top of page
  • Karlene M. Francis

Cross-genre songstress

When I was in the process of designing this website to represent my professional musical endeavours, it was important to define what I create as a singing performer and cross-genre songstress seemed appropriate.

This really is not an ego-driven overstatement because even though I have gathered some knowledge to sing as an operatic soprano, when I perform jazz, blues, soul and gospel music, styles that came to being as a response to the traumatic experience of descendants of slavery through colonialism, it feels natural and authentic.

The creative expression of Life keeps expanding and redefining itself in all its beautiful colours through a race of people with a historical and present lived experience of deep pain due to multi-generational enforced suffering. The uprising of the Spirit was and is a heartfelt, dynamic response to oppression that is ingrained in our bodies and DNA.

Alongside this, the voice in me can reflect a musical diversity allowing a space to communicate effectively in the sound language of the listener. I do sing other styles not recognized today by the general society as part of my heritage, for example country music. This happens without effort, that when the song comes through me in a style that one might not have associated with a black singer, it flows and is also performed with some measure of authenticity that is not practiced. It's as though my voice becomes a conduit to hopefully open hearts through the songs of different cultures. Soul songs can be found in every genre, I always say.

It's interesting that I was apparently to be guided by experts during my undergraduate program, how to sing in the classical operatic style because the natural tone and purity of my voice attracted attention when I was a teenager. It was explained that I had only to put myself under a teacher's tutelage and my voice would expand.

In actuality, during my experience at university, my natural voice became more contracted to the point of constant raspiness and discomfort. I left school so discouraged and confused but when I couldn't see the way forward, I fell back on the songs of the black culture where periodic raspy sound wasn't universally disregarded as poor singing. I didn't need to think about it. I did this on my own and also in the religious setting where I created and expressed myself through music that uplifted my soul regularly.

There was a diminishing of wrapping myself into knots that was happening as I tried to learn opera. Singing was just a natural unfolding of what was already within me as part of our creative inheritance. When learning classical repertoire on piano no longer inspired me to focus all of my energy into that one area also during my teens years, I started to embrace playing piano by ear and learned in a simple way how to accompany myself as I sang. I created head arrangements for cover and original songs and I maintain that practice until this day.

I can read music and that is something I do appreciate, however I prefer to play by ear when I am supporting myself with the piano as a singer. I hear and feel what to do within the framework of simplicity, not due to thinking and studying every passage from sheet music beforehand. This may not make me the most virtuosic player, but I can deliver a performance that communicates the essence of the song.

I enjoyed listening to a lot of music when I was growing up. This was of constant, comfort to me and I'm glad my parents had so many records and a record player to listen to them on. As a child, I was aware that not everyone had these devices and felt blessed. Even so, many people regardless of socio-economic status had at the very least access to a radio.

Music as a natural legacy of self-expression rose up and out of beings in an organic way before the idea of the formal lesson in the classical European style as something desirable took hold in the working classes. The desire to emote through sound and song comes out in various ways.

In my home, my Dad loved to listen to music however rarely sang along. However, he loves jazz and having those sounds in my environment was normal. Alternatively, my Mom was singing all types of songs while she cooked, cleaned and even sometimes when she got upset, she would sing louder... ha! Her voice was a constant go to in-between her other forms of 'communication' and also not unusual in our house. Being Trinidadians, they both also expressed themselves creatively through dance to our culture's native music, calypso and soca.

I worked at classical music learning very diligently as a child and as a youth because I enjoyed the challenge. It wasn't something my parents had to force me to do. Even so, there was a point where I desired to release and go back to freely expressing myself in song and this approach removed thinking to evoke something dynamic.

Later when I almost lost my voice, after trying so hard to sing well in the opera style during my undergrad, I stopped working on those pieces and gradually reconnected to other songs until it started to heal and expand. After this, through persistence I found one or two teachers along the way who could help guide me in that foreign style and then most of the growth seemed to come through my own focused study. I continue to learn how to produce my natural sound for opera because I am curious and feel I'm led to share this music as well.

For me, to express with the voice is to capture what was created by the writer combined with how my soul feels when I connect to that song at one moment in time. When I am singing another composer's piece, I do not rehearse the interpretations of that song by other artists, as to me that is not fun. There are some stylings expressed by great artists in the moment of creation that are so iconic that it's challenging to remove the hearing from the memory and not copy them.

Think about all of the Whitney Houston interpretations that generations of singers that came up after her have felt they had to deliver in exactly the same way and preferably in her key, as some type of validation of their success as a vocalist, especially if they hit all of her melismas verbatim. It's a tricky balance as isn't it said "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?" I feel if another's artistry is directly imitated, we can acknowledge the source as a point of respect and ethics. Why not, give a shout-out to those who in the flow of their creativity revealed inspirational improvisations and deliveries of songs?

Apparently in the education system, it is a long-standing accepted process to teach the solos of the greatest jazz artists of all time, singers and musicians. The solo lines have been directly lifted from historic recordings and then written-out (transcribed) into books for students. I am assuming this is a method to be used as a guide and help them learn the jazz language before they fly on their own magical carpet of creation in the moment of performance although, I don't know as I didn't attend a college program in that area.

Karaoke is one thing and being an artist is another and if great interpretations of other artists are studied and directly reproduced on stage, does this allow for the surprise of what naturally wants to come out through us as various, beautiful unique expressions of Life?

We can definitely paint new murals of creation to jazz standards and other songs, if we dare and that's the space I aspire to be in when I perform. Here's to the journey!

bottom of page