Denver-based singer Such never considered a career as a musician.
“My dad is a pastor, so I grew up singing in church,” she explains. “And I always loved it. I just didn’t know anybody who was an entertainer or was an artist, and so I just never thought that could actually be a possibility, you know? What you see is what you think you can be.”
Growing up on Long Island and in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Such mostly listened to gospel music with her family, but after one of her older sisters persuaded their parents to buy a boombox, her secular music education began. She fell under the spell of ’90s-era R&B, which continues to influence her music today. She counts soul singers such as Jill Scott, Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker among her “musical mamas.”
At age fifteen, Such auditioned for the Grammy High School Jazz Ensemble and made the cut two years in a row. As part of the group, she went on an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles, where she performed at jazz clubs, recorded an album, played at a Grammy nominee party, and attended a Grammy Awards ceremony. From then on, she was hooked: “It was sort of like a slice of a musician’s life, so when I came back, I was like, ‘I want to be a musician. This is amazing.'”
At the time, her parents weren’t sold on her musical aspirations. While Such continued to sing in church, she followed her parents’ advice and pursued a “Plan A,” relegating music to a hobby as she obtained a degree in exercise science, moved to Denver and became a nurse. But after a trip to Haiti, she decided to focus again on becoming a professional singer.
“My parents immigrated here from Haiti, and I would say the catalyst for me to decide, ‘Oh, maybe this is what I should actually do’ was when the earthquake in Haiti hit in 2010,” she explains. “I went down there as a nurse, and I feel like when tragedy strikes, things that were important aren’t important. Things that you stuck in the recesses of your mind suddenly become very important, and things that were gray become very clear. And I had clarity in that moment.”
When she returned from volunteering in Haiti, Such began to phase out nursing and integrate more singing into her life. She auditioned for season eleven of American Idol and made it to Hollywood week, and despite being eliminated from the competition, she decided afterward that she was going to completely dedicate herself to music. Upon returning from the competition, she recorded an album, titled Stretch Marks, in her basement and booked her first tour.
“I think about my previous self, and I’m just really thankful for her, because she was really brave,” says Such. “It’s hard to step out on something when you don’t know how it’s going to work out, you have no experience in it, and you’re just doing it. I’m so proud of that first album, because there were lots of things that were very janky about it, but I couldn’t improve on the jankiness if there wasn’t a product to begin with. A lot of times we get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect the first time, without going through the process of what it means to get it to that final product.”
Such considers herself “Boston born, New York raised, California educated and Chicago groomed.”
After releasing Stretch Marks in 2012, she dropped her first studio album, Trial and Error, in 2014. With those two projects under her belt, opportunities started to present themselves to Such.
During the American Idol audition process, she had befriended fellow musician Mathenee Treco, who encouraged her to try musical theater after watching her perform a cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” She laughed the suggestion off until it was echoed by the director of a local production of The Color Purple.
With no previous acting experience, Such landed the role of Celie in the play. Through that, she found an agent who helped her book commercials, TV spots, national anthem performances, European tours, and spots on other musical artists’ albums.
But singing was still Such’s first love.
“The type of music I’m attracted to makes me feel all the feels,” she says. “Music can be perfect, but it may not touch me. And what touches me isn’t always ‘Oh, she hit that high note and held it for five minutes.’ It may be the quirkiness; it may be that you crack at a note. There’s an authenticity that exists within it that’s very touching.”
Such’s newest album, Wide Nose Full Lips, is brimming with authentic emotion. She began writing the album’s songs in the summer of 2016, when incidents of police brutality against people of color were in the headlines.
“It’s a very divisive political time, where there are certain things that I think have been awful, but out of the awfulness there was birthed a renaissance of people being really proud of where they’re from, their heritage and being comfortable in their skin, and that’s what this album is about for me,” she says.
The album’s title, Wide Nose Full Lips, came from a police description of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man killed by an officer in Minnesota in July 2016, as well as criticisms from some of Such’s own family members, who used to tell her that her nose was too wide.
“Hopefully it encourages other people to just be really empowered in their skin, in their bodies, and to take their experiences and do something positive with them,” she says of the album.
A still from the “Before Dark” music video.
Wide Nose Full Lips, which came out August 16, celebrates blackness, womanhood, and the joy of radical self-love. “It’s soulful, it’s lush and warm, sort of like a hug,” Such says.
The album’s tracks — recorded in her basement studio — bear traces of the soul, funk, R&B and jazz that shaped her as an artist, but the standout track “Melanin,” a collaboration with spoken-word artist Kerrie Joy, was inspired by a melody Such heard in a dream. Dreams are a consistent source of inspiration for her, along with walks through Denver’s different neighborhoods and experimenting with her band.
The album cover for “Before Dark,” the first single released off of Wide Nose Full Lips.
At heart, Such is a live performer. “I have always enjoyed performing live, probably from my church background of singing in choir and leading praise teams, but recording is a whole different art,” she says. “Because how do you pull in that energy? The coolest thing about performing live is that you’re kind of co-creating with your bandmembers and your singers and the audience. It’s a new magical thing every single time. It can get a little stale in the recording studio.” But Such has found a unique way of combating the studio blues. When making Wide Nose Full Lips, she would often perform a song live before recording it, to see what the crowd’s energy was like, and then channel that energy when she went back to the studio.
As a seasoned performer, it’s only right that Such is celebrating the release of Wide Nose Full Lips with a live performance, at the Soiled Dove on August 24. That show sold out so quickly that the venue added a second one, on August 25. At each, Such will perform five or six songs from Wide Nose Full Lips, along with some of her older tunes. Jazz musician Tony Exum Jr. will open the August 24 show, and violinist Monique Brooks Roberts — who arranged the strings on the Wide Nose track “Ordinary People” — will open the second show. Kerrie Joy will be at both shows, too, so expect the stunning “Melanin” to be part of the set list.
“I feel like it’s my birthday party,” Such says of the concerts. “I’m thrilled, and the Soiled Dove is an awesome venue. It’s intimate but still grand. I think it’s the perfect place for Wide Nose Full Lips to be birthed.”
The album release parties take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 24 (sold out), and Sunday, August 25, at the Soiled Dove, 7401 East First Avenue. Tickets are $25 to $30, and minors under 21 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Cleo Mirza recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and anthropology. She enjoys good food, cheap wine and the company of her dog, Rudy.