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Getting to Know DC’s Queen of Blues: Carly Harvey

It is always a pleasure to sit down and chat with artists who understand how to contextualize themselves, which was my experience with D.C.’s proclaimed Queen of the Blues, Carly Harvey. When I heard her talk about her musical upbringing, there was a clear, deep love and reverence for the cultural roots of all the genres that she has employed over the course of her career to date.

As a representative of D.C.’s blues scene (and music scene in general), she recognizes that her music is not just about her as an artist in an isolated moment of time, but that she contributes to, and stands upon, a historical foundation that is rich with potential. And, for her, the call towards that history came from inside the house.

Carly Harvey 1

“My introduction to music was infancy,” she says. “My mom was a singer – particularly she did a lot of jazz and theater – and my dad was a funk bassist. So, a very eclectic environment for music in my household.” With a laugh, she admits to a bout of childhood defiance saying, “I decided that I wasn’t going to sing blues, and I wasn’t going to sing funk, because I hated both of them because of my parents.”

As we commiserated about the inevitable trope of becoming our parents, she shared that her first experiences as a musician herself were primarily as a singer (after a brief stint with the violin). Given that the blues tradition started with vocal shouts and stomping feet, it’s no surprise that Carly was drawn to being a singer, but she found herself drawn at the time to the singer-songwriter aesthetics á la Carole King alongside classical choral music from her school years. This along with her parents’ influences created the musical ground she would continue to tread upon for years to come.

“Then I get to college, and I’m in this a capella group, and a friend of mine who loved blues says, ‘you should sing blues!’ to which I said ‘Nah, no thank you!’” again with a laugh. As the friend continued to press the blues on her, he eventually introduced her to Susan Tedeschi who changed her outlook on what the blues could feel like. “She was so raw and passionate. It wasn’t that bubbly, commercialized blues. It was the blues I really like – raw and emotional.”

Once she found her way into the blues at the age of 19, she didn’t look back. And now, several years later, she has become a two-time winner of D.C.’s Blues Society Battle of the Bands and was proclaimed “D.C.’s Queen of Blues” by Dr. Nick Johnson of WPFW Radio. She and her band, Kiss & Ride, have had the opportunity to represent the city in various contests and challenges, including the 2019 International Blues Challenge held in Memphis where they placed in the semi-finals. Given that she has become an ambassador for D.C. blues, I asked her about what made this area’s style of blues different from other hubs.

“We are the mid-Atlantic, so we have people from the south that come here, people form the north and west coming and influencing our music. We’re at the center of it all. Sometimes when I tell people I’m a blues singer, and since I am a woman and I’m brown, there’s an assumption about what kind of blues I’m singing, but I’m really doing all of them.”

She went on to list a variety of influences like New Orleans second line and Congo Square, Chicago blues, delta blues, the rich jazz history of D.C. with Duke Ellington, and even native influences of southern blues. She finds Washington D.C. to be a nice nook where all these ideas interact with each other despite its lack of being labeled a “music city” like New York, L.A., Nashville, or Austin. In fact, she finds that D.C. is special in part because the music scene is not oversaturated in the way these other places tend to be. There’s plenty of space for cross-pollination, but not to the point of becoming too stuffy.

And like many musicians, Harvey has been interacting with all sorts of musicians even outside of the blues. One of her first big vocal features was an international collaboration with Italian producer Taste of Dream.

“I was still heavily making blues, but I didn’t have the resources to make music the way I wanted it to sound. So, I didn’t have much music released, but I had a marketing and branding person at the time who had a connection with this guy in Italy. When she was talking to him, he was saying ‘Man, I want someone to sing this Italian music, but I want to hear it with this American, soul voice – a Black voice’ and she said, ‘Have we got the person for you!’”

As the process began, he would send tracks for her to work with, so she began gathering the tools to make a small home studio. Now, from the first few notes of one of their most well-known songs, “Caruso,” it’s clear that this is an entirely different musical ballpark than the one that Harvey has become known for. Full of synthesized ambience and electronic backbeats, it leans more into the realm of EDM while highlighting Harvey’s soulful, pop-oriented vocals.

She describes “Caruso” as “a classic Napolitano song,” a specific dialect of Naples, which she also says was “really hard” because she was used to a more general approach to Italian language in music from her choir upbringing. “It was a whole new twist! But that song was made almost 9 years ago, and it’s still charting in Italy, Germany, and Spain. It was a really fun project, and I’m hoping that we’ll collaborate and make some more things.” With tentative plans to reconnect in-person this coming June, time will tell if we get to see more through this specific window of Harvey’s musical journey.

But from the first few notes on Harvey’s most recent EP, Kiss & Ride, Vol. 1, you can immediately tell that this is her musical home base and you can feel how full-fledged she has become as a musician. “Unfortunately, listening to my music in chronological order is not exactly representative of me as an artist” she says, and it’s true. A Google search will show two different identities for Harvey literally side by side: her official website with the slogan “The DC’s Queen of Blues” on the left against an algorithmic definition of her genre as “UK R&B” on the right. “I’ve written so many strongly worded emails to Google telling them not to do that!” says with joking, yet serious timbre to her voice.

Despite this, Carly Harvey is an incredibly versatile artist and, while she can hang with other genres like pop, EDM, or rock, it is a breath of fresh air to listen to the first Kiss & Ride EP because it feels authentic. The opening pocket drum groove of “She Ain’t Me” comes armed with a hefty swing rhythm that paradoxically propels while also showing restraint, hanging back enough to maintain a sense of cool that is undeniable.

Once Harvey’s larger-than-life vocals step into the spotlight, there’s no turning back. It’s utterly captivating and soulful with just the right amount of 60’s and 70’s funk synthesizer to keep things ever-so psychedelic. It’s the space where she sounds and feels the most like Carly Harvey I have come to expect. Thankfully, she assured me that volume 2 is forthcoming (no official date yet). So, if you’re looking for some easy listening where singer-songwriter aesthetics meet the soul of the blues, you have time to let the first volume live a little bit in your mind and ears before the next one comes along.

Toward the end of the interview, we talked a bit about her background as an Afro-Native woman and how that comes into play with her relationship with the blues. “My research involves chatting with other native musicians and chronologically looking at the timeline of how the blues were developed.” A descendant of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced “hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee” – otherwise referred to as the Iroquois) Confederacy and the Tuscarora nation on her father’s side and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on her mother’s, she has found space for cultural conversation by simply existing. “I grew up knowing that I’m Afro-Native; that I’m Afro-Indigenous.”

When it comes to teaching the way that these cultures can talk to each other, she dives into music theory from a historical angle. Some aspects include dissecting the differences between poly- and mono- rhythmic music, the transformative power of the “blue note” within the minor pentatonic scale, and the relationship between the foundational shuffle rhythm of the blues and the stomping rhythms of traditional native music. She also notes the call-and-response musical structure found in the music of both the African diaspora and Indigenous people as common ground for these ideas to coexist and evolve together.

Along with her work as an educator, singer, and songwriter, Harvey is continuing to expand her musical base with projects beyond Kiss & Ride, including the Carly Harvey Experience and the all-women musical group, The Honeylarks. When asked about her future plans in music, she kept it simple, albeit excited and buzzing with energy, saying, “Making more of it!”

At the end of the day, Carly Harvey keeps it real, welcoming a vast array of feels and genres in her musical experiences. Be sure to follow her on all social media channels with the handle @carlyhmusic for updates on future shows and releases, which I’m told will soon include some crowdfunding and holiday shows.

Charlie Maybee

Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Charleston, South Carolina who currently teaches with the Dance Program at the College of Charleston. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression and research. He also currently plays rhythm guitar for the Charleston-based punk band, Anergy, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.

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