Chakra Khan

Alexandra Love Sarton and DiViNCi have long, overlapping musical histories here in Orlando. They both co-founded the hip-hop quartet Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently formed a duo working under the band name Chakra Khan. They appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings, on February 6th, to discuss their upcoming album release, The Cope Aesthetic. What follows is an excerpt from a two-hour conversation.

Charlie Griffin: DiViNCi, you’re a producer and an MPC-ist. Some people may need an explanation of what that means.

DiViNCi: Basically, I play drum machines live. An MPC is a MIDI Production Center [MIDI  stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface—the code protocol used to translate musical information from electronic instruments to computers]. I’ve been called a finger drummer or a controllerist. It’s got a lot of names because it’s a newer art.

It’s a series of pads into which you can load audio samples of any kind, with the additional capacity to run those samples through filters and reverbs, or otherwise process the samples in real time with all sorts of effects on them. And you can layer them, loop them, and create entire songs this way.

DiViNCi: Right, right. I can assign any sound I want to any pad. I can add in drum machines and guitar effects pedals too. It’s like a science experiment on stage. The same thing that I use to create all the music in the studio is the same thing that I bring on stage.

You’re self-taught. When it comes to music, there are only so many formal learning pathways, and they’re very traditional. There are only so many mechanisms available to a curious, creative mind interested in new technologies. The existing mold doesn’t fit everybody. I’m really fascinated by the trajectory that you wind up taking, where you have the passion, you have the desire, and you have a developing skill set, but there’s nobody there to guide your thinking.

DiViNCi: Which is a benefit, I think, because there are new molds to be made. I’m giving a talk at Full Sail University this month, for their Hall of Fame Week, about all the different careers that exist now because of all these different molds. I attribute my secure place in the industry to my unconventional musical upbringing.

In the beginning it can look like a completely foreign, scary territory, and at some point you turn around to look back and discover that you’ve carved something out for yourself.

DiViNCiLuckily, I started when I was a kid. My ignorance was also a part of my musical upbringing. Because I was driven just purely by passion, with no working knowledge, it brought me to a place where I found my own voice. I grew up in a small town called Womelsdorf, in rural Pennsylvania. My mother was a caterer and a waitress. My father was in the National Guard and Army Reserves. Martial arts was the first thing I got passionate about, and it colors how I look at everything else I know. I pull a lot of things from my martial arts training into my music. I studied a few different martial arts. A lot of Okinawan Kempo. My father is Filipino, and the thing that stuck with me the most was Filipino martial arts, like stuff you’d see in The Bourne Identity. The Holy Grail of martial arts, as taught to me by my father, is the experience of being in flow. When you get a technique down well, you practice it so long it becomes reflexive. You don’t have to think about it. The greatest part of music to me is performing. And that’s where I found the greatest example of the flow in my art, where I don’t think, and things just happen spontaneously. I’m taken care of by something greater. I let the music come through me rather than try to control it.

Is it safe to say that there’s a certain physicality to how you approach the MPC, then? You build up a muscle memory around patterns?

DiViNCiRight, right, right. It’s definitely all about physicality because the thing that stops flow is when you get in your head. And one of the easiest ways to get out of your head is to get into your body. And I find that both in martial arts and in music. When I’m sitting still and creating music in the studio, the sedentary nature of being at a computer lends itself to getting trapped in my head a lot more, and not really trusting that I don’t need to be in total control to create something that I like. I get to trust a bigger part of myself when I’m performing, because I’m actually trusting my body. It’s one of the reasons why I move so much on stage.

In order to be in that flow, there still must be a preparation phase as well. When you’re at the beginning of building up what will become your track, you must collect in your imagination a palette of sample options, timbres, and textures, and a sense of how they’re going to layer, work together, or contrast before you ever get to the live performance. What is that process like for you?

DiViNCi: It’s a different form of flow, I think. There’s much more of a dance between learning and practicing and playing around and experimenting. I have a ton of options these days. I get the question a lot, “How do you know when something’s done; how do you know when you’ve got the right sound?” For me, there’s a very physical reaction. Sometimes, if a song’s not done, like it’s 98% done, and I feel the 2% is missing, I’ll start to dislike the song. It annoys me. I keep working at it, that little 2%. And then I love it, when I find it.

How did Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently Chakra Khan, get formed?

DiViNCi: I came down here to study in  Full Sail University’s Recording Arts degree program  in 2000. Towards the end of my time at Full Sail, I was introduced to MC Swamburger, who knew Alexandra Love Sarton from Chicago. We started working together. He brought down Alex. Alex and I knocked an album out in a week. And we all hit it off. We formed Solillaquists of Sound along with my wife, Tonya Combs. We’ve all been living together since, for the last 15 years.

CG: (To Alex) How did you and MC Swamburger come together?

ALS: I went to Columbia College in Chicago to study film directing and editing. I met Swam there and we became good friends, and he heard me singing one day. He said, “Wait, why are you going to school for film? You should be singing.” I hadn’t really thought about it before. But he and I started making music before he moved back to Orlando because his parents were here. After he met DiViNCi and Tonya, they all came up to visit me in Chicago. They came on a Sunday, and by Wednesday I’d given away all my stuff to move down here. I hadn’t planned on doing music, but when he said it, it felt right.

CG: And you all live in a house together?

ALS: Yes, we live in a house together, which is great, because it’s a big enough house where we all have our own space, but then we can make music constantly. So it has been like a non-stop factory of creativity for over a decade.

CG: Here’s what I’ve picked up about you from knowing you at Sak Comedy Lab, but even more from your presence on Facebook: You seem devoted to creativity in every form that you can muster. You sell mandala and other types of coloring books; you have several musical groups that you belong to; you are very philosophical on Facebook and spiritually generous about it. The language of self-help is common on Facebook. But you have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than most. I wonder what kind of stuff you’ve studied to arrive at the things that you’ve said.

ALS: For me, it’s weird to talk about these things because it’s so easy to fall into cliché, and I’m hyper-aware of that possibility. I share authentically, and the BS factor is way down, or non-existent, because I don’t live in that place. I try to just use my own experience and the things I’ve learned from it. Moving from Chicago to Orlando and starting over, trying to be an entrepreneur, building something up in the music industry, going on tour in the country and then the world—there are a lot of lessons in all that.

CG: What stood out for you on tour?

ALS: A recent performance with Solillaquists was a festival on an island off the coast of Madagascar. France has an unlimited amount of creative, beautifully put together festivals. But I most love performing in natural, outdoor spaces.

CG: You just opened for Lauryn Hill. How did that come to pass?

ALS: DiViNCi’s been working with her for the past five years, so we got know her and her crew.

CG: What about your musical background? I imagine you’re doing the bulk, if not all, of the composing for the women’s vocal group you lead, Beautiful Chorus. Are you writing some of these songs for Chakra Khan too?

ALS: I played the violin for nine years. I grew up playing in an orchestra. I sometimes will write lyrics and a melody and give them to DiViNCi, or sometimes he will give me just a drum track, and I’ll create a symphony of voices over that. I write all the Beautiful Chorus stuff. We do full rhythmic songs; we do a cappella hymns; we do wordless waves of harmony with music; and we do mantras, which are, for lack of a better term, positive affirmations repeated in harmony.

CG: What’s the story with the newest Chakra Khan release, The Cope Aesthetic?

ALS: We’re releasing the album song by song. We’re releasing one on Valentine’s Day. And then a song every few weeks from there for two or three months, and then we’ll release it as an album and have a party.

DiViNCi: We just want people to follow the process, follow the website, and have an extended experience of the release instead of dropping it all at once. With all the projects we do, we want to include people in the process as much as possible.

ALS: I’ll be making music videos for many of the songs. And artwork for the album. For the cover, we’re going to work with geometry. It’s about looking at our lives like, this plus this is creating this reality for me, so if I can change one of the two variables involved, then my trajectory is different. What it equals can change. The Cope Aesthetic is like looking at things differently, which to me always feels like geometry. Ever since growing up, I felt like there was an equation to life that we could implement that would help make it easier. And I feel like my life experience has been about uncovering what that means for myself.

Image provided by the artist
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