The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
From playing in coffee shops to the White House, Rissi Palmer has had to build her career from the ground up, with just a small team and network of musicians to guide her along the way. In 2007, she made her debut with “Country Girl,” which made her the first Black woman on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart since 1987. Since then, she’s released two more albums; this year, she’s gearing up to release another, Revival.
Recorded in Durham, it’s the first album she’s made outside of Nashville. It features a host of Triangle artists, including Al Strong, Violet Bell, and Shana Tucker. Palmer’s artistry is ever-evolving, and this project maximizes both political themes and deep, soulful melodies.
On August 22 at The ArtsCenter, Palmer will perform Revival with special guests from the album; Carrboro’s XOXOK opens. The INDY spoke with her about country music, Toni Morrison, and of course, Lil Nas X.
INDY: How did you get your start in country music?
RISSI PALMER: I’ve always loved country music. Saturday mornings in my house meant records playing and cleaning the house. In addition to R&B and jazz and gospel, my mom loved country. One of her favorite singers is Patsy Cline. So country music was always a part of our listening experience, and I was attracted to the songwriting aspect of it. Like, I just absolutely love stories. I’m a big reader, and I used to like to write poems and stories when I was a kid.
When you were first looking for a record deal, were you specifically looking for a deal with a country record label? Or did someone guide you and say, “Hey, you should go in this direction?”
I met my first managers [and] started working with them when I was seventeen. I was fresh out of high school. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but like most seventeen-year-olds, I wasn’t necessarily 100 percent sure. I just knew that [country music] was a part of what I liked…I wanted to be Mariah Carey. Lauryn Hill and Mariah Carey were the two biggest artists at that time. I knew I wanted to be that. What happened was, we made a demo. We had started doing all this work and taking pictures and [my managers] were leaning more towards hip-hop and R&B.
That was the direction and the focus that they wanted to go in. I was just like, well, whatever. I just want to be famous. [Eventually I said], you know, I write songs, and they [said], “Really? Let’s hear your songs.” So I started singing the songs, and they said, “These sound like country songs.” After that, they started to focus me more towards Nashville—toward country.
Who is the artist Rissi Palmer?
I’m striving to be someone that has something to say—someone who uses their art and their platform to say things that matter. That’s the focus that I’ve taken on my new record. Especially now that I have children, words matter. When I was younger and signed to a label, I had to conform to whatever the label has packaged me as. Now, being an independent artist, my music is reflective of me. I grew up listening to country, gospel, R&B, and soul. My music is all of that. I think of myself more as Southern soul.
Is Southern soul the same thing as a countrified soul singer, or are they different?
That’s a great question. I think they’re different. For example, I think of Chris Stapleton or Anderson East when I think of a countrified soul singer. They definitely fit within the genre, but it’s for sure soul, but it doesn’t necessarily have a whole bunch of different elements so to speak [like Southern Soul]. On Revival, Al Strong plays horns, and then we have a track with a second-line kind of vibe. There’s also a Donnie Hathaway/Roberta Flack-inspired song that I wrote and sang with my friend Brian Owens. So it still has the storytelling element of country music, but it’s not like my previous work—and it’s definitely not like you would hear those two songs played on country radio.
Is it safe to say then that countrified soul puts country music at the forefront, whereas southern soul puts the “southernness” at the forefront?
Yes. Yes. Exactly.
What has it been like balancing motherhood and being an artist? You had your first daughter in 2011, so you’re not new to this—but what have the challenges been being independent, a mom of two and a wife?
I’m still learning the ropes of having two. My kids, my oldest daughter especially, Gracie, is so much a part of what I do. She’s always been backstage or she’s always on stage—this is really the only life she knows. The way that I’ve been able to balance it is by having them involved. My husband sells merch at all the shows [and] helps me manage the money/business aspects of things. And I just aim to integrate it all. I call it “Rissi Palmer business.”
I’m Rissi Palmer-Stypmann to my husband, my children and my mom, and extended family. Whereas onstage I’m just Rissi Palmer, and “Rissi Palmer business” happens after Rissi Palmer-Stypmann gets taken care of. For example, we can be making dinner and I’ll be on the phone doing an interview. In this moment I’m rocking my two-month-old, we’re doing this interview and my eight-year-old has her legs strapped across me watching TV. You manage the things that you love. You figure out a way to make them happen. And I love being a mom. I love being a wife. And I love being an artist. We just figure out how to make it work. Everybody that wants a family should have a family and you will figure it out.
Lil Nas X has been charting—not on the country Billboard charts, but on Billboard’s Hot 100. Are you a fan?
I’m a fan of people doing whatever the hell they want to do, so I will 100 percent support Lil Nas X in his endeavors. I’m here for all of the remixes, too. I just read that Dolly Parton might be on another remix of the song, and I’m like, yes, do it! I think that removing him [from the country music charts] is really funny, considering that country music is all over the board. I mean, Florida Georgia Line had a huge summer song with Nelly. How is “Old Town Road” different than “Cruise”? How is it different than Sam Hunt?
Their response was that while “Old Town Road” references cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart.
You can make an argument all day about what’s authentic country. Do I think that “Old Town Road” is an authentically country song? No, absolutely not. But do I think that it’s just as country as some of what is called country on country radio? Yeah, there definitely is an argument to be made there. I think it’s funny that that was the hill that they decided to die on.
Do you feel as if your identity as a Black woman who sings country music interfered with your visibility?
No, I don’t think so. I had more visibility in comparison to those who came out at the same time as me. Because I was Black, it was like, “Oh my god, let’s interview her.” Do I think that [my race] ultimately led to me not reaching what I wanted to reach? Yes and no. There were instances where people I worked with were told that the program director would not play my music because I was Black, and they didn’t believe that I was authentic or sincere. But for the most part, I was given an opportunity just like everyone else. Were there racial incidents, though? Oh, yes!
What are you most excited about regarding Revival?
The album is filled with stories from my life and the news, references to my marriage, my daughters. I talk about a miscarriage I had. All the marches and protests over the past five years inspired “Speak on It.” The Parkland children and their outspokenness inspired “Breathe in, Breathe Out.” I wrote “Seeds” in 2014, right after Michael Brown was murdered. It was directly inspired by Ferguson. In the video, there’s a police shooting, and there’s a young Mexican girl in a cage. I received so many nasty messages and unfollows. The comments are still on YouTube. You can see what the temperature was and still is. [But] it was like, “If this bothers you, then you probably shouldn’t be a fan of me, because you wouldn’t like me in real life.” But I always love when people come up after the show and they say, “I lost a baby, or I lost a family member, and that song really touched me.” I like touching people’s hearts. I don’t want to just entertain.
I saw your Toni Morrison tribute. How did she inspire you?
Toni Morrison has been my favorite author since I was thirteen. I was able to see different facets of myself as a Black woman that you don’t always see in mainstream books. The biggest thing that I took away from Toni Morrison is to really find your identity. However you get your truth across, stick to that—master that. I’m inspired by Phoebe Snow, Patsy Cline, Patty Griffin, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, and James Taylor: people with big voices and great storytelling skills. That’s what I strive to be.
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