During recent a soundcheck at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, lead singer Tierinii Jackson warmed her voice up by singing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Stay Together” while the rest of Southern Avenue, the Memphis soul band she fonts made up of her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums and background vocals), Ori Naftaly (guitars), Jeremy Powell (keys) and Evan Sarver (bass), tuned up their instruments. Then they begin to play “Push Now,” the first single from their third album Be the Love You Want, our latest WNXP Record the Week. They performed the song with the same energy that they would later that night, during a set that prompted audience members to ask me, “Who is this band and how come I’m just now hearing about them?”
The Jackson sisters grew up in their parents’ church band in Memphis, and branched out from there to learn their city’s rich soul history. Naftaly grew up music-obsessed on the other side of the world, in Israel. For him, the next step was relocating to Memphis to lead a band that bore his name. When he met Tierinii and her sister, he thought they might be good additions to his project, but soon decided to create something new with them instead, and round it out with other musicians.
Together, they took the name Southern Avenue, referencing a street in Memphis. Less than a year after forming in 2015, they signed a contract with the legendary Memphis Stax Records, the first actual Memphis-based band to sign to the label in over 40 years. Their self-titled debut album reached number six on the Billboard Top Blues Albums charts and number one on iTunes Top Blues Albums chart, and won Best Emerging Artist album at the 2018 Blues Music Awards. The success in the blues, roots and jam scenes only built with their follow-up album Keep On, which reached the top five on Billboards Top Blues Albums chart and earning a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Southern Avenue’s new album Be the Love You Want has the potential to expand the band’s audience even further. Produced by multi-time Grammy winner Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, it’s the Jackson sisters, Naftaly and their band mates’ most personal album thus far, and also a chance for them to show new musical range. Naftaly co-produced with Berlin and also co-wrote with Tierinii for the record, while Tikyra and bassist Evan Sarver collaborated in the writing of two songs, “Pressure” and “Let’s Get It Together.”
The band also reached a little further outside their circle and teamed up with pop-rock songwriter Jason Mraz and Michael Goldwasser of the reggae group Easy Star All-Stars on “Move Into the Light” and collaborated with Cody Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars on “Heathen Hearts.”
Although the songs speak to the current times we are living in, in a world reeling from COVID-19, the band says this album wasn’t meant to be about the pandemic. Group members began writing songs for the record back in 2018. Like on their previous albums, they meant to inspire and uplift their listeners in the middle of any and all tough times. Basically, they want to give you that same feeling that you get from an Al Green or Marvin Gaye record.
Be the Love You Want is a phrase that reflected this band on many levels. Tierinii and Naftaly will celebrate their second year of marriage and the arrival of a baby girl later this year. Tierinii and Tikyra’s sister Ava has joined the group as a background singer and percussionists. And this band has come a long way from a collective of musicians who wanted to create the sound of Memphis. This has become a family band that’s not about any one individual member, but about creating timeless music.
The new record is a blend of gospel, R&B and soul vocals and songwriting with the sonic approach of roots and blues. What all of that adds up to Be the Love You Want is an album about soulful self-discovery and continuing to evolve as the world is changing around you.
On the Record: A Q&A With Southern Avenues
Marquis Munson: I was listening to your soundcheck and I noticed that you like to sing Marvin Gaye “Let’s Stay Together.” Is that how you vocally warm up for shows?
Tierinii Jackson: No, it’s just something about playing Nashville that makes me want to sing Al Green and Marvin Gaye. [Laughs] Just hitting all the soul tunes during sound check.
MM: Your music in particular is made for live performances. You want your albums to sound like you can expect from a Southern Avenue show. Did you find that process more difficult when making this album, that uncertainty of not knowing when you were going to hit the stage again?
Tikyra Jackson: No, there was no uncertainty. I feel like in this game, everything about the music industry is uncertain. But we do it because we love it and we’re passionate about it. Honestly, it was the highlight of the pandemic, because we weren’t able to do anything else, but we were able to come together for eight days and record an album. So we couldn’t ask to be doing anything other than what we love.
Ori Naftaly: The record was written in 2018 and 2019 and a few songs in 2020, but we just recorded it during the pandemic. It’s not as much of a pandemic album like people ask us. The songs are not about anything that has to do with the pandemic its just life. But life was difficult before the pandemic as well. It’s not like life was perfect and then pandemic hit. It was always different struggles to talk about and it just escalated in the past two years. It just been crazy.
MM: You guys have a unique band origin story. Tierinii and Tikyra started off in the church with their parents and Ori moved to Memphis from Israel. How did you all get together to start making music?
ON: I represented Israel at a blues competition on Beale Street in Memphis. I did well and managed to just book my band and stay here. At the beginning, I just kept booking shows. About two years later, I wanted to change things up. I hired Tierinii as the lead singer and songwriter and she brought her sister TK on the drums. A few months after that, it was kind of obvious that we should do something as partners and not as me hiring them for my project. And that’s when Southern Avenue kind of started. Our first show was September 2015 as Southern Avenue.
MM: Memphis is one of my favorite cities, outside of Nashville, because of the music history of your city. How fulfilling was it coming up as an artist in that rich tradition of music, or was it pressure on you to produce at a high level because of the style of music that is out there?
Tierinii J: I personally probably took it for granted. A fish out of water doesn’t know it was in water until you take it out of water. So we’ve always been submerged in soul music. I just didn’t know that it was as rich. I didn’t know it was as special as it was until I began to see the world and travel. I kind of took it for granted, but I definitely have a strong appreciation for it now. It made me who I am, so I love it.
ON: I moved to be a student after listening from the other side of the world for so many years.
Tierinii J: Growing up, I didn’t know how special it was. I had dreams of being in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, anywhere but Memphis. Because I didn’t know. I was raised in the church; I was really sheltered. I didn’t know how rich the culture was in Memphis. I just had to grow up and open my eyes and see it as an adult. So now I’m like, “I’m cool. I’ll stay here.”
MM: How fulfilling it was that once you discovered it, once you started to open your eyes to everything around you?
Tierinii J: It made me understand who I was as a person. I was just really out of touch with who I was as a person. But understanding the soil that I grew out of [helped me understand] the type of flower that I am. It made me embrace the blues and the soul that was me. I stopped having dreams of being Beyonce or some pop star, and I just embraced the Southern grit and soul that I was.
MM: Growing up as sisters did you guys share that journey together?
Tikyra J: It was actually funny the way it all panned out. Growing up, we did music in the church. But around the same time, Tierinii and I started venturing out to do what I would call party bands, where you learn the covers and sing at the weddings and everything like that. But then once we joined together on this journey, I think [there was] the whole discovery of the impact of what we do, and being able to be medicine to ourselves. Because through this journey it’s like you’re overcoming all of the negativity that you had saying you couldn’t do this or the things that worked against you. I feel like now at this point in the game, our music that we create is our testimony and it’s also our triumph. Every time we have a chance to perform or just sing and give that energy, it’s like a medicine; it’s healing, and reviving, seeing how people react to it. I grew up listening to Al Green at all these weddings. You don’t realize how embedded it is into society and culture. So to be a part of that and understand it and feel it, it’s just surreal at this point.
MM: You guys mentioned that this is not a pandemic album, but the title for the album is very fitting to what’s going on in the current climate that we live in. Be the Love You Want, we all need to hear those words from time to time. What made you go with that title?
Tierinii J: When we wrote the song, it kind of wrote itself and the message of the song is so strong. Be the love you want is just about compassion for one, but it’s mostly about self-accountability. We go through things and we point fingers and we say, “So-and-so did this to me. I deserve better.” And it’s like, yeah, you do deserve better. So sometimes we have to teach the example of how to love, and Be the Love You Want is something that you can take personally and say, “Well, how would I want to be loved? How would I want people to treat me?” You teach people how to love, how to be loved, how to express love by being everything that you feel like love should be. So it’s about stop playing victim and take responsibility for your surroundings. I think that when you want positivity around you, you have to be positive and all those other negative energies are going to shift.
MM: You worked with Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Berlin, most known for his work with Los Lobos. How was it working with him on this project?
Tikyra J: For me, it was great having that energy. I feel like he’s a creative mind who can exist in different forms. He can exist in the percussion/drummer world. He can exist in the guitar world, the bass world. So it was nice to have the perspective. But I think he really encouraged us to be more of who we are. All of our ideas, he just enriched them. He brought them out more and really was there for us for our evolvement throughout this process and not necessarily for his vendetta. So I really appreciated that. And also, he’s just a great human being with some great taste in music.
ON: Sometimes producers dictate a lot of the way that the final product is. But for us it was “we are who we are” and he knows us. We went on tour with Los Lobos. He heard us play a dozen times before we started working together. He knows who we are. So there was no real need to compromise as much. He didn’t really change anything we were working on to be honest. He just fine-tuned.
Tierinii J: He brought out the best. He was pushing us.
ON: He’s pushing us to find other ideas, if he didn’t like the idea. Every album he produced sounds different, so that’s one of the reasons why we like working with him so much.
MM: I think it’s good that your band is comprised of different musical backgrounds. When you’re working on a project, what is that creative process like when you’re bringing all that together?
Tierinii J: I think it’s just a very natural and organic process. Our influences are with us naturally. So whoever brings the idea to the band or partner, when it becomes the collaboration, it becomes the magic. You hear all the influences because we collaborate as a band.
ON: Even if somebody wrote a song and has a drum part or a guitar part in mind, whenever we play it, it’s just going to sound like the person who’s playing it. We don’t think, “Let’s make a blues song.” We’re not a blues band: we just play some blues. It’s very organic and everybody contributes so much. We’re a real band on that level; we work together. Even if somebody wrote a song, you might be the leader of that arrangement. But it doesn’t mean that they dictate how everybody is going to play note by note. So it’s very collaborative.
MM: When listening to the album, it’s so uplifting and it puts you in great spirits, especially with a song like “Move into the Light.” It seems like you’re telling your listeners to leave the dark place and move into a world that’s upbeat and inspiring. Was that the message of that song?
Tierinii J: We wrote this song with Jason Mraz and Michael Goldwasser. We always, in general, want to uplift people. No matter what’s going on in the world, it could be the most sunniest sunshine day, it doesn’t matter, a lot of times when we get in our funk, it’s all in our head. So it’s important to remind people that you have control over where you are in your mindset. And “Move Into the Light” is just about acknowledging that and understanding that: I can look up, I can look at the positive, I can move into the light instead of sitting here in the shadows and accepting it as the norm.
MM: “Control” is another song on album that has a groove and is upbeat. The sonic approach of it is great, with very inspiring songwriting, and that is how I felt listening to each track on the album: inspired and want to groove.
Tikyra J: I think as we evolve as people, our music reflects that. The thing about our music is the fact that we all are such individuals. Where we clash is where the magic happens; where the friction is is where the magic, the music, the evolution is. So I feel like with our sound, I think we as people are overcoming a lot and it’s showing and we’re celebrating. Everybody goes through things, but we found a way to overcome and we just have a great support system within each other that we’ve also built. So I feel like we’re like a blessed bundle of medicine and energy that the more we come together the broader our reach is.
Tierinii J: I feel like this album is special, because the first two albums we wrote with either certain purpose or maybe at some point it’s like, “We need this on the album,” so we write a song for it. This album is special because it was such an organic process. And lyrically, I wrote for this album in the way that I speak to myself. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re writing an album.” I could just be in the car.
Like, “Control” was written because I didn’t want to get out the parking lot at the gym. I was sitting at the gym trying to talk myself out of the car. And then the song just came to me and I was like, “I can go home and get this song on a demo, and today would still be a productive day.” So it’s just like this album is special because it wasn’t written to be this marketed thing. This is organically who we are. We are positive people. We speak to ourselves in uplifting tones. We try to; that’s what you want to do. You want to be kind to yourself. And it’s special to be able to share that with our fans to let them inside of our heads, because we want them to be kind to themselves as well.