Q&A with Brooklyn’s Karen Bernod
by Andrew Shilling
May 29, 2014 | 5862 views | 0 0 comments | 71 71 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by J Quazi King
Photo by J Quazi King
Karen Bernod was born and raised in the projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

As a child she spent her spare time singing to her favorite musicians in the mirror and performing at school talent shows. After taking home the first prize in an elementary school singing competition, Bernod realized her passion for music.

She has since gone on tour as a backup vocalist with musicians like Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige, however her passion for writing and creating her own music has always been at the forefront.

Today she is preparing for her third solo album, #PlantingSeeds, and after recently moving back to her hometown of Brooklyn, she is reconnecting with her neighborhood friends and looking forward to a summer of live performances throughout the city.

I met with Bernod last week at Rustik Tavern on DeKalb Avenue across the street from her childhood home and discussed her music and career as a backup and solo performing musician, as well as her tips on tackling the ever-changing business of songwriting.

How did you first know you were meant to sing?

Well, I actually started singing in this neighborhood. My first show was at seven years old in my elementary school, which is down the street there. I won a contest and that’s when I really knew that I wanted to do this. I mean, I knew that I wanted to do it earlier, but this really proved it to me, once I won with all the clapping and stuff. From there, I’ve been singing ever since.

How has this neighborhood changed since you were a kid?

One hundred percent. We moved to the projects when I was one, and the projects were pretty new. From, I’d say within the last 10 years I saw a drastic change. I saw it start to gradually change about 25 years ago. And in the last five years, it has changed about 80 percent.

But I’ve always pursued my music. It has always been a very bohemian artist-type atmosphere here with the Pratt Institute, but now that it’s more gentrified, we have different types of musicians here, alternative, Goth and soul, and all of that kind of fused together. There are a lot of cafes in the area that all these bands perform in, and you have the Brooklyn Bowl.

But the one thing I love about Brooklyn is that in the summertime, the music in this area is off the hook. You can find any kind of music that you want to hear. I like to go to the free concerts they have, and in Brooklyn, I’m always busy. You’ve got the museums, you’ve got Wingate Park, you’ve got Fort Greene Park where we have the music with DJ’s, and you have Von King Park, then you have Williamsburg over there doing their thing.

It is just this eclectic cacophony of different folk from all different cultures coming together.

When did you feel that you were validated as a musician?

Well actually, Chaka Khan is one my idols. Growing up, I used to sing in the mirror with a hairbrush all of her songs. And when I actually got the job singing with her, I knew at that moment when she complimented me and hired me then I was legit in the business. Because if you could sing with Chaka Khan, then you could sing. I mean, I knew I could sing before then, but she validated that for me.

When did you start singing with Chaka Khan?

In 2001. I was singing with her and Mary J. at the end of it. So I was singing with them at the same time and left that in 2007. Then I started totally pursuing my solo thing, but I’ve always been pursuing my solo thing in between performing with other artists. I sang background for her, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and in between all of them I was always pursuing my music.

I also sang with Incognito for two years. I got the gig with them in 1999 and did a full European tour in 2000-01, but then I left them and started singing with Chaka. But that was a great experience, too. They were one of my favorite bands. We went all over Europe, we went to Japan and Australia, and that was great.

What was your last nine-to-five?

That was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I worked there in the ticketing office for like a year. So people used to put things on the bulletin board, like auditions and stuff and one came up for one of Spike Lee’s movies, and my boss said, “Karen, you should go check out the bulletin board downstairs, there’s an audition for a female singer.” So I went down there, I went to the audition and I got it.

I actually filmed that day. We had to film in Chelsea, and it was like a 17-hour shoot. I was supposed to go to work the next day and I couldn’t because I was still on the set. So, when I finally got back to work, they fired me. All my coworkers got on her case for telling me about the gig. But she said, “She was late, and she is always late.” I was always late. My coworkers told her if you don’t hire her back, then we’ll quit. So she hired me back, but then a couple of days after that, I quit.

I was like, you know what, just step out on faith and take a risk. And that was my last nine-to-five and I’ve been doing my music ever since.

What is the myth when diving headfirst as a solo musician?

One of the major myths is that it’s easy, and it’s not easy. It takes a certain type of person to pursue it. You step out on faith and you sacrifice a lot, but the reward and the gratification and empowerment is each little nugget of success that you come upon. And there are the valleys, but it’s never like I ever, ever, ever once thought that I would quit.

Is there advice that you can give someone that wants to do the same thing?

Study your craft. Know your craft. If you’re into country western, know soul, know pop, know R&B, know classical. If I travel abroad, I study other people’s music. If I go to Brazil, I want to buy some Brazilian music.

Music is only eight notes to a scale, and it gets repeated over and over from Bach to now. It is just a variation of those notes. Everyone can’t possibly do the same thing. There may be some similarities, but you have to put your signature on it. But if you believe this is what you want to do, do it. You just have to have a thick skin and you have to be hungry all the time. You have to have a passion for it and just go with it.

What are you working on now?

The name of my next album is called #PlantingSeeds, and that’s going to come out on Oct. 21. I also just released a single called “Brooklyn Potpourri” and it’s about growing up in Brooklyn, living in the projects, growing up with my Latino friends and my black friends. I talk about cleaning up on Saturday mornings and the music my mom played, Celia Cruz, Marvin Gay, Tito Puente, Frank Sinatra, all that stuff.

That just got on iTunes yesterday and I’m working on getting booking agents to help me. I’ll probably do a CD release show at Joe’s Pub. I don’t have anything booked at the moment but we’re working on stuff.

How do you evolve with the way music is promoted online?

I love the fact that you can now make the decision to become totally independent. Because I had some deal offers, but what they required of me, I wasn’t able to do. Either lose weight or straighten my hair, they just wanted to mold me into a look that I just wasn’t willing to do.

I stay up until three, four or five in the morning writing my songs. And if McDonalds called me and said they wanted to use one of my songs in their commercials, I don’t want to give up 50 percent or whatever for my songs. I just don’t want to do that. I don’t mind sharing or advice, but I just thought back in the day that record companies were like loan sharks and they were greedy. They had us under their thumbs because they had the money, they had the distribution, they have licensing, so they pretty much controlled the strings. But when the internet came out full blast, then we could cut out the middle man.

I love that I have a direct connect with my admirers and my listeners. I speak to them directly on Facebook and Twitter.

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