If you've checked out a jazz, funk, or a little something-in-between show around town recently, you've likely seen and heard Kenneka Cook playing with bands such as Mikrowaves, Piranha Rama and Calvin Presents. Her signature jazz vocals and ever-cool vibe are ubiquitous as of late — she even snagged an opening spot for indie darling Waxahatchee.
Now Cook is poised to solidify her place as a solo performer with the release of her eclectic debut, "Moonchild" on American Paradox later this month.
Cook grew up in Richmond and spent her fair share of time singing in both church and choir, honing her craft and obsessing over Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan tunes. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in criminal justice but believes the universe pulled her toward her true love, music.
Her mother's choice of music played at home was a huge inspiration.
"She'd clean up around the house listening to Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, all the neo-soul artists," she says. And then there's Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, whom she also adores and whose influence is evident in her vocal stylings. Despite her admitted first love of jazz, she's consumed with all things future too, which is where her mishmash, signature sound comes into play. Don't tell Cook a beat machine has no soul, folks. She can convince you otherwise.
Using a Vox Lil Looper two track, she lays down sounds, including beat-box blip, scat and verse, records them on the fly and then loops them. Add an effect pedal and you've got pure, one-woman wizardry. It's a refreshing change for someone who spends a lot of time singing backup or jamming with others on stage.
Cook got the idea from comedian Reggie Watts and gave it a try recording the jazz standard "Night and Day" written by Cole Porter. The impressive results surprised the singer and inspired her to keep going with the technique, exploring new soundscapes and pushing her creative boundaries. "I sing, but play few instruments. So, this really made me work with what I have," Cook says.
The result is a solid 10-track album that's equal parts soulful and spacey, a standout piece of work for an emerging solo artist. Recorded entirely in producer Scott Lane's old house, the tracks seem to mirror their surroundings, some full of life featuring a who's who of Richmond players including members of Butcher Brown, Kings and the Congress.
Others are sparse, but beautiful with the inherent exploratory space allowing you to soak up the nuances of Cook's nimble voice. There are fun covers like Vampire Weekend's "Kids Don't Stand a Chance" and local songwriter Pete Curry's catchy, "Don't Ask Me."
Curry says that he heard the cover months ago and "cried a little," adding that he was extremely honored to be covered by her and some of Richmond's finest musicians.
"That's on the bucket list as an artist," he says. "They turned what was a wonky, lo-fi, dustbin classic kind of vibe into this really sunny and pretty recording that I could totally imagine being the intro music to a TV show. Kenneka is an amazing singer, she can do anything with her voice."
There are also more introspective moments packed with metaphysical musings like those on the title track, "Moonchild."
The universe and her place in it is a big deal to Cook, an admitted space junkie who spends just as much time looking up as she does out. For now, she's eager to hit the road and explore the East Coast with her new material. The stars have aligned and she's got two shows locked in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, with more in the works, some solo and others with a band.
"It's finally here. Never would have imagined I'd turn out a well-polished album of my own," Cook says. "I'm just all nervous excitement." S
Kenneka Cook celebrates her new album at the Camel with Keilan Creech and the Flavor Project on Friday, Feb. 16. Doors open at 8 p.m. Show is at 9 p.m. $8-10. thecamel.org.