Mike Rimmer recounts his encounters with the Swiss-based purveyor of funky gospel, VLADA
Regular Cross Rhythms radio listeners will know the track "Judge Not" by Vlada. Over a deliciously funky backbeat a languidly soulful voice delivers a powerful tirade against self-righteousness ("Why do I judge you when I don't know?/Why do I talk about you behind your back?"). "Judge Not" was recorded with some of the crème-de-la-crème of American jazz and R&B musicians like Abraham Laboriel, Kirk Whalum, Take 6 and Paul Jackson Jr. But Vlada isn't from the USA but is a Swiss-Serbian singer and songwriter! I vividly remember my first encounter with this most unlikely of blue eyed soul gospel singers.
I was at the GMA Week in Nashville, where the Christian music industry gathered once a year to let their hair down, see artists play, eat and drink together and generally promote themselves. Delegates jokingly nickname it Give Me Attention week and there is good reason for that. The place is full of artists trying to connect with publishers, labels and media. Into that scene walked Vlada. He was well dressed, his hair was perfect and he had some tracks from what would be his debut album. It had been a long road for him to get there.
Months later Vlada was in England and called me to meet up. His debut album 'All About You' was finally completed and was sounding good. When he started recording the album, he was working as a promotions manager for a leading jazz funk promoter called All Blues and he was promoting concerts for some world renowned artists such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and John Legend.
Basically Vlada was minding his own business and not expecting to record an album. He explained, "I was working for a concert promoter when a friend of mine, another concert promoter, said, 'I saw that the Abe Laboriel quartet are going to Rome just for two gigs. Why not ask them to come to Zurich and let's organise a concert with them in Zurich.' He thought we as a company would be interested in a collaboration, then he asked the boss of their promotion company; he thought it was a little too risky and he didn't want to do it. So this promoter friend of mine, we decided to promote the Abe Leborial quartet on our own and they agreed to come to Zurich and do a gig there. So I was basically the promotion manager for that show that took place in 2003. Another company I worked for was a Christian company that produced CDs and had some artists, and they heard about that and they said. 'Once these guys are in Switzerland we should book them, just book them for three days and record something.' Then I said, 'What shall we record,' and the boss of the production company said, 'We can start off with your solo album.' I said, 'What!?' I wasn't thinking about that at all because I had that great job as a promotion guy and I had done a lot of music and we had talked about me doing a solo album for years but it wasn't in my head at the time at all.
"I said, 'I just have these four or five songs,' and he said, 'Doesn't matter, you just record these four or five songs then you have these world class musicians on these songs and you have another project and you can combine the two for that session.' So we asked the musicians and they agreed to do these three days because they knew the producer. But then the other project got cancelled and it was just my songs left. I didn't have enough songs for an album but they had already agreed to come for three days so I knew it was supposed to happen and I knew I had to write songs. So I took every Thursday off and the Lord was faithful and every week I had a new song. Sometimes I couldn't sleep at night, sometimes in the middle of the night 1:30 in the morning the melody, the groove, the bass was there and I had to get up and put down the chords and I had a new song. By the time the musicians came I had 13 songs."
So the musicians arrived for the recordings. What did Vlada remember about the sessions? "I was basically on cloud nine because I worked with some of the best musicians in the world, some phenomenal players, some of the best on the planet and to see their work ethic and attitude in all that and their servanthood and humility was quite amazing. From a musical point first of all we didn't have time to record track by track and we didn't want that so we recorded the basic sessions live and just took two, maximum three, takes. After three takes we had to move on. So, that was the basic session for the songs. That live feel was amazing, playing with the band live. I sang with the band live as well and that was one thing, but people's attitudes, Paul Jackson Jr for example, he made sure that his performance was perfect and that just touched my heart. We would have been happy before that but he just wanted to make sure he gave me his best performance; he didn't have to do that but he did and that touched me the most I think - their hearts."
So did Vlada stand in the studio wondering what all these brilliant guys were doing playing with him? "I was a little bit but their warmth and friendliness made me feel very comfortable. At the same time I was leading them through the songs and I was supposed to tell them what they had to do because they were my songs, I had written them, I had arranged them and I didn't have a producer to oversee the whole thing. I was basically the producer so that was a little bit difficult for me doing all that and not being so experienced, that I had to manage the whole thing. I had great people helping me, excellent engineers there helping me with the equipment but at the end the final decisions were mine and that was quite tough."
The main sessions for the album took place over a three day period in June 2003. But after those sessions Vlada wrote another song. Said the singer, "I knew it should be an acappella song and I'm a huge Take 6 fan. I thought it would be great if Take 6 did it but I thought that's not happening, that's just too big a dream. But sure enough, we organised a gig with Take 6 in Switzerland with my promotion company and I knew they had a day off so I asked them whether they would sing that song. They agreed, which was a miracle really because the people they work with are all acclaimed people and I was not. But they agreed to do it. They came to the same studio in Switzerland and recorded that song."
Vlada continued, "I stayed in touch with Mark Kibble of Take 6 over the years. I said, 'Can we meet up in a hotel and just talk about getting the album finished.' We met up and I just wanted to ask him whether he would give me some contacts and whether he knew some people that would take it to another level. He said, 'If you come to Nashville I will do it, I will finish it for you and with you.' So my superhero was inviting me and suggesting he would do it! I was over the moon, on cloud nine. The following June, in 2006, I flew to Nashville for the first time and then onwards I was going back and forth to record the backing vocals, horns, sax and all that and then the lead vocals. So, Mark Kibble inviting me led to him being the co-producer and my vocal coach which was a huge dream come true because he's my absolute hero. He also made sure Kirk Whalum was on the album as well helping me out there; Kirk was an old friend of his so he agreed to do three songs as well. So many doors opened once I was in Nashville."
The 'All About You' album took five years to make. So what is Vlada trying to achieve? "I just want to try and reach people with that sound which is difficult to categorise. I just want to reach people and get there and hope that their hearts and lives will be touched with it." It is difficult to categorise Vlada's musical style but comparisons with Stevie Wonder have been made. Vlada explained, "I just had a gig yesterday, and people said we cannot categorise this, what is this? It's soul, it's funk, it's pop, it's got Christian lyrics but it doesn't sound like anything out there, it's difficult to describe. I would call it soul/jazz music but it's got other elements in there as well. It's got some pop elements, some European pop elements as well."
And of course, there are elements of gospel lyrically and musically but then Vlada does have strong roots in the European gospel scene. He explained, "I have co-led the gospel choir Awake, which has been a national choir in Switzerland and very well known. I was the music director there for 10 years and black gospel has been a huge influence for sure. So there are certainly elements of black gospel for sure - there are two songs with a gospel choir on 'All About You' but the rest is more soul R&B."
The title cut is a good illustration of how things came together creatively for Vlada. "I got it in the middle of the night," he admitted. "I couldn't get to sleep and I got the bass line and had to get on the piano and write the song. I put it down and it's just like this is what it's all about - I've been striving for fame, striving for recognition but this is not what it's all about, it's about God, following him and doing what he called me to do. I'm still struggling with trying to get approval of man because I'm an artist and I'm on stage and we just seek for approval and recognition and I realised it's about God, it's about Christ and following him and doing his will."
In Birmingham, I took Vlada to a local R&B studio and introduced him to the producers and owners of 5AM Records and shared the album with them. They jumped on the track "Judge Not", offering to remix it for free. Vlada said of the song, "I just love the tune because it's so incredibly funky and it's a mysterious song because I lost it a number of times, literally. The discs got erased and I had to write it again a couple of years later on. But it was still in my head. I like the message there because we judge people so often, I do that so often by appearances, by rumours. So I'm saying to whoever is listening to stop judging people by appearances, by stuff that we've heard by rumours. And I challenge myself and whoever is listening to stop judging people by appearances and to love them and stop talking behind other people's backs."
For a while Vlada moved to Nashville, formed a band and started gigging. He invited me to introduce him at a showcase at Gospel Music Week in the intimate 12th & Porter club venue. The stage was packed with musicians as Vlada and full band went about recreating the sound of the album. The results were stunning with Vlada's songs and vocals powerfully transporting the audience. Meanwhile with the release of the album, Vlada settled in New York City where he formed another band and started playing locally. More recently Vlada has played concerts in other parts of America and in Europe. But what can people expect from the singer when they come and see him in concert? "They can expect a two hour live show with band whenever I'm playing with the band. It's usually a seven to 10-piece band and these are my family really. I have a band in Switzerland and a band in the States and these are people that I've known for a long time. They can expect my own songs, a couple of tribute songs to my heroes and it's usually a very lively, dynamic, funky thing. I'm usually drenched after the concert because I love being on stage, I love performing and serving the people and we try not to play the stuff the same way every night."
With his music not being easily categorised, does Vlada worry that with the gospel elements people will get put off without giving him a full hearing? "I don't worry about that at all because I get a lot of positive response especially because it's different and it's not to be categorised and even though there is a spiritual message there and it's gospel that doesn't put people off I think. At the same time it's high class and all star music and it's phenomenal because of the people who are on the album so just from a musical point of view people should give it a try."
Now that the album has been available for a little while, Vlada is beginning to think about recording a follow up. Here's hoping that the follow up will be a little easier and quicker to get made.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.