Presenting our Fourth "GVAC Song Clinic" Podcast Guest: Brenda Russell
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York and Hamilton, Ontario, singer, composer, and keyboardist Brenda Russel was always surrounded by music. Without formal training, however, she initially lacked confidence in her songwriting, and after penning her first song, she was genuinely worried she may never write another song again. “Then I had a revelation,” she recalls during her chat with GVAC host, Ronny Vance. “You’re not doing this alone. You are just a channel for this. Once I realized that, I was sort of fearless about songwriting. I thought, ‘If that’s the way it is, I can write anything.’ And that’s the premise I’ve based my whole writing career on.”
Russel built upon that confidence and began perfecting her craft while writing for a local gospel show when she was nineteen. “That was my training ground to learn how to write songs fast and [well].”
Her distinct style blends together a wide range of genres, including rock, pop, R&B, jazz, classical, and Latin. “One important thing I learned along the way is to find your own voice. When you find that and believe in it - that’s a great accomplishment. Knowing who you are and how to express it.”
Her sound has been proven timeless, with her songs covered by artists such as Ray Charles, Earth Wind & Fire, Babyface, Oleta Adams, Luther Vandross, Patti Austin, Ruben Studdard, Donna Summer and Ramsey Lewis, as well as sampled by the likes of Tupac, Mac Miller, Chance the Rapper, and Ariana Grande.
Despite that impressive list of popular collaborators, her most significant musical achievements have arguably come in the theatre world, co-writing the gorgeous music and lyrics (alongside Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) for the Tony Award-winning hit Broadway musical, The Color Purple.
To prepare for the role, Russel said it was important to humble herself and become a student. “First we admitted we knew nothing. So we watched all the shows we could watch and we read the novel to each other.”
Going from writing pop songs for 30-plus years to writing for the theatre was a challenging transition, she explained. “When you write pop songs or songs for the radio, you don’t expect people to ask to change, rewrite chords. In the theatre it’s a group thing, everybody has a say about what happens, [e.g.] ‘We need more time to change costumes.’ It’s a different way to write music. With pop it’s either you like it or you don’t. You don’t rewrite it. But with musicals, it's all about rewriting.”
While composing The Color Purple, Brenda also wrote, recorded, and co-produced a solo album, “Between the Sun and the Moon”– released in 2004 on Dome Records.
All in all, Russel’s received five Grammy and one Tony nominations.
For Russel’s full chat with Ronny, and more episodes in our podcast series, click here.