Maybe something that you have often asked yourself is "What is neo-soul and nu-jazz," buzz words that seem to come up often now-a-days? These are terms that music writers like myself use to describe a new generation of soul and jazz artists, similarly to the way writers back in the mid-’80s called Bobby Brown the voice of new-jack FM radio. Singer/songwriter Cynthia Layne is an R&B/soul artist who believes that artists are not separated by generation gaps, because whether they sing like Natalie Cole, Deniece Williams, Macy Gray or Jill Scott, they have a voice that is universally R&B/soul and transcends their ages.
Cynthia asserts, "My opinion is that neo-soul is a hip term used to describe today’s music that creatively blends R&B, jazz and soul. This has been done for years; it now just has a shiny new name. I guess my music is considered neo-soul."
Her new album, Beautiful Soul, bridges the generation gaps of R&B/soul with songs that can be from any decade of music and adds some spontaneous freestyle vocalizing provided by her teenage daughter at the ending. Cynthia explains how her daughter came to be on the recording, "She came with me that day to the session and when we were done, she wanted to go in the sound booth and get on the mic. She was being her usually silly self, so without her knowing, Gary recorded the whole thing. Rob (Dixon) put some music behind it, did some editing and surprised her with it. We thought it would be a great way to end the record, and I was happy to include her in my music. And no, she doesn't want to be a singer, even though she really can sing. Maybe someday she'll have a change of heart."
Though Cynthia’s daughter may say that she has no intentions of becoming a professional singer now, she was around the same age that Cynthia was when she began singing in front of people. "I remember singing for my friends on the playground in middle school. At the time, Natalie Cole was popular and I remember singing her tune ‘I'm Catching Hell’ at the top of my lungs to my friends. After that they asked me to sing all the time. I was very shy and awkward, but something about music and singing made me feel good."
Cynthia reveals that she had, "No lessons, I am self-taught. I just always loved music and singing as far back as I can remember. I played flute in high school, hung out with other musician/band geeks," she smiles, "and was even in a couple of basement bands. I sang with the radio all the time, even the commercials. I think that is why I am so versatile today."
Her mentors were popular artists that she heard on the radio. "I listened to all kinds of music growing up. I loved Natalie Cole, Teena Marie, Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross, Angela Bofill, The Emotions, Aerosmith, Chicago, Cameo, Confunction...the list could go on and on. I would especially imitate Teena, Natalie and Barbara, copying and practicing their tone, phrasing and ad libs. I practiced in the mirror," she emphasizes, "a lot!"
She remarks about those experiences, "Early on, it was something that I enjoyed doing. As I got older, by the end of high school, I remember telling a friend of mine ‘I'm going to be a singer someday.’ I realized that music would always be a part of me and my life, no matter if it was becoming a major artist, being a sideman or background singer, singing on stage or off kinda like breathing is to living."
She reminisces, "I sang in several high school musicals and the school choir. My first accomplishment came after moving to Indiana. It is when I entered my first statewide competition and won! I think people were surprised because I was different than the other singers. If you didn't have a ‘gospel’ sound or do what I call a lot of vocal acrobatics, then people assumed you couldn't sing. One of the coordinators of the contest named me ‘Little Ms. Streisand’ because he thought I sounded like her. He still calls me that to this day," she glows with pride. "At the same time I had just joined my first R&B group that was the house band for a popular nightclub in Indy, and it just took off from there."
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Cynthia moved to Indianapolis for reasons that would give anyone the impetus to uproot their life. "Of course I moved following a damn man ‘cause I was in love," she guffaws. "I moved to Indy in 1985," she remembers.
What R&B/soul artist has not followed their own heart whether they have been classic, neo, nu, or progressive soul? Luckily, it was in Indianapolis where Cynthia met two kindred souls born in the zodiac sign of Pisces like herself, Reggie Bishop who is her bass, keyboard player and co-producer and Rob Dixon who plays saxophone and co-produces her albums.
She recollects how she met Rob, "Can't remember the exact year, I think in the early 90's, but I met Rob in lovely Puerto Villarta, Mexico. It's a wild story because we were stranded at a party during a hurricane. To pass the time he brought out his sax and I sang. We've been great friends ever since. Rob has been an inspiration to me. He is a prolific songwriter and a fantastic musician. He pushes me as a musician to think ‘outside of the box’ and to be myself. I don't know what I would do without him. Plus, we are both Pisces!"
She recalls, "My first solo album was released in 2000 called In Due Time. It's a disc of jazz standards that I was performing live at the time. My second solo album Reality was recorded in 2004. It has 2 covers: ‘Ain't No Sunshine’ and ‘What You Won't Do For Love.’ The other eight tracks are original compositions. It's a very good CD."
For her second solo album Reality, she expresses, "I picked the songs because I liked them. I wanted people to know that I am an artist, that I have my own style, that I am creative and sing my own material. I want others to feel my music and know it is coming from me and my soul."
For Cynthia’s latest album Beautiful Soul, she hooked up with a local Indianapolis label called Owl Studios, whom she is so happy to be working with and never rues the day that she signed with them. "Rob kept telling me about a new indie record label in town. He eventually arranged a lunch meeting with Al Hall, president of Owl. We talked and the rest is history. The staff has been very good about providing the basics to promote my record. I have a publicist and radio promoter who both have enabled my music to be heard by a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have. The next step for me is to find a booking agent."
She beams about going into the studio to record Beautiful Soul, "I was ready for something new. We had been playing the cuts from Reality for a long time and it was just time for a change. My younger sister had just passed away; I had just signed my deal with Owl Studios. I wanted to sing and write something new and fresh. It was time."
She points out about the musicians who worked with her on Beautiful Soul which includes Rob Dixon, Reggie Bishop, and her drummer Kenny Pheleps, "We've all worked together for a long time, are friends and have great chemistry together. We've grown musically together, are very versatile, and each of us bring something unique to the music. I feel that’s why my sound is so unique, fresh and original. Rob, Reggie and I got together over several months to write, first starting with music beds and ideas, then messing around with lyric ideas. Once a vibe was struck, the songs just started taking shape. A few of the songs were actually created on the bandstand. Did I tell you we all are Pisces!" she shares with a bright glint in her eyes.
For her song "Free Yourself" from Beautiful Soul, she imparts, "1 grew up in the 70's, and I wanted to do an old school funk song reminiscent of that era. The song talks about the state of the world today and to stay true to yourself and what you believe, no matter what. I love it."
Currently, Cynthia is playing to audiences in lounge clubs around the Indianapolis metropolitan area. She tells, "I've collaborated with and done shows with other area musicians. I like it because it's a good way to get and share ideas and meet other people. It's important to be able to vibe and go with the flow. It opens up opportunities and teaches you to be a support. It also keeps you on your toes."
Before her shows, she confesses, "I really don't do anything specific to warm up for a show. I drink hot tea and meditate by finding a calm space to relax and clear my head so I can perform and get into a zone."
When she isn’t performing shows or making records, she admits, "I love watching movies and spending time with my daughter and family."
Another pastime activity which she has needed to become accustomed to is being on the Internet and exposing her music to a wider audience to supplement her live shows. She acknowledges, "It’s important to have both. We live in an internet driven society, so that’s a given to get your name and product out. However, there is nothing that connects you more to your audience than the live experience. I can move them, talk to them, meet them, and make them actually feel me and my music. You connect with the audience by creating moods and passion. It gives you a chance to make a difference in someone’s day or life, which is what music is all about to me."
Cynthia Layne reflects about what she would like to see happen for her this year, "I just want to be able to expose and sell my music to as many people as possible. To have national distribution, do a couple of tours - both here and overseas, and continue to perform great music. To continue to pay my bills doing something I love and if I'm lucky, have a little money left over for me!"
People can see Cynthia Layne as a classic R&B, neo-soul, or nu-jazz artist, it’s simply a matter of one’s taste in music. But no one cannot refute that a diamond by any other name still sparkles like a diamond, and there is no way to confuse it with anything else in the world, similarly to Ms. Layne.