Boston soul singer Ingrid Gerdes’ gospel-meets-R&B voice has earned her more than one comparison to greats like Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples, and the title of her new album, High Priestess, helps conjure images of a vocalist trained in a Mississippi Delta choir loft, spending Sundays praising the Lord and raising the roof.
Actually, Gerdes spent more time serenading house pets than heaven while growing up in the Ozarks town of Springfield, MO. — an area known for it’s natural beauty. In fact, she used the four elements essential to all life – earth, air, fire and water as inspiration for High Priestess, even filling a displayboard with vivid photographs suggesting moods she sought to convey musically. The result is both cool and hot, breezy and still, and imbued with a southern blues-rock sensibility that adds a shot of sass to her hot- buttered-soul, Dusty-in-Memphis delivery.
Gerdes, who studied opera at University of Kansas before earning her degree at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, explains, “Fashion designers sometimes create mood boards for new lines. And I like the idea of surrounding yourself with an inspiration and trying to become part of the world that you’re creating. So when I was writing the songs, I surrounded myself with the vibe to help bring this world to life musically. Where I come from shaped who I am and I want to honor that.”
Who she is, for what it’s worth, is a singer who eschews labels such as neo-soul. “I don’t really know what neo-soul is,” she confesses. “I don’t think anybody does. It’s just one of those genres they throw people into who they can’t really fit into other genres.”
In any case, it doesn’t adequately capture the allure of her nearly four-octave vocal range and old-school, old-soul sound, as exhibited on tracks such as the funky mid-tempo “Pride” and the slinky, snaky groove of which came to her in a dream. Or tunes such as “Rules,” on which Gerdes conjures the spirit of another adored singer, Amy Winehouse, or “Fire,” a smokin’ slow- cooker on which she generates the kind of heat that sends couples straight from the dance floor to the bedroom. Or “I Need A Man,” in which she explains, in no uncertain terms, that she’s done with “foolish boys.”
This is a woman who has no more need for trifling dalliances; who’s sure of herself and in command. A woman who, one suspects, might be able to shoot lightning from a pointed finger; with her beguiling beauty, rich vocals and the winning songcraft of High Priestess, she leaves no doubt she can cast quite a spell.
Gerdes started to realize she had a special talent when she was 3. Her mother, a psychologist, used to sing “bawdy barroom songs and lamenting folk tunes as lullabies,” and Gerdes, obsessed with The Sound of Music, would dance through the fields surrounding her home while serenading anything in proximity — in a voice far more soulful than most kids that age have.
Teachers quickly singled her out for chorus assignments, and she began winning song- writing contests in elementary school. She began acting, too, and even became a young film auteur.
“My dad gave me a camcorder, and I used to make these movies and sketches,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I made all my friends remake The Amy Fisher Story, for ex- ample, which is super appropriate for kids. And I made them all do a weekend-long production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and cast myself as the quite risqué lead character. As a 12-year-old. It’s super embarrassing now. But I was very industrious and I typed out the script word for word.”
She pursued both classical and popular mu- sic, though the duality left her feeling like she didn’t fully fit in either camp. To this day, she says, “I reject the idea that I must only ex- press myself musically in one style. I love the artistic freedom of working in many genres.”
A brush with a major label while still in her teens turned her off to the idea of twisting herself into someone else’s image of who she should be and changed her notions about competing for fame. She wanted to sing and write, not become a pop-tart puppet.
“That was really my first exposure to the unfortunate underbelly of the industry – which I’m glad I saw at that age, so I didn’t continue to have misconceptions and I was able to really decide how I wanted to formulate my path,” she says.
The focus she’s apparently had since child- hood has allowed Gerdes to develop her talents with care and diligence. Two best actress awards for a roles at KU productions and regional Emmy Award that went to a commercial PSA in which she starred have given her the credibility and confidence to attract some of Boston’s top talent.
“As soon as Imoved here, Istarted gigging,jumping into thescene,” she says.“The communityof musicians is so rich.” They’re the reason she stays in Boston; she loves the supportive scene.
After working with much of Duke Robillard’s rhythm section on her last self- produced album, “Shed,” she reunited with them and adds to the impressive roster of musicians for “High Priestess.” She sought help from Milt Reder, who has toured with Barrence Whitfield and worked with Susan Tedeschi, among others. They recorded at his Rear Window Studio in Brookline, Mass., with co- producer/engineer Craig Welsch. Aaron Lipp came off a Robert Randolph tour to add key- boards, and Garrett Dutton, aka G Love, de- livers harmonica flourishes to two songs, Gerdes’s homage to her roots in “Missouri Limestone” and “Lindenlure,” about a cabin on the Finley River where, Gerdes says, “many of my most precious memories originated.”
In addition to performing, Gerdes is an accomplished voice-over artist. When she needs a break from working in her home studio, she spends her time outdoors running and gardening. But she still heads home often as she can, so she can watch her radiologist father “play tractor” on his 60-acre farm (“he has, like, six,” she notes), hug the dogs, ride horses and hang out with her young nieces. And of course, refuel her inspiration at its source.
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