Featured Interview – Skylar Rogers

Cover photo © 2021 Michael Goza

image“My music is about life. I have a quote: ‘I believe that music survives the worst and celebrates the best.’ And that’s what my music does. It’s got somethin’ for whatever you’re feelin’. You know sometimes you get into that feeling you need the good whisky drinkin’ Blues song. Sometimes you need that inspirational song. You’ve got that angry song. You’ve got the, I hate to say, cut throat song. It’s a look into somebody’s life. I have a tendency, I’m really trying to work on this, I belt it in your face. (laughter in voice) I don’t always mean to do it, I’m really trying to work on kinda backing off. But, that tends to be my personality. I went from the person who was really quiet and timid and shy to belting it. And I think it was cause I was told I couldn’t do it. So now I figured out oh I can do it, okay. Well forget you and fool people that look like you. So I would say it comes out kinda in your face. And I don’t hold back.”

Skylar Rogers doesn’t hold back. A lifelong singer, Skylar started her professional music career just a few years ago in 2018 after a life of military service, truck driving, marriages – ups and downs, joys and heartaches. A daughter of Chicago, Skylar put in time in that fertile Blues nursery Memphis. But, even with this old school geographic Blues cred, Skylar is her own woman and her own artist. She is equally inspired by Tina Turner and Billy Joel (yes the Piano Man!). Her debut full length Firebreather released in January of 2021, is a Blues Rock blast of all original material that lives up to its title. With a hot, uniquely rocking band that she manicured to realize her artistic vision, Rogers says “I try to write about fictional stuff and I can’t do it.” She brings her whole self to her music and reveals her life and lessons learned.

Skylar’s inspiration for music has always been with her. “It’s as far back as I can remember,” she says “and that was probably 4 or 5 years old.” When you hear Skylar singing shades of Tina come swirling up: “Tina Turner, her voice, her story and my story, we mirror in a lot of ways. Her stage performance, I love her energy and I love her drive. I try to emulate that when I do my shows.” But, the undeniable grounding in Gospel phrasing is also there. There is something else too, something unique and her own. Skylar explains that when she was young:

“I remember sittin’ in a church and banging on a piano and just yellin’ at the top of my lungs. I got in trouble for that too, but it was just so much fun. But, I was also told that I couldn’t sing and it was because I sang differently than everybody else. I was becoming Classically trained at the Chicago Children’s Choir. Because I didn’t sing like everybody else I was told that I couldn’t sing so of course I joined a band. I joined a High School band and fell more in love with music. Made some incredible relationships and incredible friendships. I was gonna go study music, I was actually drum major in the band and well I decided to go into the military instead.”

Vanessa Hudson, Skylar’s mom, has been a constant source of inspiration and love. On Firebreather “If you listen carefully on ‘Back to Memphis’ she’s singing backgrounds,” she says. “We were in the studio and she was with me and I was like ‘Mom, come here.’” Ms. Hudson’s contribution on “Back to Memphis” is in many ways a culmination of the musical training she endowed on her daughter.

image“Oh my mom, I love listening to my mom sing. She taught me how to harmonize, she would just randomly do it. She’d be listening and just randomly do it. I used to think it was annoying at first when I was a kid ‘can we just listen to the song?’ But as I got older I realized that’s an art. And I do it now, when I’m listening to a song, just off the top of my head, I can pick up the harmony and do it and it’s because of her. My sister also sings and we sometimes will sing together. And I know this is kinda cheesy, but I’ll sit in my car and have the Billy Joel channel on and I’ll call her up and we’ll listen to it and we will sing. We have so many songs cause she listened to so many different records. We just randomly sing ‘em together. She’ll break out in a song and I’ll sing along with it. And one of us will start harmonizing and it’s just one of the things that we do, all 3 of us.”

Skylar didn’t take the straight line to pursuing her musical dreams. She took the winding road, that is not necessarily less traveled. Like many of the most innovative and meaningful artists in Blues and R&B history, Skylar took the leap later in life.

“I had just given up on music. I had gotten married, my second marriage, my husband decided ‘hey, you should try doing this again.’ No I’m okay, I’m singin’ to the trees I’m fine, the trees and the woodland creatures, okay, I’m fine. And he pushed me into a program. I didn’t want to do it, I really signed up on the last day that I could sign up. I went through the program and I met a lady (Susan Olsen), she was a vocal coach, and she wound up being my manager and we’ve just taken it from here. I honestly still can’t believe I’m doing this (laughs).”

And “doing this” she is. Nominated for a Blues Blast Award and numerous other industry accolades, Skylar found out the day before this interview that Firebreather and her powerful tune “Like Father Like Daughter” are being presented “for your consideration” to the Grammy nominating committee for a number of categories including Contemporary Blues Album. A deserving honor, Skylar’s work is so meaningful and deep because she writes from her own perspective and experiences and has an open heart to work with collaborators.

The process varies for her. “Overall it could be somethin’ that I can sit and write and erase, and write and erase until I burn a hole in the paper or it can come spilling out in 5 minutes.”

“I was totally pissed off when I wrote that song (‘Like Father Like Daughter’). I mean whole heartedly upset. I had just gotten into an argument with my father and it was Christmas night. I was so angry, in tears. That song start to finish was 20 minutes. But, there are some songs that I’ve been trying to fiddle along with for years. ‘Firebreather’ itself, the title track, was almost scrapped. I couldn’t come up with… the phrasing was off, the words were off, the pentameter was off. I just couldn’t do it and then finally I was in a writing session with Disco Fuzz (drummer turned guitarist in her band) and I said well let’s see what you got, let’s see if we can save this one, if not, it’s fine. And he said ‘well I’ve got a couple of licks I’ve been kinda saving for a rainy day.’ And when he pulled that first lick out my eyes just – I think my pupils dilated when I heard it. I think it was 3 hours later I said we got it, this is the title track. I decided this is it, this is the sound, this is what I’m going for.”

imageIn November 2018, Skylar released her first EP Insecurities. She had done her course in the Spring of that year and met her future manager. Insecurities was her first venturing into the industry pool. In more of a Contemporary Blues vein, Insecurities features 3 originals that would then get boosted and re-recorded for Firebreather.

“By the time I did Firebreather it was like yeah this is me. There were some that were trying to pigeonhole me into one category or another and I just came out kickin’. No this is me, take it or leave it. I’ve always kind of been the rebel rocker all my life, it’s what I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to the Blues, but I also grew up listening to these groups that you wouldn’t expect a young Black girl growing up in ‘the hood,’ or the projects, to listen to. So it was in me, it was ingrained in me. While they were trying to pigeonhole me I said NO, no here it is.”

Skylar has allies in fighting against the pigeonhole. The current band includes Steven Hill on guitar, “Disco Fuzz” Brad Arl on guitar, Jerry Ewing on bass, and Scott Wilson on drums. On Firebreather Disco Fuzz (truly one of the best nicknames around) is in the drum chair and Marty “Professor Shred” Gibson (I mean come on with these nicknames!) is on guitar with Pete Zimmer on keys. Skylar uses her instrument, her voice, as the lead. For a moment she enlisted Professor Shred to teach her guitar, but fashion got in the way. “I was actually taking lessons from him,” she says. “When it got to the point I had to cut my nails, it’s like, ‘shhhh well I think I’m gonna go sing.’ I can’t do it.”

“Without this band of miscreants there would be no me. I can get a musician, pick up anyone anywhere, but it wouldn’t have this personality that they have. You have that combination of Disco and Steven Hill, it’s old school versus new school with those two. Steve is classically trained, he’s a Jazz player, he’s done this for so many years. Then you’ve got Jerry on bass. It’s rather amazing. Jerry is 70 years old and Jerry’s one of those when he puts his mind to something he’s gonna do it. We needed a bass player because my bass player quit. He was trained on trombone and he knew a little guitar and he said ‘alright give me a little bit.’ I think within a few weeks he was playin’ bass. He really stepped up, he gets out there and he grooves and I love him for it. We call him the accountant, he used to be a CPA, and he takes very meticulous notes on the songs. And if I miss somethin’ I look at him – did I miss something, what’d I miss? Those are my guys and I love them dearly”

The launch of Skylar’s career is now forever shaped by the pandemic. She was just building up heat in 2020 when the world shut down. In her characteristic way she continued to persevere and didn’t let the shut down dull her passion. Her work ethic and values as an artist are strong and resilient and she is still grinding away now.

“We used pandemic time to finish the project (Firebreather), cause it came out in January (2021). So when everything came to a screeching halt – well we aren’t doing any shows might as well get some work done. Which is basically what’s happening again as things shut down more and more. It’s gettin’ colder, venues are becoming a little more weary of bringing things inside. You’ve got more venues canceling shows because to show a vaccine card, to not show a vaccine card. There’s a hot debate there. Mandatory masks, not mandatory masks there’s that debate. You’ve just got so many variables now and a lot of the venues are just saying well we’ll just cancel. We’re not almost back to square 1 but unfortunately we’re not too far from it.”

imageBeing a fledgling act just getting your footing you are low on the priority list. So in spite of Skylar’s tremendous talent, hot band, exceptional songs and dynamic stage presence, booking it tough.

“Just like the supply chains are starting to get caught up because everything shutdown in 2020, everything was backed up in 2021 and now 2022 they may or may not get caught up. That’s the same thing that’s happening here. Artists that were booked in 2020 that got canceled, now they’re rebooking for 2021 and anyone booking for 2021 is getting pushed to 2022. So now you’ve got new artist that are coming out and it’s like ‘uuuuh, hello?’ I mean this is the name of the game, you have to be able to hold out, you have to be able to persevere. We’re gonna hold on and it’ll come through. Even if we do 5 shows in a year, that’s 5 more than zero.”

So what about this Billy Joel influence? It seems really out of left field. As a fellow Billy Joel fan who sometimes gets made fun of for it, I had to know. Skylar put me to the test with a pop quiz which I failed: what was the last song Joel recorded?

It’s “Famous Last Words” the final song on his last record, 1993’s River of Dreams. It was a thrill to have Skylar sing to me over the phone in her soaring voice “These are the last words I have to say.” Skylar explains the obsession and it then becomes obvious where the influence lives:

“His songwriting, the man is a master storyteller and he’s a master performer. And (in a whisper) I just love his voice. I love the power in his voice when he sings. I told people he could sing the phone book to me and I’d just melt. I know nearly all of his songs. It’s his story telling. You listen to this, right now the Billy Joel channel is on, and I just listen to how he comes up with this stuff and it’s just like wowwww, I got to write these gems down. (haha). It is, it’s like a blueprint – it works for him, let’s see if it works for me.”

Skylar Rogers’ music reflects her life. It is honest, over the top, unexpected and hard rocking. As she pushes to continue her new found career she is continuing to develop her creativity and recording her next record.

“We are going to make the jump fully into Blues Rock, or Rock Blues,” she says. “It’s gonna come out swinging. Firebreather was just the beginning. We’re looking at late August for a release. Yeah I’m excited, I’m very excited for this.” An inspiration to the creative people who are thinking of taking the leap, Skylar is a success story. She is living her art and doing it in a unique and highly personal way. She has words of advice for us, a benediction for the working creatives, the grinders:

“I lived in Memphis for a while. I started going down to Beale Street and I would listen to these people sing and it was just like man, it’s so cool, wow. I know I’m not the only person who’s doing this. I would tell people, just do it. Even if you are the only one pushing you, you may never get there, it doesn’t matter. But you gotta know. If nothing else you might spend your life doing somethin’ you love. Painting, singing, whatever it is, never let go of that creativity. You just never know, just don’t give up. If it’s in you it’s in you.”

Check out Skylar’s website for more info: https://skylarrogers.com

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