To call Seattle-based songstress Lady A a “busy woman” would be a pretty laughable understatement. Despite the many limitations imposed by a global pandemic to similarly grounded artists, she is finding more than enough ways to occupy the downtime: When she’s not working during the day as a senior administrator with Seattle’s Race And Social Justice Initiative, she is mentoring youth through The Rhapsody Project, DJing one of multiple radio shows with online radio station NWCZ or KMRE-FM, producing a Moments In Black History series for her YouTube channel, planning an annual women’s empowerment luncheon—a sold-out event that welcomes 400-plus guests every year—or she might spend a quiet night in, managing her website. Through it all, she’s preparing for her next performance as Seattle’s premier jazz act with her band, the Baby Blues Funk Band. “Being an independent artist is hard,” the 62-year-old told The A.V. Club with a boisterous laugh. “There is so much that goes into being an independent artist because you don’t have people doing things for you. You’ve got to do it for yourself.” It’s a juggling act that would bring more than a few of us to our knees. To her, it’s all just part of the decades of work that has long defined the name Lady A.
In the summer of 2020, as the world slowly began to reckon with its history of systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the longtime performer found herself at the center of a nationally recognized conflict when Grammy-winning pop-country trio Lady Antebellum—a name that had been scrutinized for years for romanticizing slavery—announced its plans to officially shorten its moniker to Lady A. Wasting precious little time, Lady A introduced herself to the world as the original purveyor of the name and the one who has built the persona through over 20 years of hard work—a notion backed up by hours of available footage and years of public service. The trio responded by inviting her to a meet-and-greet and offering to collaborate on a special joint performance.
But they didn’t budge on the new name. In fact, they doubled down in truly baffling fashion by filing a formal lawsuit for the right to continue using the stage name. The move has already materially impacted the singer’s life and career: Basic search results for the term “Lady A” are now predictably flooded with information and links pertaining to the more famous trio, making the life of an artist who depends on discoverability that much harder.
Lady A can’t divulge much about her case with the former Lady Antebellum these days, which is still pending. All she can do cling to the art that has made her a local household name and continue the fight against racial injustice. And if our conversation about her life and story is any indication, her hands are far too full to remain idle.
The A.V. Club: You started singing when you were 5 years old, right?
Lady A: Yeah, I was singing in the youth choir when I was 5, in church. I grew up in a musical family. My mother sings gospel, my father was a drummer, and my brother is [currently] a drummer. My niece, her name is UMI and she is trending quite well right now on Twitter and YouTube. She’s a singer. My grandmother used to always play music in the house. There was always music in my house somewhere.
AVC: Do you remember the first musical moment that made you want to pursue singing?
LA: I had to come into my own, and that took years. I came up singing gospel music in the youth choir, the young adult choir, the mass choir, the gospel choir, all the choirs. [Laughs.] I started directing the choir when I was 16 because our pianist quit. I had an ear for music, so I could teach parts. It just kind of came up on me: All of a sudden I started directing the choir and I never stopped. We would travel and go to all these different churches and conventions. Then a friend of mine, Sonny Byers, took me to a karaoke bar in the late ’80s, we started singing, and then he asked me to be in his Motown revue as a background singer.
I was so nervous because I had spent all these years with my back to the audience and just singing to people that I knew. Having to sing in front of strangers made me get so nervous, I’d have to drink a glass of wine in order to sing. After that, he asked me to sing lead. I mean, I would get physically ill before I would have to sing. So I think I’ve grown into my own, but that took a while—until I was 50 years old. I mentor kids here in Seattle for The Rhapsody Project and I tell them, “Learn to be your own artist, learn the music that you want to sing, and don’t let people derail you from that.”
For years I sang music with our band, Lady A And The Baby Blues Funk Band. We played all the clubs, traveled, did all these weddings, and played for the Seahawks and the Sonics. We did all these things that other groups were not doing, but to me, I’m singing songs, but I’m not singing the music I like. About 2007, I started to want to do something else. The guys in my band kept saying, “Let’s do a CD before you quit.” That’s where Bluez In The Key Of Me came in. Then I really started to see a shift in how I felt about what I was doing and about being intentional with the lyrics that I sing. And I became a lot happier.
AVC: What do you think it was about blues and jazz specifically that made you come out of your shell?
LA: I think it was more about me writing my own music. In the beginning, I only wrote a few songs. I wrote two or three songs for the first CD, but I had other people writing for me that knew my story. So when I would get on stage, I was singing about my life experiences and what I thought would inspire somebody else. I’m not your typical blues singer—I’ve never been characterized as one, anyway, because of my gospel, soul blues, funk, and R&B roots. I mix it all together in whatever I write. I drive my musicians crazy because they’ll say, “That’s not musically correct,” and I’ll say, “But that’s the way I seen it. That’s what I hear in my head.” I took control. You have to learn to take control over your music. It took me until my third CD to figure out that I can produce. I know what I want to hear. I know what my audience likes when I’m on stage and how I want to present it. And that comes with time.
AVC: What do you think was the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as an independent artist so far?
LA: Always go with what your heart tells you, because some people are well-meaning and some people are just out for themselves. You need to know what it is that you want to do in this industry. Are you doing it to make money or because you love to perform? Everybody needs to figure out why they’re doing this. I’ve played in front of thousands of people, in front of hundreds of people, and in front of 10 people. I can tell you that [when I play] to 10 people, they get the same show if I was playing 10,000 people, but everybody’s not like that. Being in COVID right now, it’s not hard for me to get up and perform to a camera. I miss my audience, but I know that somebody is out there watching, even if it’s only one or two people. I am still sweating as much as I used to. [Laughs.] I try to tell my students not to get hung up on how many people come to see you. You should be giving that same amount of energy to 10 or two people as you get to 10,000 or 20,000.
AVC: You talk about a lot about your students and being a mentor. Who were your biggest music mentors?
LA: My mom, of course. She doesn’t sing so much now, but my mom could tear a church up. [Laughs.] She has come and done some shows with me. Bobby Rush, one of my biggest musical influences who I got to meet. I love his music and the way he tells a story through his songs. Denise LaSalle—thank god I got to meet her before passed. Millie Jackson! I know that [younger audiences] love this new music that’s out there, but let’s not forget the bridge that brought us over. Some of my biggest gospel influences are Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe—love her guitar licks, but she was a gospel singer that was playing “secular” music, as they call it—Yolanda Adams. Dr. Mattie Moss Clark.
AVC: Are there any newer artists that you’re excited about, that you feel are getting it right?
LA: Yeah, definitely! I’m a DJ, I believe in promoting young women because women in this industry get looked over, especially in the blues genre: Annika Chambers, who is nominated for a Blues Music Award; Terrie Odabi, who is out of Oakland and has a song called “Love Trumps Hate”; Mr. Sipp, a young man out of Mississippi; Dexter Allen of Jackson, Mississippi. These are southern soul and blues artists. Also, my niece UMI. I just love her music.
AVC: You were born and raised in Seattle. How did the city shape your sounds as a jazz artist?
LA: I was deeply rooted into gospel music, but my father was a jazz drummer. So he introduced me to Jimmy Smith, John Handy, and Joe Sample. I like all kinds of music, I really do. Seattle, of course, played grunge. I think that’s the only music I don’t like. [Laughs.] I could not get into the grunge scene. I was really into funk. My blues right now is kind of funky; it’s not the same that you’re going to hear everybody else doing as it relates to blues. So as far as Seattle shaping my music… I don’t know. I think I danced to my own drum.
AVC: Usually when an artist is in a place that might not nurture their specific taste or talent, they move on to one of the big entertainment hubs like L.A. or NYC. What has kept you in Seattle?
LA: Seattle is beautiful, you know? I was born and raised here, so it’s beautiful in the summer. I’ve been blessed to be able to travel with the gospel choir and then with the band, that kind of thing, but have always come back home. Seattle is a very inviting place. It’s turned into a tourist place, which is sad because you don’t see as many mountains and all the things that we used to see growing up, but I mean, that’s anywhere you live.
AVC: What is the toughest bit of music criticism or advice that you’ve ever received?
LA: My producer, John Oliver, is my biggest fan and a person that I try to make proud of me. I’m not a studio artist. I always think that my CDs sound terrible, that I could always do better. I’m my own worst critic. Whenever I go into the studio, he says, “I don’t want you to do anything. I don’t want you to think, I just want you to sing.” I don’t think when I go on stage, so he says, “Do it like you like you’re going to do it on stage.” Once I hit the stage, my Lady A persona takes over. He’s always right because I always have to do, like, two to four takes of something before I get out of my head.
AVC: Speaking of recordings: When people visit your website, they can hear a clip of your latest work, “My Name Is All I Got,” which was inspired by your current conflict with the country group formerly known as Lady Antebellum. What was the first emotion you felt after you wrote the last lyric?
LA: I felt some release—not relief, but release. I don’t think people really understand what is going on here. For me, it’s more than about my name: Lady A is part of my brand. It’s what I’ve worked for. It stands for “Anita,” my surname. It’s a profession that I’ve tried my best to cultivate for my band members, for my team that works with me. It’s a part of who I am. My ancestors had their land taken from them. My great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother worked on a plantation. My grandmother came to Seattle to have a better life and worked at a cleaners. My mother came to Seattle and started working at Boeing’s where she was a receptionist. I stand on broad shoulders. For Black and Indigenous people, our names, our culture, our languages have been taken from us for hundreds of years and we haven’t been able to do anything about it. Anything that we come up with gets appropriated from us, and we’re supposed to sit back and just let it happen.
But I don’t want to do that. “My Name Is All I Got” is a release and when I finished that last lyric, I felt it. Nobody really knows what I’m going through with this. I thank everybody who supports me in this, I really do. I get amazing emails… when people can find me. But exactly what I said was going to happen, is happening: I’m being erased from social media. You cannot find me on Spotify as easily. You can’t find me on iTunes or Amazon. And I paid money just like they do to be seen.
I work in race and social justice as my day job. I was in two meetings today working with allies. To be an ally, you are going to have to give up something. You are going to have to release something. You’re going to have to reach back and help somebody who’s been disenfranchised. And you need to sit back and listen, learn, and then reach back and help. If you’ve made a mistake, then it’s okay, you can still be redeemed. But if you entrench yourself after you said that Black lives matter and that “your heart had been sturdy, your eyes had been open,” then that’s not true. And I don’t intend to allow you to insult Black people, Indigenous people of this land, and people of color. You cannot insult our intelligence. If you want to keep the name, then get back out here and say Black lives don’t really matter to you, because that’s what you’re saying. We don’t need performative wokeness in this day and age.
AVC: How can those who have been following your story help you the most at this time?
LA: The biggest thing that I need is for people to actually stand up and speak out because it’s not just for me. There are other artists that have reached out to me and said the same thing has happened to them, that somebody is trying to take their name or that the industry is trying to take something from them. You can support me by going to my website, purchasing my music, and send me a note [because] I love to get notes. People not being able to find and purchase my music is a big thing. But I would really like for people to stand up and speak up. If you’re an ally, a Black person, or a person of color, you need to be speaking up. This is an injustice and sometimes it’s just right to do the right thing.
I get nasty messages. I’d see people tweet and call me this, that, and the other. And it’s okay, it really is. I bless everybody that comes to my defense. I ask my audience that knows me and any new people that have become fans to not call [Lady Antebellum] names. You can be upset and you can write what you want, but don’t call them out their names. That’s because I don’t want anybody calling me out of my name. I don’t want to be like them.
Sometimes it seems like people have forgotten or that they don’t care, like it’s just another fad. But this is my life. It’s a battle that I had to pray a lot about. At one point I just felt so overwhelmed—it was really affecting my health. But now after writing that song, I’m at peace with it. Whatever happens, this is a part of history. So what side of history do you want to be on?