Daughter Of Change: The Transformation of a Mack Diva - A 2013 Interview with Sandra St. Victor!
by Darnell Meyers-Johnson
(Phone interview recorded on September 20, 2013. Copy edited by M. L. Harris.)
Sandra St. Victor has lived many lives in the music business. She’s been a demo singer for the likes of Miki Howard, a sought after background vocalist for the likes of Chaka Khan and a songwriter for the likes of Prince and Tina Turner. However, fans still remember her most as the rock & soul goddess of the trio The Family Stand and her 1996 debut solo album MACK DIVA SAVES THE WORLD, which remains an underground classic.
On the eve of the release of her new album OYA’S DAUGHTER, Sandra has an intimate conversation with Darnell Meyers-Johnson about mothers & daughters, macks & divas, opera & funk and why you probably won’t catch her on reality television any time soon…
Good Day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for The Meyers Music Report on Tumblr.com. Today I’m speaking to the mack diva herself. She first caught our ear as the female presence in the group The Family Stand. They gave us hits like “Ghetto Heaven” and one of my favorite ballads, “In Summer I Fall”. In 1996, she gave us her critically acclaimed debut solo album MACK DIVA SAVES THE WORLD and she’s back to save it again with her brand new album OYA’S DAUGHTER.
She is a daughter, a mother, a singer, a songwriter and a musical pioneer. Today I’m speaking with Miss Sandra St. Victor.
DMJ: How are you Sandra?
SSV: I’m great. That was one hell of an introduction. Gotta take that on the road with me.
DMJ: It’s all true though, right? I want to thank you for taking time out to do this today. We do appreciate it.
SSV: Yeah, thank you.
DMJ: Sometimes I start off interviews by asking the artist to give us a recap of what they’ve done, but I happen to know that you hate that question or at least you’re tired of answering it.
SSV: Yeah, I do.
DMJ: I found that out from referring to a YouTube video you posted earlier this year in which you detailed your extensive bio. Having done so much and still being asked, “What have you done”, do you ever feel underrated?
SSV: I wouldn’t even call it that. We live in a big world and I don’t expect everybody to know everything that I’ve done or anybody has done. I certainly don’t know everything people have done. It’s not that it makes me feel underrated. What it does is, then I have to choose what am I going to say and I don’t like the idea of feeling like I’m bigging myself up. So, then I have to say, “So I did this and I did that and I did this and I did that”. It feels like I’m patting my own self on the back. You know what I mean? I don’t like that.
DMJ: It kind of feels like you’re bragging I suppose.
SSV: Yeah, you know what I mean? Come on man.
DMJ: Well let me brag for you a little bit.
SSV: Go ‘head!
DMJ: You have worked in some capacity with basically a who’s who of the music business, everybody from Curtis Mayfield to Chaka Khan, Bill Withers, Prince and Stevie Wonder. From such an elite group like that, who did you learn the most from?
SSV: Oooh, now that’s a great question because I learned different things from different cats, you know? I learned a lot from Roy Ayers who was my first touring gig. So probably on that level, I would say I learned a lot from him. It was like taking a fish out of warm water and throwing it in cold. I was fresh off the boat from Texas and on the road with Roy Ayers with a bunch of dudes from New York City. So it was really very quick. You better learn quick and in a hurry about a lot, not just about music. Of course I knew my collegiate music, but learned about live music and dealing with professional musicians on that level on the world stage because I was all over the world with Roy. We went to Japan, Europe, London and Africa. So I had to learn quickly about different cultures and languages and how to fit in. That was probably the biggest chunk of learning I had to do in a minute.
I also learned a lot from Chaka. Just being around her and watching how things were done on that level, because she was on another level. Becoming so close with Chaka and knowing the ins and outs of things, I learned a lot about the business.
I would probably say some of the most important lessons were just conversations I had with Curtis (Mayfield) about how to deal and handle yourself in a lot of situations that can be frustrating, disappointing and/or crushing. Honestly, he really picked me up and he’s on his back. He encouraged me so much through a very difficult period and gave me some words that I hold dear. I think that’s probably the most important thing on the long-term basis, stuff that I go back to when I’m in certain situations.
DMJ: Can you give me the short version of how a little 8 year old girl’s epiphany about her talent transferred to working professionally in this business. How did that happen for you?
SSV: There is no short version there Darnell!
DMJ: Yes there is! There’s always a short version in an interview.
SSV: I’ll put it like this, they say there ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it. That’s the shortest it gets because really that’s what I did. I had a full music scholarship to Kansas University. Then I got another full scholarship to Bishop College and I went to both of them and I was like, “I don’t want to be in school anymore. I wanna do it.” So I started doing it, working in clubs with a band and traveling with a band just in Texas and that’s how we met Roy Ayers. Every step that I took led to another step and it’s still happening like that. Every step I take there’s a string of continuum betwixt all of them. As long as you keep moving and most importantly keep doing what you’re supposed to do. I think when you get stuck is when you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing. When you’re trying to make something happen, when you’re trying to do something as opposed to doing what you feel, I think you get stuck. You become your own obstacle.
DMJ: I know that in the middle in there somewhere you attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. That’s the same school that gave us people like Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. What were those high school years like for you and how did they shape the artistry that we hear from you today?
SSV: Oh, it was very, very important. This is why when I went to college I was like, “Ahh, come on.” We were in college level music classes in high school. So my musicality, my understanding of the art form of songwriting and tonation, the importance of pitch and the importance of telling a story; because it wasn’t just music. We had to take drama, we had to take dance and movement to graduate. All of that definitely (played a part). I’m still in touch with my teachers from that school and they’re so proud. Leonard and Sheila, they’re my Facebook friends and I see them when I go back home. They’re very proud. They see what they taught me and what they taught all of us, Erykah as well. She has a flare for the dramatic and she’s a very serious performer. Norah is definitely a consummate artist with her craft and her songwriting. You can trace all of that back to what they taught us at Booker T. Washington. It was a serious thing. It’s not a hobby. We were musicians and Roy Hargrove came out of there as well. Quite a few heavy hitters come from Arts Magnet. So yeah, I think the seriousness with which I approach performing and songwriting is rooted right there.
DMJ: It’s a beautiful thing that you’re still in contact with your teachers from that time on Facebook. One of my teachers actually unfriended me on Facebook.
SSV: Oh damn, what did you do?
DMJ: I don’t know what I did. I still don’t know what I did. I didn’t ask. Whatever it was, it was bad apparently.
SSV: That’s hilarious.
DMJ: Your voice is such a textured, layered, dynamic, soulful instrument and there’s a lot going on when you sing. Who or what has been your greatest influence as a singer?
SSV: Well, there again I have several. Coming up, the first singers that I call my musical mothers that I really fell for were Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. So those are my first teachers as far as tonality and tone, as well as Nancy Wilson and June Christy. When I started at Booker T. Washington, I really got into classical music so Leontyne Price was my biggest influence. I was a big fan of Leontyne Price. I still wanna do “Carmen” one day. I…will…be…Carmen…somewhere…on somebody’s stage, dammit!
DMJ: Alright. It’s out there in the universe now. Speak it into existence.
SSV: I hope somebody’s listening who can make it happen. So, it’s also the dudes, man. That funk. Maurice White, he’s a funky singer. Sugarfoot, you know. So I’m a mixture of Leontyne Price and Sugarfoot.
DMJ: It’s an odd pairing, but it works. Before you stepped into the spotlight with The Family Stand, you were a background vocalist. Background vocalists have been getting a lot of attention lately with the release of the documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom”. What was that experience like for you, being a background singer? Did you find it rewarding or frustrating?
SSV: All of the above. It’s great to have this sort of camaraderie with the sisters because it is a club. Don’t get it twisted. It is absolutely a club and a lot of sisters in the film are friends of mine. It’s so great to see them getting this light because a lot of the hits that a lot of us know were made hits because of those voices, because of what they filled in there. They color it in a way that is palatable sometimes. To see Lisa Fischer doing so much over the years, she’s even won a Grammy as a solo artist and people still don’t know who she is. So this film will give her the proper light. I learned a lot from being in that club, the discipline you have to have and also very importantly, being able to be so flexible because you have to be able to come in and give the producer and/or the artist what they want. So, if you need to configure your voice to sound like A, B or C or if you need to blend where you’re at 65% and the other person is doing the rest, you know, when the blend is there, it’s integral to the unit. Where do I need to sit in this section? Those are very important things. I think it’s key for me as an artist now because now I know how to tell my background singers what they need to do. Fortunately, I usually have singers that already know but I know where they’re coming from and what they’re listening for. So it’s good to have been on both sides of that microphone so I can get them to where I want them to be. That knowledge is very important.
DMJ: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would imagine there’s not a whole lot of on-the-job-training so to speak. You mentioned that it’s like a club with the background singers, so I would imagine an established artist like Chaka Khan or someone of that caliber, would expect for you to come in be ready to get it done.
SSV: Oh no doubt! You don’t walk in there not knowing what you’re doing or that will be your first and last audition. I’ve seen that happen on a few gigs that I’ve been on. So no, you can be wet behind the ears but you still better be on your game.
DMJ: You once called your association with Peter Lord and Jeffrey Smith of The Family Stand something that was “meant to be”. As I mentioned in the introduction, everybody remembers the hit “Ghetto Heaven” and all of the stuff that you guys have done. Tell me just a little bit about how that group came together and what your relationship is with the gentlemen today.
SSV: It’s still very tight, but it’s funny. This is a good segue because we were talking about Lisa Fischer and Lisa introduced me to Peter and Jeff. She was doing demos for them when they were writing songs for Atlantic Records’ artist like Miki Howard and Donna Allen and some of those cats over there. They were writing songs and she was singing the demos. Then she had to go out with Luther for a while and she said, “Why don’t you let my friend Sandy do it. She just moved here and she’s great.” We actually met at a Luther Vandross concert in Dallas. I’ll never forget that because our tickets were next to each other. I got there first and I was sitting in the seat. This is a big dispute with Peter and I.
DMJ: We’re going to clear it up right now.
SSV: I got the microphone right now. I was sitting there and Jeff walked in the aisle first and said, “Hey, how are you doing? You must be Sandra. Nice to meet you!” He gave me a hug and everything. Then Peter came and said, “How you doin’? I’m Peter Lord”, and sort of looked down his nose at me. He says he didn’t do that but yes you did!! That was our first meeting and of course we ended up going back to New York and did the sessions. I did those demos for Miki and some other stuff they were working on.
What we realized is that we really do work well together, not just on other people’s stuff. So they had gotten a deal with Atlantic. The deal was like as a producers’ album, sort of like a Quincy (Jones) thing where they could bring in different artists. We started writing songs together for that and the label was like, “Yeah, we like this. Are you guys going to use any other artists?” We were like, “We don’t really want to” and we just became a group, sort of by accident.
DMJ: Are we ever going to get another Family Stand record?
SSV: Oh for sure!
DMJ: For sure, for sure?
SSV: Sure! Sure! If you’re listening, yes I said sure!
DMJ: Tell me and everybody else who may not know, what is a mack diva and exactly when did you become one?
SSV: (Loud laughter) Oooohhh, ok, well see the thing is there’s a negative connotation about a mack. There’s also a negative connotation about a diva, to tell you the truth. I don’t look at it that way, you know. I look at is as someone who is… Well, both of those words imply strength, steady on your feet, in control of your faculties, knowing your surroundings, being able to manipulate your surroundings to get you where you need to get into the next surrounding, you know. That strength and that confidence spills out into the space around you and affects those around you. So that’s what a mack diva is. That’s what a mack diva does.
As I’m writing that album, I’m realizing then as I do now, the titles come to me as I’m writing the album, as I get deeper in. With that album, that title came because of the song. I realized at that moment that what this, I hate the use the word character, but what this persona is doing with these songs and with this particular vocal energy is manipulating space around her to her liking. That’s kind of mack diva’ish.
DMJ: Ok, so now we know. In 1997 People Magazine called that album “the most unified and satisfying set of music she’s recorded.” You spoke about it a little bit, but when you listen to that project today what are your thoughts?
SSV: Hmmm…I really like that record. I do. I hardly ever look back and wish something was different because I very much believe that things are as they’re supposed to be in every moment and in every time. So I look back there and I see that and yeah, I’m satisfied with it.
DMJ: When I first heard it, I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but it was unlike anything I had heard before. Everything that you did on that album vocally, it was the most amazing thing to my ears at the time because it felt in-the-pocket and genuine and there wasn’t any of that superficial gimmicky stuff that we hear with a lot of singers. It wasn’t so much about trying to show off range and all of these crazy things that singers do. There was something so real about it. I heard you obviously on previous projects, but something about that album just blew my mind.
SSV: Thank you. I like the fact that the thing you dug about it was the sincerity. That was a key element in what you dug.
DMJ: Definitely. I call my folks over at Shanachie Records my “play cousins”. Tell me a little about how you hooked up with them for your new album.
SSV: This was actually via Mark de Clive-Lowe. He’s not only a brilliant, brilliant, did I say brilliant…musician, he’s a consummate businessman. I was just ready to put the record out, you know, “Let’s sell it out the back of the trunk, man. Come on!”
DMJ: Old school style. That still works.
SSV: Right! He was like, “No, we’re going to get a record deal for this album. It’s too important to just put out.” Between him and his manager at the time, he set out to find what would be a good spot for it and Shanachie became that spot. Fortunately, they felt very passionately about the music, almost as much as we did. Randall (Grass, Shanachie Entertainment General Manager) over there gets it. Monifa (Brown, Shanachie Entertainment VP of Publicity) gets it. Just having cats at the label that are not just looking at it as “This is a product we got to put out. Y’all do what you want to do. Fine, let’s put it out and it’s got to sound like this.” They got it as it stood and they’re treating it as such. That’s very different for me from my experience. I’m very, very happy with where we’re at right now.
DMJ: One of the beautiful things that Randall said about you is that you generate a lot of respect among your industry peers, people who are in the business, who know how it goes, the ups and downs and the ins and outs of it. Whenever your name comes up around them there is a certain level of respect that they show you. What do you attribute to that?
SSV: I think a lot of it is that I’m old. I’ve been around a long time.
DMJ: They’re just being kind to the elderly?
SSV: They’re just being nice to old people. You know how you are when old people are around. You just pat them on the back, but I’m just blessed man. I’m blessed because I had really amazing experiences with so many different artists and those things stick of course. Again, you have to go back to Booker T. to know that professionalism and discipline will always be respected when you are serious with your craft. Not to diminish anything, but I think there are not enough artists that are true north artistically. That’s also admirable on a certain level because clearly I’m not one of those that’s seeking to become rich and famous.
DMJ: Clearly, you say.
SSV: I’m just doing what I believe I’m supposed to be doing. I think that respectable!! It’s like a plumber is a respectable, honorable job. You’re doing the job at hand, and that’s what I’m doing. I think people dig that. I do have some amazing friends that have been doing it as well out here for a minute so we know how hard it is to KEEP doing it.
DMJ: The new album is called OYA’S DAUGHTER. Tell us a little about the significance of the title.
SSV: Again, as I said when I was writing MACK DIVA SAVES THE WORLD, the title comes to me as I’m writing the songs. The same thing with this one. I realized pretty deep in that most of these songs were about forward motion and about upheaval and change and transformation and that sort of thing. I recognized that there are spirits that talk to me, through me, when I write a song. You can call it muse, creation-creator, spirit. I just wanted to more clearly, succinctly define what energy is talking to me so I really had to meditate on that. I came up with Oya or rather Oya came up with me. I look at it that way because she is the Orisha of the Yoruban faith of upheaval and change, keeper of the flame, protection of women and children. She’s at the gates of transition and helping people make those transitions and she’s not afraid of things that we are. A lot of people stay in their situations and sometimes you need to not be. You need to step away from the old scenario and into the new.
DMJ: Go into the light…
SSV: Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Move toward the light. This is where we’re at and so she guides us through that. That is the energy of Oya. That is what she does. She will make a way where there ain’t one, that sort of thing and not to at all put myself on that level of being an Orisha. I, of course, believe we’re all Gods and Goddesses in our own right but we are children of these energies that have been here forever. So I said Oya’s Daughter for the album. These are the songs of Oya’s daughter.
DMJ: One of the songs that reminded me of my own childhood was “Stuff Momma Used To Say”. Did your momma really say all that stuff though?
SSV: I am not kidding you! I sat down with my sister and I said, “did she say all this” and she was like, “UmmHmmm, sure did” and I was like, “Ok”. She reminded me of things and I was like, “Oh that’s right” so I’d write that down. All of these things are things that my momma used to say and I want my kids to get some of that South folk, Dallas upbringing. I do talk to them like my momma.
DMJ: And I understand there’s a significance in that tune as it relates to your own role as a mother.
SSV: Yes, exactly. I’m a mother of three. I have two little ones and one grown one. This mother that we’re talking about now is my adopted mother. That’s the one I grew up with who raised me. I didn’t meet my natural mother at all. I found out who she was when I was writing “Where Does Mommy Live” for The Family Stand record SCORPIO. But it’s very significant. My kids will never get to know my mom because she’s gone. They’re growing up in the Netherlands, in Holland so this very big piece of who they are genetically, their American heritage, not just their American heritage but their Black American heritage, and not just their Black American heritage but their Southern Black American heritage; I want them to have that as much as they can. I am who I am for sure. To have these words on digital wax as it were, to hear whenever they want. This is MY momma. They got some. They’ll have that.
DMJ: It’s very interesting, I didn’t realize we had this in common about mothers because I wasn’t raised by my biological mother either. I knew who she was and we had some sort of, I don’t know if I would call it a relationship, but some sort of an association. She definitely was not my mother, the nurturer. I had someone else for that. I’m not sure what my question is here but I wonder what impact that had on your role as a mom now.
SSV: I definitely want to be there. You know how difficult that has to be being an artist who has to travel. There are things that I think a biological mom can bring to a situation that even the best adopted mom can’t. Maybe I’m being a little strict with that thought. It may not even be true but in what I felt growing up, now having kids and knowing what that physical connection feels like, it is a little different. I’m sure when you grow up with someone for years and years and years, of course there’s a connection there. It’s like a marriage, you become connected. It’s not all about DNA but as I was growing up, I always knew something was missing. I did. I had a recurring dream for years and years until I found out who my natural mother was and that dream just stopped.
I want my daughters to always know how important and how serious I am, how committed I am to being their everything. Especially growing into young women, I want them to be able to come to me. I want them to know that anything can be broached. We can deal with it, I can talk you through it, we can work it out, we can handle it. IT will get handled. I want that kind of connection with my kids and I have my grown daughter who I had that kind of connection with. It’s a beautiful thing, you know.
DMJ: I hadn’t intended to ask that question. I want to thank you for sharing that with me.
SSV: No problem.
DMJ: On the song “Grateful” you sing, “I’m grateful for the struggle.” As a wife, a mother, an artist, a mack diva even, all those wonderful things you are, what has been your greatest struggle to date?
SSV: Ummm, I think as we were talking about, being an artist and continuing to do it in spite of massive clouds of money raining upon me. That has been very difficult, ok! So as an artist, that would be it because there are moments. Honestly, it’s not about money for me. It’s isn’t about money but the money would help get you through these phases where you have created something which becomes like your child and it falls like a tree in the forest, nobody hears it. That’s painful from an artistic standpoint. It’s just painful. If I had been about the money, just trying to write some songs and make a hit on the radio and be rich and famous, it wouldn’t have cut as deeply. I’ve never done that. I always write from the soul. I always write from the core and from truth. I believe deeply that there are scores of people that feel exactly how I felt when I wrote that and they would get it and they would dig it and it would help them through something. That pains me, that (the music) doesn’t get to those people. It pains me! I do believe that art is transformational and it’s something that brings people together and it’s a healer and that’s the main reason why I do what I do. I want to be a piece of moving the universe forward and when the “baby” that I’ve created doesn’t get to do its job, you know…
DMJ: I have an opinion about that. I view music as something that is timeless, that doesn’t really have a birth or a death, so to speak. When it comes from a genuine place within an artist and they want it to reach somebody, I believe that that message does reach the people it was meant to reach but perhaps not in the time that an artist would like for it to. They’re like, “I put my album out and nobody’s listening to it” but 10 years from now somebody will be doing a random search on YouTube and there’s your song. They may not have ever heard it before but it still has an impact.
SSV: I agree. I do agree because it is timeless and it is there. It is out there and still has the potential to do what it needs to do, so yeah.
DMJ: The song “I Prefer” speaks in a voice that is covered in worry and concern but there’s still an unspoken optimism about it. I’m not sure where that comes from, if it’s in your performance, but it doesn’t necessarily seem to be in the lyrics. Are you a person who typically sees the glass as half-full as opposed to half-empty?
SSV: Definitely. Always.
DMJ: Ok, so that explains what I heard.
SSV: Oh for sure. You said it in a nutshell. What I’m looking at, I accept it for what it is, for why it is and I’m looking to the “what does this mean” and how does this get us to the next place. What are we to learn from this? So it’s something you take away from that even if it’s a disaster.
DMJ: R&B divas have been making a name for themselves lately on reality television and recently you called reality TV “unbelievably dumb”.
SSV: Did I say that?
DMJ: You did say that. Is it safe to say that we won’t see you on any such programs in the near future?
SSV: Ooohhh, they don’t want me on those shows. You want reality??? Okaaaay!! I don’t think I’d fit on that type of thing. Nooooo.
DMJ: You’re just a little too real for reality TV, right?
SSV: I think so because I think so much of it is staged and BS. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen “R&B Divas”, so I have no idea what that show is about. Maybe that’s a phenomenal show. I have no clue. I really try to stay away from that kind of thing.
DMJ: They’re all pretty much the same actually. If you’ve seen one you’ve kind of seen them all.
SSV: The ones I’ve seen I’m like, “Oh my God, really? Are people watching this? Oh my goodness. What are we doing to people? We’re dumbing us down. Jesus, turn that off.” So, I can’t.
DMJ: On the ballad “Coming Around” which has a really nice video on YouTube for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, you sing about a relationship that grows deeper with each challenging moment. How does your husband handle your extensive traveling, recording and everything that comes along with being a musical mack diva?
SSV: You know, I think he’s happy when I go away because of all of that reality we talked about. He gets a full dose every day. No, he’s really, really very supportive. He’s the most supportive cat. Obviously, I married him so… He’s just really there and he wants me to do what I need to do. He’s been one of those that in those moments when I’m like, “You know what, I don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my idea is incorrect.” When I get in those doubtful moments he will definitely throw a lasso around me and pull me back from the precipice.
DMJ: I want to let people know that OYA’S DAUGHTER is a funky, vulnerable set of tunes. It’s opinionated. It’s soulful. What are some final things you can tell us about the project before we have to let you go?
SSV: Well, we’re just really looking forward to getting this out to the heads that are going to dig it, that I know will dig it. Shanachie’s doing a great job at that. I really, really want to take it on the road and be able to perform and experience it with the peoples. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
DMJ: The new album is out on September 24. And lastly, I can’t let you go without asking you this question: In the recent past you talked about possibly doing a standards jazz album. You mentioned earlier about Sarah Vaughan being an influence, Ella Fitzgerald and people of that era. Is that still something you want to do? Can we still look forward to that?
SSV: No doubt. That and “Carmen” are like goals.
DMJ: Alright. I’ll be your A&R person for that one so be in touch.
SSV: Sweet! Ok.
DMJ: Sandra, thank you so much for your time. Again, we look forward to the new project OYA’S DAUGHTER on September 24. Thank you so much.
SSV: Thank you Darnell.
DMJ: Be Blessed!
SSV: You too.