Interview: The Trajectory, Authenticity, & Raw Talent of Grammy-Nominated SOUTHERN AVENUE

As hard as it is to believe, 2017 marked the first year in five decades that the iconic Memphis-born record label, Stax Records (Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Sam & Dave, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats), signed an artist from its hometown. That group, Southern Avenue, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the blues community over the past three years. After taking home the Best Emerging Artist Album award for its self-titled debut project in 2018, the group's sophomore record, Keep On, is currently nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Not too shabby.

"We thought it was a typo," jokes Ori Naftaly, the band's co-founding guitarist. "We were really gives us a big push to keep doing what we're doing. Now it's like we're part of the club. People notice us at that level."

From left: Tikyra Jackson (drums & vocals), Evan Sarver (bass), Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals), Jeremy Powell (keyboard), Ori Naftaly (guitar) | Credit: David Horan

Naftaly, originally from Tel Aviv, claims to have moved to Memphis in search of "the best singer in Memphis" - enter the Memphis gospel-raised Jackson sisters. While Tierinii's soulful and forceful vocals certainly fit Naftaly's description, Tikyra ("TK") brings a versatile drumming background - as well as some pipes of her own. Combine that with Stax Music Academy graduate Jeremy Powell on the keys and Naftaly's blues guitar mastery, and you have one hell of a recipe for success.

Ahead of the 62nd Grammy Awards on January 26th, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Naftaly to discuss Southern Avenue's origination, ascension in the music industry, and its appreciation for the Memphis music community.

MG: Before you even got to Memphis, tell me about your background growing up in Tel Aviv. It's an incredible city, but I’m not sure how many folks consider it to be the Blues Capital of the World.

ON: [Laughs] You know we’ve got the blues in Tel Aviv…we just don’t produce it. We just love American music. Any type – rock & roll, Elvis…I think the blues resonates with people as well, but it’s definitely niche.

What was it that pointed you in that direction?

My dad is a big music fan. He listened to a lot of jazz and blues, which is how I got introduced to it at such an early age. I've been playing since I was five – it’s what I’ve been doing all my life. Before I came to America, I toured throughout Europe with my previous band. But I came to Memphis because I was trying to be a student of soul music, not just an ambassador without learning from the real deal. Working with (Southern Avenue sisters) Tierinii and TK and having this band, it's really what I've been wishing for my entire life…just to have a band made up of people who grew up around this type of music and for me to be able to share that with them.

Southern Avenue - '80 Miles to Memphis' | Acme Radio Live 2017

So how did you actually meet the Jackson sisters?

I originally represented Israel at the International Blues Challenge here in Memphis. I came back to tour here – got a Visa and everything – but after a few years, I felt like I needed a change. I asked a friend of mine in Memphis, “Who's the best singer in Memphis that also writes?” He introduced me to Tierinii, who was also interested in working with a fellow writer with the hopes of not just playing cover music, which is what she had been mostly doing back then. She brought her sister (Tikyra) along on the drums, and after a few months, I made them an official offer to start a new band together.

And shortly after starting this band, you guys signed with Stax Records, where you’d end up recording both of your albums to date. How has that experience been so far?

I mean, it's been a dream come true…especially for me. I've been listening to Stax music all of my life in Israel, and to suddenly to get that opportunity was definitely amazing. All of us feel very blessed…I mean it happened so quick! Within seven or eight months, we already got signed to a major record deal. It was definitely a big surprise to be the first Memphis band to release a Stax Record in like 40 years or so. We are very honored and excited to be able to make new, regional Memphis music and not just recycled stuff, you know?

Credit: David McClister

100%. It's very obvious how much Memphis means to you. From your loyalty to Stax Records, the Blues Challenge…even the band name! How has the Memphis music scene changed throughout your five or six years there, and what are the relationships like between the local musician community?

It's a small but very supportive town. There are over a million people who live here, but it's a small community of musicians – everybody knows everybody. We had a lot of support early on, but when we signed with Stax, it escalated to a different level. Memphis is definitely a hot bed of amazing artists and musicians – you get to learn and get better from so many people who are talented and well-studied in this type of music. There's something in the water north of the delta…they say Memphis is the capital of North Mississippi for a reason. There's something here unique and raw, and I love it. When you compare Memphis music to Nashville music, which is only three hours away, there is just such a huge difference between the two approaches. Nashville is tight and arranged – very produced. Memphis is real and in your face…and that's what I am more about, so I really connected to that. Memphis brings the best out of you as a musician.

As you mentioned the music community, I couldn’t help but think about the elite company aligned with The Recording Academy – congratulations on the Grammy nomination brother. Being in the same category with Gary Clark Jr. and Robert Randolph after releasing your first album less than three years ago is no small feat. What was your first reaction?

Thanks man! It was definitely out of nowhere – we were overwhelmed. For the first few hours, we didn’t think it was true…we thought it was a typo [laughs]. It's not just that. Gary Clark Jr. and Robert Randolph and Larkin Poe and Sugaray Rayford and all of these other nominees…it's not like they've been around for a few years. They've been around all their lives working towards this moment, you know? Larkin Poe has been doing this for seven or eight years. They've been touring and made a name for themselves, but we really started two years ago. It's very, very fresh. It's very, very early. We're not taking it for granted and know that it's a long journey. If we didn't get nominated for this one, we'd still be ready for a long road ahead. We don't have any expectations to win - just being nominated is enough. The North Mississippi Allstars, who are very good friends of ours, have been nominated seven times and never won it. It's good to know that what we're doing works and people like it – it really gives us a big push to keep doing what we're doing. Now it's like we're part of the club…people notice us at that level.

Southern Avenue - 'Keep On' (Official Video)

Well-deserved. Those messages of being in it for the long-haul and perseverance are also expressed throughout your music – the most apparent example being the album’s title track, 'Keep On'. Is that a common theme? If so, is that intentional?

The only way you can justify our sacrifices as touring musicians is by bringing people together and doing what we call a “mitzvah.”

Ah, as in a good deed.

Exactly – making sure that we're doing something for the greater good. Especially within the first album…'Don't Give Up' is a song that has been so, so important to us. People have been though some hard times in their lives, but that song has really helped them – that is is why we do what we do. We sing about love. We don't sing about the sun, the moon, the ocean… We don’t sign about partying, alcohol, drugs, politics…we don't get into all of that. We're really trying to focus on lifting our spirits and just bringing people together and making them stronger.

In terms of bringing folks together – you mentioned becoming friends with the North Mississippi Allstars, and you recently finished up a tour with the legendary Tedeschi Trucks Band. How do you guys have so many friends?

[Laughs] You know, I think that we're in it for the right reasons – we're not an egotistical group of people. We’re respectful, and when we tour with other bands like that, we know our place. We're trying to do the best we can to make their show better. It's not about us - it's about them. With those bands, we're big fans…and we're not hiding it! We’re learning from them, inspired by them…these bands know that by taking us with them, they're helping us. Not just by putting us in front of people, but musically as well. We needed that.

How much have you learned from them watching these bands on stage and on the road? How did you develop that kind of cohesion with your band mates? And how do you replicate that natural energy you develop in front of a crowd in the studio?

That’s a good question. Individually, I've been playing all my life and been on stages since I was eleven or twelve. Tierinii had also been performing for so long. Even though each of us could've had a solo career...when we're together, it's just something special. When your heart is in the right place, you get better faster, and you play together better. Day in and day out, we're trying to get better at writing, performing, and understanding each other musically. We're just catching up a lot faster because we’ve set our egos aside, and we're really there for the music. We've been individually hustling for so long. Now that we're together, it just explodes.

'Southern Avenue - 'What Did I Do' | 2017 KNKX Public Radio Live Studio Session

Does the fact that both of you previously had solo careers make writing new music a seamless process? How do you divvy up responsibilities, or does each song come to fruition naturally?

We just try to do the best we can and serve the concept of which the song is being written. Sometimes you compromise on ideas, but you only compromise for another good idea, not for a bad idea.

[Laughs] I would hope so.

[Laughs] You know? It's really about trying to write the best song rather than trying to have as much of me or of her. It's very hard for a person write on their own and stay fresh every time. At some point, you have the same ideas over and over again. It's about sorting it out together – the partnership is what makes it special.

Are you guys currently writing for a third project?

Oh yeah - we have almost 20 new songs. We've been writing since the album was released in May…and that’s outside of the other 20 that weren't selected. We're just trying to write as much as we can all the time. It's not only when you get the muse – it’s a muscle, and it's the best type of work.

The band is about to hit the road again for a tour that includes shows with the North Mississippi Allstars and Galactic. If you haven't already, be sure to check out both of Southern Avenue's award-winning albums anywhere you get your music fix.

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