Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone
Anyone who has listened to albums by the blues/soul/funk band, Southern Avenue, knows that they are extraordinarily talented, with Ori Natafly’s fiery guitar work, Tierinii (Jackson) Natafly’s beautiful voice (which is often compared to Beyonce’s), Evan Sarver’s tasteful bass, and Jeremy Powell’s impressive contributions on keyboards. In addition, Tierinii’s sister, Tikyra “TK” Jackson, offers excellent drumming and she and their other sister, Ava Jackson, also provide outstanding back-up vocals. But it is only by seeing them live that you will get the full experience of their performance. At their live shows you will witness their youthful energy, great chemistry, stunning good looks, stylish dress, and you will also find yourself spell bound by Tierinii’s near constant dancing. They are, as is often referenced on talent shows, “the whole package”.
Interestingly, audiences wouldn’t have the opportunity to see this vibrant group at all if the Jackson sisters hadn’t had the courage to rebel against their strict religious upbringing, as their parents strongly disapproved of secular music. In fact, initially their parents would not even come watch them perform, giving in only this year, once the band was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album (for Keep On).
Blues Blast Magazine was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Southern Avenue recently, while on the Legendary Blues Cruise. (Unfortunately, their bass player, Evan, was unable to attend the interview.) The subject of the Jackson sisters’ strict religious family came up when Tierinii was asked if her impressive dance skills came from early dance lessons.
“My mother had far too many kids to be able to afford dance lessons, plus dancing was considered a sin, so no. What you see is the result of a child that was never allowed to dance—now I can’t stop. I get tension in my knees, and I just have to jump.”
A few years ago, Ori, (who is from Israel), and Tierinii married and had a baby girl. They were asked if it was difficult to raise children with parents coming from such different backgrounds. Tierinii, who also has a ten-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, explained why it was not a problem for them.
“I just decided that I wouldn’t raise my children to be too religious. I want them to have the opportunity to develop their own spiritual journey. It’s funny, my son thinks he is Jewish. We go to my mom’s house for Christmas, and we light the Menorah for Hannukah. We just believe in celebrating all the holidays with good people.”
Ori came to Memphis from Israel in 2013 to compete in the International Blues Challenge and quickly chose to make Memphis his new home. Shortly after that, he decided he needed to interview singers for a revision of his band, and that was how he met Tierinii. She joined, first bringing her sister, TK, on as their drummer. They formed Southern Avenue in 2015, naming themselves after a street in Memphis that runs to “Soulsville”, the original home of Stax Records, (and they recorded for Stax earlier in their career). Tierinii was asked at what point in that initial interview did she become certain that she wanted to work with Ori.
“There wasn’t a particular point or question. I could just see that his energy was very genuine and transparent. I could tell he was a really smart and genuine person. He was very personal regarding everything he wanted to do and everything he was going through. He was ambitious and had very good energy.”
In 2016, the band competed in the International Blues Challenge, with TK being only nineteen years of age at the time. In 2021, they added Ava Jackson as their backup singer, although she explained how she actually sang on all of their albums.
“I’ve been recording with them since that first album, but I was only seventeen years old then and still in school. After that, when they were releasing more music, I was in college studying classical violin. Once I graduated, I started touring with the band live. It’s been good for me. I’m a stand-alone musician but coming together with the band has been a cool experience. It’s helped a lot. They haven’t been able to incorporate my violin into the band yet, but we hope to do so in the future.”
The Jackson sisters’ also have a brother who is a musician, although not a part of the band. TK mentioned that he was her number one influence for her drumming style.
“My big brother was my biggest influence for my drumming. But I grew up around gospel, so I would say my influences also include the Clark Sisters and J. Drew Sheard. He’s the only younger musician that takes the sound that is so classic and puts a modern take on it. I didn’t take lessons—I taught myself. I did drumline in college to round out my rudimentary foundation work, but mostly I taught myself by being around amazing musicians.”
Jeremy had a more formal approach to learning keyboards.
“I went to the Stax Music Academy and learned how to play basic blues. I was in the very first class at Stax—the first year it was open.” (Tierinii noted that the Stax Academy “is a really great school. They groom these kids to be amazing musicians.”)
Southern Avenue’s albums include guest appearances by Cody and Luther Dickinson, from the North Mississippi Allstars. Ori explained how that collaboration came to be.
“We were a band for only a few weeks before Luther sent us a message on Instagram, saying that he liked us and asking us to let him know if he could help with anything. He tried to get us signed to get us money to make a record, which was so appreciated because when I came to this country all I had was a suitcase and a guitar. He was really helpful in the beginning, and he played slide guitar on ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘80 Miles from Memphis’. And his brother, Cody, has written with us. Their whole family, including their mom, knew us from our first shows. The Dickinsons are definitely part of our history and will be a part of our future. It’s a Memphis thing.”
TK added a bit more information about Luther’s support of them. “He also partly produced the first record, and became a mentor to us unexpectedly, because that’s just who he is. He really encouraged us. He also brought us Evan, our bass player, which is a match made in heaven. Luther is like a guardian angel behind the scenes.”
The members of Southern Avenue all participate in the writing of the music and lyrics for the songs they perform and record. And, their lyrics are particularly known for their uplifting, inspirational messages. For example, “Don’t Give Up” advises “When it hurts real bad, don’t give up…just trust yourself” and “Keep On” reinforces that idea with, “There ain’t no healing in giving up. Push harder with your mind and soul…you’ve got to have stamina.” Tierinii explained her philosophy about songwriting:
“I think that because music is a universal language, you hold a real responsibility as a musician for the messages you put out into the world–into the universe. With that responsibility you have to put good out there, just to be on the right side of the balance of things. It’s a responsibility to cheer people on and lift their spirits.”
Ori elaborated further:
“That’s what blues and soul music is all about. We always end up writing about something emotional. Maybe to our detriment. Tierinii is an amazing lyricist. She takes day-to-day experiences and turns it into poetry. Every time she feels angry, upset, or sad she turns it into writing a song that is positive. And issues, like what is happening in Memphis, are the real issues we take on. We’re nonpolitical. We believe we are all the same and that peace will come. We aren’t here to take a political position. We’re just trying to make everybody’s journey better.”
TK has recently begun a solo project which also takes on important social issues. She released a single under simply the name Tikyra. That funk/soul single, entitled, “No More Fear” speaks about the need to put an end to the racism and oppression plaguing this country.
Additionally, Ori started a blog, which is available through a link on their website and also provides inspiration to others at times. In that blog he mentions his belief that he has failed more often than he succeeded.
“Failure equals success, it’s just a matter of time. You have to fail to finally succeed, so that means you succeeded the whole time. That’s how I see it anyway. To me there is no failure. I’ve failed so many times, so I can’t let it get to me.”
Tierinii added her perspective on the topic of failure:
“Failure is part of the journey. You learn about your strengths and weaknesses from it. You take it with you and gather this learning until you get it right. You have to keep going and be self-aware, and not be a know-it-all. We’re all human, no matter how good we have it, we have to struggle. I could have all the money in the world and still have problems with anxiety. We have to build ourselves up. We are our biggest challenges. We’re our hardest critics. It’s not us against the world, it is us against ourselves.”
Southern Avenue has had numerous wonderful opportunities, including playing in Spain, Australia, touring with Los Lobos, and playing various types of music cruises. While they are extremely appreciative of all those opportunities, they described a special fondness for the Legendary Blues Cruise, created by Roger Nabor. Ori explained why this cruise is particularly special to them.
“There is nothing like the Legendary Blues Cruise. It’s Roger’s party and we’re the special guests. He takes such good care of us, and the lineup is so good. And then there is the camaraderie around the boat. Roger is creating moments in the blues industry that he is not even fully aware of. Steve Berlin, from Los Lobos, (whom we met on the Blues Cruise), produced our last album and that only happened because of the LRBC. Conrad, their bass player, came to me and said we’re going to do shows together, and a month later their agent contacted us to give us dates and we went on tour with them. The LRBC created that.”
While some other cruises have a special dining area for the musicians, the members of Southern Avenue appreciate being able to mingle with fans while on the LRBC. Tierinii noted the following:
“What I love most about it is you get to learn the fans by name because you spend a week with them, eating dinner and hanging out. It’s a really special thing.” Ori added “we want to be with the fans at the buffet. And because they know that they will see you all week, fans are not as stressed to talk to you.”
The group’s members also expressed appreciation for the numerous jam sessions that occur on the LRBC, particularly Chuk Barber’s late night Soul Lounge. TK, who is featured in the large photo banner in the Soul Lounge, discussed how the Soul Lounge came about.
“Chuk Barber was one of the ones running the jam and a few of us came and we did songs we all grew up listening to that weren’t blues. It brought in the craziest people and stories. Chuk was able to make it a regular thing. Now it is part of the cruise—a soul jam thing. Even the guys that play for ship’s band join us.”
Chuk, (who happened to be passing by where the interview was held and briefly joined), noted that the fans especially love when Jeremy comes down to join the late-night jam.
“Jeremy will come down and we’ll have a vibe, but when he comes the vibe will change. He’s very hip. Much hipper than what we were doing before he got there. He’s as Memphis as you get. He’ll look around like he’s saying, ‘let me fix this,’ and he will.”
Southern Avenue was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award for Band of the Year. Tierinii expressed that she was very honored by this acknowledgement, particularly since they are not strictly a blues band.
“It made me feel good. It makes me feel like people appreciate us and respect what we do. I know there are probably a lot of blues purists in that group and we offer a variety of soul music that happens to be bluesy. The fact that they are rooting for us so hard means they respect what we’re doing, and that makes me very, very happy.”
Southern Avenue had been following an exhausting schedule of shows which required them to travel long distances between shows at a pace that could not be maintained. They are looking forward to cutting back to a more ‘normal’ pace. Ori explained:
“We were extreme. We would play two weeks in Europe and come back and do one weekend and then go right back to Europe. We would say yes to any offer because we wanted to be everywhere. We have no regrets. We know we were very blessed and we’re very thankful for every opportunity, but we just can’t keep zig-zagging all over Europe like we were. We’ll still have lots of shows, but now, for example, we’ll get two weeks off after traveling back from Australia, so we don’t burn ourselves out. And we’re working on a new album. Since we write together you can’t just do that on the road between shows. Having a little more time off this year will mainly be for the writing. We’re trying to create those amazing moments on records. We’re also going to include more cover songs on this next album. We’ve proven our originality with all of the original songs on prior albums. Now we want to pay respect and show what we can do with other people’s music too.”
Fans are no doubt anxiously awaiting that next album. And, if you attend a Southern Avenue show you will see why they earned that Blues Music Award nomination for Band of the Year, and why Chuk Barber describes them in the following manner.
“They’re hot. I love their organic nature. It’s like pure Memphis, but with other influences in it. And they’re family. You just can’t get any tighter than that.”
You can check out Southern Avenue’s music and tour dates at www.southernavenuemusic.com