar Records label in Richmond, VA., and recorded with the Central Virginia Jazz Orchestra, which was a 19-piece big band. I’ve either recorded with, performed with or opened for quite a few artists over the years, including Joe Sample and the Jazz Crusaders, Bob James, James Lloyd (Pieces of a Dream) .

In your opinion, what are the best and worst parts of being an independent artist? The best part is calling your own shots, being able to work on the songs you want and setting your own timeframe and deadlines for projects, and being accountable to yourself. The worst part is not having anyone really backing you. Not having the proverbial ‘machine’ and the budget you may need to get everything finished. You’re responsible for everything from hiring musicians and producers, to promotion, touring in support of your project. Some artists have great music but run out of money before they can release it.

Have you ever released a song that you really thought would be a major success, but it didn’t do as well as you expected? Tell me about an experience you had like that? My current single, We Should be in Love (Silhouette) released on New Years Eve. It’s doing okay, but I really thought it would do better. It hasn’t been two months yet, so hopefully, it’ll keep climbing. What’s so funny is I’ve had so many people, including some radio personalities, tell me it’s my best song so far. I am still hopeful. But, if not this one, then the next one. There’s always a next one.

Do you have a daytime job or is music your full-time job? I have two careers, the one I chose and the one that chose me. Singing chose me. Singing isn’t something I do. A singer is what I am. In my day job, I’m a Communications Section Chief in a county government agency. It’s great that I’m able to do two things I love, though, I do love singing more.

How important is it that your friends and family support your music by purchasing and downloading your single? How crucial is their support for the success of your career? It’s major. I can’t even begin to stress how important their support is. It’s not uncommon for family and friends to ask artists to give them CDs or tickets to performances. That’s absolutely not the way to show support. Independent artists spend a lot of time and money on projects. The best way to support them is to buy merchandise, buy tickets and come out to live performances.

In your opinion, are likes and dislikes on social media an accurate assessment of the artist's talent, worth or ability? No. It’s great to have the ‘likes’ but I don’t think reactions on social media will make or break an artist. Having dislikes or no reactions does not diminish an artist’s talent, worth or ability.

What do people who hear your music say about your vocal style and What sets you apart from another vocalist? Most of my style compliments are about phrasing, tone, texture, range, articulation, and my interpretation and delivery of song lyrics (especially when I sing standards). I think what sets me apart is I’ve never wanted to sound or pattern myself after another vocalist, even those I hold in the highest esteem. I want my sound to just be my sound. I get comparisons to a few, but I never hear it when I listen to my recordings or videos from live shows. My more senior fans say they hear some Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughn. While others say they hear Anita Baker or Oleta Adams. I don’t mind the comparisons because they’re all iconic vocalists, so, to me it’s a compliment.

How would you describe your music to those who have never heard it before? This is a great question. My music is easy to listen to. The lyrics make sense and are relatable for most grown folks. They’ll understand the meanings of the songs. A few are sultry, but others are more straightforward. I have some upbeat songs, like Sincerely Yours. Some are a bit funky, like Lonely Nites. There also are ballads. So, there’s a variety. Depending on what listeners like, they’ll find songs on my projects they’ll want to listen to. There will definitely be something there that gets their attention. And the music my producers create to complement the vocals is always amazing.

Do you write and produce your own music? Not all of it, though I do write some of my lyrics and melodies. We’ve completed 6 of the 10 songs for my upcoming album and with the exception of one cover and one original tune, I wrote the lyrics for three songs, co-wrote one song and the melody for two songs. On some of the songs I produced my vocals in the studio, but I’m not a music producer. I leave that to the deft touch of people like Big Dog, Paul Brown, and others with whom I’ve had the pleasure of recording.

How do you prepare yourself mentally for public opinion (either positive or negative) when you’re preparing for a new song release? When you release music, you hope everyone will feel the same way you do about the song(s). You want that positive response. But, at the same time, you have to realize some people may not enjoy your work. Not everyone will buy it. Not every station will play it. I just let it go and hope for the best. Public opinion is not on the list of things I can control. So, I don’t overthink it or over analyze it.

Have you ever felt so discouraged in this business, for whatever reason, that you just wanted to throw in the towel? Absolutely. I think many of us have. It’s a tough business and, when you’re an independent artist, shelling out money to create your projects, then money to promote them and not knowing how they’ll be received, it can get discouraging. When you can’t get people to represent you or introduce you to new audiences or connect you with people who can help your career, it bothers you. When you know you have the talent to get on the big shows, but get passed over, or people you reach out to ignore you because they’ve never heard of you, sometimes you wonder if it’s worth all the work you’ve put in and the money you’ve invested. I think all any of us want is a chance. But, what I do know is none of those downsides diminishes my talent or my desire. So, as long as I can sing, I’ll keep trying.

How many singles/albums do you have out presently and what is your favorite album/song to date? I have a new single out called We Should be in Love (Silhouette) that dropped on New Year's Eve. It’ll be on my upcoming album, Silhouette, that drops in July. This will be my first 10 song album, though I’ve done three EP’s. My favorite project is Sincerely Yours, my EP that dropped in 2016. My favorite songs that I’ve recorded are The Way You Make Me Feel, the title cut from my 2007 EP and We Should be in Love (Silhouette). I wrote the lyrics for The Way You Make Me Feel. The music and production were done by Vic Smiley. I wrote the lyrics and melody for We Should be in Love (Silhouette), produced by Chris ‘Big Dog’ Davis.

Tell me about your latest album/ song and what was your inspiration behind it? Is it out now and where can people buy it? It’s not the wonderful, romantic story people think. When I wrote, We Should be in Love (Silhouette), for some unknown reason I had the word silhouette in my head for a few days. It was just that word. Then, a few days later, the word stars were in my head, with a bit of a melody on it. I had to find a way to marry them, so I came up with the line ‘stars light you in silhouette’ and wrote the rest of the song around it. I sang a scratch vocal of it and sent it to Big Dog and he came up with the beautiful, dreamy music and got Selina Albright to sing background vocals. I’ve had so many people, including a few radio personalities, reach out to tell me this is my best song so far. I love everything about this tune. It even has a bit of mystery to it, because it is hard to tell if the man is real, or if I’m just imagining him. It is out on most digital streaming and download platforms.

If you can speak to your fans from your heart and tell them one important thing that you want them to know about being an independent artist, what would it be? It’s not easy. I’ve worked and continue to work really hard to carve out a place for myself in the business. Even with great producers, musicians, radio promoters, and publicity, I’m still a team of ONE, and it’s hard. I’d love to have a great booking agent, manager, etc., and maybe one day I will. I’ve had three singles make the Billboard Smooth Jazz Chart. My last EP and my single Moments (featuring Marion Meadows) each made the first ballot in the Grammy Awards. But, so far I’m still a team of one making it all happen.

What advice would you give to new artists entering the changing industry? Learn as much as you can about the industry and the business side. Put in the work and take advantage of every good opportunity. Be hungry, but not thirsty.

Photo Credits

Blond hair/black outfit: Nusrat Momin

Black evening gown: Nusrat Momin

Black sequins top: Nusrat Momin

Print maxi dress on-stage: Harron Evoria

Red Jumpsuit: uncredited/sent to me from a fan several years ago

Gold/black dress: my mom took that one

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