A Conversation With… Whitney KeatonTuesday, January 7th, 2014
Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn is back with another installment of his “A Conversation With…” series. In addition to his own solo career and a line of guitar method books called Hidden Sounds, Jeff is also the guitarist for acts such as Emmanuel Jal and Kae Sun. In this edition of “A Conversation With…”, Gunn speaks with Alicia Keys’ backup vocalist, Whitney Keaton.
If you have had the pleasure of going to Alicia Keys most recent tour, Set The World On Fire, then you have heard the soulful sounds of Whitney Keaton. In addition to being a featured vocalist, Keaton and her husband RAII (who also tours as a supporting vocalist with Keys) have been given a segment in Keys’ show to perform a duet, which has helped them to build a fan base while developing their onstage chemistry and work ethic.
Born in Champaign, IL, Keaton has been singing her way to the world stage since she was a child. Keaton is clear to point out that her musical beginnings can be traced to her church, where she sang with the choir every Sunday under the direction of her mother and aunt. In 2007, she moved to New York City and landed a lead role in an off-Broadway production of Dreamgirls. At the same time, she also began attending open mic nights and singing backing vocals with various local artists. In addition to live performances, she worked at a social service agency as an instructor with middle school students. It was here that she heard from a co-worker about an open audition for backing vocalists for Alicia Keys. After missing a chance to sing on the first day of auditions because of the extremely long line of hopefuls, she returned on the second day and was asked to return for several call-backs before landing the role of backing vocalist with Alicia Keys.
Since then, Keaton has performed worldwide with Keys on the As I Am (2008), Freedom (2010), and Set The World On Fire (2013) tours. Her husband, RAII, would join her on tour after landing a supporting vocalist role in 2012.
Beyond touring with Alicia Keys both Keaton and RAII are simultaneously working on their debut album called A Time For Everything. They have performed several shows in support of their album in New York City.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Keaton a few questions…
JG: Describe your earliest musical experiences.
WK: I was born into a musical family. Singing came before talking, says my mom. I grew up singing in different choirs within my grandfather’s church where my oldest aunt and mother were the lead choir directors.
JG: How would you characterize your vocal style?
WK: I would describe my vocal style as soulful.
JG: Who have been the most influential musicians in your musical development?
WK: My mom, Kimberly Keaton, aka Momma Kim, my husband RAII, SWV, Brandy, the Clark sisters, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin to name a few. It’s a mixture of gospel, R&B, and soul singers.
JG: Can you name a key moment that stands out as crucial to your musical development and career as a vocalist?
WK: I try and learn from every experience and serving as a supporting vocalist has definitely helped sharpen, develop, and cultivate my talents as a vocalist.
JG: Describe your vocal warm-up routine.
WK: That’s kind of challenging without actually doing them (laughs). It’s about a 30 minute routine of several different warm-ups that help with correct placement for certain words I sing so that I won’t over work my vocal chords. Some warm-ups double my volume correctly so that I won’t have to push; I’ll just project and the sound, volume, and intensity will be there. Other warm-ups help with the positioning of the mouth, bottom jaw, my head, my stomach, and arms, again, to put less pressure and strain on the vocal chords.
WK: Singing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” during Alicia Keys’ Freedom tour. Of course my husband RAII & I singing “Spend My Life With You” at our wedding reception! Also, the hubby RAII and I singing “You’re All I Need To Get By” during Alicia Keys’ Set The World On Fire tour (http://youtu.be/iJdzwFFGMuE).
JG: How about your most memorable recording experiences?
WK: The most recent ones! Recording the vocals, claps, snaps, and instruments with my husband for our upcoming project! We’ve recorded ideas that make up this project all over the world, due to being on tour.
JG: How was it that you came to sing with Alicia Keys?
WK: In the Fall of 2007, there was a huge audition in Manhattan about seven months after I moved to NY. I went but couldn’t audition the first day because they were closing the auditions down due to the time. There were too many people to see during the amount of time they had. I came back the next day and had about five call backs after that. Finally I was asked to come to the rehearsal spot which was very intense, with the band, and even after the rehearsal, I left there having no idea if I had made it. I received a call the next day saying come to rehearsal and I’ve been working with her since.
WK: I really enjoy working with her on and off stage. She consistently brings a positive energy and as the lead background vocalist, she welcomes my creativity and respects my input.
JG: How would you define your musical role as a vocalist who supports various artists?
WK: My role is to truly have the backs of the artists that I support. They should not have to worry but always feel supported and protected vocally. I give the work ethic, attitude, and energy I want my background vocalists and team to give to me as an artist. I stay flexible with what I may need to produce a sound, I’m willing to get out of my comfort zone, and I make an effort to bring positive energy into the work environment to make sure the artist is comfortable and feels confident.
JG: Describe a typical day in your life on tour.
WK: I get up to eat breakfast and either go back to bed or go walk around the city. Then I head to the venue and have sound check or rehearsal, depending on if Ms. Keys wants to change something in the show. After that, we usually eat dinner that’s prepared for us by the catering team. Once we’re finished it’s pretty much time to get ready for the show, so it ‘s back to the dressing room to do my hair, make-up, and put on the show clothes. I do some vocal warm-ups, head to Ms. Keys’ room for prayer with everyone, and then it’s show time! After the show, if we have time, RAII and I go out to the audience to give love to the people and take pictures and sign autographs if they want. Then we rush back to the dressing room to change and give the show clothes to the wardrobe team so they can clean them for the next show. Finally, we head back to the bus to either go back to the hotel or to the next stop.
JG: If you could perform with one musician in history, who would it be and why?
WK: It would have been Whitney Houston. I am truly inspired by her poise, her passion, and her confidence and from the brief time that I met her, she seemed so personable. I think it would have been a powerful yet fun experience.
JG: What advice do you have for aspiring vocalists and the nature of the working in the music industry?
WK: Your talent will get you in the door but your character will keep you there.
Whitney Keaton’s passion for music and warm character is immediately evident both at live performances and through our conversations. Visit Whitney Keaton’s website at www.raiiandwhitneykeaton.com.
Jeff Gunn is a Toronto-based guitarist who has toured with Emmanuel Jal, performed with DMC, Swizz Beatz, and Kae Sun, and opened for Peter Gabriel, Janelle Monae, K’naan, and Feist. His guitar is on Emmanuel Jal’s track “We Fall,” which will be featured in the Hollywood film The Good Lie (2014) with Reese Witherspoon. Jeff contributed guitars to the Peace Concert in Juba, South Sudan, which was recognized by the United Nations in the form of a Peace Award to Emmanuel Jal and DMC (RUN DMC) by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in NYC on December 18, 2013. His new series, Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method On Guitar (Book 1-4) with Mayfair Music Publications is now available for purchase in hardcopy at music stores across Canada, US, UK, South America and the Caribbean, and eBook formats are available at http://www.jeffgunn.ca and http://www.mayfairmusic.com. Jeff is endorsed by D’Addario Canada, Godin Guitars, Levy’s Leathers Guitar Straps, and Planet Waves. Join Jeff on his cross-Canada Hidden Sounds/Hidden Self Guitar Workshop Tour with Long & McQuade music stores (Spring 2014). Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffgunn1.