"I didn’t set out to write a protest album. I was just trying to write what I was seeing in and feeling about the world" We chat with Rissi Palmer
Hey Rissi, how’s your day going? And where are you right now?
Hey! I’m good. I’m writing to you from my home studio/office in Durham, NC.
What started the process of making Revival?
I wrote the first song for the album, 'Soul Message' in 2010 actually. I loved the song but it didn’t sound like anything else that I had written before, so I shelved it. In 2014, I wrote the second song, 'Seeds', after the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprisings in Ferguson, MO. From there, I was focused on creating music that reflected the world and my life at that moment. 'Soul Message' had finally found a home and Revival was born.
How do you approach the studio process?
I gather the songs and make sure that I have a clear, concise message running through them. Once I know I have the songs, I test drive them in live shows with my band, working through any writing or musical issues. When I feel like they’re road-tested and ready, I reserve the studio, go in and track with the band. We get the basic tracks done first and then do overdubs. After that, I’ll bring in “special” pieces, like strings, horns, or group backgrounds, i.e. pieces that aren’t a part of the touring band. Once the tracks are finished, then I sing vocals.
Do you have the songs written fully beforehand, or do you work on them in the studio?
I always have the songs fully written out. I have only ever written a song in the studio once or twice.
What’s your process for writing songs?
I’ve learned that if I sit down to write something, it’s not going to happen. I have to have a spark of some sort in order to write. I can have a melody or a line for years; if I don’t have a fully fleshed out idea for it, it’s not getting written. I like to write my truth. Most of my songs have happened to me or someone close to me.
In light of the Black Lives Matters activism, do you feel the album takes on a different meaning?
I didn’t set out to write a protest album. I was just trying to write what I was seeing in and feeling about the world. My heart and mind have been parked on social justice and it came out in my writing. It feels like it could have been released right now, which makes me sad. I wish this wasn’t reality.
‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a beautiful song, what can you tell me about it?
Thank you! I had been humming the “Nah nah nah” line for months but wasn’t sure what it was yet. It wasn’t until I was sitting at the table with my co-writers Deanna Walker and Rick Beresford, watching the March for Our Lives rally on television, that the idea came to me. I admired how strong and confident these kids were and was inspired. The song is about finding and using your voice. That starts with taking a deep breath in and letting it out.
The funk and brass section in ‘Speak on it’ is amazing, what can you tell me about that song and how you came up with the sound?
That’s the first time I’ve ever used horns on a record, it was great! My dear friend and jazz artist Al Strong played all the horns and wrote the arrangement. As for the song, musically I was inspired by a song by an artist named Bernhoft and the idea of a New Orleans second line. Lyrically, I wanted to make a statement about allyship and how important it is for EVERYONE to stand up for each other. It can’t just be those affected, it has to be all of us.
‘You Were Here’ is a really personal song, how difficult was that to write and record?
In June 2018, I experienced a miscarriage. It was one of the most painful and isolating moments of my life. I was heartbroken to learn how many of my friends and family have suffered this loss silently. We wrote this song in honor of them and the sweet little soul my family lost.
How did you choose your producer?
Revival was produced by Brian Owens, Shannon Sanders, and myself. Brian and I worked together on a project he did a couple years ago called “Soul of Cash” and I loved his production style and choices. I asked him immediately to produce my project. Shannon and I have worked together since I was 20. He has produced on every project I’ve done, with the exception of the children’s album. He just knows me and I trust him.
What’s the best thing about the whole process?
The best part is watching all the songs come to life. To see a song go from being an idea in my head or a voice memo on my phone to a fully produced and orchestrated song is pretty amazing. It blew my mind the first time I walked into a studio and it still does to this day.
And the worst?
I guess it would be the way I sometimes second guess myself during the creative process. I’m a perfectionist so I can get hung up on little things.
Where do you find you get the most inspiration for your songs?
Real life. All of my songs come from my life experiences.
If you could choose one song to record a cover version of, what would it be, and what kind of treatment would you give it?
Hmmmmm… I have always wanted to cover 'Cream' by Prince. I do it in my shows live but I’d love to record it like he did it on his Musicology tour.
Of all the songs you’ve recorded so far, which is the one you think represents you best right now?
I think 'Seeds' is the best representation of me.
Gender, race, and general diversity are much discussed in the music industry, what’s your experience of being treated differently because of your gender or race in your industry?
It’s been a mixed bag. As far as my ethnicity is concerned, when I would tell people I wanted to sing country music, I would get either a surprised reaction, a pat on the back, or told that I was crazy and should pursue other music. People would say things like “I didn’t know black people liked country music” or “That’s white people’s music”, stuff like that. I once had a security guard try to keep me from walking on stage because he didn’t believe that I was supposed to be there. I’ve been called everything but a child of God lol. My publicist taught me early on not to read the comments and I don’t.
In the same breath, people have been incredibly kind and supportive of me and I’ve been afforded opportunities that some of my peers never had. I’ve just learned to stay focused on my mission and my passion. Anything that takes away from that is a distraction. I know who I am and what I bring to the table.
Have you noticed a difference at all in the time you’ve been releasing music?
Well, I think we’re in a time where artists feel more freedom to discuss the issues they face behind the scenes or that they feel strongly about. When I started out, artists would be discouraged from speaking out about certain issues because it may alienate fans. I see that changing for the better.
Give me a flavour of the kind of music you were listening to while writing and recording the album.
I created a playlist while I was recording and writing that I would listen to. Some of the songs included 'Be Real Black for Me' by Roberta Flack & Donnie Hathaway, 'Son of a Preacher Man' by Aretha Franklin, 'Walking in the Sun' by Chaka Khan, 'River' by Leon Bridges, and 'Wear Me Down' by Shayna Steele.
Rissi also performed for us live from her living room. If you want to watch the show, and you really should, check it out below. You can buy or stream her album Revival from all good (and most not so good) services now, including Tidal and Spotify.