What does a Detroit girl do when she's conquered the local music scene? Head to New Orleans, of course — Detroit's sister Southern city in soul and sorrow. Sista Otis, who garnered 13 nods at 2004's Detroit Music Awards, has always been a wanderer with a bad jazz itch — singing for supper, sleeping on couches and streets and shelters. She got a boost when 2010's American Idol runner-up Crystal Bowerox called Sista Otis one of her major influences.
Aided by the guiding hand of funk pioneer Norwood Fisher, Sista adds the woozy sound of French Quarter jazz clubs to her already stupendous singing and songwriting. Producer Jimmy Sloan, who's manned the helm for Ben Harper, Jack Johnson and Blind Boys of Alabama, also steps in.
But this isn't a review of the entire album. What we heard was a blend of rough mixes and finished copies. She'll release one single per month for the next 10 months ("Charmed," her first, was released on 8/12 on iTunes). Ostensibly, that will give her time to finish some of these yet-to-be-completed tracks. The entire album will be released (on vinyl only) at a yet-to-be-announced date. Sista Otis' distribution method raises questions. Is it better for an unknown artist to build her reputation solely on singles (like a serial novelist, but with mp3s)? Will they even remember her next month? Ultimately, it boils down to one fact: if this thing has any chance of succeeding, Sista's singles better be damn good.
How do you describe her voice? Obvious references are Nina Simone and the joyful fury of Janis Joplin, mixed with the phrasing of Amy Winehouse and the pop soulfulness of Bonnie Raitt. But Sista's songs transcend not only genre, but gender. During the final chorus of "One Hell of a Laugh," trading "I'm so good"s with her backup vocalists, it's like she's possessed by the demon of Otis Redding. Her mastery of scat singing in "Good Time Girl" strips every stereotype of how a dreadlocked white girl should sing.
That doesn't mean Sista can't do sultry. Her voice can easily wind down from indignation to incantation. The foreplay between her words and the melodramatic fiddle of "Gypsy" are enough to leave any listener fanning themselves for air.
Ironically, the rough stuff bests her completed songs. "Charmed," the first single, seems ready-made for FM radio, what with its Linda Perry-style production and polite guitars. Even still, it's accented with finger-picking guitars, banjo and organ, which should help it stand out amidst the banality of female pop rock. Less effective is "Pink Carousel," which shows Sista seemingly imitating Meredith Brooks. The music and her vocal line are kept intentionally bland, her range leashed until the bridge, where her ferocity is finally allowed to blow.
What Charmed's eight tracks show is a vocalist who's at the top of her game. Her biggest challenge will be preserving the natural beauty of these rough mixes, so we can marvel at the transformation. "I might have been born in Detroit city," she sings, "But tonight, I'm a southern belle."
Worth a listen: "Southern Belle" & "Good Time Girl"