So Much Moorer: Brenda Nicole Moorer on her new album, her role in the Aretha Franklin biopic + love for the ATL

Self-portrait by Brenda Nicole Moorer

Vocalist/actor Brenda Nicole Moorer may be young, but she’s been a force in Atlanta’s artistic community for more than a decade. A former member of the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta and a graduate of both the DeKalb School of the Arts and SCAD’s Master of Arts Program, Moorer started singing professionally at the age of 16. Since then, she’s graced the stage alongside locally based musical luminaries like Russell Gunn, Julie Dexter and Khari Cabral Simmons, among many others. In 2011, she dropped her debut solo album, the jazz/folk-centric “Songbird,” and in 2015, she released the acclaimed full-length follow-up, “Brand New Heart.” She’s also worked with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre and garnered spots acting in TV shows like “Greenleaf,” “Star,” “American Soul” and more. On top that, she found the time to serve as the creator and artistic director of Touch x Agree, a nonprofit music organization dedicated to creating space for emerging musicians.

Fast-forward to the COVID-19-tinted landscape of 2020 and, although too many artists are seeing gigs disappear, it appears that some of Moorer’s most game-changing work is about to see the light of day. For one: She’s playing a role in the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, “Respect,” which stars Jennifer Hudson and is slated to hit theaters this December. And two: This summer, she’s unveiling her brand-new jazz album, “Marrow,” which she co-wrote with ATL’s own Kenny Banks Jr. and guitarist Trevor Wolford. To get more details, we recently checked in with Moorer, and she schooled us about what she’s got on tap.

I know you have your hands in several projects these days, but tell me about being a part of the movie “Respect.” What was that experience like?
It was literally one of the best experiences of my life. Everyone was super nice … and the costumes and the hair and makeup — it was incredible. I got [cast as] Brenda Franklin, or Cousin Brenda, who is Aretha’s cousin and background singer, and she sang with Aretha most of Aretha’s career — and actually sang at her funeral, too. She came to the set, and I got to meet her, and I’ve got pictures with her and stuff.

So, how did you go about landing the role?
It’s been a culmination of a lot of different things, because I’ve been doing theater and music since forever. Like, literally all I’ve done. I came out of high school doing it, and I think every relationship that you build is extremely important, helpful, meaningful for the development of you as a person. … And so I feel that’s kind of how this happened. It was through friends that were already in the film, that were from [Youth Ensemble of Atlanta] … and people I’d worked with at True Colors. … I auditioned four times … and then I think it was maybe two or three weeks after that … I just kind of waited. I didn’t let it go, but I was still just waiting. And then they called and said: “We want to offer you the role.” And I was, like, insane! And then, mentally, I had to go through all this, like, “Oh my God, I got myself here. Now, I have to actually do it.” So yeah, that was freaking me out. But, I had to tell myself that this is nothing different than I do every day. I’m just going to sing and perform and live my life as a singer.

Are there any moments on set that stand out as being extraordinarily special in your eyes?
In one scene, we recreated Aretha’s [Grammy-winning live album-turned movie] “Amazing Grace,” and there were times when we looked up and it was so surreal—as if we were really there. … And to me … Aretha’s spirit was there. People were catching the spirit. It was literally like they just filmed church, and we just kept going with the song. The song would go on for about, I don’t know, five minutes, maybe more, sometimes. The director called “cut” a couple times, and it was still going. People who are fully moved, you can’t just be like, “OK, cut!” … because they weren’t acting. Jennifer was in there having church for real. And so I hope that she wins an Oscar for it, because she put in so much work. Hopefully we all get to go to the Oscars!

We’ll be rooting for you! Now, as dope as it must have been to work on that film, you also recently finished work on another dope endeavor — a new album — that you’re about to drop. What can you tell us about that?
The album is called “Marrow,” which when I first started writing it, I wanted to explore who I was, and figure out my purpose in life. … And the only thing I kept thinking of was “marrow,” like bone marrow. The core of who you are. And [the name] kind of just stuck.

[To finance the project] I did online crowdfunding. And I actually did the crowdfunding in a different way; I wanted it to be more communal, because I feel like music is very communal. And it takes the community support of artists, and the artists giving to the community, for art to survive. So, I didn’t want it to be like a Kickstarter — not that anything is wrong with Kickstarter — but I didn’t want it to be like: “Here, I’m doing this album. Fund me.” I wanted to be like: “Here, I’m doing this project that’s going to employ this many other artists and be able to pay this many artists and represent Atlanta in this way … and in return, you guys support us and it’s tax deductible for you.” So I found myself fiscally sponsored … that way I could accept tax deductible donations, and I ended up raising close to $15,000. That was with the help of a lot of people in the city. It actually ended up costing more to [make the album] than that. But I’m glad the movie came in, because then I was able to fill in the gaps.

Sonically, what were you going for with “Marrow”?
It’s acoustic-based. There are some songs that have like synths on them, like synthy strings, but for the most part we used all acoustic instruments. There is live cello, there is live violin, live violas, grand piano, acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, sometimes electric guitar and drums. That makes up the core of the music. So the way we’re describing it is that it’s grounded in acoustic sound, which is what most jazz is, but then it’s not straight-ahead jazz because it’s got these influences of folky guitar, maybe some electronica music here and there. … So, I’m fully aware that I am not creating R&B, pop, for-commercial-radio music. I wasn’t really concerned with that portion. I wanted it to be honest, and I wanted it to be what we actually felt good about. My No. 1 concern musically was what the outcome would be, that everyone involved loved it. That we’re proud of it … and we are.

Who did you work with to bring this album to life?
It’s produced by Troy Miller. He and I connected at the perfect time, because I don’t know if he would have taken me on if I tried to connect with him now. He just put out Gregory Porter’s album. He’s literally all over the world, doing amazing things. Just schedule-wise, he’s pretty insanely busy. … I was fine with that because I knew that I wanted him to be part of it, and I knew that he was a person that needed to do it. Everyone else that’s working on it are all from Atlanta — musicians that I’ve worked with over the years. I think in total, I have to go back and look at the list, but it’s at least 25 different people involved in the project in some kind of way. Which is what I set out to do. I wanted to bring together all of these people to make something that was collectively ours; even though it’s my name on the record, I can’t do these things by myself. And so I wanted the record to bring recognition, not just to myself, but to the musicians involved, to Atlanta. I feel like Atlanta is not necessarily seen as a destination for high-caliber arts all the time, but we have that here. I don’t see why we can’t be on the level of what a New York is, or L.A. or Chicago, because we have the people here to make it happen. We just don’t get the recognition for it. And not to say that my one project is going to turn all that around, but I think it’ll help shine a little bit of light on what we have here. … And I just hope that, more and more, we get the recognition Atlanta deserves for cultivating artists.

For more info on Brenda Nicole Moorer, visit: www.brendanicolemoorer.com. And to read this story in print, purchase the latest edition of Slo*Mo magazine when it goes on sale late July 2020.

— Story by Carlton Hargro. Edits by Chante LaGon.

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