Annika Chambers’ star is on the rise these days. After serving over seven years in the military, she left to pursue her dream as a performing artist. Coming up as a youngster in Houston, she sang in her church choir, and she continued to perform during her military service.
While performing at a show in Kosovo, a guitarist turned her onto the blues. For Chambers it was like finding a home. She loves the work of those who came before her such as Etta James, Wynona Carr, and Big Maybelle, as well as the work of her contemporaries, Ruthie Foster and Shemekia Copeland, who have guided and encouraged her.
Chambers’ debut album, Making My Mark, has been well received by fans and critics alike. The album was recorded with The Houston All Stars, a band that includes several former members of Taj Mahal’s band, as well as other Grammy winners and nominees.
She is currently touring, and beginning work on a new album. American Blues Scene recently had an opportunity to talk with Chambers about her career, and her love of the blues.
Barry Kerzner for American Blues Scene: You were in the military. What did you do, and why did you leave?
It was time to leave it all behind and start something new. The first deployment I worked in… we ran a Post Office. I pretty much worked in HR, everything. Finance, personnel, everything. My second tour, in Iraq, I actually ran a Post Office on my own.
You started out singing in church when you were younger?
I grew up singing in the choir, and we also had a drill team. We did like what I guess you could call dance movements; it was like a dance drill team. I learned my first song when I think I was 15. My voice was very premature, you know, novice. After that I really got into singing more, and singing more gospel music.
You grew up in Houston?
I grew up on the North side of Houston. I went to Eisenhower High School. I went to private school growing up, so I got a little bit of both, private and public school, which was pretty interesting.
You still live in Houston? Why not Memphis, Chicago, or LA?
You know, the crazy part is that I LOVE living in Houston. The last year or so, people are always asking me why haven’t I moved to, more specifically, Memphis or LA. Memphis is like my second home. So any time I get to go there, I do, which this year I’ve been four times. This last trip I was thinking maybe I should move here, but, my family is here, and I love being close to my family when I’m home. So, they’re cool with me traveling and all that. Me and my mom and my grandmother are really close, and my sister. They just said it would be easier for me to live here and they could take care of my house when I’m away, you know, take care of things when I’m on the road.
I love Memphis, so if I had to pick out of the places you named, it would be Memphis.
I love a place that has a good music scene. I tell people a lot about us in Texas and what we do. We travel a lot, and we’re trying to keep Houston and Texas in general, on the map as far as the blues. You know, the Lightning Hopkins, Clive Copeland; just trying to keep that sound alive, but also we add a little Stevie Ray type stuff here and there. That guitar sound. It’s good to go to places and they actually like what we do.
I think that that’s what has helped my voice. I’ve got to travel a lot, and you can’t really say that I’m gospel or blues. You can hear those influences and stuff, but, I can pull off some rock too. Some Zydeco. You know, whatever it is that I learned along the way, I wrap it up into my music.
While doing a show in Kosovo, a guitar player turned you on to some blues?
Yeah. He turned me on to some Bonnie Raitt. I was in a gospel choir and we were in a competition. He came up to me and told me ‘I want to introduce you to the blues.’ Ever since, I’ve just been in love with learning. I’ve always been in love with Etta James and stuff, but really to go deeper than Etta, like Wynona Carr, Big Maybelle, and all those people that have come before me. Sister Rosetta Tharpe; just really embracing all that and really understanding that this is where I’m supposed to be. I feel like sometimes, we just need confirmations in our lives, and I got that confirmation through listening to some of the older women in the blues, and feeling like I fit in with them.
People don’t know, but I wanted to be a country singer at one point in my life. I went from gospel to rock, and I thought, well maybe I’ll do country. Then I got to the blues, and I started doing blues gigs, and I said ‘This is home for me.’ So I fell in love with the blues later in life. I am madly in love with singing the blues.
You won the 2013 Houston Press Best Female Vocalist. How did that feel?
Yeah. I won vocalist of the year here in Houston last year, and this year I’m nominated Best of Houston for Best Blues In Houston. I have a lot of great colleagues here in Houston, so it’s a great honor. It’s really cool to be nominated by the city, and they actually nominated me.
You are currently touring with a killer band. Tell us a little about them.
I’m touring with the Paul Ramirez Band. They are based here in Houston. We’ve been playing a lot. We’ve been playing full time for the last six months. They’re really great guys. They play around Houston doing their own thing, but they also play with me, pretty much full time now. I try to keep them busy. It’s going really well.
Let’s talk a bit about your album, Making My Mark. How did that come about?
I was in the International Blues Challenge regional here in Houston and Larry Fulcher and Richard Cagle, my producers, saw me perform. After the competition Larry said ‘Hey, young lady, we want to do a demo on you. We think you have what it takes to do this.’
When we got in the studio, we were only supposed to be doing four songs. After we did the four songs, everyone was like ‘Hey, you know, why don’t we just make a record? We all want to play more music.’ So that’s how my record came about. I called it Making My Mark just because I had so many people believe in me, and I felt that this was that time, to make my mark.
The Houston All Stars are the band on the album, correct?
The Houston All Stars – I counted the other day, and it’s 19 people on the record. They really believed in me. We had no budget, no nothing. They just said ‘We want to do this for her because we believe in her.’ So, I got this great record out of it. I love it. I think that it’s a great representation of the band, the Houston All Stars, and what we in Houston do. It’s also a great representation of my voice.
I recorded a lot and it’s the first time that I actually felt good about a recording. Not even good. I felt like, ‘This is it! This is where I’m supposed to be.’ This is home. This is it.
You recently completed your degree in Corporate Communications at University of Houston. That should serve you well as you travel on your journey as a musical performing artist, no?
You know, just being a degreed singer, I know is not a big deal to most people, but I put in a lot of work to finish my degree. I actually have two degrees: I have my Associate, and then a year later got my Bachelor’s. I’m pretty proud of that. I’m kind of a nerdy singer I guess.
The thing is that I learned so much about communication through the education. It’s been beneficial. My small group communications class; THAT class changed my life because it actually taught me how to interact better in a group. Also, if I have to lead that group, there’s tactics I need to use to make sure everything is effective. So that helps when I have a 19 piece band, or a five piece band.
Can you tell us a little about the upcoming album you are working on now? Are you leaning in any particular direction?
We are in pre-production, planning for the next record. Some things that I wanted to do; just goals that have come up. I’ll probably write more. I’m a great writer, so I want to write music and tell my story. I feel that this is my moment to really tell my story. I want to get more intimate with my fans and my audience.
I think I’m gonna take it back to my roots; take it back to the church, and do a little what I call Revival music. You know, that ‘feel good’ music. I want to sing a cappella on a song. Ruthie Foster is a big influence. Her and Shemekia (Copeland). They’ve actually taken me under their wing and they are really pushing me to keep going, showing me that it’s all gonna work out. Someone said ‘We’re gonna contain you for a little bit,’ meaning just let me sing. Maybe take a little bit of the instrumentation away, where we are gonna have that revival sound. Organ, the drums, maybe a little picking on the guitar, but something where everybody can just feel it.
Anything you want to get out there to your fans?
We need to come to your city. If you like what you see on YouTube and our Website, and you like what we are doing, get in touch with us and get us to your city. Get us to your festival. I guarantee every show. You’re gonna have a good time. Thank you for supporting me, and come on out and shake it for me!