Turkuaz Vocalist Shira Elias Talks Touring, New Album, Collaborations & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).
Turkuaz on September 7 will do a very Turkuaz kind of thing: the nine-piece funk powerhouse will be taking over the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, for a concert filming, in which two sets of classics and new tunes are promised, and it comes with an ask for fans to attend decked out in their favorite Turkuaz colors.
When it’s Turkuaz, it’s the full effect, and as singer Shira Elias reminded me in this recent The Art Of The Sit-In chat, the music is but part of it. That the band’s tunes, musicality, vibe, aesthetics and personalities all contribute to the bigger “whole” isn’t just remarkable, it’s been necessary to Turkuaz’s fast rise out of Brooklyn over the last six years — you can’t keep a nine-piece band on the road unless everyone is all in and committed to the purpose.
Ahead of the September 7 show, Turkuaz will return to Lockn’, and then after Stroudsburg, embark on a fresh round of dates through early November, looking also ahead to Jam Cruise in January. They have a new album on the way — Turkuaz’s first since 2015’s Digitonium — and also recently released 040717, a surprise live album that comes as close as any recorded document can to capturing what a Turkuaz show is like these days.
JAMBASE: It’s been quite a ride for Turkuaz over the last 18 months. What stands out to you among the highlights?
SHIRA ELIAS: Definitely Red Rocks with Lettuce. That’s one. It all kind of blends together, really, but then I think I have to say Jazz Fest this year, doing Turkuaz Gives You Wings with Denny Laine. Sometimes, cover sets can be a bit of a bummer for the audience, but I think we did right by really getting into it and making it something special.
What else? Brooklyn Bowl is always amazing, and we also did Brooklyn Steel, another cool one to do in our hometown. Brooklyn Bowl, though, we did the three-night run in April and we wanted to give the people who come to see us a lot a little something different on the last night. We reached out to Denny, who was in Wings. I mean, Paul McCartney’s dude, right? He was into it. He was such a trip, talking to him and hearing all these stories about Paul and then doing “Live And Let Die” and these crazy epic songs with the original guy who played on them. I think we’re going to do it again with him sometime soon.
JAMBASE: How did you land on Wings as a cover set choice?
SE: You know, we’ve done a bunch of them at this point. We did Sly. We did Studio 54. Honestly, this scene has seen pretty much everything as far as cover sets, so we wanted to do something that hadn’t really been done much or at all. A lot of folks, yeah, were like, “Wings, what’s that? Will there be enough going on there?” But the more you listen — I didn’t even know I was such a fan — you start going, “Oh yeah, that song, that song, and that song, too!” Arrangement-wise and everything, it fit us. It ended up being a really fun set and so great to work on. In funk in particular, everything’s been done a million times I feel like. So this was something a little different.
JAMBASE: How did you first connect with Denny?
SE: I think our manager just reached out to him as a long shot. We were like, why not, let’s see what happens. And he was down! He didn’t know what he was getting into, and he wasn’t familiar with Turkuaz, but I think he was impressed when he saw how seriously we were going to take it. We take our cover sets very seriously.
JAMBASE: Turkuaz is not a small band, and sticking it out together for as long as you have now obviously requires something to keep you all pointing in the same direction. How do you keep a nine-piece band focused?
SE: You know, I think everyone here just has a common goal and a common mission. Yeah, there’s petty bullshit and conflicts, of course, and there’s bound to be with nine people. At the end of the day, I think we all really believe in this thing. When you’re able to put that at the core — that you’re all in this together — everything that isn’t that seems like something you can solve.
JAMBASE: Everyone’s there for the right reasons.
SE: Sure, and there are always little conflicts here and there, but the big picture of things is that we all just want this to happen. We’re brothers and sisters, we’re out there together.
JAMBASE: What does success look like for Turkuaz two years from now?
SE: Well, we have a new studio album coming this fall, and we want that to help propel us to that next level. We want to keep getting out there, playing bigger rooms and bigger festivals, and building our fanbase. The current climate of the music industry shows that touring is pretty much where it’s at as far as success for us. So we just want to keep going and bringing this music to more and more people, keep things looking up for everyone who has chosen to be part of Turkuaz.
JAMBASE: When did you know you guys had a national crowd? Was there a moment?
SE: Bonnaroo last year. The jam scene is such a beautiful, amazing thing, and sometimes you also get into a bubble where you think that’s all of it, because it’s the world we know. But then Bonnaroo was an experience that was much wider for us. You play a set there, for a band like us, you’re playing to thousands of people you probably haven’t reached yet, and they’re loving it. We got written up in Rolling Stone, we got a lot from that set.
JAMBASE: Do you plan to tour internationally as well?
SE: It’s definitely in the long-term plan. We just did our first Canadian play and we have a festival set coming up I think in New Brunswick. Japan and Australia are on the horizon. It’s a matter of numbers. We’re a lot of people, so we’re a lot to move around [laughs].
JAMBASE: I’ve been devouring your live release 040717. Why did you pick this music? What jumped about this recording that made you all say, we gotta put that out!
SE: I think, first, we hadn’t released a live album in a while. We wanted to give the fans something they could chew on while waiting for a new studio album, and a lot of people who know Turkuaz will tell you, the live show really captures the essence of who we are and what we’re about. The last live album that Turkuaz released I don’t think I was even in the band yet, and I’m coming up on four years. So it was time to get something out, especially for folks who haven’t seen us in a while. It’s a nice refresher.
JAMBASE: Is there a song on here that really captures what Turkuaz sounds like today? Just a great example, to your ears, of what you do?
SE: There are so many it’s hard to choose, but I’m going with our Talking Heads cover, “Slippery People.”
JAMBASE: Yeah, I can’t get enough of that one.
SE: Right? It’s a version of that song our guys just dig into — that we open up. And when we’re out there playing it, Sammi [Garett] and I kind of exit as they start to jam, and then there’s this dramatic build and answer where we start to come back in, and we have some choreography and it’s just the full effect. If you’re there in the middle of it you’re dancing, and you have the music but also the aesthetic. When we say a show, we mean a full show.
JAMBASE: What can we expect from your new album?
SE: Our last one was Digitonium (2015), which was very much a concept album and different than what people had by then come to know us for, which was the funk, and having a party — a good time band. This was more synths and different sounds and conceptual. This new one we kind of wanted to get back to the core — to the essence of Turkuaz, the funk bangers. What you’ll hear is an evolved version of that, but one that’s very true to where we came from, which is nine funk kids getting all of their energy out and putting on a party. That’s definitely still who we are.
JAMBASE: Do you enjoy recording?
SE: I love it. It’s a completely different skill set than performing live, but It’s fun because you get to home in on the details and work on the subtleties. The live show has so much going on and so many variables. So, if you’re in a booth you can focus on details. It can also be really exposing.
JAMBASE: The songs that will be on the new album — have you been playing them out?
SE: Yes, definitely. We’ve been incorporating more of them, little by little. It’s kind of an exercise because we need to figure out how to play these songs in a live setting and how we might open them up, or some of what we have on the recording that we may not be able to do like the recording live, so trying something different.
JAMBASE: Turkuaz returns to Lockn’ in a few weeks. Anything special planned?
SE: My plan is just to not pass out. [laughs] Seriously, the last time we played it was like 110 degrees there, at noon. It’s the hottest I’ve ever been at a show — we were in the sun, no cover or shading, and I went for a high note and just felt lightheaded. But as far as what we have planned, it’s an hour set and I think we’ll play some new stuff. And I think George Clinton is that same night — that’s always super fun. We opened for George two summers ago. I can’t wait to see those guys again.
JAMBASE: You specifically will also be participating in a number of the sets at Brooklyn Comes Alive in September. How do you pick your spots there?
SE: I think it’s kind of logistics, and based on what the offers are. I take any chance I can get to collaborate with other people outside of Turkuaz, that’s very fulfilling for me and important to being a well-rounded musician. All nine of us do that. We go out and bring different experiences and sounds back into Turkuaz and that’s a key element of what keeps us going. But for Brooklyn Comes Alive, soul music is really my love — it’s my soul! And I jumped at a chance to do that. So one thing I’m part of is we’ll be playing this journey through the history of soul music, you know, the roots with Ray Charles, Etta James, Aretha Franklin up through some of what we’d think of as Neo-soul.
JAMBASE: Who’s the first person you call for something like that?
SE: I think in this case it was Nikki Glaspie.
JAMBASE: Never a bad choice.
SE: Right? She’s such a role model for me. Obviously, she’s an insane drummer but it’s more than that, being a badass female on this scene.
JAMBASE: Hit me with a sit-in story: you with someone else’s group or someone with Turkuaz. What comes to mind, Shira?
SE: That’s an easy one. I got to do a three-night run at the Blue Note [in 2017] sitting-in with Ivan Neville, who as you probably know was in Keith Richards’ band at one point. On one of the shows, I think it was the second night, Ivan said in passing, “I think Keith might come tomorrow.” I was like, oh, yeah, haha, cool. Sure enough, we did “Wild Horses” during the set and Keith is sitting in the audience. Ivan goes to the mic and he’s like, “Does anyone in the audience know that song?” Keith yells out, “Know it? I fucking wrote it!” So that has to be on top. Keith watching me do “Wild Horses.”
JAMBASE: Did you get to meet him?
SE: Yeah, I did. He was so nice and so cool and he complimented my singing. He just spoke to me plainly as a person, you know? You think of these folks as celebrity icons, and they are, and in your mind there’s all the famous rock ’n’ roll stories and everything and you wonder if they might be crazy. He was very cool and very nice in talking to me.
Tour Dates for Shira Elias