22 Mar 2017

Getting the 'Respect' she deserves

From RNZ Music, 12:00 pm on 22 March 2017

'Queen of Soul' Aretha Franklin gets the 'Respect' she deserves from four of New Zealand's best soul singers: Annie Crummer, Bella Kalolo, Esther Stephens and Aaradhna.

Esther Stephens, Annie Crummer, Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo

Esther Stephens, Annie Crummer, Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo Photo: Alex Behan

‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone rates her as the greatest singer of all time, she has had 112 songs in the Billboard charts and sold 75 million records - and now The Auckland Art’s Festival is showing her some R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Four of New Zealand’s finest soul singers, Esther Stephens, Annie Crummer, Bella Kalolo and Aaradhna will team up for three nights at the Spiegeltent in Aotea Square to bring new life to Aretha’s music, complete with a big band ensemble.

It’s 50 years since ‘Respect’ was released and each of the singers has their own strong attachment to the Queen of Soul. Crummer became inspired by her during a Wellington summer.

"When ‘For Today came out, way back in the caveman days people would say to me ‘Oh you must listen to Aretha a lot’ but I hadn’t actually heard of her, which is unexpected I know.

"But I remember a most wonderful summer with my Wellington peeps and we listened to Young, Gifted and Black the whole album just recycled over and over. Pakeha people introduced me to Aretha Franklin – ironic I know!"

For Aaradhna this show has truly deepened her understanding and appreciation of Aretha’s music because, by her own admission, she mostly grew up idolising male vocalists. 

"I’ve always been into male singers, I listened to a lot of Sam Cooke and I didn’t start getting into real lady singers until I did a covers album. Then I did ‘Natural Woman’ and it ended up being one of my favourite songs to sing.

"But I don’t think my really powerful Aretha moment came until we started doing this, until now. I’ve grown to have more appreciation for Aretha’s songs because wow she can sing and the fact that we have to be so high all the way through and so loud and powerful, I’ve got a whole lot of respect."

Bringing the show together with four such strong independent voices could have been a challenge, but the joy of working together exudes from each of them.

Stephens says they developed a quick and easy rapport.

"We’ve all crossed each other's paths before at various times and there are relationships that have existed and new ones that are being formed. I know I’ve found it so incredible singing with these other women and how the harmonies sit and how they blend, that stuff has actually come really easy, which is very cool."

"When that happens as a singer, it is the treat of treats," adds Kalolo.

Esther Stephens, Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo respectfully snapchat in between rehearsals

Esther Stephens, Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo respectfully snapchat in between rehearsals. Photo: Alex Behan

Crummer, who Kalolo affectionately refers to as ‘mama’, has nothing but respect for her more junior contemporaries.

"It’s fantastic because the learning in music, in all the aspects of it, it goes on for infinity so for someone like myself who has been around for a gazillion years I never stop learning. I’m pimpin’ all these women’s ideas, I’m writing everything down, I’m going to steal all their licks." 

Stephens agrees: "It’s the musical equivalent [of] cheerleaders, and they’re all in a formation and they’re all on each others shoulders and then they throw someone in the air and then they all run around and they catch that person."

That support is an essential part of the show and the singers are all feeling a responsibility to both Franklin’s legacy and the legacy of the songs.

"There is a lot of expectation and that expectation is actually a great motivator because you want to do the very best you can and you’ve got to respect these songs. I nearly pulled out of doing ‘Oh Me Oh My’ because I didn’t feel that I could give it the love it deserves. Everyone knows how Aretha sings and please don’t expect us to emulate her, that would probably be the dumbest thing to do. We just have to do the best that we can."


RESPECT Setlist Photo: Alex Behan

Among the mighty Aretha Franklin cannon the singers are performing, they'll also be showcasing a few of their own original songs.

"It’s not about standing on stage and delivering a political message or any sort of feminist doctrine. I think if people come with open ears and - without wanting to be cheesy - open hearts they will receive what’s in those songs.

"We have the incredible privilege of performing Annie’s song ‘Language’ and can I just say it is a full body experience. Singing those harmonies is so powerful. Actually I don’t even know the meaning of the Māori words in that song but I’m feeling those harmonies like ‘Yes Jesus’!"

For Kalolo it’s an emotional moment.

"That song was an essential part of me growing up. I literally was in my room at the beginning of the week of rehearsals and I was listening to ‘Language’ just thinking about being able to sing it with a national treasure. Honestly Mama it’s a stupid privilege."

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