(extended version of an article originally published in Star News, with additional Q&A)
By Brian Tucker
Singer-songwriter Rebekah Todd moved to Wilmington last October and hit the ground running, booking shows and making friends. Playing largely from her soulful, personal album Roots Bury Deep, Todd also sang on local singer David Dixon’s debut and recently started up her old band here (The Odyssey) with guitarist Tom Shaw.
“I’m a full time musician. If I’m not playing I’m not paying rent,” Todd said driving back from rehearsals in Asheville with The Fritz. “I wanted to get to know Wilmington quickly so I booked as much as I could.”
In May, and perhaps longer, Todd will perform soulful, folk driven original music and choice covers Sunday nights at Lagerheads on Wrightsville Beach.
The car she bought a year ago has logged heavy mileage, but she’s no stranger to tallying up miles. In 2012 Todd graduated from East Carolina University and toured immediately, spending thirty days on the road to Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, and Seattle.
“I didn’t know anything else to do,” she said. “It looked like my only choice at this moment is to be a musician. I was on the road constantly.”
Her song “On the Run” encapsulates that period, but it’s not the first time she’s turned to music. Her father passed away in 2010 and many songs on Roots Bury Deep are therapeutic she says, a means to think through what happened.
“I’ve spent several years trying to heal and music has definitely helped,” Todd said. “It’s always working it out through music for me.”
Never learning to read music became a disadvantage in a class of college students already capable. She left the music program and, at 19, went to South Africa for a semester, took a year off. She returned to Greenville, playing in a band that was a big production combining theatre, music, choreography and acting. In that time she also pursued an art degree, played music around town, and formed The Odyssey.
Cullen Seward from local reggae band Signal Fire suggested Shaw meet Todd. They hit it off, began writing music and reformed The Odyssey with Shaw’s brother Pete on drums and founding member William Seymour on bass.
“(Cullen) thought we would be a great fit because of the direction I was trying to take my musical career…and as she was looking to re-form The Odyssey,” Shaw said of their rock meets soul sound. “Her voice is incredible, but what drew me in was her ability to write great songs. The music transcends genres, and the lyrics are all very meaningful. When I first listened to her albums, I felt like I could add something meaningful to the music, if given the chance.”
Roots Bury Deep has an ageless quality – singing with gospel undertones and warm, folky sincerity. Growing up in Benson, N.C., influences came from southern gospel, country and bluegrass music. But in the morning she’d ready for school blasting Aretha Franklin while blow drying her hair. The result was a powerful amalgam of sounds.
“I never studied voice, I didn’t have training. I started singing at eleven in church, trying to sing with them and they had a big sound, a big choir. It was one experience after another, hearing musicians that I liked.”
The centerpiece of Roots Bury Deep is her voice, but it’s surrounded by atmosphere, whether horns by Evan Roberson (trombone) and Chris Knuckles (saxophone) on “Devil’s Gonna Buy” or Brandon Shamar’s keys on “Tornado.” There’s no electric guitar, any solos were usually played by a horn instrument. They lend a murky, calming presence, wonderfully complimenting Todd on album closer “Wishing Well.”
“The bass player, the drummer, and I ran through the song like we rehearsed it.” Todd recalls. “The first take was all we needed. (Then) the horns played one time. They never rehearsed, didn’t know what the other player was going to do. Everything you’re hearing is just raw talent.”
Additional Q&A with Rebekah Todd
Why the move to Wilmington?
Todd: I was living in Greenville and went to Eastern Carolina University for painting and drawing. I got a degree and stuck around a few years. My boyfriend was moving to town and I wanted to check out a new town. We were considering Asheville or Wilmington and he had family here. I really enjoy Wilmington. I’ve met a lot of supportive musicians here. I was really fresh on the scene after moving. I knew David Dixon and Cullen in Signal Fire.
Did you cut your teeth in Greenville?
Todd: I was definitely writing and playing before Greenville but when I got there that’s when I really wrote my first professional EP. I wrote that in Greenville, places like The Tipsy Teapot allowed me to open for a lot of bigger bands coming to town. It kind of changed my life because I got to interact with all these people doing bigger things. They were giving me tips and pointers and actually one of the connections I have in Asheville comes from there.
Why not a degree in music?
Todd: I wanted to keep music separate. I’m trying to learn more now, but I can’t read music, have never been able to. It’s a major disadvantage when you’re in class with kids who have been able to do it for twelve years. I started studying music but I flunked out of all my classes so I had to drop it. That was when I went to South Africa. It was like; I don’t know what I’m doing so I figured I’d play in a band. Well, I’ll study art and soon as I got my degree I stopped painting and started playing music full time. It’s just funny how things come full circle.
You’ve played a lot of shows here and on the road.
Todd: I’m a full time musician so if I’m not playing I’m not paying my rent. I really wanted to get to know Wilmington quickly so I booked as much as I can. It’s helped me get other shows. Eric Miller at The Penguin has been really helpful, the guys in L Shape Lot. I met a lot of people in a short amount of time.
And you’ve put together a band here.
Todd: I had a band in Greenville and we’re rearranging our line up but I’m working with local musician Tom Shaw (formerly of Dubtown Cosmonauts) and he’s playing guitar. He’s helped me out a lot. There will be much more of the band (Rebekah Todd and the Odyssey) playing and I’m going to try to tour a lot more next year and not as much in Wilmington.
Is it more of a rock band?
Todd: The last two months Tom and I have been working together. It’s definitely going in more of a rock and soul direction. I have a Muscle Shoals sound, like Aretha Franklin and The Allman Brothers, if I mesh all that together. That’s where our music is headed, much more rock-y and less acoustic. Tom was looking for someone to play with and I was too. Our first show (was) April 25 at The Whiskey, the first full band show.
What is important to you to get across in songs – strength, melody, substance?
Todd: I’m definitely trying focus more on lyric writing, so I’m trying to get the message of the song across. I want people to leave feeling better than they did when they walked on the door. I try to write with a positive outlook. Everybody has things that they’ve been through that have not been easy.
There are a lot of styles in your music – gospel, southern soul, country.
Todd: I grew up in Benson and they have southern gospel and a lot of country and bluegrass. I grew up singing in this Pentecostal church and doing a more gospel thing and loving Aretha Franklin. It’s an obvious fit for this album because there’s a lot of soul and a lot of bluegrass as well. Right now I’m trying to find the perfect medium for all my genres. I’m really excited. I’m writing now and looking to put another album next year. I think it’s going to be a lot more rock and soul influenced.
Did you find confidence early on as a singer? Are smaller crowds more stressful than larger ones?
Todd: Really early on, three years old. It depends, sometimes I play really small more intimate shows and I can get more nervous. I can play in front of a thousand people, and I have (most recent was Greenville in downtown for Sunday in the Park), and its, here we go, lets do this. In front of a small crowd it can rattle me. You’re looking them in the eye and a few feet away from them. That’s where you get sharpened as an artist.
Was your family supportive?
Todd: I was fortunate to have the people I did in my life. At such a young age all I did was music. (They’d say) whether or not it’s successful, this is what she’s going to do because it’s all she ever does. My dad was really big into music. We always had music playing loud throughout the house or on a long distance drive. He was always playing it loud as possible – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. He was a huge fan of Neil Young. I remember listening to a lot of the classics which is why I think I go towards that in my covers, usually older stuff from 60s and 70s.
You strip them down and make it your own.
Todd: I try to play them in my style, not karaoke. Stuff like Ray Charles, Aretha, Allman Brothers, Neil Young.
Can you share the story behind “On the Run”?
Todd: I wrote that when I graduated from college. Everybody goes through it, what are they going to do, especially being an art major and a musician. (After graduating) it looks like, my only choice at this moment is to be a musician. I was on the road constantly. I played up and down east coast and did a big tour out west, to Seattle and back. I was in my car running around one place to another, me and a friend. We did a thirty day trip and played twenty-one gigs.