Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday in Norwich’s Chelsea Parade District and making its way downtown by the evening, the Rose Arts Festival promises to offer a wide array of live music, creative workshops, innovative art, guided tours and even folks running races.
Over 30 acts will be performing including local country & blues artists Nick Bosse and Erin Harpe, Boston soul-blues singer Julie Rhodes, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Mary-Elaine Jenkins, Bella’s Bartok and Los Angeles Americana band Dustbowl Revival. All of this music and more will be coming from various stages around the city and the event is free and fun for the whole family.
Taking part is the Houston soul-funk powerhouse The Suffers. They’ll be rolling through as part of their tour in support of their June-3rd release of “It Starts With Love.”
I had a chance to speak with lead vocalist Kam Franklin ahead of the festival about how the band formed their sound, making this album with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, the atmosphere of Houston, thoughts on the music industry and getting ready for a busy few months of touring.
RD: The Suffers were originally envisioned as a reggae band and the band’s name is taken from a 1978 Jamaican film called Rockers. What inspired the shift from initially going from a reggae sound to the funky soul sound you’re currently known for?
KF: We were never completely reggae. We did reggae, ska and rocksteady covers of popular music when we first started, but we were always having fun with different genres from the jump. However, the shift started on our self-titled debut album where we started making originals and consulting with one another with the band being filled with so many songwriters and producers. It sort of became like this overall town hall of creative approach every time we wrote a song together and it went from that to a little bit more soulful direction on our second record “Everything Here.” That was a mix of the direction that we wanted to go and the producers that we were working with.
One being more of a gospel, R&B and pop producer and another also being pop-centric with a very extreme love for hip hop and R&B production as well. For this new album we have out, we wanted someone that’s a bit more reflective of our city. You have everything from big band, latin, pop and funk on the track “Don’t Bother Me” to straight up gospel and R&B in “How Do We Heal” to a pop ballad with ”I’m Not Afraid”. It wasn’t necessarily about having it be anything other than authentic, fun and a true representation of all the true instrumentation and musicianship that we have to offer.
RD: I definitely get the authenticity of it, especially with the new record.
KF: Thank you.
RD: Speaking of that record, what was the experience like making “It Starts With Love” and did you have any sort of vision or artistic goal during the creation process? Did it evolve over time?
KF: I would say our vision was to tell the truth down to the artwork. If you open the album up we have an illustration done by a friend of ours that says “How To Survive As A Touring Band” and there are notes about rest, communication, going home, taking risks, experiencing loss and really dealing with everything that has to offer. More importantly, continuing to focus on the lyrics, the truth that can be told with that and the storytelling that can be done with that. There was never an intent for the songs on this record to be the songs for the record. A few years ago we each went through a lot of life from having $40,000 worth of gear stolen, losing two of our founding members, parting ways with our longtime manager, kind of rebuilding our whole team and really having to relook at ourselves as artists and creators.
We really went through the ringer in terms of what being an independent band means in times like these and we got to see a lot of up and down, I mean a lot of down. When we started working on this record, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder in terms of how our second album was received. They say you’re not supposed to read reviews or anything like that, but some of them were kind of cruel.
One journalist I won’t call out because he honestly doesn’t deserve the fame, was really f***kin racist and he put us in a position where we were being pit against other artists in our genre. When we started working on this record, I wanted to be honest in terms of not just music, the industry and how hard it can be but also just an overall analysis on art as a whole.
I’m not sure if you got a chance to listen to the full record yet but we dive into everything from racism, gender equality and the pay gap that exists there, the overall lack of authenticity that shows up in all creative mediums due to the payola and what exists there. I call out a lot of journalists that have suffered in terms of what I believe a true music journalist is. A lot of these publications are no longer funding true music journalism and every reporter that I’ve talked to during this album cycle has had something to say about that because they’re having to compete with payola and the true art of writing is being lost. Listenership comes from community, word of mouth and old school checking in with our fans and coming to talk to them after shows. I really wanted to write a record that was reflective of everything that we’re going through right now.
I’m sure that there’s a bunch of topics that we missed but overall it’s an analysis of what’s happening in society and in our industry right now from me as a black woman.
RD: I definitely got that vibe while listening to the album. A main thing I love about The Suffers is that you have these diverse elements within the core of your sound that ranges from blues and country to Caribbean and Cajun styles. You kind of mentioned earlier how your music is a product of the environment of Houston. For someone who might now be familiar with what that city is all about, do you consider Houston to be a vast cultural cornucopia that maybe gets overlooked because it’s not Dallas and it’s not Austin?
KF: I wouldn’t say that we get overlooked at all when it comes to the overall reflection of its cultural diversity. For many times, Houston has been listed as the most culturally diverse city in the United States and that’s mainly because of the lack of zoning. Even though we deal with all sorts of things that can be explained in a different conversation in terms of how the districts are aligned, redlining and all this other stuff that has impacted some of the communities and neighborhoods there, Houston is still culturally diverse because of how easy it is to thrive there. We have the oil and gas industries there bringing people in from all over the world, it’s also a port city with one of the largest commercial exchange areas in the country. Also, it has so much to offer in terms of art, science with NASA being there, the music scene and it’s an amazing place to come up in but in terms of resources it gets overlooked a lot because it’s not Austin.
I think the same could be said about Memphis. It’s right next to Nashville and people consider Nashville to be the music capital there but if you really do what we do in this industry you know you’d be remiss to not acknowledge Memphis.
KF: Right? Even though it’s not in the same state. Same with Louisville just down the road, same with Asheville just down the road. You know what’s the first thing I think about when I think of Connecticut?
RD: What do you think of?
KF: Telefunken microphones in South Windsor. They’re one of the best microphone companies in the world, but most people have no idea that their United States headquarters is based out of there. It’s something that I think in terms of mainstream media and music consumption, when people talk about the best artists of all-time a lot of times because of how we’ve been fed our information and music the first folks that are mentioned are men. The first folks that are usually mentioned are white men and that’s not a reflection of what makes music and its history great, it’s everybody. When you really think about true music cities, I think that’s just the United States as a whole.
There are certain honeypots that produce certain types of sounds and probably more culturally diverse ones for sure, but I think Houston is definitely one of those. There’s definitely something in the water that continues to produce the type of art that it puts out. It’s all over the place from ZZ Top to Lizzo to Megan Thee Stallion to Beyoncé to Khurangbin, it’s all over the place and it’s beautiful to be a part of it.
RD: It sounds like it and you just named some of my favorite acts. I love ZZ Top, I love Khurangbin and I love Beyoncé. Who do you consider to be your biggest influence when it comes to singing and your vocal delivery? You have a lot of fervor and you have a very powerful & soulful voice.
KF: It’s a group, it’s a long list of singers for sure. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for singers that have control. A lot of it comes from gospel and R&B, I feel like when you hear me you can hear me riffing on Luther Vandross, Toni Braxton, Yolanda Adams, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, especially her and Tina Turner. Those are the two singers that I think are why I try to deliver with control but also with a growl while having fun. There’s also a lot of country singers like Dolly Parton with her control and her range inspiring me to be really subtle even though I have a weapon in my voice.
It doesn’t always have to be power, power, power, power. Sometimes it’s really fun and exploratory for me to sing in my lowest register because again I was inspired by Toni Braxton. Even though she has this incredible range, she’ll go out of her way to sing low on “Unbreak My Heart”. I’ve tried my best to emulate Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill and even Mariah Carey. I feel that she doesn’t get enough credit for her range.
I can do a subtle tone but I can also wail and growl while also taking from some of my favorite punk rock singers and metal singers. I’m a big fan of Serj Tankian from System Of A Down and Chino Moreno from Deftones, those rock singers have really influenced me as well where I knew that I always wanted to be a performer so I’ll always look at front folks, frontmen, frontwomen, your James Browns and your Joan Jetts. I figure out how to deliver whether I’m trying to sing the most beautiful note or just trying to get somebody to wake up.
RD: So, after the Rose Arts Festival, what are The Suffers plans for the rest of the year? You’ve had the new album out for a couple weeks now, so do you just plan on doing a lot of touring or do you have any other projects on the horizon?
KF: We are going to do some West Coast touring, we’ll be going up to Canada, then we’ll be coming back through Colorado and then hopefully we’ll be going to Europe in August. Hopefully after that we’ll be back East in the fall, we’ve been getting it all together so we can keep working and doing what we do best.