By Shaun Brady | Photo by Evan Doheny
For Laurin Talese and Philly, it was love at first sight.
The singer’s first encounter with her adopted city was via a VHS tape rolled into her classroom at the Cleveland School of the Arts. “It showed the Avenue of the Arts, the Academy of Music and the Merriam, the museums,” she recalls. “It was just bursting with color, and that’s something I didn’t grow up with. Downtown Cleveland in the 90s was strictly for business; art wasn’t celebrated in the city like that. I knew I had to go to Philadelphia. And the rest is history.”
That history is still very much in the process of being written. Since the release of her 2016 debut album, Gorgeous Chaos, Talese has seen her profile rising well beyond Philadelphia. In 2018 she took top honors in the seventh annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, which was particularly meaningful given her love for the iconic singer. In the fall of 2019, she embarked on a State Department-sponsored tour of Montenegro, Ukraine, and Poland, where she performed and led educational workshops.
Talese grew up in Cleveland with a family that was musical, albeit in a non-professional fashion. Her father and uncles would gather regularly to harmonize in the family’s dining room, singing songs from the doo-wop era through the classic soul of Marvin Gaye to 90s hits by the likes of After 7. Young Laurin would try to insinuate herself into this “grown man stuff,” one day finally catching her approving father’s ear. Soon after she found herself part of a children’s singing troupe, performing Christmas songs and archaic ditties at nursing homes and hospitals. In middle school she joined a community choir, providing the opportunity to hear voices influenced by R&B and gospel, though she still hadn’t discovered her own path.
She was helped along on her journey toward jazz by Dr. William Woods, her high school jazz professor, who introduced her to classic jazz singers like Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker. “This was in the middle of the New Jack Swing era,” she laughs. “I loved Mariah Carey, I loved Toni Braxton, I loved the pop divas of the 90s, but I didn’t see myself singing that music. When I heard jazz, I said ‘these are my people.’”
“There’s a glamour and grit to Philadelphia. There’s certainly a hardness to it—walking down the street you’ll get that classic Philly stare—but at the same time there’s an elegance, something inherent that only Philly possesses, and that makes it one of my favorite cities in the world.”
Talese’s love of classic jazz, combined with the contemporary R&B and soul she was surrounded by, honed her distinctive sound. Her arrival in Philadelphia in 2000, to study at the University of the Arts, brought her to the city at the height of the neo-soul movement. Her first day at school she met classmate Adam Blackstone, who went on to serve as musical director for a who’s-who of modern pop stars: Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Janet Jackson, and countless others. With his encouragement Talese began touring as a background vocalist for singers Bilal, Vivian Green, and Jaguar Wright, teaching her the realities of show business. “It was a blessing to be in their shadows,” she says.
Wherever she goes, however, Talese brings a bit of Philadelphia with her. That initial infatuation with the city hasn’t faded, and she credits its unique character for helping her to find her own voice in the music. “Everybody embraces their own individuality here, she says. “People make you notice them because of the way that they express themselves. I was really taken by that and influenced by that. There’s a glamour and grit to Philadelphia. There’s certainly a hardness to it—walking down the street you’ll get that classic Philly stare—but at the same time there’s an elegance, something inherent that only Philly possesses, and that makes it one of my favorite cities in the world.”