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?
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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! "
What's the best thing about being a soulful singer in 2013?
The realness, generally. When I think of soulful singing, I think of honesty, just authenticity, and for me, that's what's great about it, because you get to just tell it, just feel it. I honestly don't really know how to do anything else. Could I do it? Yeah. But it just wouldn't feel right to do stuff that just sounds good for the moment. Even if I have not had the experience of what is being said in the song, I can pull from somewhere and connect, and I think that's awesome.
A couple of years ago, there was an article in the Huffington Post where the author went off on people who sing "runs." He posited that modern-day singers only intend to show off their virtuosity when they sing with elaborate melisma. When you open your mouth to sing, what do you intend to accomplish?
What music is lacking today is, unfortunately, the ability to change perspective and the way people feel about themselves and the way people feel about music. My intention is to give people something. If you come to my show, I want you to leave with something that you didn't have before you got there. I want to invoke change -- not necessarily your spiritual beliefs, but you ought to feel good. You ought to feel so good.
This might sound weird, but I believe that music is matter: You can feel it. Even if you're deaf, by the time I'm done, you should feel so good. That's my intention all the time, whether I'm in the studio, sitting across from you singing you happy birthday ... you ought to feel something inside that is so...real. You shouldn't just be entertained. I want you to be entertained, but not only that.
Are you a big fan of televised singing competitions?
I'd like to be. Let me elaborate, because I have auditioned for some, and I have watched some. I am confused a lot of the time with the caliber of talent against friends of mine who I know want it and can do it. So the respect I have for televised singing competitions is not where it should be.
Do you think that the need to create entertaining television gets in the way of having the best singers in a competition?
Yes, a lot. Even though there are definitely talented people on there, but, yes, I do.
Do you think people know enough about the way these shows work now after so many years that they are able to game the system?
Yes, I actually auditioned for something recently, and I was told no. Now, I'm very critical of myself, and so if I didn't do great or my best, then I'm fully on board with a no decision. But I did great with the last one, the last two, and for the first time, I was thinking, "Should I have not given my all?"
The people who were moved on to the next round...nice people, but -- I really don't want to sound like a conceited person, but they were moved on even if they cracked or were off key. So maybe [producers] are looking for people they can groom over time, or they can see growth as the show progresses. So for the first time in my life I thought, "Maybe I need to scale it back and not put my best foot forward in order for them to see that I can be groomed."
Are you still in love with music?
Oh yeah, definitely, yeah.
What's the worst job you have ever had?
You know what's crazy? I've only really ever had one job, and I'm still working it. Other than music, of course, and that's my second passion. But I worked at Taco Bell one month. One. Month.
Pre- or post-chalupa?
Way pre-chalupa. I was too young to work there, though, and I got caught. I didn't realize I was too young to work there, and I told some girls how old I was, and they ratted me out. I was called into the manger's office the next day, and I was fired. Looking back, he probably wouldn't have fired me if I was working there and the job I was doing was fantastic. But I was not fantastic at all.
Looking at singers who have had long careers, their voices change over time. Are you thinking about the way your voice is changing over time?
I'm not. I never feel like my voice is changing, even though it is. I look back, and I think, "Obviously, I don't sound the same." I feel like my voice is deeper, and it's matured, but I have good range. I hit notes with little to no effort better than I could back when I was trying to figure out how to do my voice.
I look at sound and the engineering of one's voice differently than just singing. I don't believe in straining. I don't believe in pushing. It should not be painful. I believe your whole body contributes to the sound that comes out. I look at it that way. I know that something is right by how it feels, not how it sounds. Hence my point earlier about deaf people being able to feel the music.
So I don't think about that. I do know it's important to stay hydrated and drink a lot of water. I don't not drink or smoke because I sing. I just happen to not drink or smoke, but I'm glad I don't because it does affect your voice. The older you get, yes, your voice does gradually change, but you should not help it to change.
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