Conversations about music and Memphis, Tennessee, inevitably drift into the past to the cataclysmic proto-rock ‘n’ roll rumblings at Sun Studios, the greasy, liberating soul of Stax Records, or perhaps the music– later coined “power pop”– of the Big Star galaxy. Then along comes a band like Southern Avenue. The hard-driving group’s name graciously nods to their influences, a reference to the street that connects east Memphis to “Soulsville”, the original Stax headquarters, but Southern Avenue is a reminder that Memphis is more heartbeat than history book.
Everything about the band feels huge: They’re a quintet, featuring vocalist Tierinii Jackson, guitarist Ori Naftaly, drummer Tikyra Jackson, bassist Evan Sarver, and keyboardist Jeremy Powell, a distinction that gives the band’s sound a potent heft, the feeling that you’re listening to an all-star soul revue. There’s also the locked-in groove pulsing throughout, fueled by intuition, not simply technique. If the rhythm seems visceral, perhaps it’s because Southern Avenue’s bond extends beyond a shared fondness of old soul records. The band is a truly family affair– Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson are sisters, and Tierinii and Ori were married two years ago.
Produced by Los Lobos’s Steve Berlin, Southern Avenue’s latest record, Be the Love You Want, is an aural affirmation. It’s a realization of the band’s talents, most notably for Tierinii, who powerhouses her way through tracks like “Push Now”, “Control”, and “Move Into The Light”, her optimism and voice a balm for a world exhausted by the last two years.
Southern Avenue brings its own brand of positive soul to Grant’s Lounge on Friday, February 25th. In anticipation of their show, I spoke with Tierinii and Ori about the balance between work and music, family, and the Stax Museum.
CF- You’re in Israel now, but your first gig back in the U.S, is Macon. What brings you here?
Ori- I don’t think we’ve ever played Macon–not that I remember– but there’s such a rich history of music. It’s a cool place to play, and for some reason, we never did, so we’re excited!
What’s the promotional cycle like for y’all at this point? This is your third record, and on top of that, you’ve had to deal with a pandemic. How do you keep your heads up?
Ori- We all met six years ago, and there’s a journey that took us through as a group, and there’s a journey that you go that’s personal, so I think we’ve all grown together because we spend so much time together on the road. Seventy percent of the year, we’re together, whether it’s shows or practice or sessions, writing, recording– there’s just so much to do. We’re always together, so I think we grew together, not apart. I think that translates into our new album and where we are today.
You’re a five-piece. Is it difficult managing everyone’s egos, making sure everyone’s opinions are heard? Lots of three-pieces find it impossible to keep it together.
Ori- I think it has to be a natural, organic fit. Either it works with the people you’re with, or it doesn’t. We never had to put a focus on our relationship. We never had a talk where someone said something like, “We have to stay friends because of so-and-so.” It was just day-to-day– you morph into being one unit, or you don’t. After so many years, we’re all getting closer and close together, for sure, or else, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.
Tierinii- I feel like we’re very appreciative to be able to do what we do. For me, every time I get the opportunity to be on stage, I’m just grateful. That’s how we all feel, and that’s how it comes across.
I’ve read elsewhere that you had to get a nine-to-five job after the pandemic shut down the industry for a bit. How do you all find the balance between working and creating?
Ori- There is no balance. Corona really stopped everything. We had to find a job or go under. It was a matter of needing to put food on the table. We just did what we had to do. It’s definitely not something we’re looking at long-term, but shows are still not a hundred percent back. We just did November, December, and January… Did you go to a New Year’s Eve [party]? Probably not. It’s still there, and we’re at the end of it, but it’s still a struggle. We just had to postpone a cruise, so it still happens.
Along the lines of working, I know you’re also parents. How important is it to encourage their creativity? How do you foster that environment for them?
Tierinii- I definitely push for them to be creative because when they’re young, they have all of these emotions that they don’t know how to express. It’s a lot easier for me to put a Crayon in their hand and say, “Draw to me at what point you got angry.” It’s easier to communicate with creativity than it is for them to gather their thoughts and speak like adults.
Your live shows and your records are tremendously upbeat. In your videos and the live clips I’ve seen, you’re operating on all cylinders with no lull. How do you account for your drive?
Tierinii- That’s how we make it through. We speak to ourselves in a very upbeat way. We have to practice being upbeat, being positive for us to make it through life because we all deal with the same harsh realities and challenges. It’s about the attitude that you keep when you’re going through these things that create your outcome.
Ori- I also add that when we write songs for the album, we always think how we can do them live– and can we? We write songs to add to our show, and we put some of them on the record. We’re not going to record a song that we can’t perform live on a technical level. Being upbeat is like, “Yeah!” We need the album to be like the show where there’s dynamics between the songs and within the songs, to be able to give you the feeling like, “Yeah, I just saw a show. This was a set. I’ve had enough, but I want more! I saw a full show.” It’s upbeat in general– there’s not a lot of ballads, and even the ballads aren’t like slow jams.
Everything was cut as a four-piece– bass, guitar, drums, and lead vocals, and then we edited from there. Some of them were more live. A lot of the horns and keys were recorded together, so even a lot of the overdubs were done together. So we’re very happy. We think our latest record is a genuine version of who we are, of who we are in the last three years.
A lot of your songs bear the weight of current affairs, and songs like “We Are Not So Different” and “Let’s Get It Together” espouse unity and equality. Even a song like “Move On”, which might be romantic in nature, feels like it carries a political subtext with lines like “Happiness is a choice/A choice to be made/If mine offends you/Then you have a choice to make.” Do you feel the responsibility to get political with your lyrics?
Tierinii- I feel like as humans, we go through things, and as musicians, we do have a responsibility to use our superpowers for good. You have to leave something. You just can’t be out here making music– you have to say something that matters because you have a voice. I wouldn’t say there’s pressure to do it; I’d say that as a human who goes through many things that we have to express our concerns, we have to express ourselves.
Ori- On the other hand, I don’t it’s as political as it is cultural.
Tierinii- We deal with love…
Ori- It’s a cultural thing. It’s not saying, “Guns are bad, and gun violence, and police brutality.” It talks about what led all of these people and us to be where we are today. So it’s not, “Do this; do that.” It’s saying, “This is how we feel about this situation.” We’re not in a point where we’re trying to change something through politics– that’s how our democracy works. We’re not doing any of that…
Tierinii- We’re writers…
Ori- “We Are Not So Different” is a song about the fact we’re all the same. When you travel the world, you realize the people in Romania, people in Sweden, people in Australia, people in Spain, they’re all just the same.
Ori, you’ve said before that the best time to write a record is immediately after you’ve released the last one. So, have you started writing the next one?
Ori- Yes, but I think the baby is distracting (laughing)! There’s just so many songs that never made the album. T’s part ended earlier in terms of mixing and stuff, but to me at the end, at some point, I felt like the songs were already old to me, so you’re already over it. Also, there’s no pressure. The only pressure is to go back on tour and promote the album you just released.
Tierinii- The time right after you release an album, there’s no pressure because everybody’s focused on the album you just released. They’re not pushing you…
Ori- For example, when you get a record deal, or you’re talking about doing a record and you send demos, that process starts, and basically it’s a year on the clock. You have a year; you have eight months; you have nine months…
Tierinii-You start talking dates…
Ori- But then it’s like, “Ok, can we do a writing session with this guy, with that guy? Should we?” And then you realize you have a lot of songs that aren’t so single-y, radio-friendly. So then you’re already in that mindset that you don’t want to be in on that creative level. So you’ve just released an album, and nobody even talks to you about another one. And now the next year is a grace period where… Not that anyone stresses us to release anything, but we want to be releasing; we want to share with the people the songs we write. But now we can be more creative and not worry about anything other than writing a good song.
And you’re sticking around Memphis?
Ori- Yeah! It’s cheap! It’s good (laughs)!
I know you’re a big fan of the Stax Museum. It’s an overwhelming experience in the best way. I loved the opening video that featured a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I remember watching it, thinking, “I’ve been playing guitar the wrong way all this time!” What’s so special to you about the museum?
Tierinii- I love the Stax Museum because growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything other than gospel. I would hear all these tunes in commercials or if I was out in public, so at some point in my early adulthood, I went to hear all this beautiful music I’d been hearing my whole life but wasn’t able to touch.
Lots of soul artists like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke start out in the church before leaving and finding success in secular music. Some feel guilty about leaving the church behind. Did you?
Tierinii- The church set me up for soul expression, and I’m still expressing my soul. I feel like it was a boot camp– you learn your voice; you learn to sing the right way, you learn to sing the wrong way. It’s just…
Ori- Also in the synagogue (laughs)!
Tierinii- I was made to do this!