Dana Masters: We have to believe that Change is Gonna Come
The grand-daughter of a civil rights leader from South Carolina, acclaimed jazz and blues singer Dana Masters might have been something of a novelty when she moved to Lisburn but she has always felt at home in Northern Ireland, she tells Gail Bell
THE velvet vocals of Alisha Keys pulse through the room as Dana Masters opens the door of her Lisburn home and apologises for the "mess" – and for stuffing her face with pizza when it's barely 10 o'clock in the morning.
She had just returned from Liverpool after singing with Van Morrison and her daughter Noor had had her fifth birthday the day before. It was time to play catch-up in the kitchen.
The busy jazz and soul singer, known as much for "creating an experience with the audience" as much as for her deep and mellow voice, is away from home more than she would like these days.
But, being a "working musician" and juggling the demands of three young children – she also has three year-old twin boys, Moses and August – while playing a supporting role to husband Andrew, church leader at Lagan Valley Vineyard Church, means time is always at a premium.
"It's exhausting, but you sort of get used to it," says the acclaimed 33-year-old singer of soul, jazz, gospel, funk and R&B in an accent still steeped in the rich resonance of her native South Carolina – with just a hint of Northern Ireland surfacing at unexpected moments.
"I leave for Scotland with Van on Sunday again and then we are back touring the States in January, but I still find time to work on my own music. With all that is happening in the world at the minute, particularly with Brexit and the American presidential election, I think musicians have an increasingly important role to play by reflecting what people are saying musically – and then playing it back to them.
"My husband challenged me about this recently, to really say something in my music in 2017, to get a message across, rather than just sing for the entertainment value alone.
"I have been listening to Elisha Keys and another US singer, Solange Knowles's new album, A Seat at the Table, for inspiration. The civil rights movement is the best example of this, when Marvin Gaye penned What's Going On and classics from Stevie Wonder captured the mood and the moment of the time."
The African-American civil rights movement holds particular poignancy for the singer who is showcasing some of her new work in the upcoming Open House mini-festival tour which kicks off in Feburary. Her grandmother, a social worker with strong social conscience, was one of the main civil rights leaders in South Carolina and frequently ended up in jail alongside other protestors.
As a tribute, Masters always dedicates the Sam Cooke anthem Change is Gonna Come to her, in solo performances which began in the basement of McHugh's bar in Belfast in 2012, before progressing to work with BBC Radio 4, a prime spot at Proms in the Park and sold-out concerts at The MAC. She has also produced two EPs, the latest of which, Crossing Lines, showcased her own soulful songwriting skills when launched earlier this year.
Although she studied Vocal Performance at North Central University in Minneapolis, Masters held back on singing as career until moving to Northern Ireland in 2008 with Andrew – originally from Dromore, Co Down.
The two met at one of the "mega churches" in Los Angeles where Dana had been working as an administrative assistant when Andrew was studying for a master's degree.
Faith is still a mainstay of her life and although conservative Christians in the north might not have encountered many pastor's wives who sashay up to the microphone in shimmering outfits for their day job, Masters sees no contradiction in her dual role.
"I think we have this great creative God who was probably was listening to Leonard Cohen – an amazing writer and great loss – when I was singing gospel music back home," she muses.
"In America, faith and creativity have always been more closely linked than here, I think, so I don't think it an odd thing at all to combine both."
Her rising star on the Northern Ireland stage began through a chance encounter with trumpeter Linley Hamilton in 2012 and they were soon joined by some of the best jazz musicians in Ireland for a weekly residency in the basement of McHugh’s – an inspiration for the first EP.
At the launch of her second at a full house at The Mac in April this year, the singer was backed by the best in the business, including the aforementioned Hamilton on trumpet; David Howell on saxophone; Johnny Taylor on piano; Gareth Hughes on bass; James Nash on guitar and Paul Hamilton on drums.
Apart from the travelling and missing her mother – the two make a point of chatting on the phone each day – she loves life here and has never been made to feel like an outsider.
"I didn't have a hard transition," she recalls. "The culture is pretty similar to small towns in the southern States and when I first came here, no-one made assumptions. If people stared at me, it was was because I was a novelty, but, for me, living in Northern Ireland has been like a breath of fresh air.
"It wasn't until I started breathing that air that I realised just how restrained my breathing had been at home where we lived under this muted racial tension. It was like at some subconscious level we just accepted it and it became 'normalised' in a way.
"I never got chance to hop on the feminist band-wagon, for instance, because, as black women, we were all too busy just trying to stay safe. In any case, it never felt like something I needed to do because, as matriarchal society with many men absent from the home, black Southern women just got on with it."
She is now wary of what a Trump presidency might mean for blacks and minorities in the country she loves, but has chosen to take a philosophical stance.
"As my mom said the other day, we have survived slavery and civil rights, so we will survive this too. It might seem devastating, but we will get back to work and just keep going."
And keeping going is is in the genes – along with a little help from some "rhythms of rest" which she has devised to keep her sane in the busiest times.
Masters may not so much live and breathe music as virtually inhale it, but even the most dedicated performers need a silent escape.
"My rhythms of rest consist of daily Sabbaths really – times of rest – when we shut down all electronic screens at 9pm each evening" she says. "I will have a bath, light some candles and then read a book in total silence.
"It is the daily ritual of switching off and it refuels me, ready for the next day. I have 'Here, Now' written as my motto on the blackboard to remind me to live in the moment – and that Change is Gonna Come."
: Open House takes to the road on Feburary 2 next year with Dana Masters, calling at Belfast, Bangor, Newcastle and Portrush. More details at www.openhousefestival.com