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Jeff Miers: Rising star Curtis Lovell knows why the caged bird sings

Intention. Music is about intention.

It’s not just about the notes. It’s about what the singer is trying to do with those notes. The caged bird doesn’t sing because it wants to be famous. The caged bird sings because it longs to be free.

“With Curtis, you get the impression that her innermost feelings are churning into melodies, harmonies and poems that build up until she can’t hold them in any longer.”

That’s Buffalo-born producer Jeremy “Cochise” Ball – whose credits include work with Notorious B.I.G. and Lana Del Ray - discussing the transcendent talent of Buffalo singer Curtis Lovell, born Zoe Scruggs.

I recently sent Lovell – we’ll refer to her by her stage name, which she arrived at by combining her parents’ middle names – a list of questions to answer at her leisure, as she was preparing for a recent gig at the 9th Ward @ Babeville. She sent me a recording of answering the questions in real time, and it’s a recording I already cherish, filled as it is with her on-the-spot thoughts and punctuated with her singing bass lines and melodies by way of example. There’s something disarmingly intimate and deeply moving about Lovell’s voice.

Lovell comes from a family that is deeply steeped in the arts. Her mother is Lorna C. Hill, actress, poet, playwright, and founder and executive director of the Ujima Theater Company, the oldest professional repertory company in town. Her uncle is renowned musician and singer Rodney Appleby. Her brother is DJ Amilcar Hill, known to his fans as DJ Milk. All inspired Lovell’s pursuit of a unique musical path.

“My brother is a hip-hop head, among many other eclectic things that he’s into. That’s because of our mom. She gave us the whole spectrum of music. Anything from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline all the way to Sly & the Family Stone to hip-hop, and all of it in between. It was just this wild tornado of music in our house while I was growing up, between what Lorna was playing and what Milky was playing. It was just incredibly inspirational.

“Going to Performing Arts – well, that changed the game too, because then I was starting to learn technique and the mechanics of being a vocalist. All of that is most definitely ever-present for me.”

The use of the loop pedal – a device that allows sampling of multiple sounds to be played back in real-time – granted Lovell an opportunity to carve out her own musical space while simultaneously freeing her of the constraints that can come with working in a multiple musician format.

“I was really frustrated with how hard it was to link up with musicians,” said Lovell, a 2009 graduate of the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. “Because in my brain, it’s so specific. So, when I started recording my own music at home, I was looping in [desktop music app] Garage Band, and singing the guitar line, or the bass line, or the vocal harmonies, I realized that this was actually the sound I wanted. And I knew immediately that I had to buy a loop pedal, so that I could do this on my own, in real time.”

My first exposure to Lovell’s singing came via the uber-virtuosic Buffalo Afrobeat Orchestra, a collective largely dedicated to celebrating the music of Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian musician, producer, political activist and band-leader largely credited with the invention of the African music/jazz/soul/funk stew that is Afro-beat.

Buffalo Afrobeat Orchestra opening for Public Enemy at Canalside in 2016. Lovell is center, with microphone. Leader Preach Freedom is looking at camera. (Sharon Cantillon, Buffalo News/file photo)

“Having a band in Buffalo that does this kind of music is so important to me,” Lovell said. “Buffalo is a very politically charged city. And Fela’s music is very much the soundtrack to my own political ideas and ideals and morals, and that’s the same for a lot of my neighbors and community members.”

Cochise said Lovell’s art stands more than a fair chance of making a breakthrough far beyond Buffalo’s borders.

“When she sings, it’s like her soul is resonating and that vibration goes right through you when you listen,” he said. “When you think about the harmonies, the rhythms, the vocabulary, and the fact that she can do all of this without a band… I don’t think the music world has seen anything like this.”





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