Valerie Troutt's just released album, The Oakland Girl, is a luminous work with an international scope. Every track on the record resonates with the sounds of music from Africa, Cuba and North and South America. The arrangements have elements of the blues, soul, R&B, rock, rap, jazz, Gospel, electronic music, pop and much more. She brings these diverse elements together with an effortless virtuosity.
"Oilystaircase," the opening song, pulls you right into her distinctive worldview. A jazzy zooming bass line, Latin percussion and sharp fills from a traditional drum kit introduce her sprightly vocal improvisations. The melody and phrasing suggest a traditional African ceremony, driven along by multi-tracked harmonies with a Gospel feel.
"I am of African descent," Troutt said from her parent's home in San Pablo. "When I sing, I'm often channeling sounds that are remnants of a language coming from deep inside of me. I hope it reminds people there is a whole world out there, lands we can all connect to through sound. It's what comes out of me naturally, when I improvise. The spirit voices of our ancestors sing through me."
The title track is an excursion into the smoky nightlife of the East Bay. It features Gospel harmonies and a piano interlude composed by Robert Glasper, another artist who loves to scramble genres. "I was in New York, going to The New School for a degree in Jazz Vocal Performance. I was at the piano, in a rehearsal room, working on 'Oakland Girl.' He stopped in and asked what I was playing. I showed him a few passages. He told me to scoot over and we played it together. He liked the way it moved from 4/4 to 6/8 and offered a few suggestions I incorporated into the piece."
Troutt was in New York continuing the musical journey she started in Oakland. "My father sang in The Chain Reaction," she recalled. "They had a hit called 'Lady in Red.' My mother is a visual artist and pastor. I grew up singing in church and joined the ministry at the Love Center Church, under the leadership of the late Bishop Walter L. Hawkins. (His brother Edwin had a hit with an arrangement of 'Oh Happy Day.') It was a community of singers, writers, philosophers, dancers and artists. It was humbling, being surrounded by such powerful people.
"I started playing piano early, but I was shy. My father bought me a Casio keyboard and I'd sit in the closet to play. He got me a tape recorder and I began layering up my vocals. By the time I was at Berkeley High, I was teaching myself to produce, putting my voice on top of keyboard tracks. When I played them for my folks they went: 'Woah!'"
The next stop was The Oakland Youth Choir. She played the group her home recordings and they added them to their repertoire. "I realized I was a songwriter. I moved to DC to attend Howard University, then on to New York."
In New York, she recorded a version of The Oakland Girl album that was never released. She returned to the Bay Area, joined Linda Tillery's Cultural Heritage Choir, landed an artistic residency at San Francisco's Red Poppy Art House and put out her first album, The Sound of Peace. When Steven Lugerner at Slow and Steady Records heard it, he asked her if she had another record the label could release.
"I decided to give him The Oakland Girl," Troutt said. She already had the record ready to go. "I've been playing those songs at gigs and people have been loving them. A while back, I called everyone that played on the first version, 20 years ago. Some were in LA, some in New York. They all agreed to do it again. We had a rehearsal, a live date at Yoshi's, then went into the studio. We recorded it in one eight hour session, live, with very little overdubbing. We just had fun. I don't think music has to be perfect. I like working in the moment."
The Oakland Girl was going to be released on CD, but the pandemic put everything on hold for the time being. Meanwhile, Troutt is busy writing songs, teaching and staying politically active.
"I never sleep," she says laughing. "I'm a spiritual person, learning how to stay in my body and feed my soul, but as a freelance musician, I'm driven to create, create, create. I love mixing genres, pulling from different stages of my life for inspiration. I'm eager to find new spaces to visit, places I can be artistically free and not have to worry about the rent and all that. I haven't reached my best self yet, but I can see she's coming."