None of what you see was here a week ago,” says an exhausted but smiling Robert Johnson. He’s taking a break from hammering together a wooden stage at the Cameo Theater, where, for the next few weeks, he’ll endure lighting headaches, construction migraines and funding ulcers in the hopes it all comes together as a weekend-long celebration. Later in the day, a mother stops by with her two sons. She wants to show her children what passion looks like.
On this visit, it looks like sawdust, but the venue will be transformed into an reception area for the female singer-songwriters who put a voice to Orlando’s growing community of women performers. ELLA (an acronym for Elevate, Listen, Love, Appreciate) was hatched by Johnson last year at the Rogers Building.
“If I’m not doing [ELLA], then I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he says. And without the following women who comprise the festival’s lineup, we’d all be a little lost.
The Actomatics: This cowboy-pop quartet of merry gentlemen is led by a female singer with a throaty delivery that brings to mind Maria McKee.
Alexandrah: As one-fourth of local hip-hop crew Solillaquists of Sound, the velvet-voiced singer has been hard at work on SOS’s upcoming album, No More Heroes, but says she’s in the planning stages of a solo effort. She’ll be performing a “chill acoustic set with musical genius Kevin Stever” on Saturday.
Kaleigh Baker: Still in her (very) early 20s, jazz singer Baker made a huge splash this year with a fiery Social debut, and since then has discovered the key to consistent work: “I took a month or so to sit down and learn around 50 cover tunes,” says Baker. “I’m playing as many shows as I can at this point [and] just love it.” She’s currently tweaking new songs live and hopes to begin recording soon.
Terri Binion: “What Robert Johnson’s trying to do [with ELLA] is something for the future of our city, not just a night out,” says Binion, a veteran of the scene whose evocative imagery and heart-wrenching folk is widely recognized as acoustic Orlando’s standard-bearer. She says she was in the studio recording a new CD several months ago when she realized something wasn’t right. “I instinctively felt there were yet-unwritten songs that needed to surface.” The newly married Binion took some time off from music in the meantime, but says playing ELLA was a priority.
Emma Jean Branch: see our full story here.
Geri X: A former St. Pete music scene staple, Geri recently moved to Wisconsin but decided to fly back to the area for ELLA. Her brutally honest songwriting, bluesy tone (often forced outward from behind clenched teeth) and willowy frame are contradictions that only add flavor to her delightfully tormented style.
Raffa Jo Harris: The singing half of Miami female duo Raffa & Rainer, Harris’ trance-
inducing voice takes Ella Fitzgerald’s coo-with-power and wraps it in a lush, delicate poetry.
Sarah Purser: When Orlando’s Purser sings on “Long Good Night” that she’s “got you right where you belong/Between my lips and the lines of a song,” she pinpoints her own appeal. At once sultry and vulnerable, Purser’s tunes come straight from her soul.
Sunny Raskin: Another vet, Raskin’s chilled-out electronica added an ethereal element to Orlando’s femme scene. She took a big step back from music, however, to teach dance at her parents’ Raskin Dance Studios in Kissimmee. “I just finally accepted my destiny,” says Raskin. “I will admit though, I’ve been yearning to return to making music.” Raskin will soon return to her electronic roots for a collaboration with Orlando’s DJ D-Xtreme.
Holly Riggs: Another long-missed local performer, Riggs has been away from music for good reason: “I changed my whole sound, basically, and I wanted to give myself a rest from the old to make a fresh space for the new,” says Riggs – and what a change it is. Based on a couple of leaked songs, she’s morphed her hip-hop-injected, sung-spoken poetry with doses of electronica and front-porch foot-stomping fun.
Emma Wallace: After years of gracing teahouses and coffee shops, piano-based singer Wallace charmed at her Florida Music Festival showcase and has expanded her venue menu substantially, including gigs at Virgin Megastore and the upcoming Central Florida Veg Fest. Wallace’s delicate way with words belies a mischievous storytelling ability.