There’s a phrase we’ve often heard when speaking about jazz artists: “You’ve got to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”
With that in mind, two of Canada’s finest performers are taking the stage at Koerner Hall this Saturday to pay tribute to artists who have come before them. Jackie Richardson will perform the music of Abbey Lincoln, Dianne Brooks and Salome Bey, and Kellylee Evans will share the music of Nina Simone, the artist who inspired her Juno-winning recording Nina. Evans is one of the most outstanding performers out there — if you’ve ever seen her live, you know what I’m talking about.
Evans joined us to talk about how Nina Simone has inspired her throughout her own struggles in her life.
What does the music of Nina Simone do for you? Firstly, as an artist, but secondly, as a person?
There’s such a freedom about who she was. Now I know, as an adult, and after the documentary, that she was suffering from mental illness. That’s not something that I knew when I was recording the album, and it’s not something that I knew when I was listening to her growing up. But she always represented this freedom of spirit and strength that I didn’t really feel I had — that forthrightness, and the ability to say what you feel and to speak up. That’s something I’m learning every day. That’s something that nobody can say she didn’t do, and we are reaping the benefits of her bravery.
You’ve been very honest and forthright about your own challenges with your health and wellbeing. What has that done for you?
I think trying to be more honest and open and to speak up on a daily basis is kind of like jumping out of a plane every day. I imagine for people who do it every day, it gets easier. But at 48, I still feel like I’m in the first part of learning to do that. It’s scary. It’s scary to admit your vulnerabilities and weaknesses to people. This business that we’re in is the business of creating a shiny, glossy image for people to be attracted to. It’s really a humbling way to live, especially when the strength of your difficulties surpasses the image — when you’re not able to hold on to that image anymore. For me, that’s always been a health thing. I’m getting to the point where I can’t fake not having energy anymore. Around this time last year, I was in France and I was a mess. I remember coming off stage — it was one of my last shows — and I’m lying on the floor backstage. I’ve given as much energy as I can possibly give, and I’m lying on the ground, in my dress, on my back, looking up. That’s just how exhausted I was. It’s funny because even then, I still went on to Germany and did another show. I have to come back from it. Every day, I’m trying to wake up and try my best to be brave enough to take care of myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.