“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
Singer, songwriter and music producer Zeek Burse has been on a musical sojourn for the past three years in Philly. When a chance meeting with one of Philly’s greatest R&B vocalists got Burse involved with The Boom Room Studio’s “Music Church,” Burse had an opportunity with drummer and producer Gary Dann’s music collective Worldtown Soundsystem to show off the talent that he’d developed from a young age almost exclusively under the influence of American Deep South gospel — most recently resulting in WorldTown’s electric debut single “Testify,” featuring Burse on lead vocals.
Since then, however, and along with songwriting companion Paralee Knight, Burse’s influences have diversified and evolved. At the top of 2016, expect to find the charismatic soul singer playing dates around Philly with Worldtown, at his new music residency at Relish, and dropping a new EP on February 22nd. The recording project — titled 22 — seeks to focus on and specifically feature the various musical styles that Burse has developed, the eclectic influences with which some time spent evolving as a Philadelphia artist have informed his style.
While Burse has honed his vocal stylings, Knight found her passion to be “behind the pen.” Having filled a couple volumes with of her poetry, Knight discovered that, rather than try to sing, she wanted to try, as she put it, to tell her story through other people’s voices.
The Key: Are you a Philly natives?
Zeek Burse: I moved here from Arkansas, about three or four years ago now, and I moved from Illinois to Arkansas so, somewhat of a — I don’t wanna say nomad — but music has taken me quite a few places.
Paralee Knight: I’m a South Jersey girl, I was born in Burlington, New Jersey, and grew up in Tabernacle, very close to Philadelphia. Eagles fan and all that other stuff because we were right across the bridge.
TK: Zeek, Jaguar Wright was responsible for connecting you with Gary and The Boom Room — did she bring you up to Philly, or what brought you to Philly originally?
ZB: No, actually, long story short, it kind of happened through social networking, when Twitter was fairly new and not as cluttered.
TK: And then you met Jaguar here, and she got you involved with Gary..
ZB: Right, yeah I was walking down the street with someone I used to work with and they pointed her out to me and said “that’s Jaguar Wright, you should sing for her.” It was right in Northern Liberties, right in front of Darling’s Diner, which, sadly, is closed.
TK: Just randomly met her on the street?
ZB: Literally. Yeah, random. And I sung for her and she said I had a beautiful voice. And at the time, growing up, we weren’t really privy to anything outside of gospel music. So I’d heard of her name, but I didn’t really know her. I could very well have said the same thing about a lot of artists at the time, because, again — I don’t like to use the term ‘sheltered,’ because it seems as if it was a negative thing — but we weren’t allowed to listen to anything outside of gospel music. So after I sung for her, I said well okay well, can you sing for me? And she said, “um, no, but I’m on the internet..” It was so funny, we all kinda laughed at it.
But then she invited me to the Boom Room, I think it was the next week, and we came, and it was awesome, it was really cool. It was Music Church that time, and it was cool because it was the first time I actually had been in a room with so many musicians that were so diverse. And it was something fairly new to me. I had been to sheds, as they call them — pretty much just when a bunch of musicians just get together — which is similar to what it is but to me Music Church was quite different in that you had to be somewhat Quickdraw McGraw.
There was nothing really that was already formulated or created, it would be a different musician on the drums, different musician on the guitar, a vocalist — maybe three or four vocalists at a time — and you are coming up with organically new stuff on the spot, and I loved that because it taught you to be creative in your melodies and your lyrics. So yeah long story short, to answer your question [laughs], yes, I did meet Gary Dann through Jaguar which happened in passing.
TK: Feels like the kind of thing that can happen in Philly.
ZB: Yeah man, and that’s the exciting part to me. I love that about life, though.
TK: Paralee, what brought you to Philly?
PK: I work in Philly, I’m in Philly all the time, because the artist that I work with is in Philly. I still live in South Jersey. What brought me to the Philly music scene, I was working with a producer in South Philly by the name of Elijah, and he actually told me about Zeek at the time. I was working with a lot of up-and-coming [artists] over on that side of the bridge, and he was like, you gotta see this kid, he’s phenomenal, like he’ll blow your socks off, his singing. And I went over and I met him and from the first day we met, two hours later we had a song.
TK: It’s just that easy, huh?
PK: [laughs] When you have good chemistry! We had great writing chemistry from the beginning, it was really pretty awesome.
TK: Zeek, who’s your favorite Philadelphia artist, or which Philly artist influenced you most?
ZB: It’s so funny man, every time I tell someone I’m currently living in Philly they’ll name anyone from Pink to Patti LaBelle, you know what I mean, it’s like a very wide spectrum of artists of different genres. I can’t really say that I have one favorite. Bilal is really awesome, I had the privilege of opening for him at the Blockley when it was still open — I hate saying that [it’s gone]! — but yeah. Patti LaBelle, I love her, of course, simply because I think she’s, like, amazing onstage, and her vocal ability has seems to have not changed one ounce, and has been strong, and consistent. Of course Jill Scott. There’s Jazmine Sullivan, who’s amazing. And again that’s just to name a few. You have Pink, you have other classic rock stars, R&B stars that have come from the area too. Legends.
PK: Wow, there are so many. Of course Miss Patti, just because I grew up listening to Patti LaBalle, her voice is just amazing. I would say more modern day, Jazmine Sullivan, I think that Jazmine is an artist on the scene who gets her just due here in Philly, but I think overall she’s just so underrated to me, she’s just phenomenal, she’s like one of the great voices of our time. I would have to say that she’s my favorite.
TK: Zeek, tell me about your first Philly show, where you played, what you remember it feeling like to be onstage that night.
ZB: The very first show I think I had here in Philadelphia, it actually was when I wasn’t living here at the time, I actually came and visited for maybe like a weekend or something, and flew back out to Arkansas. I forgot the name of it, but it was a smaller venue, and I don’t even know where it was at. The place wasn’t visually the best. It was a very humbling experience. But it was cool, the vibe was cool, I think that was the first time I had ever really seen the reaction to my voice or singing. Often times growing up I kinda started paying the background or writing, because I felt like my voice was too old or too mature for my age. But the experience was really cool, the response from the people was awesome, so that, to me, I was like, well I could probably do something with this, I don’t necessarily have to play the background, which I’m not opposed to doing, but, yeah, it was really cool. Really cool.
TK: Which Philly venue is your favorite to play at, and why?
ZB: I’m gonna say Union Transfer, and I’m gonna say that simply because I have not played at Wells Fargo [laughs].
TK: So you anticipate playing at arenas?
ZB: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, I am anticipating, aspiring and daily working to accomplish that feat numerous times! But yeah, if I had to name one to date, I would say Union Transfer. I was blessed and able to play and open for Ryan Leslie there, the sound on the stage to me was everything.
TK: What do you love most about the arts scene in Philly?
PK: I think because it’s so diverse. Philly is a town where the audience is so real, and if they don’t like you, they’re gonna let you know. I think that the arts scene is diverse because of the fact that, you have your hip hop scene and you have your urban scene, but then there’s also another huge rock scene, and then there’s the arts — which is what I kind of work with at my job, I do philanthropic services, so we give a lot to people that are coming up in the arts — so there’s just so much stuff going on! It’s saturated with so many programs, from people who just want to enjoy the opera, to things for children who are coming from schools that don’t have arts programs, so that’s what drew me to it.
ZB: One thing that I learned — in a good way, and I’ve seen it learned by others in a not-so-good way — is that Philly is real. They’ll give it to you straight. If they like you, they’ll clap. I’ve been to shows where — thankfully I was not a recipient of it — there was no applause, there was nothing, it was like no one ever performed. And then I’ve been on stages and been in rooms where they went crazy. I think Philly is very genuine at times. They’ll let you know if they like you or if they don’t. And sometimes it may be a little cliquish too, so they may be a little standoffish, but you’ll find out whether or not they like you. And I think that’s the thing that’s true about Philly. There’s not really a gray scale, it’s black or white.
TK: What do you find most frustrating, or what hurdles do you encounter as an artist in trying to create, perform or grow in Philadelphia?
ZB: I think one thing that was there that isn’t there as much, is many solid and consistent open-mic venues. I think it was really good to start out there — and I say start out respectfully because I don’t think that I’m beyond open mics at all, and I very well would go to one that was really good. I think one thing that can be somewhat of a hurdle to artists that are up and coming is just trying to actually get a solid team or avoiding cliques [laughs]. I don’t really know how else to say that. It’s just like any other place though so I can’t really say just Philly. But I think it’s like, if you aren’t something that they know, they may not even take the time to get to know you. And you could very well be an equally awesome artist but they really don’t care, you know what I mean? But again, that’s not a knock, because I think to me it’s always been a challenge — okay, work hard, make them recognize who you are, you know what I mean, work really hard, get creative, you can be undeniable. So to me it hasn’t really been a “hurdle,” but an accepted challenge that has done pretty well for me, thankfully.
PK: I would have to say, because I work mostly as a writer working with an artist, we’re kind of funneling our way through it, trying to break own some of those barriers, but I kind of feel like — and maybe this is just the industry as a whole, it’s just kind of like everything’s always about who you know, which is cool if you can navigate those waters, but i think in the beginning it can be really hard, because everybody’s not so open to somebody who’s new. But I think at the same time it just causes you to work harder. You just have to find a way, you can’t pout and complain about it, you’re not gonna get anywhere that way.
TK: Do you find networking to be easier now that you’re kind of more established?
PK: Yes. Absolutely. I feel like it being a little difficult actually caused me to grow up — I guess the same thing for Zeek [to realize] they’re not gonna just welcome you with open arms, you really have to get out there. So yeah, now, we’re goin in and we’re like “Hi, I’m Paralee, and you are..? And you do..? And you work with..?”
TK: So you learned a little bit of sales skills, is what you’re saying..
PK: [laughs] exactly! You have to, you have to.
TK: Which Philly neighborhoods have you lived in? Which made you want to stick around or made you want to leave?
ZB: I’ve only lived in one. I guess it’s borderline North Philly, some people would say yeah it’s definitely North Philly. Broad and Girard. And to me, I don’t really hang out, outside, so I kinda know what’s going on in my area but not too much. When I’m there I’m inside and when I’m not I’m not in the area so, I don’t know. I definitely would like to live in a better area, but again that’s not a knock to where I am. It’s a beautiful, humble beginning. It’s a perfect incubator for me, it’s taught me to be grateful for where I am, appreciate where I am and what i’m doing, and to actually focus on that and not be so distracted by maybe the glitz and glamour of Rittenhouse Square, you know what I mean? So I appreciate it. But where I would like to be able to afford to live? Maybe Rittenhouse, some of the other nicer places, absolutely.
TK: What’s your preferred means for getting around town — biking, walking, SEPTA, driving?
PK: Probably a cab. If not the cab, train.
TK: Cab over Uber?
PK: OK, when I say cab, I mean cab-slash-uber.. [laughs]
ZB: Driving if I’m in a rush, walking if I’m not. SEPTA — I’ve written a lot of songs from hearing very loud conversations on SEPTA, so SEPTA has been really cool. So it depends on where I’m going, typically if I’m trying to get there, definitely a car.
TK: So you’ll hear a conversation on SEPTA and it’ll inspire songwriting?
ZB: Yes! And I’ve done it at Rittenhouse Square as well — I don’t know what the other person at the other end [of the phone call] is saying. I enjoy listening or maybe hearing the oddest parts of conversations, you create some crazy leftfield concept for a song, or just kind of manipulate the thought, just to capture that glimpse.
TK: You’ve been here for three years — how have you seen the city evolve?
PK: I think that there’s a lot more camaraderie now then probably when I first came. I would say within the last five years, I know specifically within the recording academy — because we’re part of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Recording Academy — they’re doing a lot more now to try to make sure that they reach out to artists, not just in Philly but also in the South Jersey area, just to bring more people in, because there’s a lot of people that are just left out, because they just don’t have the resources to do some of the things that they want to do professionally with their music, to be in touch with the chapter or how they can be a part of the Grammy voting process. And so I would just say that there’s been a lot done within our academy but also within the arts scene, with trying to give music programming to children who don’t have that access. I’m on the board of an organization called Live Connections which provides music programming to children who don’t have music in their school, and we work with world renowned artists from all over that just come in and sit with these kids. So there’s just a lot of camaraderie now I think in the field that wasn’t there before.
ZB: Philly is always building, which is a really good sign I think. Architecture’s really big here, i’ve noticed that. One thing I did not like was what they took out of the schools which is like all of the music, which crushed me, and I realized that also did that back home in Chicago too. So that to me was a negative change.
TK: Paralee — Cunningham or McNabb?
PK: [laughs] Wow, I grew up on Randall! But by the time I actually understood the game more it was McNabb. So I’m torn! I would say Cunningham though, ‘cause that’s what made me an Eagles fan, when I was little.
TK: PBC or Yards?
ZB: PBC — is that Blue Ribbon?
TK: No that’s PBR.
ZB: I’ll say Yards. I don’t think I had PBC. Is that like the ultimate debate?
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