“Rhythm…Soul…Passion…It has the ‘Wha’ (pedal)…It’s joyful…Danceable…Think Sly and the Family Stone.” That’s how Kate Becker, principal of Kate Becker and the Zodiacs, defines Funk, an important component of the band’s sound.
Kate forged a successful career as a singer, songwriter, and businesswoman out of a turbulent youth. Through friends, spirituality, and her mother, she learned that there were tools that she could apply to herself, and that she was the only one that could make a difference to her well-being. She had helpers like magical stones or tarot cards at a young age. Then she started blending herbs and teas and became a Reiki practitioner. She felt that if she was helping others, then she was helping herself. She started singing at a young age but she was a dancer and it didn’t even occur to her to sing seriously. She invested her creativity and energies into dance classes and performances until her teens when her knees gave out. Her heart was broken but she didn’t take up singing right away. “It was a bad time. It was early teens and that is when some of us start getting into trouble. So, I chose trouble over dancing.”
Born to a Swiss mother and New York father, she spent most of her childhood in Switzerland with her mother who had taken over working in the organization of the International Jazz Festival in Bern, which is one of the largest, finest jazz festivals. It had all the great stars and she was exposed to them. At first, she was more into the whole scene that went around music rather than just jazz. She enjoyed the warm attention that the African-American jazz musicians gave. She was half American and got to speak English. She still didn’t consider singing once she was introduced to more and more of these amazing American singers, such as Ella, Carmen McRae, DeeDee Bridgewater, Diane Reeves, etc. She didn’t consider herself gifted, “wasn’t touched with the wand.” She could sing but never thought that she could sing well enough.
People gravitate toward what comes easiest. Dancing was what she was good at. Singing was going to be a lot of work. She didn’t commit to singing until her early twenties when she moved to New York and started to study with Nanette Natal, a well-known jazz singer. Then it was like boot camp. It was tough but it changed her life. Having been exposed to all those incredible musicians, it never occurred to her that there was any other option but to sing Jazz. She thinks that is why she started so late. It took her a while to discover that she had to go beyond the box to find her place. At first, it was a painful journey because she kept comparing herself to how jazz singers would sound and she didn’t sound like them. She didn’t have that range with that comfort level. “I had to find MY place; MY poetry; MY belief system; and MY range and then work with that.”
Natal promoted ‘inner child work’ at the same time she taught her students to sing. It was a form of therapy where the student recounted the story of the wounded child within. That was instrumental in helping Kate blossom as her inner child, the damaged part of her, healed.
There were singers that were important to her like Cassandra Wilson, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Cassandra was very influential because she sings in a lower range yet is an amazing jazz singer. Kate could relate to that. Cassandra is very rhythmic and doesn’t stay with any one style. She would go electric. Patti? “Just because she was cool.” (She laughs). Miles Davis was influential for the space he leaves in music, the lines of improvisation, and the fact that he never paid attention to what other people said. He stayed true to his vision even when the jazz fanatics abandoned him. There were other important singers that she listened to but the attention was more hindering to Kate because, in trying to compare herself to others, she would feel that it held her back..
Having emphasized Jazz on her first album entitled The Becker Project, Kate has moved on to funk and blues. For Kate, funk is rhythm, soul, an expression of joy. It’s passionate and it’s got ‘umpf’ It is the sound of Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, and Michael Jackson. It makes you want to dance. It is electric and has WahWah pedals and harmonies and is happy music. Funky. Now she is listening to bands like Tim Buckley. Not Jeff Buckley who was his son and very famous. Tim is not so famous but had a four-octave range and took incredible risks with his voice, using it like an instrument. To improvise and to do scats is important to Kate and, lately, Tim has influenced her a lot in this manner.
Kate’s new album, Soft Revolution, is “about using music as a healing tool by helping people let love and hope and joy back into their hearts, especially when they are going through dark times.” Kate struggles between the dark and the light sides of her own turbulent life. A performance is like a medicine show. She tries to touch people and help them understand that there are solutions that you can find in darkness inside of you if you look for it; if you deal with it; if you don’t avoid it. She likes that her music makes a difference because “music speaks to everybody. It evokes emotions. Sometimes we need to expel sadness and pain in different periods of our life.” The idea of her music being funk, which is joyful and passionate, is healing and inspirational. She moves around a lot on stage, which is like dancing for her. She doesn’t have a style that she follows but just moves to how she feels in the moment. It gives her joy and encourages other people to dance. It makes the show a little more fun.
Funk and healing going together seems like an unusual combination but healing is important in her life outside of music. Healing with intent is what her company, Kate’s Magik, is about. Kate’s Magik is essential oil lines that she blended to be used with the intention of providing a tool for people to help heal themselves (www.katesmagik.com).
When Kate went into music, her mother and other family were supportive but she had a lot of artists in her family. It was clearly stated at a young age that if she was going to be an artist, that she was not going to make any money. It was not said to discourage her but to make her realistic. They allowed her to stumble along her way and expected her to fall. That poverty mentality was ingrained in her and she is still working on shedding it. Like with Kate’s Magik. Her family is just amazed that it is nationwide because she was not the business type.
There have been highs and lows in Kate’s career. Highs started in voice class when she was able to hit a note dead on or actually make a song sound like a real song. Her Soft Revolution CD release party was a highlight. It was a moment of why a performer perseveres. Performing in general makes her very happy. There are a lot of moments in rehearsal where it is about being serious and less about the goals. Lows are less important now because of the work she does around healing. She lives a life of gratitude at this point. She doesn’t take wrong turns or mistakes too hard. It is not that she doesn’t get sad or upset but it is not that dramatic. The biggest lows were early on when she thought that she would not be able to go out on the stage, or that she would never write songs, or that people wouldn’t like her.
She has played in the little joints where everyone is eating and no one is listening and no one claps but she still has two more sets ahead of her. That ‘sucks’ for her. She had a gig like that recently but the band tried to have a good time anyway. They practiced and at one point, just faced each other in a circle and played to each other and had an amazing time. They’ve played to a nearly empty room for an hour and a half. She tries not to do any of that any more. She just tries to have shows now because it can be depressing unless you are being paid well and the guys walk away with a nice amount of money.
The challenging part of music for her, like many musicians, is the business end of it. She has two people that help her for a few hours a week but it is not nearly enough. It is a full-time job. Her new CD is successful and people are reacting to it. She is selling a nice amount of CDs at shows, which is new for her. The CD needs to go out to radio stations and magazines. She needs to send out press releases and submissions to festivals. There is no list of addresses that is handed to you. The research has to be done. Kate handles much of it herself but she could keep three people busy working for her. Her producer, guitarist/vocalist Stuart Oliver does all the graphics for her and that is a big help.
She is inspired all the time to write songs. The song may be about anything. It is the energy exploding in her. She compares her songwriting to a cup that is either empty or full. For her, an empty cup is good because then she can fill it with music. It is when the cup is full that she has resentment that she works so much for her other company and that she has responsibilities and bills to pay and not enough help to promote the music. When the cup is full, she is not in a spirit for musical inspiration. When she went camping a few weeks ago, the cup emptied. It was while walking on the stones in a river that she heard the beginning of a song. And it came to her. And Stuart joined her with his guitar. By the end of the night, they had a song that they sang over and over again. This song will probably never make the stage but there are tons and tons of those songs in her files.
Soft Revolution talks about who she is right now. About what is happening to her now. If you think you know her and what is happening in her life, you know a lot more after listening to her songs. She tries to stay updated with the ‘now.’ She tries not to be too self-indulgent, not too sad. She has to remember that she is singing to people and how they will benefit from her song. There is always light. There is always a good message.
The other day, Kate sat down at her piano and wrote a song currently titled “Please Don’t Misunderstand.” The first working title was “The Empress.” The chorus is “Please don’t misunderstand her wise and gentle ways. Her luminous intelligence she learns through her mistakes.” So, she is still singing along the same lines. It is really about “helping people, myself included, understand that life sometimes just sucks. Don’t strive for perfection or you set yourself up for disappointment and be gentle with others when they do wrong or don’t meet your standards.” She doesn’t believe in perfectionism at all. She stands by her imperfections. She can’t be on time, which is a main reason that she works for herself.
It is not always obvious for her to tell how an audience is responding to her music. For example, one time at the 17th Street Market, a bunch of people came in and “sat down as if they were dead; no reaction, no emotion. She couldn’t read anything of what they were feeling but she just kept generating energy through music. That’s when it’s time for her to trust her craft and let the medicine of her music flow. Then she saw them shift, start to lighten up and let go of some of that baggage and that darkness.” Then they come to her at the end of the show to tell her that she completely changed their day. When it is obvious, then it is the best. That is why she enjoys the R & B so much because people dance and can share the joy.
Kate Becker and the Zodiacs is a band that emphasizes R & B and Funk. The band is experimenting with Neosoul, which is a new wave of R & B becoming more popular in the Northeast. There is a lot of old school, yet new, music appearing that reminds her of the 70s black music. The current group has been together about a year now – since Stuart Oliver joined. That changed a lot for the group. The group’s chemistry comes from Kate. She is the Momma and has to constantly reinforce that. “I have to be gentle, yet firm. It is really hard to keep a band together. Mike Hieber (bass) and I have been working together for a couple years now and we write a lot of the music. He comes up with bass grooves and I add melody and lyrics. Stuart brings rhythm and soul, the wah pedal and beautiful harmonies. Aaron Emery (drums) lays down some serious beats. Now we have Cleve C Jones on Conga. He’s a true brother from New York, an incredible player and a joyful soul.” A lot of the chemistry is between Stuart and her and that is one of the reasons they sing together. People really enjoy that a lot. Stuart produced and recorded the album. He is a great songwriter and also helps with the writing of the music. He is an integral part of what Kate Becker and the Zodiacs has become. She changed the name from the Kate Becker Project because the guys didn’t want to be a project any more. “I wouldn’t mind taking my name off. We were thinking about being The Zodiacs but at the same time, band members just seem to come and go and I am consistent.” One of her favorite movies is called Bell, Book, and Candle. It is from the 50s and stars Jimmie Stewart and Kim Novak. It is about witches and warlocks. There is a club in the movie called The Zodiac. “I thought if I was ever to have a club like Ric’s Café, it would be called The Zodiac. And then for my spiritual ways, it is fitting.”
If she wasn’t able to sing any more, she would put everything into playing piano. She can’t imagine a life without music. Before she did music, she felt empty. Once she found music, her life got stable and made sense. Everything just grounded.
Where does she want to be in 5 years? She would like to have a label and a manager – someone to do the noncreative work for her. That is her problem with Kate’s Magik, as well. She loves being creative but she has to put her creativity aside when she has to be the salesperson, even though she is fairly good at it. She likes the communication with people but she would love to have someone to book tours, to promote the album. She would like to have two more albums in the next five years. She has almost written another album, now. She would love to have someone buy one of her songs. She always thought that Showgirl, which is the first track on her first album, will sell to somebody one day. She thinks that somebody else could sing it better than she could. There are certain songs, like Magik or Prophecy, that she is very protective of because they are just so her. But it would be nice to sell a song and have that check come in – to make some money off this music. For more info, please check out http://katebeckermusic.com.