Rashod Ollison is the author of Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl (Beacon Press), a Winter/Spring 2016 Indies Introduce title.
Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an Adult Debut panelist for the Winter/Spring 2016 Indies Introduce selections, called Soul Serenade, “a heartbreaking, gratifying memoir of family chaos, a personal identity crisis, and civil rights buoyed by memories of great music and artists. Ollison’s writing is graceful and the musical references are a great foil to his troubles.”
Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist who has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News, Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison now lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
What role did music play in your life while growing up?
Rashod Ollison: Music was many things at different times: a safe harbor, a friend, a mirror, a door. Often, it was all of those things at once. Initially, the soul records bequeathed to me by my father were something of an aural lifeline to him. I was looking for who he was in those records but soon found myself in them. Today, music mostly serves as something of a stabilizer and an engaging presence in my personal life. Professionally, I make a living contextualizing it and interviewing the people who make it.
Soul Serenade is not only the title of your debut, it is also an Aretha Franklin record. What is it about Aretha Franklin’s “Soul Serenade” that inspired you to use it as the title of your book?
RO: I always dug her version of the song, but I also like King Curtis’ original, an instrumental, and Gloria Lynne’s jazz take. I love the languid melody and the lyrics about wanting to be free yet connected to something bigger than yourself. “I want to be free to fly away and sing to the world my soul serenade,” Aretha sings. That line pretty much embodies my early life in central Arkansas — wanting to feel liberated to be myself, then go out and let the world know just who I am.
As a music critic, you’ve had the opportunity to interview Aretha Franklin. On a personal level, what is it like to speak with someone who has played such an influential role in your life? Do you find that when given the chance to speak with one’s heroes, some of the magic is dispelled?
RO: When I’m working as a critic, I’m in a different mindset. I’m concentrating on getting the best interview I can get — and Aretha is a notoriously hard interview. The times I’ve interviewed her she was always gracious, sometimes witty, but very guarded. That didn’t surprise me about her. Her voice is among the first things I vividly remember hearing, so I can’t imagine my life without her music. I never thought of her as a “hero” per se, but certainly an important presence in my life via her music. I was able to separate the experience of interviewing her from engaging her music.
Soul Serenade is about how music plays a vital role in a person’s emotional development. What is it about the cathartic nature of music, particularly soul music, that connects one to their emotional self?
RO: Soul music is the secularization of gospel, which is all about the manipulation of the emotionality of a song — the communal sharing of an experience and the transcendence that comes from that. It’s a mix of vulnerability and strength. But there’s strength in being vulnerable. That’s often communicated in the lyrics, the delivery, or both. Soul music makes catharsis an art form. If you surrender to it, lay your burdens down, as it were, and trust the journey on which the artist takes you, it’s hard to step away unchanged or unmoved by something.
Like music, books can not only provide a means of escape, but also help readers find a better understanding of themselves in difficult times. Are there any authors you have read that inspired your writing? How so?
RO: Toni Morrison absolutely inspires me. Her refusal to not privilege the white gaze in any of her books was and still is a revolutionary act for a black writer. And it’s so damn liberating. The elegance of her language, beautiful lines weaving often ugly tales, just takes my breath away.
Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gloria Naylor are also favorites because they write well from the inside out, using cultural specificities to illuminate the humanity of a story.
I’m a big fan of poets because of the economy and refinement of words to express big, abstract ideas. So much about poetry can be used to make prose powerful, particularly the practice of saying more with less. Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks are my favorites.
Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison (Beacon Press, Hardcover, 9780807057520) Publication Date: January 26, 2016.
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