Sista Monica is nothing if not a communicator......when asked for a follow-up to our Bayfront review of two years ago, she summed up efficiently with: "Fell in love, lost a ton of weight, working on my 6th CD. Life doesn't get any better for a blues woman."
Back then, I had urged both her and Mick Sterling that she would be a natural booking for Heart and Soul, and was elated that they had hooked up when I saw her name in the lineup for this year's Heart and Soul benefit. The gathering Saturday afternoon crowd came alive with Sista Monica's performance, combining some of both her older and newer songs, like Never Say Never, I Been Bamboozled and crowd favorite, Put It in the Crockpot, while throwing some James Brown funk in for spice, and she was glowing and gorgeous when she came offstage.
Rebecca West: Monica, you look wonderful. You seem so much.... lighter, so much happier than the last time I saw you.
Sista Monica: (Laughter). Well, I am lighter, and happier. It helps when the sound is right, too.
Rebecca West: Whatever you're doing is working. You seem alot happier onstage and off. In our last interview, we talked alot about travelling abroad, particularly
Turkey. After Sept. 11, what is it like for you to travel abroad now?
Sista Monica: Well, we stay closer together now. Before, we used to sort of go our own ways......Now we stick together when we're travelling. Security is alot tighter. Packing is a bigger deal now. Since September 11, people want to hear more
gospel. They ask for more gospel than they did before. They seem to need to
hear gospel more. People say they hear gospel in my voice.
Rebecca West: And where are you going next?
Sista Monica: The beginning of June, we're going to perform at the United States Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. The embassy is organizing the whole thing. For
the summer and fall, we'll be on the move alot, so watch www.sistamonica.com
for festival dates. We'll be at the New York Budweiser Blues Fest. And we're
still touring alot in Europe; we're going to Belgium in July, opening for James
Brown, and then headlining in the Netherlands and Italy and Belgium again in
the fall in seven concert venues. I haven't performed in Italy before, so I'm
looking forward to that.
Rebecca West: How are European and American audiences different?
Sista Monica: So far I've only performed at festivals in Europe, but the biggest difference I notice is that they listen to the lyrics and the content of the songs.
Europeans seem to value the roots of black culture more, and have a real hunger
for contemporary blues artists. I can really feel them listening. They're very
expressive of their emotions, and are often crying at the end of a song....In
America, festivals are more of a party. They want to dance and be in the
groove. Right now, it's festival time. I love to have fun onstage. Like playing
with George Thorogood.
Rebecca West: You and George Thorogood is an unlikely combination.
Sista Monica: He's really interesting. He's been around a long time. There's something about George and me when we get together onstage. We cause alot of trouble. There's something about him.....And the Neville Brothers. I'm going to come
back later tonight to catch them... But being on the road and travelling is hard
on your body. There are so many musicians who are in ill health by the time
they make it, with diabetes or heart problems. Those musicians worked so hard
and paved the way for the next wave of artists. I've watched these musicians,
and I've realized that I need to take better of myself.
I've watched my mother be in ill health, too. I realized that it's just me - and I'm getting older. There's gonna be no one around to take care of me. So I've started to take better care of myself, and I've lost a ton of weight, and I'm gonna keep going.
Rebecca West: You've come out with 2 more CDs since I've seen you. At Bayfront, you were just getting ready to record your gospel CD, and going back to those roots.
Sista Monica: My sax player, Ken 'Big Papa' Baker, died after our trip to Turkey in 99. We came back and he was sick and he went home to his family and died. And I couldn't go on. So, I quit. I quit everything. That's when I really went back to
my gospel roots, went back to church to listen to gospel, and from that came my
CD, "Gimme That Oldtime Religion.
Rebecca West: And your Live in Europe CD came quickly after that.
Sista Monica: I've been busy, and alot has changed. I had to stop being in the awards game, and the rush to produce CDs. The CD I'm working on now feels different. The way I'm getting ready for it is different. It's from a deeper place in me. I
do feel that this might be one that takes it to next level. I really feel my music changing - this CD will be quieter, more vocal. It'll be romance music for lovers."
Rebecca West: And how about writing?
Sista Monica: I still do most of my writing in my car. And Danny B., my
keyboard/producer and I still do most of our songwriting together. At the same time that my music is changing, my business has become alot more demanding. I spend alot more time with the press and marketing and just managing my label."
Rebecca West: Tell more about your band. You and your band are closer than most. How did you put your band together?
Sista Monica: As you know, I was a professional recruiter for 22 years, so I knew exactly how to find the musicians I was looking for. I did alot of research. All
of these guys had solid reputations as working musicians around the Bay area. Each one came to me with a strong referral, and was handpicked by me. I searched all of the clubs and festivals around San Francisco.
Rebecca West: I know that giving the best possible performance is something you strive for, so I know you must have had very specific criteria in putting your band together. What are those criteria?
Sista Monica: The first criteria is that they be clean and sober. That's a priority in order to be able to work together. From a musicial standpoint, another criteria lies in terms of them understanding gospel, which is where I'm coming from, as well as
those chord structures.....It's important for them to handle performing in front of
a LARGE audience. Some musicians can't get out of the clubs. It takes nerve to
play well in front of a large audience, especially at a festival. Lastly, they have to
be willing to travel around the world.
Danny Beconcini has been with me since '93. He co-writes my songs and
is my producer, in addition to all the keyboards. I first heard him on an off night
in JJ's Blues Club in San Jose, and that's the club where I really got my start.
Rebecca West: You have such a natural relationship with Danny B. The crowd loved it when you stopped the song after one of his soloes, and said, "Massage my back, please. Anyone who can play like that, well, I gotta have some of those magic
Sista Monica: My guitarist, Chris Cobb is from the San Francisco area, and has released his own CDs. His sound is more blues/rock based, which I like cause it can lend itself to a more Tina Turner sound.
Artis Joyce, my bass player, is from Stockton, and he's got that funky
thumping bass. He understands playing in the pocket, and being in the groove.
He came from Charlie Musselwhite's band.
Noel Catura was my original sax player from '92 to '97. Then he got
married and didn't want to travel as much, so for three years Ken played with us.
When Ken died, I thought alot about having a harp instead of a sax, but Noel
understood how hard it would be for me just to hear a sax, and he said, 'Listen,
we'll give it a try and see how it works.' He learned some of Ken's stuff. He
plays with us on one stops. When we're on the road longer, Noel stays home.
Lee Neal, my drummer, is the newest member of the band, but he's still
been with us for a couple of years. He came from George Duke's band. He can
hit em. You've only heard us at festivals where we have a very big sound. My
band is very versatile, depending on what type of gig we're playing, with some
acoustic guitar, and the brushes on drums, and Artis does more of a standup
bass sound. We tend to do more R & B for clubs and parties.
Rebecca West: There's still that pressure in the music business to put people into tight little categories. I liked what you said just now onstage that there's three things you love about the blues: there's no age, no sex, no race.
Sista Monica: "Sometimes I see the narrowness of blues, tending to focus on guitars, and all of this guitarwork. Maybe it's more comfortable to do that than to go out and talk about yourself. I want to add what I can to the blues, to stir the pot a
little. There's more to the blues than guitarwork. When I sing that song about
every woman having her 'bag of stuff' I can see every woman in the audience
nodding her head. And alot of the men are lookin around, wondering: 'really?' -
but I can see that some of the guys get it."
Rebecca West: Being an artist is tricky, because your art comes from out of you, out of some unconscious part of yourself. It's a risk to do that. It's gotta be scary to go out onstage and take the risk of being yourself. It takes courage to be that
Sista Monica: And my performances are very personal. I reveal alot about myself. My songs come out of my life, like the song about the crock pot. And I feel strongly that the music I'm working on for my new CD comes from an even deeper place
Rebecca West: In your email, you said you were in love. So - did you fall in love 'cause you were lookin', - or cause you quit lookin'?
Sista Monica: Cause I quit lookin.
Rebecca West: What happened?
Sista Monica: I said, I'm gonna clean my house. So, I cleaned my house, and one day, the phone rang, and someone said, do you want to go to dinner? Now I wake up in the morning now and I'm so happy! I just say, ' Thank you God!
I'm so happy! Maybe it won't last forever. Right now, it's all good!
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