Photo credit: Barbara FG
“When people hear me in different contexts, they make certain assumptions about where I’m coming from,” Alecia Chakour observes, as she considers lotusland, her first studio project in over 10 years. “That’s part of the reason why it was important for me to make this record and to do so on my own terms because people will sometimes approach me and go, ‘I heard you with so and so and you belt!’ or ‘You do this’ or ‘You do that.’ Those are pieces of what I do but, as a creative and as a writer, that’s not the full picture.”
As anyone who has seen Alecia with the Tedeschi Trucks Band or the Warren Haynes Band or Lettuce can attest, she certainly can belt. However, the six-track lotusland—which Alecia is releasing under the moniker Chakourah—demonstrates that there is so much more to her art as well. The songs are, by turns, dreamy folk or progressive soul, animated by her signature vocal expressions and by atmospheric instrumental passages.
All of this is befitting of someone who names T-Rex, Prince, Minnie Riperton and the Muppets as the essential music she absorbed as a kid but also points to Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby and Esquivel as the sounds that currently soothe her.
The album concludes with a solo piano outro performed by Joe Cocker’s former music director, who also happens to be Alecia’s father: Mitch Chakour. He grew up playing in his own father’s gospel band, Revelations. Alecia explains that, in her family, “Making music was just something that happened. I didn’t give it much thought; it was almost like breathing. All of my cousins can sing their asses off. It was just something that we shared— that and Arabic food.”
Her younger brother Alex— who plays guitar with Brittany Howard and also toured for six years with Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires—coproduced lotusland and plays bass, along with some synths and acoustic guitar.
Alecia describes herself as “a backstage and studio baby,” who toured with her father from a young age. She remembers being invited onstage by B.B. King “at one of my most awkward stages ever. I was maybe 10. I’d given myself a haircut and I was sitting backstage in overalls. He didn’t invite me out to sing; he just wanted to serenade me. And I’m out there with frizzy hair and overalls. That was one of my most embarrassing childhood moments. But, now that I look back on it, I’m just so grateful that I was exposed to those folks and that world.”
When Chakour participated in the 2015 LOCKN’ set where Tedeschi Trucks Band paid homage to Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour, it was a momentous night for her. “My dad got such a kick out of it. He said, ‘You can run, but you can’t hide. This is you,’” she says with a laugh. “That’s the music I grew up on. Those singers, those harmonies and those arrangements are just coded into me. The way we were set up, I got to share a mic with Rita [Coolidge] and I so look up to her—not only as an artist, but also as a woman navigating this world. So to get to share that moment with her—knowing directly and indirectly how much I’ve been influenced by what she’s put into music—was really special.”
Chakour speaks ardently about the role of a backup singer, which she’s done in various settings over recent years. “Whether it’s working with Danger Mouse or Mark Ronson or the Daptone crew, I’ve been able to inhabit these different worlds and bring what I do into those worlds. That’s a big piece of who I am and why I do this. I’m very passionate about backup as an art in itself.”
Meanwhile, Chakour has steadily created original music for personal expression and at times catharsis. She notes that the material on lotusland was written “at a particular low point in my life. So that batch of songs became an escape. I demoed them out on my own, on my little iPad on the road— backstage or in a hotel—just to capture what I was hearing.”
She eventually recruited her brother and some of their longtime friends to absorb and translate the material. They initially tracked the material with guitarist Sam Cohen and Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss at the latter musician’s studio, The Diamond Mine. Those sessions took place prior to the pandemic but the Chakour siblings tinkered away during quarantine and completed the album, enlisting additional contributions from their father Mitch, organist Jared Samuel and Cochemea Gastelum on saxophone and flute.
Although Chakour acknowledges the “pain and trauma” that informed the material, she never completely surrendered to her despair. For instance, she notes that “West St” is about “painful breakups and the bittersweet love that can continue to grow in the space.” Although “Eagle Song,” was “inspired by the deaths of our beloveds Kofi Burbridge, Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley,” it offers “a reflection on the connection that can deepen after a loved one has died.” And the LP’s final two tracks, “Good Morning” and “Red” embrace “the hope of washing clean and beginning again.”
All told, lotusland represents continuity rather than departure. “It’s not like making this record is my breakout,” Chakour asserts. “I think we can understand it when instrumentalists do a lot of different projects; although, for some reason, people don’t always view it the same way when it comes to singers. But I love the work that I do. I love backup. I love arranging. I love playing percussion. I love collaborating with other people. This is just another facet of something that’s exciting and interesting to me. I’m thrilled to be able to share it.”