From milkshakes to jerk ribs – Electric Picnic-bound Kelis talks music, food and her love of both

Here comes Kelis. After a career of multicoloured musical twists and turns, Kelis is back with a new album “Food” to make her growing interest in all things food. Ahead of her appearance at the Electric Picnic 2014, she chews the fat with Jim Carroll

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 00:00

There are few acts on next weekend’s Electric Picnic bill as suited to the festival’s off-stage attractions as Kelis Rogers. Given the festival’s predilection for fancy grub stalls, Rogers’s growing number of sidelines in the food business means she could as easily have arrived in Stradbally with her food truck as her band.

Rogers parked that particular truck in Austin earlier this year at the SXSW festival where she served up duck and beef sliders and BBQ goat ribs. There’s also her Saucy & Sweet TV show for the Cooking Channel and a line of sauces called Feast. All of this activity comes about on the back of the singer going off to train as a saucier at the Le Cordon Bleu cookery school. Yep, she likes her sauces.

Food was a way of getting her head together after issues with the music business. In 2006, her then label dropped her after the release of Kelis Was Here; back then, it was a case of loving the music but hating the business.

“I didn’t fall out of love with music, I don’t think that I could, but I fell out of love with the business of music,” she says. “I stopped wanting to make music my business.

“But it’s a necessary evil. When you start out, you want to make music and then you discover that you can’t have people hear you or relate to you or share with you if you don’t put yourself out there. As soon as you put yourself out there, all the other stuff happens too and you can’t escape it. You need all the business stuff but you can also live without it and make your own way, as I’ve discovered.”

By then, she had already set herself up as a singer capable of turning pop and R&B on its head. She first emerged in 1999 with the Caught Out There screamer and was one of the first success stories associated with production team The Neptunes before they became all-conquering knob-twiddlers.

In 2003, Milkshake came along and she became the queen of screwy, bassy, off-kilter pop smashes. By the end of that decade, she’d flipped the script again and emerged with Flesh Tone, a dance album aided and abetted by David Guetta and Benny Benassi.

The vintage and the new No surprise then that Rogers’s sixth album is a hop, skip and jump on from all of that. Food contains tracks to make your musical taste buds zing with their rocksteady soundclash of brassy funk, rootsy soul, jazzy blues and Afropop shades. Unashamedly vintage but unmistakably new, Food is full of smart and sassy party jams in thrall to sounds Rogers hadn’t dug out of the BBQ pit before now.

She says herself and producer Dave Sitek were after a certain feeling rather than seeking to emulate any particular sound. “We knew we wanted to do something which felt a certain way. I’m sure there was stuff I heard from being around my parents or my neighbourhood which influenced me, but that was not directly. It was more the essence, the feeling you got when you heard that kind of music, the way it made you feel nostalgic for the good old times. That’s what I wanted.”

She believes she was blessed when it came to having Sitek in her corner. “Dave only works with people he loves, and so he’s comfortable to leave you alone, which is very rare thing for a producer. I think a producer’s natural inclination is to produce and being a good facilitator. I needed a partner as opposed to a leader, and so he was brilliant.”

Various guests came on board for the album – including Brazilian electro-poppers CSS, Sitek’s bandmates from TV On The Radio, singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn, and her then four-year-old son Knight – and Rogers did some cooking to keep everyone happy.

“I didn’t have any picky eaters, thank god, everybody was down for the cause so it went off smoothly, without a hitch. We made so much food. I suppose the jerk ribs went down the best. It was the only dish which made it on to the album as a song title.”

What’s striking about Food is how fresh it sounds. Rogers may no longer be new (her debut album Kaleidoscope is 15 years old this year), but she’s still capable of pulling surprises.

“Something new is always exciting and you hope that something really brilliant comes out of it. More often than not, that’s not the case. There’s always new artists, but there’s never anything really new. But new artists do fuel people like me who’ve been around for a long time. There’s something to be said about coming across artists who are that new, that green, that great. I mean, I haven’t been new for freaking 18 years. I do remember that feeling. I like someone like Josef Salvat at the moment, he’s really exciting to hear.”

Musicals and pop It could, of course, have been so different for Rogers. Back in the day, she harboured ideas of doing musicals, a path she decided to forego in favour of pop. “I have no regrets at all about choosing to do what I do, no qualms about where I ended up. I’m pretty content. I loved musicals, but I don’t think I’d want to do that with my life.”

But if food is the thing that got her out of a muisc-industry slump, Rogers is fully aware of the perils of turning another hobby into a paying gig.

“Whenever you have to take something you love, be it music or food, and make it your business, there is a risk there. It’s a touchy subject for me. Here is something which fuels my passions and inspires when I get up every day, yet I have to make it viable so I can pay my bills from it. It’s a very strange juxtaposition no matter how you slice it.

“But I’m 100 per cent serious about what I do with food. I took the time to go away and study to be a saucier at Le Cordon Bleu. I made the effort and spent the money to do that.”

At the moment, she’s happy to sing for her supper and cook it as well. The Electric Picnic marks the end of a run of summer festivals, while her various food businesses will keep her busy for the rest of the year.

There’s no danger of Rogers taking her eyes off the prize.

“I have a really strong personality,” she says. “It’s who I am. As I grow older, it becomes more pronounced. I’m still opinionated and direct and that’s how I am in my private life as I am in public. You do learn different tactics with age in business and life, but I can’t change who I am.”

And here are five more acts worth checking out at the Picnic

NENEH CHERRY
From the sassy Buffalo Stance and the cool spiritual pop of 7 Seconds to the boisterous and rambunctious Cherry Thing album with Nordic free jazz buccaneers The Thing, and this year’s melancholic, wise and graceful Blank Project, keeping up with Cherry has been a musical adventure.

OUTKAST
They’re back. Fans of super- freaky hip-hop will welcome the return of André 3000 and Big Boi to a big Irish field. Indeed, there’s a direct Kelis connection too in that André appeared on Millionaire on her third album, Tasty, in 2003.

CHIC FT NILE RODGERS
It was their visit to the Electric Picnic in 2009 which kickstarted the Irish love affair with Nile Rodgers and his discotastic band. We’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve been back since but there’s always a packed hall (or tent) to greet them and their white suits.

TUNE-YARDS
Three albums into her career, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Merrill Garbus is someone hearing the most fabulous sounds in her head and doing her damn best to get them to your ears. Check out new album Nicki Nack and form an orderly queue for her appearance under the trees at the Body & Soul stage on Friday night. HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR Andy Butler and friends (left) are the ones to put a shimmy into your sojourn in Stradbally. Their album from a few months back, The Feast of the Broken Heart, featured John Grant joining regular vocalists Rouge Mary, Gustaph and Krystle Warren to add some emotional heft to a heavyweight slew of acid, tech-house and disco grooves.

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