She has described herself as an archaeologist, always digging in her songs “for the truth behind the story.”
But regarding her latest album Signs Of Life, acclaimed jazz chanteuse Rondi Charleston speaks like a geneticist. In fact, the centerpiece track of the album, which was released in March, is titled “DNA.”
“It’s one of the songs that’s particularly resonant, from having been an investigative reporter,” says Charleston, a Chicago native and Juilliard music grad, who also studied journalism at New York University, then worked as a producer with Diane Sawyer at ABC’s PrimeTime Live and contributed to stories that won Emmy and Peabody Awards.
“I’ve gone from an investigative reporter to investigative lyricist,” Charleston continues. “I’m exploring now through my lyrics, asking questions of myself and our collective existence, and trying to grapple with issues of who we are, and in the case of ‘DNA,’ investigating which part of us is predetermined by our genetic makeup and which is influenced by environment.”
“What’s fascinating,” she adds, “is that it’s both, of course, but if you really pay attention to what science is saying these days, you can have not only physical characteristics passed down but also character and personality traits. It’s almost as if DNA is the screenplay of our lives, and the more we understand about it, the more able we’ll be to handle the surprises and challenges that life throws our way.”
The song “DNA” also stands out in that besides writing the lyrics, Charleston co-wrote the music.
“It was very clear that it needed to be very primal blues-based,” she says of “DNA”’s music. “It was so organic to come at it from the blues perspective for so many reasons: Blues is connected to our roots, and our roots are connected to our DNA. No matter what nationality you are—African, Swedish, Italian, Chinese–it’s universal.”
Charleston, who, incidentally, is Scandinavian, also singles out the new album’s “The Wind Speaks,” for which she also wrote lyrics and music.
“It’s based on an experience I had in the Napa Valley with my husband,” she relates. “We took a magical hot air balloon ride one morning, and floating in the air and looking down at the spectacular countryside, I had an epiphany about climate change: I appreciated and evaluated the beauty of the earth, not from an airplane speeding by, but in slow motion from a balloon. The song evolved into addressing the issue of climate change.”
Both “DNA” and “The Wind Speaks” are part of Signs Of Life’s showcasing of Charleston’s growth as a songwriter.
“The exciting thing for me is that the original songs are based on personal life experiences,” she says, “and that they’re sparking a response from both critics and audiences. It’s a turning point for me, and very reassuring to know that the time and energy and devotion I’ve put into writing music and lyrics are actually resonating with people.”
She jokes: “Something’s really opened up in me in my old age, and I have a lot to say!”
Charleston’s past life in broadcast journalism also came into play in Signs Of Life’s closing cut “The Cave Knows,” the music for which runs over the closing credits of No Place On Earth, the award-winning documentary/reenactment of the 17-month survival of 38 Jews who were hiding out from the Nazis in a cave in the Ukraine.
“My former colleagues at ABC News are now brilliant documentarians,” says Charleston, referring to the film’s director Janet Tobias and producer Susan Barnett. “No Place On Earth tells the remarkable story of the will to survive, and the unbreakable human spirit that triumphs over such incredible evil.”
Jazz pianist Fred Hersch composed the music for “The Cave Knows.”
“He’s one of my musical heroes,” says Charleston. “I wasn’t born when the events took place, and couldn’t figure out how to approach the song when they asked me to write it. So I asked Fred, and he was thrilled. Working with him was a dream come true, and we figured out the perspective of personifying the cave and having it bear witness to what happened there.”
Charleston has been performing “The Cave Knows” at various holocaust museums, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and No Place On Earth screenings—some with some of the survivors in attendance. At her album launch in New York at Joe’s Pub, she performed the song to the screening of the film’s trailer.
But she’s already at work on her next album.
“I’m writing songs,” she says, adding, “When you’re ready, you’re ready. My label, Motema Records, is extremely supportive and looking forward to it.”
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