WEST PALM BEACH — Singers, like office folders, are often categorized. R&B. Hip-Hop. Pop. Contemporary.
But Goapele (pronounced Gwa-pa-lay), doesn't neatly fit into any one musical category. And that's how the Oakland-born songstress likes it.
Goapele is part neo soul, part R&B, part jazz and, well, all silky-voiced entertaining.
Since bursting onto the music scene in 2001, she has successfully carved a nice little niche for herself with such albums as Closer, Even Closer, Change It All and, most recently, Milk & Honey.
The 32-year-old granddaughter of German Holocaust survivors and black South Africans who lived through apartheid, brings her lush romantic ballads to the Palm Beach Improv Wednesday night, Sept. 30 as part of the increasingly popular Palm Beach Soul concert series.
We caught up with the talented singer-songwriter who talked about her name, her sound and Kanye West's recent outburst at the MTV Music Video Awards.
Q: You have a very unique name. What does it mean and is there a story behind why your parents gave you that name?
A: It's my grandmother's maiden name. It's a South African name and it means "To go forward." My parents wanted me to have a family name and to be connected to my roots.
Q: Your father was a South African exiled political activist and your mom was an Israeli Jew who also was no stranger to protests. Talk about your parents and the influence they had on you, your life and your music.
A: They were both really humble people and raised us to be open and think critically and be aware. If I was going to do something, do it with integrity.
Q: How would you describe your sound?
A: I would call it soul music. I think the music I do is really eclectic. Sometimes it's straight R&B, but it definitely bleeds into other genres.
Q: Is that intentional or does it just work out that way?
A: I just do the music that I feel and sometimes that doesn't fall neatly into a category. I've been influenced by so many different artists and different music that my writing also reflects that.
Q: That may work creatively, but does that also hurt you since the industry likes to categorize singers?
A: When it comes to marketing, it could be challenging. When it comes to radio play, it can be confusing. There is a way the industry likes to neatly package artists and keep us in our separate categories, and pitch us to certain radio stations and have it be urban, contemporary or pop or crossover. "Closer" is one of those songs that got to play on all those different stations, and it didn't really matter, but it took a long time. It took people calling in and saying they were into it, because if they didn't do that, the stations may have thought, "This doesn't fit our format." For someone like me, it takes more participation and showing and proving for the industry to see where I'm coming from.
Q: Is that frustrating for you?
A: I would say it's challenging. A lot of my experience in my career has been getting support by the independent label I have with my family, so we've been able to be really hands-on. But it's also been an empowering process for me.
Q: Who were some of the singers who inspired you?
A: When I was a kid, there were different South African artists who felt like extended family. Those were the first artists who influenced me. I grew up hearing a lot of jazz, so that was subconsciously influencing me. As I started really forming my own appreciation of music and finding what I really like, I was getting more into Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Prince, Stevie Wonder. I also listened to my brother's earlier hip-hop albums. And there was this whole progression from soul to jazz to hip-hop. I was so happy when D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill came out. Finally there were examples of artists out there doing what I wanted to do.
Q: For those who aren't familiar with neo-soul, how would you define it?
A: I don't call myself a neo-soul artist. Over the years, the title has just gotten so broad. Then it started to become limiting and not as edgy. That's why I say I just do soul music. It really is eclectic.
Q: You don't just sing about love and relationships in your songs. Your songs are often deeper than that. What are you trying to say with your music?
A: I'm just trying to be honest with my music. There's a certain way that love or relationships are talked about and sometimes it's not the whole story. I try and include more of a whole story and other thoughts and feelings that are not expressed to get a different perspective out there. In my past albums, I also wanted to talk about what I see happening in the world and just some of the challenges we still face. I want it to be part of popular culture where we have room to talk about more than just relationships. My third album, which will probably come out in 2010, it's more focused on love and relationships. This time I wanted a fun escape.
Q: Do you find songwriting cathartic?
A: I don't know. Songwriting has changed for me. I'm still growing and learning about it. In the beginning, I felt I had to get this out of me and this is the way it's coming out. On the second album, the songs weren't as much of a brainstorm. I thought about them a little more. With this album, it's been an interesting process for me. I feel like I'm more objective and taking a little more time with my music. It's empowering and different.
Q: You recently worked with Kanye West. What was that like?
A: I happened to be in Hawaii, doing a show with Erykah Badu a few months ago. He was out there recording. We met a few years ago, but I never really worked on anything in the studio with him. It was an opportunity to finally do something together. We recorded a song, but it's not done yet. It was cool to be able to work with him. I've been a fan of his for a long time. He's been pretty supportive of me.
Q: What did you think of his stunt at the MTV Music Video Awards?
A: It's something that he regrets and understandably so. He got way too caught up in the moment. He's impulsive and goes with what he feels all the time. It works to his advantage a lot of times, and sometimes it's gonna backfire.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a recording artist?
A: I knew I wanted to be in music. I also wanted to be a dancer and I also wanted to be a visual artist. The singing thing just stuck and seemed the most natural.
Q: What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
A: It takes a lot of energy and luck and having the right people around you. There has to be long hours and focus. You have to think about what you really want and what you're aiming for.
Q: Is it harder for black female artists to become successful in the record business than it is for black men?
A: As a female, I guess so. I feel like a minority in more ways than one. I'm not sure. It's challenging for black male artists, too. It still feels like a male-dominated industry. There are some challenges, but I feel pretty lucky because I've been surrounded by people who understand where I'm coming from. I don't feel like I'm standing out there by myself trying to get my foot in the door.
Q: In 2003, you were named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 5 recording artists in the country. That was six years ago. Which list should you be on now?
A: (laughs): I have no idea. It's kind of interesting Lately, it's like the media is saying, "She's back!" And I don't feel like I really went anywhere. It has been about five years since I put out an album. I had a kid (a 2-year-old girl) during that time. I've been performing a lot less, but I never stopped.
Q: Why did you go five years between albums?
A: Having a family and taking some time with that definitely slowed down my travel. I've been recording, but I just wasn't ready to put a lot of music out.
Q: Are you looking forward to coming to West Palm Beach?
A: I always like coming to Florida. It's always warmer and the people are cool.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Goapele performs
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 30
WHERE: Palm Beach Improv, 550 S. Rosemary Avenue, No. 250, West Palm Beach
COST: $26 in advance; $30 at the door
CONTACT: 561-352-3921, 561-833-1812 or log on to palmbeachsoul.com