Soulful siren Theresa Payne finds her voice

Theresa Payne is finding success outside the gospel scene in which she started.
Theresa Payne is finding success outside the gospel scene in which she started. Jorhan Images

Soulful siren Theresa Payne finds her voice

Theresa Payne EP Release Show
7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 23.
Lola, 500 North 14th Street.
$5. 314-621-7277.

Unlike many aspiring artists, Theresa Payne has not always dreamed of being in the limelight. In fact, given a choice, the north county resident would happily choose a songwriting career over the life of a performer. This may come as a surprise to anyone who's seen her make herself so at home in front of a live audience.

Often backed by a live band, she creates a casual, yet classy atmosphere; decidedly on the neo-soul side of the R&B spectrum. The occasional guest verse from a carefully-chosen emcee serves to enhance the feel of the show without detracting from its 'grown-folk' vibe. Her voice has a way of playfully bounding between gentle enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and powerful enough to make you grip your glass — pretty impressive for a songwriter. And although singing had been more of a hobby for Ms. Payne until recently, she's always known that music was her calling.

"I always felt it was my passion. I just didn't know where to pull from, because nobody else in my family is musical. I didn't have anybody to watch or to learn from, so I had to just experience everything on my own," she explains. Payne took a more serious approach to singing in 2008, when she and her former producer, Wildmann, began working on her debut album, Go Fight Win.

"At the time when I was working on my first project — which was like an 'inspirational gospel' type of thing I was going through something very personal in my life that was really the driving force for my music," Payne says. "I started focusing on what I would tell myself, had I been on the outside looking in, to get me through that situation. It started with me encouraging and motivating myself and getting out all the pain and hurt that I'd been through, knowing that there's a lot of people out here that have been through the same things. So, why not encourage them using my own pain through music? By helping others, I was really helping myself in the process."

One particularly tragic event that Payne draws inspiration from is the death of her brother. On Christmas Eve of 2009, her family was notified that her brother, MacArthur, a truck driver, had died in a crash on his way back to St. Louis. Payne recalls, "He always used to ask me this question: 'What are you gonna do about it?' Like, you can complain, you can talk, but what are your actions going to be? A lot of my inspiration comes from the motivation he gave and him pushing me to be my best."

Difficulties from her childhood, such as lack of confidence, also contribute to Payne's songwriting. "People try to downplay depression and low self-esteem, but it's really tough, especially when you've been dealing with it from an early age. I'd fought with it right up until around the time I had my daughter. To this day, I still struggle with it. Being able to push through all that makes me who I am."

Gospel music has had a prominent influence on Payne's work. "I came up in the church. I always sang in the choir, and right now I'm a youth Praise Team leader at my church," she says. Payne had hoped that GFW would earn the church's approval, but ultimately it didn't. "Some people shied away because of who I was working with, or for whatever reason. I reached the epiphany that if this is what I want to do with my music, then all of that doesn't matter. Regardless of whether or not people accept it, somebody's going to love what I do, and they're going to need me to be as real as I can be."

In the three years since her debut, Payne has been fully embraced by St. Louis' vibrant hip-hop scene, frequently working with local artists including members of the Force. "It was miraculous that almost immediately after my brother passed...I met Tech Supreme and Rocky [Rockwell Knuckles] and all those guys. They came into my life at that specific time, and we drew a closeness. They motivated me and helped me, so I considered them first when I started thinking about who I wanted to work with. I love my Force family!"

She's no longer concerned with anyone's approval, and Payne doesn't feel that her choice of collaborators is in any way a conflict with her religious background. "I'm completely comfortable in my relationship with God. The guys know me and respect me enough to where they would never approach me to be on something that, morally, I didn't agree with," she says. "If you notice, [Rockwell Knuckles] never curses when he's on a song with me. With Tef [Poe], it's all about subject matter.

"I've had one or two songs where afterwards, I'm like, 'What was I thinking?' But that's life — In order to learn that that's not what I wanted to do, I had to experience it."

Last August, Payne won the opening spot for Jill Scott's Summer Block Party concert. "Performing in front of a crowd that size was an amazing experience. I actually got to meet Jill and Anthony Hamilton backstage. It was just incredible," says Payne. "Between that, and winning the RFT award, that's when I feel like everything really started for me." Payne is looking forward to her first out-of-town gig this spring, when she makes her way to South by Southwest.

On her newest release, The Moment EP, a more confident, more mature Theresa Payne offers an honest look at who she is musically. She notes that this time around her message is more accessible and not just tailored to the Christian audience. "I want to reach everybody because we all need the same things," she explains. "I feel like there's no growth in preaching to the choir. To the people that are already [in church], I'm just entertainment. I want my music to continue to reach people, and give hope to some that don't have it that's what I'm here for."

Production for the EP was handled by Black Spade, Trifekta and Adult Fur. The record features five feel-good songs with plenty of warm synths and reverb-soaked drum patterns, along with two live performances as bonus tracks. "There's nothing like live music," Payne says. "At some point in the future maybe for my next project I'd love to record an album with live instrumentation."

Payne continues to expand her musical palette and strengthen her ties to the local scene. She wrote the songs on The Moment herself, and, in addition to the work she's done with local emcees, she's written for gospel artist Kenny DeShields, and she's even started to dabble in production.

"Music has a connection to our souls. When I listen to music, I want to hear a story. I want to know that the artist is pulling from passion, whether it be from love or whatever else. That passion is what draws me to songwriting. When I started, it was a means to motivate myself. When I would share my music, people would tell me they found it uplifting or inspirational. That gave me more confidence and solidified what I was feeling all along: that this is what I was meant to do."

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