Capathia Jenkins & Louis Rosen: One Ounce of Truth

For many Broadway buffs, the idea of pairing poetry and song starts and stops at Cats, The Musical.  But composer Louis Rosen and Broadway vocalist Capathia Jenkins prove the possibilities are endless.  

Following their collaborative successes of musicalizing the words of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, they return to PS Classics introducing...

One Ounce of Truth: The Nikki Giovanni Songs, which combines Jenkins' sultry and soaring voice with Rosen's inspired melodies into a fresh and enthralling 13-song mix of jazz, blues, soul, classic pop and American roots music. It's a lush and memorable collection based on the vivid words of Nikki Giovanni, the renowned female African-American writer and poet.

After previewing the album at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe on April 29 & 30, Jenkins and Rosen celebrate the release of One Ounce of Truth with four concerts at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York on May 12, 18, 19 & 26. For tickets, please call 212-967-7555 or visit www.joespub.com.

Eugene Lovendusky: Good afternoon; thanks for chatting with BroadwayWorld and congratulations on the release of your new album, "One Ounce of Truth: The Songs of Nikki Giovanni" on May 13. To celebrate, you've got some concerts lined-up at Joe's Pub.  What kind of sounds and vibe are the audience going to enjoy at those evenings?

Louis Rosen: The music is very jazzy, bluesy and pop, even some folk-influence; and we've just got some of the best musicians in the city playing with us!

Capathia Jenkins: We will have our six-piece band with us, which is new for the people who've seen us before (we've been mostly working as a quartet).

Louis: The music runs a whole gamut; light and joyful to some songs that are really quite emotional. It's a group of songs – each song stands completely on its own; but together, it's a cycle of being in love and the loss of it, the joy, the terror.  Also there's a journey from childhood to old-age. It's emotionally pretty-rich.  And C.J. [Capathia] just sings the heck out of these songs!

Eugene: Louis, you've made yourself an impressive calling-card as a composer, shaping original music naturally around pre-existing poetry.  How did you discover that the works of Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes could fit to a melody?

Louis: I used to work in the theatre and I had the great fortune of gaining a reputation of someone who could write vocal-music to words like Shakespeare, Brecht and Ibsen. I think dealing with those words really taught me how to make existing-words sing as if they were written to be sung with that particular music. That's the idea. If you tell someone you're making songs from poems, they may think you're making something classical or erudite. But as you can hear in "One Ounce of Truth," the style is pure popular song.  Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou each wrote with terrific imagery but in the natural rhythms of our American speech. They all grew up listening to jazz, gospel, blues – and it shows in their poetry. The goal is to make it sound like their words and this music were meant to go together.

Eugene: Intriguing! Nikki Giovanni – called the Princess of Black Poetry – might not be the most house-hold name. For those of us less poetically-inclined, can you tell me a little more about her specific voice?

Louis: Nikki made a reputation in the late-1960s as a more outspoken, angrier black voice. Her poetry was very political. I've read her for years, but one of the things that drew me to wanting to make songs was that, over the years, she has mellowed some. There is a terrific generosity of spirit in her work. Instead of the anger of her youth turning into bitterness, she has a more open sense of the world. She's a joy to work with – we've kept her involved every step of the way.

Eugene: She's had a hand in making the album?

Louis: She really understood the process and I think she can see that we love the work. And what we're trying to do is something utterly faithful to her spirit – to bring it alive in a new way.  She's excited that we're also going to bring her work to people who don't know it.

Eugene: Capathia, what is it like for you to be shaping your voice around these words and Louis' music?

Capathia: The greatest thing for me about working with Louis is he has a way of writing that, for me as a singer and interpreter, it's the easiest thing in the world because I can literally sing the ink right off the page. His music is seamless in terms of the feeling and emotion of a song. It's fantastic! I feel this record is our best work to-date.

Louis: When I write these songs, it's C.J.'s voice that I'm hearing. There are some songs that I wouldn't have written the way I wrote them, unless I knew she could sing it. There's a song called "I Want To Sing" that spans two octaves. She makes it seem effortless. The more we work together, I know how to make something for her but we also keep challenging each other – and that's fun.

Eugene: That's excellent. Rewind time and tell me how you met!

Capathia: I was in one of the workshops for The Look of Love.  My musical director was David Loud.  Louis was looking for a female singer for his Langston Hughes project. David Loud recommended me, so I started working with Louis. I loved the music immediately. One day Louis said to me: "I think I'd like to write for you."  I thought: "Oh, that's great. But you know, some people say that and you don't hear from them."  But he did! He called about two months later and he had started to set the work of Maya Angelou – one of my favorite poets. I went over to hear some of his stuff, and the rest is history.

Eugene: And back to this album, I listened to some of those tracks… and you're right, it's a great array of style.  For example, "The World" is so smooth and whole, with a thrumming bass-line.  The chorus of "Telephone Song" almost sounds like a 1960s sock-hop. How do you decide what feeling pairs with a poem?

Louis: Primarily, it's intuitive. It's not a great intellectual process. It's my emotional response to the poem and what I want to communicate. When a song-writer works with someone else's words, they become his words. I wouldn't choose something I wanted to set unless it said something I wanted to say. And also, I had no fear about being eclectic. I'm comfortable with and have played a variety of music – and I felt it would be to the advantage to the project to let each song find its own expression.  There's some Latin jazz, there's some swampy blues…

Eugene: And "That Day" is just plain sexy!

Louis: [laughs] It's a kind of contemporary riff on an almost 1920s Tinpan Alley song. When she first heard the song, my wife said: "So many songs are talking about other things, but what they really mean to talk about is sex." And this song is talking about sex, but really it's about so much more.

Capathia: [laughs] That's what makes it so much fun!

Louis: The fellow who wrote the liner-notes said it was "Part of the Life Force!" More than anything, it's a sense of intuition and not being afraid to let the intuition lead to where it will not be censored.  And to know it will be shaped around me and C.J. and it'll find its wholeness in its variety.

Eugene: Capathia, in the title-song, "One Ounce of Truth," you exude this painfully beautiful yearning around Nikki's words. What's the story behind this song?

Capathia: I feel like it's all about a journey through life – you're born, you're raised, and you smile through your life. You've lived a good life. And when you're gone, you hope people will continue to smile.  I've gone back and forth on what's my favorite song on the record [laughs] and whenever I get to that song, it's so joyful but heart-wrenching, it's so well-crafted.  It's a singer's dream.

"One Ounce of Truth" will be available in stores and online on May 13, 2008. Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen celebrate the release with four concerts at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York on May 12, 18, 19 & 26. For tickets, please call 212-967-7555 or visit www.joespub.com.

Photos: Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen

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Eugene Lovendusky Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF Bay Area, his love for the arts bloomed at an early-age; a passion that has flourished in NYC, where Eugene now lives and works. He is a proud member of the New York City Gay Mens' Chorus.