With Her New Music, Vocalist Carolyn Malachi Goes Au Naturel

By Teta Alim

"I'm more organic than I used to be," says soul vocalist Carolyn Malachi.
"I'm more organic than I used to be," says soul vocalist Carolyn Malachi. Drew Xeron

For Carolyn Malachi, there isn’t a big difference between the way she lives and the way she sounds.

The D.C. soul and R&B singer — whose voice can easily slip from smooth spoken word to focused singing — has a freeform, organic style that parallels a recent shift in her lifestyle.

“I’m more organic than I used to be,” says the Brookland native. “I mean, I’m vegan now — for almost three years.” She made the change after the release of her last studio album, Gold.

The Grammy-nominated vocalist has set aside precision and rigidity, easing into a flow that unfurls on its own time. Her newest release — Chapter 1: Where You Are, out today — is a four-song EP that previews her upcoming LP, RISE [STORY 1]. Malachi plans to release three full albums as part of a trilogy called Rise of the Modern Natural.

Rise is the story about experiencing life on your own terms,” Malachi says, “and that’s what I’ve been fighting to do for years.”

Her latest singles, “Blowing Smoke” and “We Like Money,” follow two different but shared journeys. “Blowing Smoke” simmers with deep bass lines and a lilting piano. Malachi’s voice curls around each note, completely in control but with a grip loose enough to let the music develop naturally. The bouncy “We Like Money” — featuring go-go vocalist Michelle Blackwell — pays homage to go-go music and its innovator, Chuck Brown, harking back to Brown’s classic “We Need Some Money.”

Before the release of Chapter 1: Where You Are, I spoke to Malachi — who happens to be a former college basketball player — about being an independent artist, why D.C. could be called a music town and the influence of her jazz pianist great-grandfather.

Bandwidth: You recently played the D.C. Jazz Fest. How did that go?

Malachi: I really enjoy coming home to play. We get a lot of love on the road, but there’s such a knowing and an understanding of what we’re doing musically because D.C. is such a diverse… it’s a music town. Yes, it’s a political center but it’s a music town as well. So when we transition in our music while we’re playing, the audience is right there — I mean, they get it. That comfort level is just really nice to come home to.

This is the first I’ve heard D.C. described as a music town.

It is. I mean, it’s overshadowed because we got federal government here and now there’s a lot of tech happening… but you know, if you just visit the different corridors, visit the different wards and go to venues and hear what’s happening, you know there are all of these different music scenes which honestly I didn’t really know about until I became a member of the D.C. Grammy chapter. And within that chapter, we have all kinds of people representing their different communities and they’re speaking up, talking about their projects and they’re describing diverse music cultures here that really don’t interact with each other.

Let’s talk about your background then. What got you into music and how much of it was inherited versus chosen by you?

Well, I’ve been writing music all of my life — songs, poetry, what have you. I [was] introduced to music production technology when I was an undergrad at Shepherd University out in West Virginia. … So I just started to perform around campus and build the vibe and found the band. … Then I moved from West Virginia to Baltimore for work and just kept doing the same thing, music, writing, [finding] musicians to play and ways to improve vocally. And that’s just the process I’ve been in for the past few years.

But I think what is inherited is — you know, the only other musician in my direct line is John Malachi, who was a jazz pianist and my great-grandfather. So if anything’s inherited, it’s his demeanor and his work ethic. And what I’ve learned about him from stories told by my family and the couple of years I had to interact with him and my memories of him — I remember him being a very warm person, so I try to be warm to people… I try to make sure I understand why I’m doing this, I try to be very real with myself and with my audiences. I try to be the best I can be, just like he did.

Do you think that jazz is still accessible today, or is it harder to get people into that genre of music?

I think that it’s changing. You know, you have Robert Glasper who’s taking the genre and moving it forward with his approach. And you have entities like the D.C. Jazz Festival, and you have the guys at Capital Bop — I’m speaking locally — who are taking jazz and putting it in neighborhoods and making sure that the culture is upheld, making suring that the music has a presence here in the city. It’s the same thing with go-go music.

What explains the gap between Gold and your next album? Why have you planned a trilogy?

In the past two years I’ve been writing music, but maybe it’s taken so long because I’m one who wants to get things right. I’m trying to make sure that what I actually want to communicate actually comes across in the music, and that it’s not just something I’m dumping out into the world. I speak with intention. And sometimes it takes a lot of time to get people together. I work with people who collaborate out of love. You know, as an independent artist, at this stage in my career, everything is pretty much self-funded. So while, yeah, I’m taking my time, it also means I have to make good business decisions and smart financial decisions in making sure that my resources are managed properly.


How do you relieve stress and stay upbeat about music?

It is stressful, I can’t lie. It can be lonely, especially on the road. But honestly, when I’m with my band, I don’t feel that. They’re my brothers and we’re out having a good time. When we start playing, whatever happens, we could be in the car on our way to a gig and there’s a problem, as soon as we get on stage, whatever it was it disappears and it never comes back.

How did you meet your band?

We actually met about two years ago in Upper Marlboro. They were playing at a club. So when I was out having dinner — you know just out in the town — and I walked in, the emcee says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have national recording artist Carolyn Malachi in the building.” And I’m like mid-bite, fork in mouth and everything. So I look up and wave. The band starts playing my record and I look up and see somebody was motioning me to the stage. I wasn’t on the road at this time and I had taken a couple of weeks off to just chill but I thought I could go up and have some fun. And they killed. I’ve never heard a band interpret my music that way. Never. So we started working together. That was it.

Why go vegan?

Three years ago, I decided I wanted to cut out the middleman. I wanted to get my energy from the sun, from plants, to be much healthier than I was. I think I did that because I was making a series of decisions in relationships — there’s always a love story when talking to musicians, right? — and making decisions in relationships that were not delivering the results I expected. And I was listening to somebody, some inspirational [speaker], and they said that anytime you’re in a situation with different people and you’re experiencing the same thing, maybe you need to look at what you’re doing — like, what’s up with you. So I cut off animal byproducts out of my life as a symbol.

Why is it important for you to stay independent?

For me, going the independent route was sort of natural — like, that was what was available to me. Labels were not knocking on my door, even after the Grammy nomination. And now, I haven’t spoken to any that can offer my team, my band or I anything different than what we’re already doing. So at this point, we’re self-sufficient and we have a groove so it makes sense to just keep flowing in the way that we do. I’m uninterrupted.

What made you want to make an album as part of a trilogy or series?

Well, conceptually, life is just such a beautiful story and journey and we really thought this approach would fit for everything we’ve gone through. Plus I know that a lot of my fans are readers, so it’s something that they would be able to identify with — and with people who listen to my music, from [ages] 18 to 81. So I have 18-year-olds— they’re online and listening and maybe they’re not listening to an entire record, but the 81-year-olds want a CD they can put in their CD player and vibe out to for a longer period of time and want to live in the moment a little bit longer. So approaching the record in this way allows it to really connect with the diverse audience that we have.

Do you worry that if people don’t listen to albums in full, they’re not getting the entire message?

I don’t think that I worry about that. I know that I did my job communicating the full message. I know that there are some people who are really going to be into the music and listen to the all the lyrics, listen to all of the runs the bass player is putting out and [listen] to everything that’s going on. … But then there are people who like to feel good in that moment and not get deep into it. It caters to the person who has to think about it and break everything down to enjoy it, and then it’s also for the person who just wants to feel it as much as they can. However you experience it is totally fine with me. As long as you’re listening to my music.