With four albums under his belt, along with nominations for a Grammy, Latin Grammy Award and NAACP Image Award, Jeremiah Abiah is a force in the music industry. Abiah has released both original songs as well as covers of artists, ranging from Nina Simone to Tina Turner. His work exhibits an extensive range – as does his voice. And, his talents have graced the silver screen, working on the film, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and contributing to shows such as Netflix’s “The Get Down” and Nickelodeon’s “Little Ballers.” On top of these successes, he works as a vocal coach and professor, teaching vocal lessons around the world, private sessions and classes at Berklee College of Music and Western Carolina University.
On Sunday, June 19, Abiah performed at Caramoor’s Celebrate Juneteenth event. We sat down with Abiah to talk about Nina Simone, young love and a song inspired by Steve Irwin– and we even had the pleasure of hearing him sing!
Katonah Connect: What does Juneteenth mean to you?
Jeremiah Abiah: Juneteenth is about emancipation and celebration. There should be a spotlight on Juneteenth because we need to constantly reflect on the history of this country. I think it has been a very popular topic among African Americans, but the general populace doesn’t know much about it, so it’s an awesome opportunity to educate.
KC: Why did you decide to join Caramoor’s Celebrate Juneteenth event?
JA: It’s nice to be part of festivities and things that are historic while representing the African community, as someone who has direct roots from Africa.
KC: How did you become interested in music?
JA: I grew up in a musical family. My mother is a pianist who plays for a very famous opera singer, my sister sang and my brother played percussion, so music was always around me. When I was a child, my brother was in college, and he came home in his new car playing Anita Baker’s album “Rapture.” When I heard that album as a little boy, I felt it so deeply, her singing and her lyrics. I was ten years old, and I knew for sure that I wanted to be a singer.
KC: When did you begin performing?
JA: Around eight years old – I was in my church’s choir, called The Sunshine Band.
KC: Did you have a favorite song to sing back then?
JA: *sings “If Anybody Asks You Who I Am”*
KC: Is it true you have a six-octave vocal range?
JA: Yes! I can sing like Mariah Carey and Minnie Ripperton, but I can also go way, way, way lower.
KC: Wow, that’s so impressive! Did you have to train your voice over time to develop that range?
JA: I actually discovered the highest parts of my voice when I was laughing one time. I heard it and I said, “Oh my goodness, that’s a whistle tone!”
KC: How do you replicate that sound while singing? Do you have to be tickled or told a joke?
JA: At first, I tried to remember the feeling of what I did to make that sound. I played around with my voice to see if it was something that was natural, and it actually came very easy to me.
KC: What songs do you sing to put this incredible range on display?
JA: “Summertime” by George Gershwin. With that song, I can play around with my voice a lot because it has a groove to it. That song has become a jazz standard, and it really showcases the band because I am not just the singer, but an instrument in the band.
KC: Can you tell me about the albums you’ve released?
JA: My first album was called “Chasing Forever,” then I did “Life As a Ballad” and then a third album called “Bottles”. Prior to any record deal, though, I was doing Nina Simone cover concerts a lot; they were always sold out, always well-received. I knew that no one could do Nina like I could. I was even the vocal producer for the Netflix film, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” So I decided my fourth album would be a Nina Simone cover album, which is called “Abiah Sings Nina.”
KC: Where did your love for Nina Simone come from?
JA: You know, when I was in college, I actually couldn’t stand her voice; I was a bit of a snob!
KC: Really? What changed your mind?
JA: I studied opera in college and in my class, we talked about something called “text painting,” which is when an artist takes words to color their music through the art of song. I heard Nina Simone doing that – everything she sang, I could see it. This really struck me, and I thought, “I want to be that kind of singer; I want to be that kind of artist.” Through this, her voice took on a new meaning to me. I put down my snobbery and began to hear these wonderful, magical elements to her singing. I really started listening to her material, and she’s now one of my greatest influences. On my Nina Simone record, there’s a song I wrote called “I’m Just Like You,” and people thought Nina Simone wrote that song.
KC: What inspires your songs?
JA: I’m a storyteller, so I use my own experiences as well as the experiences of those close to me. But I’m also sometimes inspired by other things. One time, I was watching Oprah and she had Steve Irwin’s wife on and she said about his death, “When we lost him, the wind stopped.” That line really touched me and it inspired my song, “Life As a Ballad.”
KC: What was the first song you ever wrote?
JA: I’ve been writing songs since I was 10 years old, and I used to write love songs all the time.
My first song was called “Elemental Love” – it was about elementary school love.
KC: I would love to hear that song! What did it sound like?
JA: In the song, I spelled out the word like, “e-l-e-m-e-n-t-a-l love.”
KC: What are you working on now?
JA: I’m currently writing an opera, so I’ve been putting a lot of effort into that as a new expression of who I am as a composer, a writer and a storyteller. I’m telling a story aboutAfrican history, and I’m really excited about it.
KC: What are you feeling connected to right now?
JA: My son. I had a son last year and he just turned one. He’s my entire world and fills my life with so much joy.