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Rissi Palmer on Soulful Comeback: ‘It’s Scary and Empowering’

With new music made by her own rules, the singer looks back on her country career marred by others’ opinions

Rissi Palmer

Rissi Palmer's new EP is the soulful 'Back Porch Sessions.'

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was no coincidence that Rissi Palmer booked a Nashville date for the weekend of the CMA Music Festival. She’s played it plenty of times before. But this time she booked a slot at Sunday Night Soul, a bi-monthly showcase organized by roots-soul singer Jason Eskridge at the small East Nashville club the 5 Spot. She liked the idea of performing the songs from her new EP, The Back Porch Sessions, for a racially diverse crowd of soul heads — or, as she put it, “people that I didn’t necessarily get to sing to the first time around.”

In the 2000s, Palmer made a run at mainstream country success, garnering attention as the rare singing, songwriting woman of color getting any country radio airplay that decade. Knowing what she was up against, she emphasized that she had a stake in the genre’s culture with her debut single, “Country Girl.” But the handful of singles and self-titled album she released during her time in Nashville failed to yield a commercial breakthrough and she was, for a time, caught in contractual limbo with her record label and working at a mall.

Fast forward to 2015. Palmer is living in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and their daughter and making trips back to Nashville to develop her new music — with its neo-soul-to-throwback-southern-R&B sound and down-home, confessional point-of-view — when and how she wants to. “It’s a different vibe,” she explains, sitting at a picnic table on the porch behind the 5 Spot. “The country’s still there, because that’s still a part of me. But this project is definitely more intentionally soul.”

The way your life has gone over the past several years — leaving Nashville, taking time away from recording and touring, focusing on your family — is kind of the opposite of. . .
What people [in the industry] do?

So what’s it like reentering the fray at this point?
I did a small acoustic tour last year, just up and down the southeast, before we started working on this project, and we called it the I’m Not Dead Tour. Because a lot of people were like, “Where did Rissi Palmer go? She just disappeared off the face of the Earth.” It’s a little frustrating in that all the ground I covered the first time, in a lot of ways I’m at square one again. That’s probably the worst part of it. But it’s good because the sound is different this time, so maybe it falls on fresh ears. It’s not the same thing that people have heard from me before, so it almost is like I’m a new artist.

The idea of having professional momentum, or the perception of momentum, is such a powerful thing.
Yes. And it’s not easy trying to get that going again. So that’s where I am right now. We’re taking a more grassroots approach, which is very different from the first time. It’s a learning experience, and I’m in charge this time. It’s a lot on me, and it’s scary and empowering at the same time.

You’ve had not just one, but two separate experiences in label situations, one with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in pop and the other in Nashville country. Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, what would you say didn’t work for you either time?
I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, like, what would I do differently or what went wrong? Number one, I think a lot of times I took for granted that I was always gonna be busy. There were always gonna be interviews. There were always gonna be White House shows and the Grand Ole Opry and all that kind of stuff. I wish that I had taken the time to really respect and appreciate what was happening. Not to say that I wasn’t thankful. But I was doing — I wasn’t thinking so much.

And I was told a lot of things and would do them, because I just wanted this to work: “I want to sing and I want to get my music out there, so if you need me to do this, then I’ll do it, even though I don’t really want to do it, or I don’t really think this is the right thing to do.” I don’t feel like that now. I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to grow up a lot. Getting married and having a child definitely grew me up a lot. I’m not really chasing fame this time. I want to be a good musician and I want to make good music. I’m focused more on the craft than the gloss this time.

What’s an example of something you felt you had to do at the time that really didn’t sit well with you?
I’m just gonna be 100 percent right now. I didn’t want to do [a cover of the Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown hit] “No Air.” I was told, “You have to do this. This will be the song that gets you over.” It was a nice song. I just was like, “I don’t think this is the right thing for me” — but I did it anyway. Ironically, it ended up being the highest charting thing that I did, and the highest selling.

Regardless of how it turned out, I really wish that I had stuck to my guns more. That was just one example of many things that happened at that time. . . It was always like, “Rissi, you should do this. We’ve gotten together and we’ve decided this is how you should wear your hair. We’ve gotten together and we’ve decided this is what you should wear.” I had to fight for this [pointing to her natural hair].

Rissi Palmer

They wanted you to relax your hair?
And have it straight. I was like, “No, this is my hair. This is my look.” I’m not bitter or angry about it. I just can pinpoint the time that I wish that I’d stood up more for myself.

When did you go from seeing yourself as a soul-informed country singer to a countrified soul singer?
Growing as a writer and growing as a person, I just realized what was more comfortable for me. It’s really like a return to what I grew up listening to and how music shaped me when I was a kid. Country music and R&B music were always kinda hand in hand. We didn’t listen to one more than we listened to the other. I wanted to make an album that reflected that, because I felt like that was what I am. It wouldn’t be true to me if I would try to do the pop-country thing that I did the first time, because that’s not my headspace right now. That’s not what I’m listening to. That’s not what I’m writing.

Revisiting your older interviews, it is pretty clear that you had to work really hard to make the case for your authenticity and continuously explain that country was music you genuinely identified with. What was that like?
It was exhausting. And it hurt my feelings a lot, because I felt like people were questioning who I was and what my motives are. I remember right after [debut single] “Country Girl” came out, I Googled myself and I found this [online] forum. People were discussing the song and they were just like, “She’s fake.” Someone had made up this whole story about how they knew who my managers were, and that [my managers] had concocted this whole identity for me and that really I was a pop singer, and they were just trying to do this because they wanted a black girl to [sing country] and they wanted to be famous and blah, blah, blah. . . I have not Googled myself since.

There were a lot of really wonderful things that happened, but it was a constant barrage of always having to feel like you’re proving yourself and making sure that you’re doing the right things so that people know that you’re genuine.

You were the only African-American woman having any kind of success in country music at the time. Was that both a blessing and a curse, when it came to the media?
The first thing anyone asks you about is, “OK, so you’re black.” And then they go from there. I’m like, “Obviously.” And we didn’t get to talk about the fact that I wrote most of the songs on the album, that I’m a songwriter and I play guitar. I never felt like we really got into my artistry, because the focus was always on the outward appearance.

Have your co-writers and producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders been the primary constant between your work back then and now?
Oh yeah. As soon as I started visualizing this project, they were the first names that I wrote down. . . I knew that if I was going to do this type of album, they were the ones to do it.

What makes them good collaborators for you?
They are country soul. They’re both southern boys and soulful people. All of us together, it’s kind of like a melting pot that creates this sound.

Some of these songs, like “Summerville” and “Sweet, Sweet Lovin’,” have a strong sense of attachment to a time, place and people. What do you get out of writing and singing about your roots?
I wanted to honor where I came from. I felt like if I was gonna change up the sound, I needed to explain it. I wrote “Summerville” about my great-grandmother, my mother and my grandmother. They all were born in Summerville [Georgia], and I spent a great bit of time there. That’s actually where I started singing. Symbolically, that was the back porch sessions. That was the beginning of this album, in the Eighties.

The same with “Sweet, Sweet Lovin’.” There’s no greater statement of what we’re doing musically than this song. This song is all those things wrapped up in one. This is gospel. This is R&B. This is country. This is a little pop. It was the perfect first statement. It’s my musical explanation of where the hell I’ve been for the last five years and and what I’m thinking about. It’s an expression of who I am now — who I’ve always been, but that I realize it now and I respect it and I appreciate it. So I wanna sing about it and I want y’all to hear it.

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