Since her band is called Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, Naomi Shelton must then be The Queen of the Gospel Queens. Shelton has performed for over 50 years, from crowds of over 6,000 people to small gatherings in the West Village’s Fat Cat jazz club. Her sincerity and wisdom is that of a seasoned soul musician, but her ability to shake is that of someone half her age. Flavorpill sat down with Shelton to talk about her new album (and the group’s Daptone debut), What Have You Done, My Brother?, the beauty of a live performance, and hope.
Flavorpill: Since you’ve been performing for 50 years, why have you decided to record your debut album only now?
Naomi Shelton: I’ve done other recordings before, but for some reason, this is the one that is taking off like a plane. You keep going and eventually something will give. Nothing is going to happen before its time. The album came out just in the right moment, with the economic crisis and the whole nine yards. People are looking for something that they can relate to, something that can give them more strength to go on with what they had in mind to do.
FP: You’ve said your music has a gospel sound with the nightclub beat. How would you describe this sound to people who are unfamiliar with those genres?
NS: It’s all about love. When you hear a whole lot of beats, you can easily forget about the message. But the message in the song is what people want to hear. They are looking for a message that will give them the strength and the courage to go on a little while longer, to hold on to their dreams.
FP: When you perform, you look more lively than someone half your age. Where does all of that energy come from?
NS: People are where I get my energy. I’m into it because it’s love. I’m real with what I’m about. I’m not one of these people that is out there performing just to get a crowd. I take my singing very seriously. If I got love to show, then I’m bound to reach somebody, even if it’s one or two people. And that is what the people see — the energy is love. If you don’t have any love in your heart for what you’re singing about, you can try to sing and dance all night long, but your energy will drop.
FP: I definitely see that in your performances — the energy starts with you, and then inspires the crowd, who, in turn, energizes you even more.
NS: It’s really true, because when we talk about it, it’s giving me chills throughout my soul and my bones. That’s the whole thing. Once the people see what I’m about, then they automatically start to fill in the gap. When they go away, they feel happy. When I go away, I feel happy. We left a relationship there. And when they go back again, they’re looking for more. If you’re not real with what you’re about, you have to keep forcing yourself. When it becomes natural, you don’t have to go through all that, you just be yourself and be real.
FP: Since playing live is such a huge part of your career, do you think anything gets lost in the music once it’s recorded?
NS: Once I’m out of the studio I can really get loose. Studio stuff is a really serious thing. Once it’s finished, I say, “Oh thank you Lord.” Once I get into the crowd, I can just do my thing.
FP: What is the story behind “What Have You Done?”
NS: From my interpretation, He’s going to ask you, “What have you done?” I went around the world. Yeah, but did you reach out to help somebody, did you show anyone kindness? Well I have a good job, a lot of money. He’ll say, yeah that’s good, but what else did you do? He doesn’t need our money, He’s the one who gave it to us. He wants to know, what footprint did you leave behind, what good did you do?
FP: If you were asked, “What have you done?” would you say that your performances are your way of spreading love?
NS: Yes, that’s my way of giving love. I love when I can get down with the audience and just touch them. I get upset when I’m on a high platform and can’t get down with the people. That makes my night, when I can reach out and touch. People really want to be touched — they really want to know that somebody cares about them. I don’t ever know what a person is going through. Sometimes just to touch their hand and let them know, that I love you. Don’t give up, whatever you’re going through right now may be a little rough, but it isn’t going to be that way tomorrow. That’s hope.
FP: In your years of playing gospel and soul music, what is one of the greatest lessons that you’ve learned?
NS: When you go through a lot of things in life, it makes you a stronger, better person. If you don’t go through something, then you will never know what good is all about. I’ve gone through a lot of things in my younger years — trials and tribulations. They just made me stronger. I thank God for the obstacles that I’ve had. I say, just give me the strength to climb, don’t move the mountain. Just give me the strength to climb.