Meet Cicely O'Kain, burgeoning R&B sensation
Cicely O'Kain is a magnetic singer with incredible vocal chops. Her first album, Ms. Understood, which came out last October, is filled with feelings of infatuation, joy, pleasure and pain. Every note O'Kain sings is delivered with such conviction that she turns what would normally be a standard R&B jam into a remarkable gem. It's no wonder she has been tapped to open up for Johnny Gill this weekend at the Crowne Plaza. When it comes to representing R&B in the Mile High City, it really doesn't get much better than O'Kain. Continue on to get to know this rising talent.
Westword: It seems like there was at least a two-year journey from you saying, "I'm going to make a record" to the release of your first album last October. What's the response been like for you personally and publicly?
Cicely O'Kain: I felt really good about it. Really, I've been supported through the whole thing, with people calling me, or on Facebook, or running into people I don't know. That is constantly happening. People are saying to me, "I believe in you" or "I'm proud of you." I've definitely gotten that the whole way through. I definitely suffered some major trauma, some bad experiences in the last year, and the energy from people urging me just to keep doing it was very helpful. I couldn't believe I finished it, but once I did, it felt to me that it was long awaited not just by me, but to other people. It's weird for me, but I get that a lot.
To me, even though you play often at venues like Jazz@Jack's, you're still one of Colorado's best kept secrets. Sometimes even a venue like Jazz@Jack's, right in downtown Denver, feels like hiding in plain sight because you have a huge platform, but their audience is so specific. Do you find that to be the case?
I do, but I also feel like you never know who's coming in the audience. I did a show there once, and I swear there was a good ten people there. I'm nearing the end of the show, it's going on midnight, I'm getting ready to wrap it up, and I've enjoyed myself. Then someone whispers in my ear, "Do 'Speechless' again." I said, "Again?" -- because I never repeat songs in a set like that -- and they said, "Well, D.L. Hughley is in the audience." And I said, "Is he?" -- because I hadn't noticed him, and there were only, like, ten people there.
From there, he gave us tickets to come see him perform, and he took us backstage after, and he just imparted wisdom into my life. And it just changed things for me, and my perspective grew, and I just got on the ball after having such a long conversation with him. So I live thinking every stage is a stage for opportunity. So I hear what you're saying, but I don't really think like that. Everybody is important, and every opportunity is an opportunity, and if I treat it like that, then you never know."
Do you think there's a reason that you're one of Colordao's best-kept secrets?
I don't know why. I honestly feel like I'm so ready, and I feel like the world is ready to see me. I don't like feeling like a secret. So I don't know what it is. But I feel like I'm so known here but still so unknown, and I don't like it because I work really hard.
You must be encouraged by all the success stories out of Colorado -- OneRepublic, the Lumineers, the Fray. Is the road to success different for an R&B artist like you?
I don't necessarily feel it's different. I feel, unfortunately, that there's an epidemic called complacency among our people here, specifically in Colorado. I feel like people like music, maybe even love music, but I think you have to really hit the pavement, because this is not the place a lot of times, especially in the black genre of music, where people come to search out talent. It's not a usual thing. I feel like every place, every person, has its time, its season, and I feel like our time is coming, and I'm happy to be a native and see that happen and be a part of that.
I think sometimes we do it to ourselves here, just from what I've seen, from the work ethic I've seen among people who don't live here and then a lot of the people who are trying so hard out here. [R&B artists] gotta work harder out here. People aren't eyeballing us for stuff; they go to these other places. So we've got to make a louder noise. I'm seeing it build now. Slowly but surely, people are finally getting it. I think that's really what it is. I don't sense that it's different just 'cause we do black music. I guess I'm thinking about being in the right place at the right time.
What's the worst thing about being a soul singer in 2013?
A lot of the mainstream stuff that's popping, it lacks substance, and I feel that people's ears are hungry for that sometimes. So when you're talking about something in your music, I don't think people know anymore how to respond to that. I think some of the crowds I sing in front of have forgotten that there's so much life going on around us, and that's what us soulful singers are trying to convey.
Most mainstream music today is so technically on point in its arrangement and construction, even if the songs are vapid, they are targeted perfectly to appeal to "the ladies," "the club" or "strippers." Do you feel pressure to follow the established successful template when you create music?
I've been challenged within myself because I've thought, "Should I think like that more often?" I'm not against it, but I just feel like something's the matter when people are afraid to be themselves and tell their truth for the sake of making some money. So it's a battle. For me, with this album, I have stuff that's fun. Like I have the "stalker song" where I'm saying, "I'm stalking you" because it's fun for me, but I never thought, "Oh! People who are stalkers are gonna love this one! "