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Robin McKelle: “I fell in love with Gregory Porter’s voice.”

Robin McKelle with blue eyeliner and her hair up, looking up and to her left.
Robin McKelle: through the looking glass.

Rochester, New York’s Robin McKelle has a rich heritage: two jazz albums recorded with a big band, one featuring duets with Lee Fields and Gregory Porter, one dedicated to the sound of Memphis. The Looking Glass, her sixth, rooted in blues and soul, breaks new ground. “The songs are more intimate, the music more reflective,” she says.

How did your album The Looking Glass come about?

I thought it was time for me to record an album without a concept. I wanted to write songs and record them with no presumption of what they should or should not sound like. The title is a double entendre, because while making the album, I was doing a lot of self exploration and was forced to look deeply into who I am and what I really wanted to say.

Steve Greenwell is the producer.

Steve has been working on records for over 30 years and has an expansive knowledge. He’s famous for working with Joss Stone, so I originally was drawn to him because of that. He helped me to allow the music to evolve organically and really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. He challenged my songwriting process and made me think about every line.

What was the first concert you went to and did it have an effect on you?

It was Whitney Houston, and I remember crying and this overwhelming feeling came over me. I wanted to be on that stage. I was around 12. I think it helped me to see what the possibilities were for the future.

You started out as a jazz singer.

I actually started out singing R&B and soul. I was into Aretha, Etta James, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. It wasn’t until I went to college that I got into jazz. I needed to choose a major, and jazz seemed like a better fit than opera or music theatre because I could see myself on stage with a band and maybe eventually becoming an artist. Of course in my jazz studies, we got heavily into the blues tradition and sound.

You collaborated with Gregory Porter and Lee Fields on 2012’s Soul Flower.

I was a huge fan of Lee and really wanted to sing with him. I was blown away by his beautiful gentle spirit and totally sidelined by his voice. I had heard Gregory singing at Smoke in New York. I fell in love with his voice. I wrote Love’s Work, especially for he and I. It was inspired by the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack album.

The Looking Glass is out now on Doxie Records.