Last Halloween, High Pulp celebrated the night at Nectar Lounge and welcomed some special guests for a few choice collaborations. Among them, Shaina Shepherd was featured in a roof-raising version of the Aretha Franklin classic "Rock Steady." I was floored, and mentioned to both that they should make a record together. Now we can all celebrate their new single, "Broken Little Dolls."
I spoke to High Pulp's band leader and drummer Bobby Granfelt about the new song, how they first encountered the incredible singer, as well as the band's big plans for more releases in the coming weeks and beyond.
About a year and a half back, Granfeldt tells me, High Pulp had a regular residency at The Royal Room. As the series came to an end, a few band members evolved the night into a regular jam session.
"Shaina lives in the neighborhood and came by," Granfelt said. "There was a natural musical chemistry." He says he wasn't familiar with her work with burgeoning "Led Zeppelin meets Lead Belly" hard rock band Bear Axe. "She was an amazing singer coming to the jam, that's all I knew," Granfelt told me.
Those jam sessions were not for beginners. Rather than calling tunes, a musician would begin testing out a musical phrase, joined by another, eventually growing into a song or extended groove. "We weren't even calling a key!" Granfelt exclaimed.
Shepherd relates, "It was such an amazing retreat creating this with dear friends and reliving the moments when I started manifesting very real growth through very real truths." The mutual musical appreciation is clear.
I'll never forget that Halloween performance of "Rock Steady." It knocked me out. As Aretha fans know, that song is no joke. Shaina Shepherd is obviously one of those fans, and she gave the Queen of Soul a run for her money that night.
I may have been under the influence of an IPA when I excitedly told both Shepherd and Granfelt that they ought to record a single together. I had no expectations, but they did both seem like the thought had occurred to them. "Broken Little Dolls" represents my hopes made reality.
A slippery rhythm floats along at a sexy, slow-medium tempo to start, then Shepherd's alluring voice is heard singing "Feel the ground, find the earth, find the center of yourself." This, she says, is a relationship song about "the seduction of power and the promise" of happiness if you play by the rules. "I've found that happiness comes from following your heart rather than your head and letting intuition lead you toward destiny."
Andrew Morrill breaks out with a blistering alto sax solo undergirded by Granfelt's double-time high hat work, building to a triumphant return to the chorus. An angular, jazzy vocal synched with the band ends in a charming drawl that echoes to reverbed flute flourishes. Tasty.
Shepherd tells me, "When I heard 'water' in Rob Homan’s piano entrance, I wanted to use it to clean the slate and rewrite some of those rules for success."
She continues, "There is a certain type of balance that society expects Black women to maintain in their own duality. Be strong, but be able to submit. Be smart, but not too astute. Be loving, sacrifice; be manageable but powerful. Fight, then concede quietly or with a laugh."
The message of self-awareness and self-acceptance comes through clearly.
"There’s a lot in the song about retreating to bad habits — going back, bargaining, confusing movement for growth. 'Broken Little Dolls like to play/Broken dreams rebuilt always break away...' I’m learning to love myself for being flawed, and not in spite of," Shepherd adds.
Hear it for yourself, now. And open your ears for follow-up High Pulp collaborations with a pair of Seattle's top modern soul singers, JusMoni and Fallon Sierra, in the weeks to come. "Soon. Yeah, you can say soon," Granfelt says, with some hesitation. The three singles together comprise the new High Pulp collaborative EP Light Fix.
For these vocal collaborations, High Pulp recorded a number of musical sketches and ideas and sent them to each of the three singers to consider. Once a direction was set, the band brought the singers into their home studio and worked out the rest of the song.
"Shaina came up with her vocal melody herself," Granfelt said. He says the recording went so well they were able to go from writing to a produced song in 48 hours.
Granfelt says a new instrumental single also will be coming in the next few weeks. A full album from High Pulp is in the mixing process now, with expectations for a release sometime this winter.
No word on special guests, but you can't miss a free opportunity to see High Pulp Sept. 8 at the Columbia City BeatWalk. It's "anything goes" night, with free music of a wide variety for all ages in five venues around Columbia City.
Granfelt also tells me High Pulp will return for a Halloween party sequel at Nectar this fall. Whether or not it spawns a new single, it's sure to be another show to remember.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.