MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now I would like to tell you about a special performer, someone many people have called one of a kind. She is a native Washingtonian. She fuses pop, R&B and hip-hop and she does all that while accompanying herself on an instrument you don't see very often in contemporary music - her harp.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S NO ONE ELSE LIKE YOU")
MARTIN: That is Rashida Jolley and that's her single, "There's No One Else Like You." She captured the nation's attention after competing on the hit show "America's Got Talent." That was in 2009. She earned standing ovations throughout the competition, then went on to collaborate with some top names in the music industry. She did a world tour with Lady Gaga, opened for John Legend, and performed at the Ludacris Foundation's Tribute to Quincy Jones.
Now Rashida Jolley is working on her solo career. Her debut album is called "Tales of My Heart." Early in 2012, Rashida Jolley joined us for a special performance and conversation in our studios in Washington, D.C. And I began by asking how she got the bug for performing.
RASHIDA JOLLEY: You know what? I can't take any credit for it. My father was a professional jazz guitarist, Howard University's first person to receive a degree in jazz studies. And he just reared all of his children in music. So I started at a very young age. I started singing in choir and I started studying harp. And the harp came from my mother, the idea.
MARTIN: I was going to ask about, why the harp?
JOLLEY: Yeah, totally my mother's idea. She just said to me one day, you're going to play the harp. I had studied different instruments - violin, piano, flute. And one day she just said, harp is the one.
MARTIN: Were you so little that it didn't occur to you to object?
JOLLEY: No. I did object. I'm like, a what? A harp? But, you know, I've learned how to listen to my mother, you know, or major consequences. So I'm glad I listened to her.
MARTIN: But why didn't you want - 'cause it wasn't cool? You thought nobody plays the harp.
JOLLEY: Well, yeah, 'cause it wasn't cool. It wasn't like piano or drums or guitar. It wasn't a cool instrument. But it was also my mother who came with the idea of me taking the harp and doing pop and R&B music with it. So my mom is full of good ideas. I tend to try to follow her.
MARTIN: Good idea.
MARTIN: She has a track record. I do want to just talk a little bit more about your dad before we talk about you and your career, because you actually talk very movingly about the influence that he has had on your career. He's no longer with us and I'm so sorry for that.
JOLLEY: Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: Would you just talk a little bit more about that?
JOLLEY: Yeah, my father was my greatest inspiration. And my father was - he was offered a record deal, the opportunity to go on a worldwide tour. But he turned it down because he didn't want to be away from his kids. There are seven of us altogether. And so he sacrificed his career. And his dream was to go back into music after he raised all of his kids. Unfortunately he passed away unexpectedly before we all became adults. So every day that I get up I remember that. My goal is to leave this Earth feeling as if I honored him.
MARTIN: I appreciate that but I was going to ask you, do you feel that's a little bit of a heavy burden to put on yourself?
JOLLEY: You know what? I probably see it as the opposite of a burden. My father inspired me with his sacrifice and he inspired me with what he taught me about music. And I was already doing music before my father passed away, so it was - it was just like - to me it's like breathing. It's a natural process of life. So it's not a burden as much as it is an inspiration.
MARTIN: Well, let's hear some music. I think you're going to play "Play My Heart" from your new CD.
JOLLEY: It's actually on - yes, it's on YouTube, the video is, and the song is on iTunes right now. It's called "Play My Heart."
MARTIN: All right. Well, let's hear it.
JOLLEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY MY HEART")
JOLLEY: (Unintelligible) something about you caught my eye, so crazy I got lost in a trance, from the moment you that you reach for my hand, I had to face the truth (unintelligible) close to you, you make me (unintelligible) I'm going to play my heart till we dance away on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going to play my heart till we dance away on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going to play my heart till we dance away on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going to give my heart, on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going to play my heart, I'm going to give my heart, I'm going to play my heart, I'm going to give my heart, I'm going to play my heart, while we dance away, on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going give my heart, while we dance away, on the dance floor, on the dance floor, I'm going to play my heart, I'm going to play my heart...
MARTIN: "Play My Heart," that is from Rashida Jolley's new CD, her debut album. It's called "Tales of My Heart." She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And she's a singer, as of course you heard, and also a harpist. This thing is huge.
MARTIN: You can't really do a lot of dancing around with that thing, so you know, but maybe you have a smaller one that you perform (unintelligible) actually.
JOLLEY: Yeah, I do. I have two. I have a small one that weighs seven pounds. I can strap it onto me like a guitar.
MARTIN: Is that what you - we mentioned that you had been on tour with Lady Gaga. Did you...
MARTIN: ...did you use the little one or the big one?
JOLLEY: For the slower songs I did on tour I used the big harp. For the up-tempo pop songs we used the little one.
MARTIN: The little baby harp. Do they have names?
JOLLEY: You know what? I call this Big Mama and I call the little harp Little Mama.
MARTIN: I could see that. And as we mentioned, you also opened for John Legend. What have those experiences been like?
JOLLEY: Absolutely incredible. And what's amazing is really the opportunity to share the music that comes from my heart. And that's what the album is about, "The Tales of My Heart." And in those opportunities, like opening up for John Legend and the event that I got to do with - the tribute to Quincy Jones, being able to just do, you know, the music that comes from inside of me that was inspired by my father and everything that I went through, from the beautiful relationship I saw between my parents to even the lows of some of my personal experiences that I've had in love, just to be able to express that through my CD and to be able to perform it is wonderful.
MARTIN: Would you talk a little bit about the "America's Got Talent" experience though, because, you know, it seems as though we kind of have a love it or hate it relationship with these reality shows now. You know, on the one hand people love these things. They're wildly popular. On the other hand, some people think that these shows are really - they just kind of give people license to be mean. So what's your experience with it?
MARTIN: What was it like for you?
JOLLEY: What was it like?
JOLLEY: There are the positives and the negatives, the pros and the cons of being on a TV talent show like that. But, you know, it was great because it's what you do with it. I think that's what counts. And not too long after I did "America's God Talent" I went on a worldwide tour with Lady Gaga. After going on a worldwide tour with Lady Gaga, I'm putting out my own project. So it's always what you turn it into. You know, there are challenges in everything, challenges in the industry.
MARTIN: But what's the biggest - is it the time management piece? Is it trying to fit into a certain image of women performers? Or what's the hard part about it?
JOLLEY: You know, one of the challenges is that when you're doing those shows, you don't really get the opportunity to be able to do your original music. That's really your sound and your style. But it gives you the opportunity to be able to get the exposure so that you can put out your music and you can put out your style and your sound. So I say that negative turn into a positive picture and stuff.
MARTIN: That makes sense to me. No, I understand. That makes sense to me. That makes sense to me. We won't talk about, like, the crazy makeup and all that.
MARTIN: We'll just move right- they didn't make you do a spray-on tan, did they?
JOLLEY: No, no, nuh-uh. There was nothing crazy.
MARTIN: I heard that there's a spray-on tan involved with "Dancing With the Stars." I've heard that from two people.
JOLLEY: Really. I didn't know about this.
MARTIN: That's what - I've heard it from two people so it must be - two sources, must be true.
MARTIN: So speak - so let's hear some more of your music. I understand that you want to play "There's No One Else Like You," I think you...
JOLLEY: Yes. Yes, that's right. It's a song that I wrote about my parents. They had a beautiful love story. And my father, who was also a songwriter, I feel that - because I wrote this song after my father passed away - I feel that the words came from him. And I was a messenger to give that to my mother. And the name of the song is called "There's No One Else Like You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S NO ONE ELSE LIKE YOU")
JOLLEY: There's no one else like you, who cares for me like you do, I give my all to you, and never let you down, there's no one else like you, who cares for me like you do, I'll give my all to you, now, ooohhh, I've been knowing you for a long time, you've been good to me, no, I can't lie, I never met no one touched my life (unintelligible) feels like it's just begun (unintelligible) there's no one else like you, that loves the way you do, I give my all to you, and never let me down, there's no one else like that, that cares for me like you, I give my heart to you now. Didn't know if we be more than friends, said I'd wait and see, but no promising (unintelligible) time for me to see, you were the one for me, you're my everything, there's no one else like you, that loves the way you do, I give my all to you, and never let you down, there's no one else like you, that cares for me like you, I give my heart to you now. There's no one else like you that loves the way you do. I give my all to you. And never let you down. There's no one else like you, that cares for me like you. I give my heart to you now. And there were never be (unintelligible) you'll never hear me say that I want to walk away. Through the ups and through the down, I promise I will be around. I found true love, true love (unintelligible) there's no one else like you, who cares for me like you do, I give my all to you, now...
MARTIN: That's Rashida Jolley. She's singing "There's No One Else Like You." It's from her debut album, "Tales of My Heart." I'm holding my breath here. It's like - oh, wow. Well, you've also, at a very early age, gotten involved in things like encouraging, you know, healthy living, healthy lifestyles. You've been involved with the American Heart Association, so kind of unusual for somebody your age to do.
And also getting involved with military families. I understand that you wrote a song called "So Far Away" that's dedicated to the military families in this country. What gave you the idea?
JOLLEY: You know what? For both things I was inspired by my father. My father died unexpectedly from a heart defect. And it really inspired me to want to do something, not just through music but also through giving back, to be able to honor my father's legacy. And to be able to prevent someone else from going through what I went through, a child losing a parent or a parent losing a child.
And so when my father passed away from his heart defect, it inspired me to start changing my lifestyle and inspired my family. I said, you know what? I need to use my music as a vehicle to be able to inspire other people as well so that we can all extend our lives. And then this song came to me. It was the idea of my brother and he said let's write a song about the families of those who are in the military because it's hard on them when they have a relative go away, you know.
And recently I got an email from my God-brother, who is away now. And he has kids and he has a wife. And it's hard for him, it's hard for the family. So just as a dedication to them, to let them know you're not forgotten. And I'm just a big believer in love. The love that people have for this country to make that sacrifice is priceless.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for coming by.
JOLLEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And, you know, I hope you'll keep us posted on all of your adventures.
JOLLEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, hopefully you'll, you know, check in from time to time and wave at us.
MARTIN: I understand - did you feel like playing "So Far Away" for us before we let you go?
JOLLEY: Yeah, sure. This is called "So Far Away."
MARTIN: Okay. Rashida Jolley is a harpist, singer and songwriter. Her debut album is called "Tales of My Heart" and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. performance studio, 4A, to share some stories with us and some tales from her heart. And Rashida, thank you so much for joining us.
JOLLEY: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, she's going to sing "So Far Away."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO FAR AWAY")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michele Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy New Year and let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.