A last minute interview arranged with Sista Monica was cut short after a troublesome sound check before her performance at Bayfront Blues Festival. We talked at length a couple of weeks after Bayfront by phone from her office in San Francisco.
Rebecca: When we talked earlier, I asked you what lessons your previous careers as a Marine and as a corporate recruiter had prepared you for in the music business. What did you need to learn?
Sista: I had to learn how to make myself heard. In the Marines, I learned to command a presence and communicate. When you're standing in front of a field of soldiers, you learn leadership. You learn how to connect in front of large groups. In the corporate world, I had to learn not to be afraid to talk to anyone. I had to learn how to negotiate and organize. I was a corporate recruiter, and then I had my own consulting firm in Chicago after moving there from Indiana where I grew up. I had to learn leadership, and how to lead by example. Those are things I needed to know in the music business. I had to know that as a performer and to run my music business. The blues world is changing. It's more rock-oriented. It's harder to maintain the integrity of your music when you've gotta sell product to stay in business.
Rebecca: That's what B.B.King did just to stay with it. When rock artists like
the Stones discovered the blues, he worked that connection to keep playing.
Sista: Exactly. I really try to stay with what's true for me, what comes
from my heart. I have such a big voice that I've got to keep that balance, keep the sound in context, so I have to do exactly what's right for me or it doesn't sound right. That's why we had so much trouble with the sound before Bayfront. I want it all to be perfect, to sound just right, and I want people working with me who know what they're doing, because it all has to come together.
Rebecca: You're pretty passionate about your writing. What is the writing
process like for you?
Sista: Almost always when I'm ridin down the road. It comes in spurts,
and whole songs come at once. Sometimes I imagine or remember conversations, and then there'll be a beat to them. Often the beat comes first, and then I add lyrics.
Rebecca: Do you drive with a tape recorder?
Sista: No. I remember it and then write it all down. I almost always write in
the car. Sometimes we write in the studio, but it's more pressured to write that way. That's how we wrote, "Somebody's Gonna Give Up Somethin' Tonight." I write alot with my producer, who plays keyboards.
Rebecca: At Bayfront, several female blues artists were featured, closing with
you. Why do you think there are more women in blues right now?
Sista: It's hard for me to speak to that. I don't break things down into races or
sexes. I see things from a more global standpoint. Alot of times, I've been the only woman onstage. That's one thing I love about jazz. There's more women in jazz, but I like jazz/blues. I listen to Tracy Nelson and I love Shamekia. Deb Coleman has really come into her own. And I love Koko Taylor's new CD. It's more important just to make a
contribution to the blues, because the blues heal. The blues are true to the heart. That's why I don't want to be a copycat in my music. I want to be writing my own.
Rebecca: Have you played much in Europe?
Sista: We've played alot in Belgium and Switzerland. We got to Tel Aviv
in February. In the United Kingdom, I was nominated Best Performer. They're not as separatist about music there. But I don't view awards as being that important. I'm more concerned with the preservation of the genre. I try to stay close to that in my heart and in my being.
Rebecca: It blows my mind that you love to perform in Turkey. What is that
Sista: We have a booker out of New York, and we stay at five-star hotels.
So, we get to a city, check in to a great room, go sing for a couple of hours, have a great meal, take a nice bath, and the next day, move on to another city. It's fantastic! See, most men don't care where they sleep or whether there's clean sheets on the bed. I'm very choosy about the arrangements for where we're going to stay when we're on the road, and
if it's not right, we don't do it. I grew up in a family of five kids and church was a big part of our lives. I had to work early in my life. I was a Popsicle girl. I'd leave every day
with popsicles, and had to be sure I sold all of them. Then on the way back home in the dark, I had to be careful that the money didn't get stolen. I learned early to have work ethics. I couldn't be weak-minded or weak-willed. I'm not the kind of person who grew up with self-doubt. So now, there's no second-hand clothes for me. It's all first class. But
really, it's about how I want to be treated as an artist - not to up the ante, and not to be uppity. I run into that alot. But just to have a standard about how I want to be treated. I try to give 110% because it all comes from the source. The source gives it to you and that's what gives you confidence. So that's what I want to give back.
Rebecca: I don't think of Istanbul as being a hotbed for the blues.
Sista: There's alot of blues lovers in Turkey. In Istanbul, they were lined out the door, with standing room only inside. We played for rooms of 1500 to 3000 people. We're going to go back there.
Rebecca: When are you coming back to Minnesota?
Sista: Let me see, it looks like we'll be at Famous Dave's on November 26,
and then I'll be in Fargo in December. We're not booking alot of club dates.
Rebecca: You don't get to spend Thanksgiving at home?
Sista: No, it's ok. We usually travel from Thursday to Sunday, and then come back home to San Francisco. And then, during the week, I run the label.
Rebecca: Where have you performed this summer?
Sista: We played alot in Canada this summer. We were in Toronto, and the Montreal Jazz Festival. And then we were with John Lee Hooker at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Rebecca: What's next?
Sista: We're going to be in Philadelphia and Oregon. We're going to be playing with George Thorogood and B.B.King. In November, our new CD comes out. It's going to be a gospel album, gospel from the old school.
Rebecca: It sounds like you play alot of festivals. There's a benefit in Minneapolis every year called "Heart and Soul" to benefit a camp for kids with Aids. It's run by Mick Sterling, who performed at Bayfront this year. As I listen to you, it seems like you'd be a great performer at next year's benefit.
Sista: We're always looking for great places to play, and people who love the blues.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Rebecca West, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.