Shelton sings up smiles with a little of this and that

by James Brotheridge

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens
RFF Main Stage, 9:15 p.m.
Sunday 10

You might not know it from her stellar voice or her buoyant spirit, but Naomi Shelton’s no spring chicken. A symptom of that: she’s had a knee replaced.

When she tells me over the phone she’s fallen seven times, for half a second, I’m surprised she remembers the number.

“Oh, yeah, you will remember them,” she says. “There’s no joke about that. You will remember them.”

Luckily, she’s not alone up on stage. The Gospel Queens are as seasoned and impressive a backing band like Shelton could ask for, complete with bandleader Brother Cliff Driver and backup singers Edna Johnson, Bobbie Jean Gant and Angel McKenzie.

And with Daptone Records impresario Gabriel Roth producing the record, Shelton and her Queens came out with the stellar Cold World, their first album in six years, recently. We started our conversation with the new record.

Why did you decide to do all the tracks live?

Well, I’ll tell you, it wasn’t up to me. It was up to Gabe and Cliff. They are the ones who did the choosing. I just followed their instructions. [Laughs] That’s the kind of person I am.

Do you think it gave the songs anything more in the recording to do them live in studio?

No, because like I said, they got together and said, “We got to get it done now.” They’re so busy with their own stuff. They wanted to do it live in the studio.

What kind of energy did you capture doing it that way?

It gives you a little more drive, a little more pull to do it that way. With the band doing what they got to do and back-up doing what they got to do, things go much faster.

It seems a lot closer to the concert experience, which is where gospel and soul should really be experienced.

Exactly. I tell people it’s really soul music.

It’s really soul music?

Yes. Because gospel and soul music are in the same category. It’s in the same category.

So then is soul the umbrella that stuff like gospel sits under?

It’s soul music, because the songs that we do touch different people and they have different feelings about why they like it. That certain song that touches somebody’s soul, where they go, “I really like it; it really touched my spirit”. So that’s why I call it soul music. People react to different songs differently. “I was going through a lot of things, and hearing that song is setting my soul on fire, so I’m glad.”

Even in classic soul, there’s so much you can bring in. On your record, for example, you have some country-soul moments and bits of gospel and a reggae influence in “Sinner” that a lot of people have noted.

Between Gabe and Cliff, they’ve got a whole lot of things going on there. That’s what makes it interesting: different songs for different strokes for different folks. You have to give people a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and keep everybody with a smile on their face.

Are a lot of those influences coming from Gabe and Cliff? How much is coming from the rest of the band or you?

Well, I bring me just by singing it. Then with the music, they get together with their stuff. I don’t know anything about no music, I just know how to sing. I do know good music when I hear it. I know something’s right and when it’s not right.

Your faith is such a big part of your music. What do you think audiences who maybe don’t believe in God can draw from that part of your music?

They’re being inspired. They’re coming to me and saying, “You made my day”, and a lot of times people are saying, “I’ve come to get my medicine for the week.” I say, that’s good. You got your tonic? I’m glad. Now you’re good to go for the whole week.

You really have to feel the stuff yourself, otherwise no one’s going to pick up anything. So it’s not the idea that I’m such a religious person; it’s the idea that you have to be real about what you’re about. That’s when people pick up the love, the feeling that is real. I’ve got no time to just go through the motions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.