Hailing from Chicago’s South Side, renowned jazz vocalist Zemrah has played every classic hot spot in the city from the Cotton Club to the Saber Room to Mr. Rickey’s Millionaire Room and more.
With a unique technique all her own that she refers to as “twisting the song,” Zemrah effortlessly infuses her shows with a variety of musical genres including blues, jazz and R&B. Also an accomplished songwriter, the jazzy songstress admits she is a hopeless romantic who enjoys writing and composing music inspired by her husband.
“I love romance and often find myself writing lyrics for him. Lyrics tell a story. They describe how you feel, and they can describe a certain mood for you,” she said. “My songs always reflect my heart.”
Rolling out spoke with the powerhouse vocalist to talk paying dues, opening for the legendary Nancy Wilson and what fans can expect from her upcoming engagements.
Who were your musical influences?
First and foremost I’d have to say my oldest brother because he was a drummer and loved jazz. As a young girl I was captivated with the sounds of Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. As I got older, I grew to love Dionne Warwick as well. The smoother the sound the more I embraced it.
Was there a particular moment when you knew you wanted to seriously pursue music?
Yes, the early ’90s when I won “Top Female Vocalist” for Crown Royal at the Regal Theater. After that, I began to get steady work, and I knew I could make a living doing this.
A lot of times newer singers think having the ability to sing alone will write their ticket for them and forget about the dues that must be paid. Tell us about some of the dues you’ve paid over the years.
Back then gigs didn’t really paid a lot, but for the exposure along with the love for music, I would perform. Once I had a major opportunity (with some strings attached), but I felt if I couldn’t make it on my talent then oh well. I was disappointed in the industry, but I was not going to be disappointed in myself. So I look at my dues being paid as continuously gigging, hitting the pavement, and having to work a regular job to make ends meet even when I just wanted to focus on my music.
Tell us about your previous albums Irresistible Zemrah and Very Irresistble Zemrah and the effort of serving as executive producer of both projects?
My Irresistible Zemrah came first and then came Very Irresistible Zemrah, which was a remix album with some added songs. It was exciting because I always wanted to put something on wax that was real. I had originally done some demos but nothing clicked until I met a brother named LeRoy Edwards Jr. We clicked immediately and the project took off. I described to him what I wanted my music to sound like and made it happen. I wrote the song “Sweet As Your Kiss” so long ago for an example. Actually I just took all of my originals, put the melody to it, gave LeRoy an acapella and he said, “Let’s do it.” He just got it. He put together a team of musicians and made it happen. A lot of time and energy went into this project. Some of the musicians I actually didn’t even meet but they got my feel and my spirit.
What do you enjoy most about performing live in intimate venues?
What I like most about performing live in an intimate venue is just that — the pure intimacy. I can feel my audience. I can embrace their mood. I feed off of their response to my selection of songs.
As a big Nancy Wilson fan, what does it mean to you to be able to open for her?
When I opened for Nancy I was with the vocalist for a well known jazz drummer’s band. It was such an awesome experience. I felt so happy. I gave it my all. Audience members were teasing and yelling out, “Nancy you better look out! She’s baaaad!” It was amazing, and she’s such a wonderful woman.
What can fans expect from your upcoming shows? Both the Nancy Wilson tribute and Valentine Show?
Fans can expect Zemrah doing her thing. There is only one Nancy Wilson, but I want fans to walk away saying Zemrah did Nancy proud. I have a touch of some of Nancy’s finest tunes that I love, and I think my fans will too. This is a show that I intend on building and bringing to more audiences. And as for my “Be My Valentine” show, let’s just say love songs and more love songs plus some roses being given away.
What’s the best thing about being an artist?
I love being able to create. I adore meeting and greeting people, and I just love to perform.
What’s the worst thing about being an artist?
Sometimes you can run into people that have no integrity — whose word is not their bond. They’ll promise the world and deliver nothing.
What’s next for Zemrah?
I finally got it right this time. I have a great manager in Hermene Hartman and awesome publicist in Deborah Farmer. I’m looking to release a new CD of original songs this year, and I want to take my show on tour. This year is shaping up to be my best year ever.
On Feb. 9, Zemrah plays two shows, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. at the Jazz Showcase in downtown Chicago, in addition to a Valentine’s Day show at the N’Zuri Entertainment Center in Dolton, Illinois.
For more information on Zemrah please visit www.zemrahjazz.com.