Shout Sister Shout: Athésia (IWD 2021)
Approx. 12 minute read
Against some challenging odds, Athésia’s perseverance and passion for music led her to carve out her own unique path and nurture an enriching career as a musician. She shares her Canadian French Haitian heritage and culture, using music as a channel to bring communities together and to serve a noble cause.
Besides all the incredible work Athésia undertakes and a musician, she is also an avid community broadcaster and a fellow Jammin’ presenter here on Eastside Radio. Read on to learn more about Athésia, her story and her music.
Sonia de Freitas: Hi Athésia, how are you and where does our interview find you today?
Athésia: I am very well, thank you. I would like to thank you Sonia for asking me to join this incredible line up of talented women that you’ve chosen for Shout Sister Shout. Being amongst Emma Pask, Kristin Berardi, Zela Margossian, just to name a few, is a true honour. Thank you.
I am currently on Gadigal land near Gamma Gamma. I am enjoying a cup of chai latte on a rainy day whilst looking at the vivid sky and the pacific ocean- they seem to unite to create one. It’s Impossible to dissociate one from the other. I am enjoying the calming melody of the rain cleansing the land. Right in front, there’s three Kookaburra on an electricity pole. They are serene and seem to be enjoying the present moment. They are looking in the same direction and I am trying to figure out what they are watching.
SdF: Can you tell me about your journey in music? When did you know that you were going to make music your career?
A: I grew up listening and dancing to all kinds of music, from La chansonette Française, Latin, Haitian, Disco, Classical music and soul. My mother appreciated all types of music and had such an eclectic taste. The musical legacy she gave me opened up my musical horizons to the world. When I was a little girl, I first wanted to become an archeologist. I had a fascination for ancient Egypt, the Greek and Roman antiquity. I quickly realised, despite being ten years old, that this career would not be suitable for my desire to have a family. Since childhood, I’ve always loved dancing, singing, acting and radio. In high school, I was doing all of the above when one night, after being a part of a musical, a few adults and students came to me after the performance, telling me how much I’ve touched them, how their hearts were moved by the stories I was singing. Nobody in my family played an instrument or sang, and I had had no vocal training but something seemed to bring a level of emotional consciousness when I was singing. The principal of the school told me, this voice is not yours, it’s a gift, you did not work hard for it so never take it for granted and always use it wisely. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a singer, hoping I would follow my love and passion whilst hopefully making a difference. The only issue that made me reluctant to take this path was not wanting fame, paparazzi, having no privacy and losing my compass. I presume the universe wanted to reassure me on my path as I met a famous actor who told me that being able to live from doing what you love was worth the sacrifice of privacy and as long you were grounded you would not get lost. That’s when I decided to dedicate myself fully to my musical journey. I took, for the first time some singing lessons, started to perform with Dj’s in nightclubs, collaborated on album compilations and after a few years, I decided to go back to organic music by having my own band, The Gentlemen. It was a project that led me to sing internationally, thanks in part, to the Canadian Government and also to people who believed in me.
SdF: Who is your sounding board? There must be someone that you trust to give you brutally honest feedback on your music. How do they fit into your creative process?
A: Someone who provides brutally honest feedback is my mother. She’s my number one fan who’s absolutely not biased. She tells it like it is, without filter and without putting white gloves. A true Haitian woman! Consequently, I am not easily offended and I embrace all critics. I value when friends, family, music collaborators and the public give me honest feedback without filter. I think this is a sign of respect. It doesn’t mean that what they say is an absolute fact. I just think it’s important to take other perspectives and opinions into consideration. Some people say honesty, without tact, is cruelty. I believe people should always say what they think and what they feel with respect and compassion, but also without censoring. That’s the only way you can grow musically and also as a human being.
SdF: Can you tell me about your creative process when producing your work?
A: As a singer songwriter, my creative process is directly linked to the inspiration that comes to me. Sometimes a melody will magically surface, sometimes it’s lyrics, sometimes it’s a story, a concept or a theme. I start by recording the musical inspiration and the things I hear by singing the parts. I can use the piano, which I don’t really play well just to give an example. Then I write everything down and gather with the band to make it come to reality. I don’t write music well so I’ve always been lucky to have the guitarist of the band write the charts for me. I thank both the talented guitarist’s, Jim Bland in Montreal and Michael Coggins in Sydney, for doing such a fantastic job and not judging me in this process! One thing I love the most is when someone asks me to create a song with a specific story or theme, that’s when another level of creativity surfaces. I simply thrive on this type of storytelling especially when I collaborate with other musicians.
SdF: What female musician made the biggest impact on your life?
A: When it comes to female musician who had a big impact on my life, there’s so many amazing women in the music industry who were an inspiration in my life. Maya Angelou was a singer, and also a dancer, an author and a civil rights activist. She had to face so many hurdles in her life and showed so much resilience. She was a phenomenally wise woman! Eartha Kitt is another inspiration, born on a cotton plantation she also had an arduous life and yet, her resilience brought her to perform all over the world. She spoke and sang in four languages, and was a remarkable entertainer and was also an activist! She was the first black Catwoman in the 1967 TV series, Batman. She was grounded, connected to the earth whilst doing what she loved. Nina Simone is another legendary woman. American jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams, for her talent and for paving the path. Williams was also a wonderful arranger and composed more than hundreds of songs, some even for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. To conclude, French Jewish singer, songwriter and pianist, Barbara, is considered one of the best of “les chansons françaises”. She was ten years old when she had to go into hiding during World War II, so you can imagine why she had such a depth in her voice, music and lyrics. She had the ability to touch any soul. Those women were unique and so inspirational!
SdF: Have you experienced particular challenges as a female musician? How did you overcome these challenges and what do you think needs to change for others to avoid these challenges in the future?
A: As a black woman who is a singer-songwriter coming from a non-musical family with no connections in the music industry and raised by a single mother is a challenge by itself. You basically start 10 feet behind the starting line. One thing that is good from this is that you learn to have resilience and to be resourceful. You definitely need to work harder and have perseverance in order to achieve your goals. Luck and being blessed with the moral support of friends, family, talented musicians and people who believe in my musical journey helps enormously. Being well surrounded is so important.
I don’t think the challenge comes from my gender but more from some people who have a biased idea of who is a true artist. I don’t really write or read music well. I also don’t play another instrument. Some musicians, producers have tendencies to say “Oh you’re just a singer” it’s like as if I was not really at their level. They forget that I don’t only sing but I also compose, I feel the music and create in my own special way. On stage, I am a full entertainer. I also manage my career and wear many hats. From writing songs, to producing events, to managing the band, creating social media content, and the list goes on. I believe I’ve achieved a lot and more is yet to come. Few famous musicians didn’t let their inability to read or write music stop them from achieving their musical dreams.
Another sporadic challenge is when it comes to the booking and negotiation of contracts for the band. It’s not a question of me being a woman, it’s more when the client sees me first as the singer/entertainer and then meets my alter ego business woman. This might be unsettling for some who were not expecting to have an artist paying attention to all the little details involved in the contract. I believe being professional, having integrity, respect and sticking to my values is really important and always sets the tone on where things are going. I am assertive and I speak my mind which I presume gives a good idea from the start, to any person, that the collaboration can only work as equals.
SdF: So, what’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you’re working on or new releases to share?
A: I am currently working on a few different projects and I am writing some new songs which I’ve had the pleasure of performing with my band at Lazybones during Great Southern Nights. One of the songs is about the Ocean and the importance of protecting mother earth; the public loved it. I now need to polish it before releasing it. In my band, you will hear Michael Coggins on the guitar, Tina Harris on the bass, Abi McCunn on the sax and Bendji Allonce on the percussion.
My next public performance will be Thursday 19 of August 2021. The show has been specially curated for Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre called Athesia Sings the Legendary Ladies of Soul. I will be paying a tribute to some of the best legendary women of soul/jazz music. In November, I will be producing my annual Carribean Haitian Jazz Latin Party, a show perfect for little and big kids who are craving to discover the sounds, the rhythms, the flavours and the dancing style of Haitian music. A fantastic way to travel in the Caribbean whilst still being in Sydney. The public should expect to sing and dance, once the Covid restrictions are lifted. We will also have a chef who will be creating a special Haitian fusion dish for the event. More information to come shortly.
On a last note, I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the piano and this dream comes to reality thanks to the amazing composer, bassist, multi instrumentalist and performer Tina Harris who has started giving me lessons. I can’t express the joy I had when I had my first class!
SdF: What is your most memorable performance and why?
A: All performances are memorable, but the one that was extra special was when I was invited by Canada’s Consulates, in partnership with the Office Québec-Amériques pour la jeunesse (LOJIQ) to perform in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. I sang along with my musicians “The Gentlemen” during the Francophonie celebrations. I also launched my album Athésia & The Gentlemen during that tour, and carried out an awareness campaign following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A portion of the profits from these activities and the sale of the album was sent to humanitarian agencies working in Haiti such as Médecins Sans Frontières. We performed in three countries, six cities, had eight shows, ten flights in twenty days. Having the opportunity to sing for such an important cause dear to my heart was unforgettable and an incredible feeling.
SdF: If you could collaborate with anyone, living or departed, who would it be and why?
A: I’ve been working for a few years on material for a new album that is an innovative musical storytelling journey of my Haitian roots. The project has so much to offer visually and musically. I believe in the importance of sharing my Haitian-Canadian culture and history with the Australian public and with the world. What I would need besides the financial aid to produce the album, would be to find an international music producer. Someone who understands the concept and the musical essence that I am trying to achieve in order to create the successful album I envision and who will be able to blend the Haitian vibe with the jazz world music and include this touch of “Je ne sais quoi”. A producer who has the desire to bring another level of musical consciousness that is much needed in this world. I have talented musicians on board and I am now waiting for that amazing music producer who will get my ideas down on tape and make it sound absolutely fabulous. That’s the person I am searching for and that I would love to collaborate with.
To learn more about Athésia visit: athesiamusic.com
For more information on International Women’s Day visit: internationalwomensday.com
Keep an eye out for my next interview in the Shout Sister Shout series where I interview Briana Cowlishaw.
Did you miss the previous Shout Sister Shout instalment? Read Maria Mitar’s interview here.