For two tracks on Soul Suga’, Diane Durrett called in some backup singers as flamboyant as they were classically untrained.
About 25 friends and supporters, flouncing around in Mardi Gras and steampunk garb, descended on Real to Reel Recording Studio in Jonesboro to chant in the background for the album’s rafter-rattlers. So when Durrett, none too subtly, purrs “I got a little woohoo in my hoo hoo,” the “Sassy Singers,” as she dubbed them, do a sort of (cat)call-and-response of “WOOHOO!”
“That song arose from one of my birthday parties when I was just playing around with lyrics,” she says of the tune also distinguished by Tinsley Ellis’ guitar-work and tailor-made for a mischievous ringtone. “We have been known to get a little silly.”
Some projects testify more expressly than others to an artist’s particular travails, triumphs and state of mind. “Rhythm of Life came out of a period of grieving,” says Durrett, of her previous introspective release. In contrast, Soul Suga’, her seventh album, announces with a spangled bullhorn and a glitter bomb: Let’s party! “It’s not so much about where I’ve been as about where I am now, and that is a place of celebration,” says Durrett, a singer-songwriter known for her raspy growl and salty wit. “I wanted it to be very sassy in spirit, with sweet moments here and there, and plenty of rhythm.”
Durrett’s repertoire usually falls under the heading of blues, but with this collection, she belts out her original lyrics with a gusto that echoes Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Joyce Kennedy of Mother’s Finest, and others in her pantheon.
“This is the most soulful project I’ve worked on in a long while,” says her drummer and collaborator Yonrico Scott. “It reminds me of the flavors of my childhood in Detroit. We really didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but the grooves all have this timeless quality. It just all came together without a lot of extra work.”
One reason for that seamlessness can be found in the liner notes. As part of her work in artist development at Real to Reel and in her own company, Blooming Tunes, Durrett says she has become increasingly mindful of Georgia’s deep pool of musical talent. Along with Scott and Ellis, she assembled a team of virtuosos that includes Randall Bramblett, Ike Stubblefield, Caroline Aiken, Brandon Bush, Charlie Wooton, Melissa “Junebug” Massey and Yoel B’nai Yehuda, with mixing by Matt Still, who performs the same service for Elton John. “It was important to me that I use Georgia artists,” says Durrett, who serves on the Board of Governors for The Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter. “I never enter any project with rigid ideas of how it’s supposed to take shape, and for this one in particular, I wanted to surround myself with all of this rich energy and just see where the material took us.”
The result fizzes like cork-popping champagne, but Durrett’s vocals also soar to cathedral heights on a particularly affecting cover of “Let it Be” and on her heartfelt original, “All is Well,” which was inspired by events in her family.
“My mother made history as the first liver transplant recipient at Emory, in the ’80s,” Durrett says. “We did eventually lose her, but she got an extra ten years of life she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Even though my grandmother outlived her only child, she would always say, ‘All is well.’ I do this song as a tribute to her.”
Durrett grew up in Atlanta and traces her music roots back to the pews of Ponce De Leon Baptist Church on Peachtree Street, where her mother was a choir director. “It wasn’t the sort of quaint, Andy Griffith scene that people might associate with a Baptist church,” she says. “We played very progressive music in the ’70s, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra would play for our Christmas pageants.” She studied piano and guitar as a means of conveying the phrases buzzing in her head. “I tend to think of myself first as a writer,” she says, citing Mark Twain, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball as influences. “I especially like writing in the short form—short stories, vignettes, poems, essays, along with song lyrics.” She attended Mercer and Georgia State, majoring in journalism with a minor in commercial music. In 2009, she published Driving Music City, a collection of reminiscences from her stint as a limousine driver in Nashville, where her vocals swiveled the head of Sting, among others.
“Diane is the complete package,” Ellis says, “a triple threat on vocals, guitar and songwriting. I feel honored to be included on this album.”
So, with Soul Suga’, what, exactly, is Durrett celebrating?
“That I’m still here,” she says, with a smile, coyly declining to give her age but explaining that she has been making music for more than 30 years. “I’m a veteran at this point, and I’m still having fun doing it. That’s worth singing about it, isn’t it?”
Sassy Singers, give her another “WOOHOO!”
Catch Durrett on Sat., May 2, at Atlanta’s Red Light Café for her “Soul Suga Dance Party.” She’ll be joined Melissa Junebug, Yoel b’nai Yehuda, Gregg Shapiro and Lil’ Joe Burton.