Shira Elias is having a huge year. As the yellow-clad singer of the fan-favorite Brooklyn-based funk outfit, Turkuaz, Shira and company are gearing up to release a brand-new studio album, Life In The City, on September 28th. Fresh off high-profile summer appearances at LOCKN’ Festival and High Sierra Music Festival, Turkuaz has solidified its position as one of the most buzzed-about projects in the live music scene. However, as an individual artist, Elias has similarly kept herself busy. The singer recently closed out a run performing in the musical Hair and has been tapped for countless all-star super jams across 2018, wowing audiences and holding her own among some of the biggest names in the scene, including Eric Krasno, John Medeski, Dave Schools, Tom Hamilton, and many others.
On September 29th, Shira Elias will lead her own set at the fourth-annual Brooklyn Comes Alive. Dubbed ‘Shira Elias’ Soul Tracks,’ the performance will find Shira joined by the entirety of power trio The Nth Power—drummer Nikki Glaspie, guitarist Nick Cassarino, and bassist Nate Edgar—in addition to James Casey (Trey Anastasio Band), Lyle Divinsky (The Motet), Steve Swatkins (Allen Stone), and Joél Gonzalez (Big Daddy Kane). This all-star band will explore soul music’s vast history, performing select tracks from across the decades while showcasing the diversity of this ever-evolving genre. During this special, soul-fueled set, fans can expect to hear songs from classic artists such as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, as well as modern soul masters Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
Live For Live Music had the chance to chat with Shira Elias recently. During our conversation, Shira gave us the lowdown on Turkuaz’s new album and the band’s first-ever live concert film, plus chatted extensively about what soul music means to her and what to expect from her upcoming performances at Brooklyn Comes Alive. Read on for the full interview!
Ming Lee Newcomb: Turkuaz is having a huge year. Can you talk a little bit about some of the highlights that you’ve had so far?
Shira Elias: Well, the most recent highlight that comes to mind is our LOCKN’ show, because that festival is so awesome. We did LOCKN’ two years ago for the first time, and it was just crazy. We were all nervous, and it was such a big deal. Now, two years have gone by, and we’ve done a lot of cool stuff and worked hard. This time it felt like, “Oh yeah. We’re definitely supposed to be here,” and it was a lot more relaxed. I don’t know if you know the stage set-up, but the stage revolves, and you get revealed to the crowd. We had such a great set because there’s such good energy in that festival. We stayed for P-Funk later that night, and it was just so awesome.
High Sierra Music Festival was also really great. We love that festival in California. There are such good vibes at that festival. It’s run super well, and they treat the artists amazingly, so that was a great highlight. What else can I think of? In New Orleans at Jazz Fest, we did a Paul McCartney and Wings cover set, with one of the guys from Wings, Denny Laine. That was a cool one.
MLN: Turkuaz has a new album coming out called Life In The City. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what fans should expect?
SE: Yeah, totally. Our last studio album, Digitonium, was very much a concept album; it was a little bit of a departure from the funk-banger, traditional, old-school Turkuaz. So I think now, this new album returns more back to our roots, but also is a culmination of all the work and all the time that has passed now. It’s sort of like an elevated version of where we have come from. We’re trying to give the people the funk party that people usually associate with Turkuaz and capture that energy of our live shows in the studio.
MLN: What was the process for creating Life In The City?
SE: This one was pieced together over time in a few different locations. Usually, with Turkuaz, people will come in with demos, and Dave [Brandwein] usually does most of the lyric writing. Then, the material just evolves from there, like the horns will put together their parts for their section. So there’s not really one way that we’ve done it; they’ve all come together in different ways. With this new album, we took our time and fleshed things out in an organic way. We had a lot of songs to choose from and spent time deciding the best ones that fit on this album.
MLN: What are some of your favorite tracks on the new album?
SE: That’s a good question. Well, I love the title single, “Life in the City”. I can hear it being played in a big arena, which would be super cool because it’s got this epic quality to it. There’s one track that’s newer—we’ve done it live once, I think—called “The Question”, which I’m partial because I get to sing lead on it, so obviously, that one’s one of my faves. Sammi [Garett] does this cool one that we’ve been doing live for a little bit called “Rule The World”. Josh [Schwartz] also does a bunch of stuff. So, yeah, it’s fun because a lot of it is being spread around this time.
Turkuaz – “Life In The City”
Ming Lee Newcomb: You’re also filming your first-ever concert film this weekend in Pennsylvania. Since it’s Turkuaz’s first one, what’s the band’s mindset going into it, and what do you hope for it?
Shira Elias: We’re all super excited. We don’t know 100% what to expect, and there’s a little bit of anticipation; we’re creating this thing that’s going to be lasting and hopefully represent this past era of Turkuaz, you know what I mean? The band’s been building and working super hard during this era, and we’re trying to move forward and shoot up to the next level—whatever the future of Turkuaz is going to be. I think it’s almost nostalgic because we’re trying to represent and capture what Turkuaz has been in the past, where we came from, and where we are now. We just want it to be genuine and just be like, “This is us. This is who we are,” and ultimately create that live, high-energy party vibe.
MLN: You recently celebrated your anniversary of moving to New York City. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to the Brooklyn music scene?
SE: Well, I moved to New York to do theater originally—I don’t know if many people know, but I come from a theater background. Things just organically shifted towards music, and I was doing singing and gigging stuff for a little while before joining Turkuaz. When I joined Turkuaz, I was pretty new to the whole jam scene in general. I got familiar with a lot of the staple stuff that we associate with the jam scene, like Phish and all that.
Because, at the time, I wasn’t super into or familiar with the jam genre, the thing that drew me in was the community, family, and positive vibe of everything—people cared about the actual music that was being made, how everyone was treated at all these shows. I think that really stood out to me and drew me in, as far as it being genuine. Also, because it’s New York City, the city is so saturated with music and bands, and any night of the week, there could be a million different things going on. When people choose to be at your show in New York City, they really want to be there, which is cool.
MLN: Speaking of your theater background, you also just were in a production of Hair. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it felt getting back into theater?
SE: It was so awesome. For the last four years, I’ve been so out of the theater world, which holds a very special part of my heart because I came from doing theater my whole life. This opportunity just fell into my lap on the one week that Turkuaz happened to be off this summer, so just to be back in that world was nice. It was such a blessing.
There’s something that is obviously so different and special about an entire theater sitting, being quiet, just watching you. It’s all about the story you’re telling on stage. Obviously, with live music, there are people listening, but it’s also about the social vibe of it—the dancing, the drinking, the people talking—so it’s not the same energy. I will say that I didn’t expect to be reminded as much of live music as I did. In a theater production, it’s so collaborative. Everyone has to work together as a family—the whole cast and crew. I feel a similar feeling with the band. With Turkuaz and our crew and all our team, everyone has to just come together to make this machine work. It’s nice to feel that. They’ve both still got that same beautiful community quality.
Ming Lee Newcomb: Doubling back to Brooklyn, you’re gonna be playing at Brooklyn Comes Alive in September. What inspired your “Soul Tracks” set? Can you just talk a little bit about what inspired the set and what you have planned for us?
Shira Elias: It’s partially a product of being so busy, getting to play the funky, crazy, high-energy music that I get to do all the time. However, there’s another side of my musical heart that belongs to soul music. When I started doing most of my music stuff in New York, it was in the soul-music vein, which is my biggest passion. I was thinking about what set I would want to do at Brooklyn Comes Alive, and obviously, soul music was the answer right away.
I wanted to do the set based off the whole “Soul Tracks” idea, tracing the evolution of where soul music came from and all the way to neo-soul and modern stuff from today. Basically, the set is gonna be a chronology of the history of soul music. I’ll put out a disclaimer that in 75 minutes, there’s only so much of soul music you can cover. So I’m just trying to touch on and focus on some benchmarks from the different eras of it all. Then, of course, I didn’t plan for it, but with the passing of Aretha Franklin and her being probably my biggest vocal and musical inspiration, I’d like to be able to pay tribute to her.
MLN: What is it about soul music that appeals so much to you?
SE: Soul music has always been the one genre for me that gets me going and gets me moving and feeling. I guess I could say it’s also the music that I feel the best singing. That’s how I know, even if I can’t really say what specifically it is about soul music that draws me to it. When I’m singing soul music, I feel the most like me. I don’t know, there’s definitely a history from the blues and some jazz that was all coming together in that era. It was a time of a lot of the Civil Rights stuff and people trying to get social justice, and there was a lot about love. I guess all the themes that it encompasses also speak to me? I don’t really know how to 100% articulate what it is about it, but it just feels so good. I guess if I had a straight answer that was one word, then it wouldn’t be as meaningful, but it just makes sense to me. It clicks.
MLN: What about Aretha Franklin draws you to her music?
SE: First and foremost, her name is The Queen Of Soul. She makes you feel everything. It comes from deep within the human experience, not just the riff you’re doing or how high the note is or whatever. When she sang, you couldn’t not feel it—no matter what. If you don’t feel it, you don’t have a soul, right? I think that’s ultimately the biggest thing for me: expressing yourself, telling a story, and communicating through your voice. Then, just gather creative things of hers, like her writing and her piano playing, and she’s a vocal monster. I could go on and on, because I can’t say enough about why she’s an inspiration. Also, as a human being, what she did for Civil Rights and for feminism and having a really tumultuous hard life and becoming a champion for humanity.
MLN: You’ve already talked about how you have a pretty limited amount of time to run through these various soul eras? How are you choosing other artists you’ll play for the set?
SE: With great difficulty. [laughs] It breaks my heart to have to leave out some really key figures, but again, there’s only so much time—we could have done 75 minutes of just one decade of soul music. Also, I want to showcase the band and the people that are in it. I have a huge long list of songs that I need to whittle down and see what would sound best, because we also have Lyle Divinsky and Nick Cassarino as vocalists. I want to find what best suits everyone and then what I want to sing. It’s hard because there are still these moments where I’m like, “God dammit, I can’t believe we left him out or her out,” but there’s only so much time. Maybe I’ll get to do a longer show of more soul music one day. Hopefully, I will.
MLN: How does it feel to be going from Turkuaz, which is a pretty big band with a lot of members, to moving front and center and taking on the role of bandleader for your own solo project?
SE: It feels awesome, and it’s definitely exciting to be out front and center. It’s just such a different dynamic. But, at the end of the day, even with being the front person for Soul Tracks, the thing that I love the most about live music is that we all work together as a team to create a show. Even though my name’s on it, it’s gonna be such a huge family effort. The people that I asked to be in the band, they’re some of the craziest, most amazing musicians who I respect so much.
Before I did Turkuaz, I hosted a weekly soul-music thing where I was the leader and the host. It’s a little bit like going back to that, which is super fun and exciting, but also I’m so excited to be a part of this Soul Tracks band—to have them help lift me up, and me do the same for them. I’m going to be front and center, but it’s also just going into a different collaboration. Turkuaz is my family, and that group dynamic is so comfortable. I get to do it all the time and have Sammi as my partner—that’s one dynamic that I live out a lot. It’s exciting because it’ll be cool to change dynamics and be part of a different family for a second.
MLN: You’re also going to be on the Prince tribute at Brooklyn Comes Alive, and you guys have already played as the “Purple Party” down at Jazz Fest. Can you talk about that first time when you guys all played together?
SE: Oh my God. It was so crazy. It was the last, last, last day of Jazz Fest, so, by this point, everyone was just A. exhausted and B. so comfortable in what Jazz Fest is, because it becomes your life. The Purple Party had so many musicians just rotating all around on stage, and it literally was like a huge party. Obviously, it’s Prince, and we had MonoNeon, who played with Prince, so that was also crazy.
Purple Party – “I Feel For You” – Maison – New Orleans, LA – 5/6/18
Ming Lee Newcomb: What are your favorite Prince tracks?
Shira Elias: My favorite Prince track—which I think I might get to sing, I’m not sure a hundred percent yet—is “Call My Name”. I don’t think you can find it on Spotify though. I looked for it because of Prince’s death, but it’s this soul ballad that’s like, “I just can’t stop writing songs about you. I love you so much. And, I love it when you call my name!” It’s so sexy.
MLN: Down at Jazz Fest, you were also a late-minute add to the “Daze Between” shows.
SE: It was more the day of, basically. It was very exciting for me. It was the first time I ever did anything with Eric Krasno, and, we did this duet for a Jerry Garcia song. Dave Schools was playing, and it was, like, a new group of people that I haven’t played with before, but I’ve always admired. Everyone was just so awesome and sweet and welcoming. Who else was on that? Tom Hamilton and John Medeski! Everyone was so sweet and these giants of the scene. I felt very honored to be asked to be a part of it. For sure.
MLN: To close things out, can you talk about what it’s been like to go from a relatively green musician in the scene to a known figure?
SE: I mean, it’s beautiful, and it’s amazing. I feel so lucky that all this has happened and that I have been embraced the way I have, you know? I think that having Turkuaz work so hard and grow as a band and in popularity, I have taken that model into my own individual career. Basically, I’ve just been working as hard as I can and following what feels right and true to myself, and I think that people can see that. I’m super lucky to be developing these relationships with all these other artists and musicians and being truly part of this community. I mean, all I can say is grateful. Like, it’s been amazing.
I think also this scene is hungry for more women. People just want more women to become a big part of the live music scene and they want to watch more women up on stage. So, I think that was also a vacancy that I was, or that I am trying to fill, you know? I don’t know. I think the scene is ready for more people like me.
Shira Elias will perform a special tribute to soul music, featuring Nikki Glaspie, Nick Cassarino, Nate Edgar, James Casey, Lyle Divinsky, Steve Swatkins, and Joél Gonzalez at the fourth-annual Brooklyn Comes Alive. BCA will return to Brooklyn’s beloved Williamsburg neighborhood on September 29th for an all-day music marathon at Brooklyn Bowl, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Rough Trade. Inspired by the vibrant musical communities of Brooklyn and New Orleans, Brooklyn Comes Alive brings together more than 50 artists, allowing them to carry out passion projects, play with their musical heroes, and collaborate in never-before-seen formations. For more information, ticketing, and to see the full list of performers scheduled for Brooklyn Comes Alive 2018, head to the festival’s website here.
Brooklyn Comes Alive is sponsored by Denver-based company, Pure CBD Exchange, which creates and sells a number of CBD/cannabidiol products (What is CBD?) from concentrates, tinctures, extracts, lotions, creams, and more. The use of CBD has gained much notoriety as of late, for use as both a health and wellness supplement and to treat conditions such as epilepsy, PTSD, cancer, and a number of mental disorders and is also used for anti-inflammation, nausea reduction, sleep aid, and more. Pure CBD Exchange was co-founded by Gregg Allman Band organist/keyboardist and Brooklyn Comes Alive musician Peter Levin back in 2017.
Pure CBD Exchange focuses on low-THC cannabis products with high CBD content. They work within the Colorado Industrial Hemp pilot program to distribute non-psychoactive tinctures, extracts, lotions, and more all over the world. The company has featured by companies like VICE, High Times, Leafly, and more.