Chicago native Layla Frankel doesn’t fit in a box, and she’s decided to stop trying. When she moved to Nashville in 2017, she realized she was too bluesy for the country artists, too “poppy” for folk — and she had more soul on stage than most Nashville audiences had seen before. Known for her distinctive “Soulcana” sound, an amalgamation of pop, folk, soul, rock and blues influences, Frankel has managed to build up quite a fan base during her short time in Music City.
You moved to Nashville following the release of your debut EP “Tame the Fox”. What drew you to Music City from Chicago? Oh, and, what inspired the title of your debut release?
Honestly, I was in need of a change of scenery. I love Chicago and will always call it home, but I was ready for something new. I also wanted to be immersed in a music community that would challenge my artistry and encourage creative growth. After just a few visits to Music City it was clear to me that the music scene was vibrant and incredibly personable–The community-feel was a big draw.
The name “Tame the Fox” was inspired by a passage in the book, The Little Prince. That moment where The Fox explains to the Little Prince that to “tame” means to “establish ties” and create a relationship that is “unique in all the world.” That concept resonated with me. I hoped that with my music, I could establish ties and create a unique relationship with my audience. I think that’s essentially the objective for any debut release.
A lot of your sound comes from the blending of the many genres you grew up listening to with your family. At what point did you make the commitment to music as a career?
Well, I’ve always known I was going to be a musician. It was never really a question. I grew up performing on stage and was always singing. I’ve always been completely obsessed with music. But I made a real commitment to this path in college when I chose to study creative writing (with a focus on poetry) and music. And I chose those fields of study with the intention of writing songs. I think that was really the driving force, and my artistic development moved pretty rapidly from that point on.
That’s a great question. My dad, Joel Frankel, is one of my largest musical influences, by far. I think especially in terms of having an early introduction to song structure and craft, and lyrical play. I think of him as an expert in those elements of songwriting. But I think beyond his music, he’s been more of an influence in his role as a music professional. Simply growing up with him has taught me a lot about artistic development, the art of performance, and the ins and outs of a professional career in music. My immersion within that world, from such a young age, has made it easier to confidently pursue my own music career.
You’ve chosen to label your music under the genre ‘Soulcana’. What other artists/songs would you add to a Soulcana playlist?
Yeah, it’s a name I came up with to communicate the cross between Americana styles (blues, rock, folk, country) and soul. I have a variety of influences and wanted to find a way to label that versatility. As for artists, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne all come to mind. Norah Jones too, especially some of her more recent projects. The industry puts artists in boxes for the ease of branding, and I get that, but I find that the artists and songwriters I respect the most are the ones who can write songs in a variety of styles. There’s a lot to be said for versatility in craft.
Big bands and jazz combos at the University of Illinois (my alma mater!). How did you come to form your quartet?
Oh yeah!? Small world. I definitely cut my teeth in my time at U of I; it gave me a lot of opportunities to stretch and grow as a bandleader and I’m really grateful for that time.
I’ve played with a lot of different musicians over the years and I find that it’s actually kind of unusual to have a consistent band, especially in Nashville. But I met Alex DeVor (my keyboard player and one of my go-to collaboration partners) two weeks after I moved to Nashville, and he introduced me to the other musicians I work with. I play a lot of shows solo or even with Alex as a duo, but there’s nothing like the energy of a full rhythm section.
Using your foundation in music theory, you share your knowledge and experience as a vocal coach. As a teacher, how do you customize instruction to maximize your students’ success?
I think it really just comes down to recognizing each student’s individual goals. I’ve worked with students who are industry professionals looking to strengthen their technique, and then I’ve also worked with students who simply wanted to sing and get some guidance for their own vocal exploration. I use a lot of different exercises based on each singer’s voice, and just aim to make each lesson about discovering something new. A lot of singers who haven’t had formal training are often surprised by how physical singing is; it’s muscle work and so in a lot of ways exercises can be quite athletic. It’s always fun to watch as singers discover their voices and make vocal breakthroughs that they didn’t know they were capable of.
Choir and stage experience. How have your own student experiences shaped your work with other artists’ vocal harmony and arrangements?
I’ve been performing on stage since I was 4 years old, and started singing in choirs when I was 11, so I was introduced to collaborative singing at a very young age. I enjoy singing lead, but I think my real strength is my ear for harmony that I’ve developed over all of the years. And I’m grateful for my jazz training as that certainly strengthened my ear and gave me a willingness to take risks melodically and harmonically. Some of the best musical moments come from making mistakes.
And now your Kickstarter campaign (through July 3), “being in the right place at the right time … the Indie musician’s fairy tale ending.” Or is it more just the beginning, after connecting at a party with a Grammy-honored guitarist, producer, audio engineer, at a career crossroads point in your journey?
Layla Frankel on Instagram: "Click here to support!! https://bit.ly/2ZJhbfT"
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It’s absolutely still the beginning. The Kickstarter is an advertisement of a dream — this “fairy tale ending” is what could happen when/if enough people join me in the creation of this project. The hope is that with support, together we can launch this dream into orbit. Or at least that’s my vision. But I’m optimistic! We’re five days into the campaign and already 80% funded! It’s absolutely incredible to have this much support from my fans and community so early on in this campaign.
Recording songs over the past six months, “This is a 100% live recording on state-of-the-art equipment with the most talented musicians I’ve ever met.” How has producer Jim Kimball helped you find the musicians to bring your songs to life in the studio?
Jim’s been working in this industry for a long time. He’s been touring with Reba for over a decade and has had years of experience as a studio player, engineer, and producer on a number of notable projects. So when we sat down to talk about the players he had in mind, I trusted his judgement. He won’t put his name on anything he doesn’t really believe in, and so he was adamant about getting the best players on the album. I brought in Alex on keys because I love his sound and knew that his playing was the right fit for me, and Alex had worked with guitarist Sol Philcox Littlefield in the past so I knew that would be a good pairing. Jim brought on the other players: Nir Zidkyahu, and Mark Hill, Jim Hoke, who have had notable careers as studio musicians and whom Jim has worked with on many occasions.
The opportunity to record with those players was such a treat. Their musicality is off the charts and they have such refined musical ears. They can hear a song once and immediately know what to do with it. To be able to track vocals alongside those players and experience the songs being built around me, it was absolutely magical.
Artists put together EPs to share stories, their own and society’s. What do you hope fans take away after listening to your upcoming EP?
You’re really getting to the heart of it here. This is that essential “why” question that artists ask themselves when they set out to record in the first place.
I think most songs are written from a need to express some sort of profound emotion. But each of these songs has a different take-away. For instance, “TLC” and “Without Suffering” were meant to soothe the soul, or at least that’s the role they played for me when I was writing them. And “Dear Jennie” was written based on a passage I read in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which told the story of a letter written anonymously to someone named Jennie, and found in a library book from 1914. I was inspired by the mystery in that particular story — this instinctive need to find that which was once dear to us and is now lost. But then “You Can’t Love Me Like I Loved You” is just a groovy retro soul jam with horns and harmonies and a hooky chorus. And you can never go wrong with a song that feels good.
The music industry canceled shows and tour dates. You said, “I’m of the opinion that art and music (and songs like “TLC”) are going to be what gets us through.” What is the backstory to “TLC” and what role will this song (and others) play in getting us through?
Yeah, clearly I can’t play that song on too many stages at the moment. But it’s always been a song audiences have connected with, and it’s been a crowd-pleaser on the livestream shows as well. “TLC” was a response to the Parkland shooting and was my own way of processing the pain and suffering our nation was feeling (and is still feeling) in the face of tragedy. It was sort of a call to re-evaluate the systems and above all else, look out for our loved ones and the people in our communities who may be feeling left behind. I think it’s a song that speaks to our society’s desperate need for healing, which has been consistently relevant, especially in recent years.
You needed to find a way to recoup the expenses to release the EP. Your campaign statement includes a breakdown of the $18K budget that will allow you to finish making it (if that budget is not met/exceeded, this project will not be funded). How are these expenses determined?
Yes. $18K. It’s a hefty price tag for an indie EP, I know. And I’ll be fully honest with you, it’s been a challenge to put that number on the page; I’ve had to quiet the internal voices that tend to shout and make you ask if you’re worth that kind of money. But, just to give you some perspective, almost all albums that get commercial radio play cost at least $100K to make. And this EP is absolutely radio-quality. So this is the bargain price tag, believe it or not.
As far as determining the expenses: I actually covered a lot of the initial recording costs myself; those aren’t even included in the Kickstarter budget. The budget was put together with the intention of finishing the record and then acquiring the funds necessary to release it. What is the point in making and releasing an EP of this caliber if no one will hear it? So, I’ve budgeted costs to go towards PR and marketing of the music, as well as funds for merch, video production, and then additional fees for the Kickstarter platform itself. There’s a lot that goes into putting out music; far more than just the music itself, and I was really careful about assessing this release from all sides. I see this as an opportunity to launch my career forward. The EP, hopefully, is really just the first big breakthrough step in my journey as an artist.
From pledging without a reward to the ‘Right Hand (Wo)Man’ Package … how else can fans help share the campaign?
They can share the campaign! Ha. In whichever form they like. Posting on social media helps a lot: I’ve posted my Kickstarter video on my socials, with a link to the campaign page, and that’s been circulating pretty steadily, so that’s been exciting. But yeah socials, emails to friends and family you think might like it, texts, word of mouth. Share a tune with friends and let them know that there’s more where that came from.
Last words to the village, those who have supported you from the start to those listening for the first time today, why you chose this to be an ‘all or nothing campaign’ one that you hope will launch your career?
I think this is the crux of it all, actually. To me, community is everything; it’s what brings joy and purpose to my life. And I view my fans — my “fox family,” as I call them — as an extension of my community. The goal of this Kickstarter is to release new music, of course, but I also view it as an opportunity to engage my community and to create something together. I chose all or nothing because I don’t want to promise the creation of something I can’t fulfill. I don’t want to put anything out there if it is half-baked, and I asked for $18K because that’s what it will take to put this music out there and glean the necessary exposure to actually see it go somewhere. But I also wouldn’t have set out to do a project with that price tag if I didn’t think my music was worth it. I’ve felt incredibly supported on my musical journey thus far, and I think my fans know how much they mean to me. I’m pretty forthcoming with my gratitude.
I hope that anyone who joins me on this Kickstarter journey will genuinely feel like they are playing a part. Wherever this musical journey may lead, I hope they know they’ll be coming with me.