Spotlight: Southern Avenue
photo by David McClister
When Ori Naftaly originally had the idea to seek out a vocalist for his solo band—which he had brought with him to Memphis from his home in Israel to compete in the International Blues Challenge in 2013—the guitarist knew what his goal was: “I was looking for the best singer in Memphis,” he says simply.
Luckily for Naftaly, one of his musician friends happened to know exactly who the best singer in Memphis was—Tierinii Jackson. And, at their initial meeting, the two songwriters planted the seeds of what would become Southern Avenue.
“It was a great connection from the start,” Naftaly says, noting that although Jackson originally fronted the band that bore his name, he quickly realized the creative partnership was evolving into something else entirely. “After a few months of touring, I thought that connection was way too big for my solo band. That’s when we started being a team. Things happened so quick—we still feel like we just started.”
“I was gigging a lot in Memphis, but I really wanted to write music with someone,” Jackson explains. “I was trying to form my own band, but there are so many gigs in Memphis that I couldn’t get my musicians to stay in one place. When I met Ori, the chemistry was really good and I felt like he was all I needed. I trusted him. We were both in the same place in life where we had a lot to fight for and we just clicked. We uplifted each other and we were like family. I think that’s what bonded us—we needed each other at that time.”
In what became a whirlwind first few years for the band—which also features Jackson’s sister, Tikyra (a.k.a. TK), on drums and vocals and Jeremy Powell on keyboards—Southern Avenue hopped on the club and festival train, leading to a contract with the legendary Stax label and their self-titled full-length debut. (Guests like North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson and Bo-Keys trumpeter Marc Franklin lent their services to the studio sessions.)
Now, with a few more years of band cohesion under their collective belt, Southern Avenue have released their sophomore effort, Keep On, which continues the evolution of the group’s velvety blend of soul, funk, blues and R&B. Once again, the LP is fueled by Tierinii’s powerhouse vocals and Naftaly’s sinewy riffs and licks, with a healthy punch of throwback horns to top it off.
The members of Southern Avenue are particularly proud of the mix of genres and influences they are able to incorporate. While they say there wasn’t necessarily heavy pressure to make “an amazing album” as a follow-up to their successful debut, the duo explains that there was a negotiation process with their new label, Concord, when it came to what songs out of the 35 or so they brought to the studio would ultimately land on the final record. Faced with the task of fitting the material into a 40-minute LP, the group compromised by recording slightly shorter versions of 12 tracks as opposed to longer, jammier versions of 10, as was originally suggested by the label.
“I’m an artist—I’m always going to say I want to have more songs,” Naftaly half jokes. “But sometimes less is more, and we came up with a great product that everybody is happy with.”
Though Southern Avenue had significantly more time in the studio to record Keep On than they did with their first effort, Naftaly admits that he could’ve used even more time for experimenting with new sounds. But the main goal with the record, as with their debut, was to capture the live energy of the band while making a collection of songs that won’t go out of style any time soon. And Southern Avenue producer Kevin Houston and their more recent studio collaborator, Johnny Black, helped in that endeavor.
“We are a live band,” Naftaly says. “The way we play live is the way that the album needs to be. And you can hear it on this album and the last one. Both Johnny and Kevin managed to answer that need that we have, which is to be timeless. Meaning that, hopefully, you will play a song like ‘Lucky’ in 30 years and you won’t feel that it sounds ‘so 2019.’ We want to have something that lasts.”
Adding to that timeless quality on Keep On is a guest spot from iconic Stax soul singer William Bell, who lends his voice to album track “We’ve Got the Music,” a quick, upbeat duet with Tierinii that lauds the uniting power of the universal language of music. It’s a concept that Southern Avenue return to in multiple songs—bringing together individuals from disparate cultures—and one that the band itself showcases. After all, the band is led by an Israeli guitarist who grew up listening to “anything before 1976” and a singer raised on gospel who wasn’t allowed to listen to mainstream pop music and had to secretly watch movies about Tina Turner and Michael Jackson. Their diverse backgrounds, though, ultimately came together to create something beautiful and new.
“We bounce off of each other’s feelings,” Tierinii says about her and Naftaly’s writing process. “Whenever Ori plays, a lot of the ideas sound like the stuff that I heard back when I was in church, so that’s makes me feel like writing soul music. I didn’t really know this, but it turns out that gospel and blues are one in the same. I guess we found our niche.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.