Alfa Anderson, a former member of the acclaimed band Chic, nominated for the eleventh time in 2017 for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is one of the most inspiring and humble people I have had the pleasure of speaking with. Having lived a career in music most can only dream of, she remains grateful not only for the incredible experiences she has had but also for the mentors in her life who have selflessly helped guide her throughout her career. April 20th, 2017, Alfa released the first single, When Luther Sings, from her first ever solo album From My Heart, due to be released July 7th, 2017. She has so wonderfully incorporated the sounds of her life into this beautiful tribute, to the one and only Luther Vandross, a man who helped open the doors to the endless possibilities in her musical career. To have found her voice at an age when most would give up is a testament to a woman whose love of music, was and is, is a never ending journey.
When did you know your calling was music?
I can remember growing up playing music and hearing family members say, “Turn that music down. Are you playing that song again?” and saying to myself, “I don’t want to be one of those people who grows up without music in my life.” Even then, I recognized the beauty in the healing power and magic that came from music.
At what point did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
Growing up in a southern family, there were things that were considered more important than music. Music was really a part of the social graces and not anything you made a living from. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I realized people actually made a living doing this. Some of the first people I met were Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton, Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark, Nat Adderley, Jr., and Thelonious Monk. These were people who had music in their bones and they understood the power of the creative arts. Music was all they ever wanted to do. They were really doing things on a grand scale and I was like, “Wow, I never knew this existed and I think could actually do this for a living.”
So what did those early days in New York look like for you as an aspiring artist?
Looking at it now, I realize how fortunate I was to have the experiences I had early in my career. It was amazing! I arrived in New York when the music scene was very vibrant, and one of the first opportunities I had was doing a tribute to Cannonball Adderley called Big Man at Carnegie Hall. That performance got me my first New York Times review. I also performed a solo piece called Children of the Fire written by the legendary trumpeter “Hannibal” Marvin Peterson. It was a piece protesting the war in Vietnam which we performed at Lincoln Center. So my introduction to music was unbelievable, especially for someone whose only prior singing experience had been in my college choir. And to come to New York and get written up in the New York Times for some of the things I was doing, was truly amazing. Being around these people who just ate, slept, and breathed music was an incredible experience.
What role did mentors play in your career?
It was a pretty male dominated industry at that time. The person who introduced me to the men who became instrumental in my life was a female, but for me, my mentors were all men. I say now that I attended the Luther Vandross University and am now, in a position to be a teacher and mentor to others who are following a similar path to mine.
What a unique experience to be a young artist at that time, and a young female artist and be able to garner that sort of respect and appreciation from these men.
It was really wonderful. It was almost like a “sisterhood” and it was all about the music. But with all of the men in my life, the women who were in their lives were all there and we were all so supportive of one another. The first woman executive I met was with Atlantic Records, and that wasn’t until I was a member of Chic in the late ‘70s.
What is it like now looking back on this experience?
I need to sit down and think about this more and the impact it had on me. I didn’t see people like me in the role I was in. It’s like you are looking at the world, but you don’t see yourself at the head of it. I had the opportunity to work with Aziza Miller, who is a wonderful jazz pianist. She was one of the first female musical conductors and was the musical conductor for Natalie Cole when Natalie was really big. They co-wrote Le Costa. She talked a lot about what it was like for her back then and how hard it was for her to actually be a female musical director when there weren’t any, or very few.
You later became a teacher and principal. How did your musical experiences influence the way you taught in the classroom?
When I started teaching high school kids, I had to go through a quick paradigm shift. I was teaching the, quote unquote, classics and I realized if I wanted these kids to come into my world, I needed to understand theirs. I came face to face with the fact that I had to practice my own philosophy of education. A lesson I crafted when I was trying to teach things like similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, sonification incorporated a rap song. This was perfect! Once the students could pick them out in a rap song, they would be able to do the same in the classic works we were studying. It was amazing to see them make that connection, but it started with my opening my heart, my vision, my philosophy and really walking my talk.
Music transcends everything and it allows you to remember and think about things in a way that you might in a traditional teaching setting.
I worked at an arts school in Brooklyn, where I eventually became the principal and during my time there, we created a program that would become a national standard for arts integration and it was a beautiful experience. To be able to infuse the arts, music, and literature, was something I am very proud to have been a part of helping to design, develop and implement, and see the kids just blossom when they are exposed to that. It was just so perfect because it freed them and opened up their creative expression. I can’t imagine a curriculum without the arts, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. Doing this requires a lot of work and a lot of research to find these entry points in all of the curriculum while maintaining academic rigor. But, it’s worth it to see how students are able to broaden their scope of learning with the inclusion of the arts and learn how to depend on each other in a way they hadn’t before.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Performing. It’s an opportunity to share from your heart what you are feeling and you get to lift people out of the ordinariness of their lives. You get to put a smile on people’s faces and you see such joy. And when they give that back to you, you actually begin to feed off of each other. Performing is communicating heart to heart and is an incredible experience. I love that.
What do you see as one of the positive changes in the music industry?
The wonderful thing about the industry now is that as an independent artist, I have the ability to reach people without the intervention of a record company. As a woman of a certain age, I know there isn’t a record company in the world who would sign me, so this shift in the industry affords me the opportunity to share my music worldwide. It’s incredibly empowering.
What do you think is missing in music today?
It’s such a youth-driven industry and it’s based on mimicry. I remember when you could turn on the radio and you knew it was Elvis Presley, Little Richard, James Brown, or Willie Nelson because they had something unique and special to give. There came a time when real artists and creative people were not embraced by the industry.
“…there comes a time in your life when you just have to stand up and take action. No one has to teach you that; you have to teach you that.”
What has been being an independent artist meant to you?
I am beginning to look at myself as a business and the CEO of my own company. It’s not something I have ever done before because I always looked at myself as a commodity. This is actually the first time I have ever actually written songs and the first time I have actually gone into the studio on my own. The responsibility for producing, branding and everything is on me. Let me tell you, it’s not an easy thing. It is fraught with challenges, but I welcome them and embrace them.
What are some of these challenges?
One of the things I have really had to do is dig down and find out who I am and not be influenced by what other people like or what other people want me to sing. This is me, come what may, this is me. This is what is coming from deep in my spirit. Creatively it is a challenge, but at the same time, it’s also very empowering. I am learning and making decisions about budgets, press, branding, and understanding what ties everything together. These are some of the questions I have had to think about, and the interesting thing is that I never considered them before I started writing. I just started writing and I had no idea where it was going to go. Every step I take, another door opens. And sometimes, a couple of doors open and I have to make a decision, and it’s a wonderful metaphor for life. I am learning to stand up and am loving it!
Why did it take you so long, do you think, to get to this place where you were writing your own music and now having released your first single and the upcoming release of your first album?
I have been thinking about this actually and the truth is, even after all of these years, I still had doubt. I really wasn’t sure I could do it.
Where do you think the doubt came from?
I guess it’s because I never just stepped up and did it. It took me a while to learn that while I might have some trepidation about doing this, there comes a time in your life when you just have to stand up and take action. No one has to teach you that; you have to teach you that. Before, people had always done things for me. Here’s a song, sing it. Here’s a group, join it. Here are your clothes, wear them. Now, I have an opportunity to do all of these things myself. I have had some wonderful mentors in my life who finally said, “Alfa, enjoy the journey. Understand the wisdom of joy and the magic of fun.” These are the keys to making it all worth it. So every time something happens, good or bad in this journey, I remind myself, “Alfa, you are having fun. Keep smiling. Enjoy this journey.”
Why did you choose, When Luther Sings, as your first single?
I am best known for my time with the band, Chic. This happened because of Luther Vandross. He is the one who introduced me to Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards when I came in to do my first session and introduced to the band. It was later they asked to stay on to become their lead singer, and this was because of Luther. I wanted to pay homage to him and that’s why I did this one.
When is your album going to be released?
How have you seen conditions change for you as an artist over the years?
Today I am much more self-possessed and in control of what I want. This is very different in comparison to my early years in the industry. I also don’t feel the need to be in competition with another woman. When I was younger, I felt like I had to compete with other sisters and now, it’s about embracing the sisterhood and allowing us to be who we are. At this point in my life, that support from other women is the most empowering thing you can experience. I never had this before.
How have you faced growing older in the music industry and being able to keep the needle moving forward in your career?
There are a couple of people who have really impacted me and my ability to face growing older. Dr. Christiane Northrup wrote a book called “Goddesses Never Age” and Mama Gena, based in New York, also wrote a book about empowering women. They talk about this idea that “growing older is inevitable, but aging is optional.” This all just made so much sense to me because yes, there are challenges in growing older, but when we learn to talk to people openly and honestly about our struggles and the things that are happening in our lives, it’s the most freeing experience. I get to meet and interact with Goddesses from all walks of life, religions, and colors. We come together and share about what it’s like to be a female, what it’s like to age and how we can embrace each other. It’s so interesting that we have to be taught how to be women, how to own our femininity and how to understand the power and preciousness of being female. These individuals and these experiences have been hugely influential in my journey.
What advice would you give to young artists who may not fully understand what it’s like to pursue a career in the music industry?
Something I wish I would have known when I started was to value who I am, value my gift, and be my authentic self.
As an artist face the continuing demands of a career in music, there are times that it can be really overwhelming. What have you found that has helped you work through this over the years?
One thing that has really helped me be where I am today is learning to spend some time with yourself in stillness in order to think, to meditate about your dreams and your aspirations and to grateful for who you are and what you have. Sometimes we have to unplug and tune out the voices in our head and shut down the loop because that loop constantly plays over and over in your mind. One of the songs I wrote on this album is called, In the Stillness, and it’s about finding out who you are, what you are here to do and be comfortable with that.
What has been one of the most exciting opportunities you have had in your career?
I remember the first time Chic did a big arena show at one of the festivals. There were around 66,000 people in this arena and in my mind it was like 66 million. We were backstage, my knees were knocking like maracas, and we went on stage. We started with a Chic Cheer and couldn’t hear anything because there were so many people. There was this small delay, and then all of a sudden here comes this wall of sound of approval coming back at us. That was a very exciting experience. We finished our set and got in the golf carts to be transported back to the dressing room and the audience went crazy! They were stomping and screaming in the arena, and they actually had us come back on stage. George Benson was on the same bill as us and actually had to wait to go on because of us. It was an incredible moment.
What is next for Alfa Anderson in the future?
This little girl who set an intention a long, long time ago with her whole heart to always be involved with music in some way, has grown to love it so much, and I still want to be a part of it in some kind of way. I realize I am not going to be able to perform and do a grueling tour but there are other things I can be present through writing, lecturing and inspiring others. Others have suggested I write a memoir and I think it may be about time, and maybe this CD is just the first volume of my musical memoir.
What is one question you wish people would ask you?
How to be holistic and how to make it so that your mind, body, and spirit connections are always there. It’s important to understand that things don’t always happen sequentially, rather they happen simultaneously and learning what you need to do to keep yourself balanced when so many things different things are happening at the same time. I want people to know how I remain fully human in the midst of all of the things I am experiencing in my life.
New York friends, mark your calendars for July 7th, 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub! This will be a memorable night and would love to get your thoughts after the show!
Want to check out her current single, When Luther Sings, you can listen and purchase on iTunes.