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Somewhere in the Tide with Roberta Lea

Roberta Lea sits in a chair in a black-and-white photograph, gazing to the right.
Christal Marshall
Courtesy Roberta Lea

The Norfolk-based independent artist's debut album, Too Much of a Woman, is out now.

Roberta Lea is on the rise. The Norfolk-based independent artist is gearing up to release her debut full length album Too Much of a Woman, a genre-bending mix of rock, pop and country influences. She’s found a creative home with The Black Opry, an artist collective for Black roots musicians, and her music is an empowering force that urges listeners not to be afraid to take up space.

I caught up with her to learn more about the album’s Virginia roots, the influence of artists like Shania Twain and Tracy Chapman, and how her life as an educator informs the stories she tells today.

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: Tell us about your new album, Too Much of A Woman, which is out on Sept. 29.

Roberta Lea: Well, Too Much of A Woman is a project that was birthed from a Kickstarter I was encouraged to do by industry friends of mine who saw the momentum and the energy that was taking place. And they said, “You should do an album, go for it.” Actually, Sept. 29 of last year is when I announced that I was doing the Kickstarter. We garnered support both locally and nationally, and this album is the product.

I put together these group of songs to encourage the listener to take up space in a world that tells them to keep their place, not to settle for less, and to not be afraid of being too much of a woman.

You've described your music as “country neo-pop with a folky flair.” Who are some of your major influences?

I would say that there's a great range that I've given myself, if I could describe my influences. I fall somewhere between Shania Twain and Bill Withers. I have songs that, like Shania Twain, they're just a bop — that country-pop that just hooks the listener in. And then I also have a lot of tracks that are just stories.

You know, I'm very extremely sentimental: like Bill Withers, Tracy Chapman, fitting an entire movie and 3 minutes and 30 seconds. I'm an '80s, baby '90s kid. So the range is from Alanis Morrissette, Sheryl Crow, and Anita Baker. And then you get to the '90s era, where you have SWV and TLC. I feel like I grew up in the best era of music.

What music have you been listening to lately?

I’ve just really been diving into supporting my friends, tuning out what's mainstream and giving more attention to energy to what's underground, because that's the huge conversation right now. The mainstream market is oversaturated — it does feel like they're just mass-producing the same product, the same type of artists over and over again. So I've been tuning into friends and other independent artists, or other artists who are underground like the Shindellas, Infinity Song.

And then of course, I support my friends from the Black Opry. Julie Williams just released her first EP this year, Denitia, a lot of folks who are coming out with new music. Van Plating just came out with an incredible album called Orange Blossom Child. Jason Isbell and Margo Price are some of my favorites — my hero, Alison Russell, Brandy Carlisle, and so many more. Yeah, so I'm just trying to do my part when it comes to supporting one another.

You’re based in Norfolk, and certain aspects of Too Much of a Woman definitely have a Virginia feel to them. Was the album inspired by the area at all?

Absolutely. The very first track on the record is called “Somewhere in the Tide.” And that's just a nod to the phrase “something in the water” that has been used to describe the collective talent and musicianship that's come out of Virginia. Of course, most people know that Pharrell Williams, being from Virginia himself, took that phrase, turned it into this huge festival, and it’s definitely given a surge of energy and excitement among the music community that I'm a part of here. Just seeing that excitement and that burst of energy, it really inspired that first track.

Then there's the range of influence, the range of sound. Too Much of A Woman doesn't really stay in one particular box, but it kind of bounces around everywhere. You have extremely traditional country tracks, and then you have tracks that lean more towards pop, that lean more toward rock, that lean more toward blues. A lot of them take on this life of their own.

Virginia being a space that has such a complicated and profound U.S. history, birthing so many different things, but also being a home of so many traditional things — I feel like that album represents that.

You were a teacher before pivoting to focus on music full-time in 2021. Tell me about making that leap.

I used to teach high school, I taught Spanish in high school. And most of my babies were about ninth grade or 10th grade, so I had a quite the energetic experience when it came to teaching. And my decision to do music full-time came at the pandemic, which was a reckoning for a lot of people. It was one of those alarms and said, “Hey, life is short, so if there's something you want to do, do it.”

My husband and I had talked about me doing music full-time for a number of years prior to that, and just getting our things in order, being ready for me to step away. All the different conversations were happening before COVID. But when COVID hit, it was the movement—it was like, “OK, it's time.”

How would you say your teaching experience shows up in your musical work?

Oh man, that's big. Because my teacher brain has to make sure that everyone understands the message. And so that shows up in my music a lot when it comes to, as I mentioned earlier, the range between a bop that is just fun and catchy versus a movie and 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

It’s kind of the difference between the warmup or a game, right? Something to get the kids excited and involved and hooked into the lesson — and then now it's time for storytime, or now it's time for the lecture.

That presents itself in the album, where you have a few songs in the very beginning that loop you right in. And once you get to the meat, once you get to the middle of the album, you're getting those songs like “Through It All,” “Stronger This Time,” and “Dinner Sunset Nina Simone,” where you are getting this entire lesson unfolded. But it also shows up in my promoting and connecting with my audience.

I realize that humans, we have a very short attention span. So you have to stay focused, and you have to get tell people exactly what it is that you want them to know.

I imagine it also shows up in live performance, the ability to work a crowd and make sure people are focused.

I have gotten that a lot. And it felt very good to know! Folks will come up: I think I had a show in Columbus, and I mentioned to them that I was a teacher, and someone comes up to me. They're like, “You write your set like a lesson plan! You have this whole thing mapped out.”

I’ve said before that the hardest, the most awkward day you will ever experience is the first day of school in front of a bunch of high school kids. If you can stand in front of that audience and you can grab them, you’ll grab anybody.

You mentioned telling a story, and I think that Too Much of a Woman has a story-like structure to it, particularly the “she is” structure of the album. Can you speak to that a little bit?

You know, there's conversations and articles about how this generation is not the one for albums, right — just singles, just drop singles. it kind of goes back to that short attention span. And so the idea of conceptual albums and this entire art piece, you know, it's kind of on the edge right now as to whether or not it's necessary, or if it's the best strategy.

When I did the Kickstarter, one thing that was relieving was like, “OK, I know that once I complete this project, there are 316 people who are ready to hear it. I don't have to fight the noise. I don't have to fight and get all these followers on Tiktok and all this kind of stuff — bottom line, there is a community of over 300 people who are ready to hear this record, and the concept and the art that goes behind it.”

I definitely wanted to add something that set it apart from just a bunch of singles mashed together. I wanted to give something that would string it all together. Like I said, I’m a ‘90s kid influenced by Destiny's Child. I don't know if you remember the record The Writing’s on the Wall, but they had between each and every song, “Thou shalt not.” And it brought the whole album together.

I debated about it a little bit. I had the idea, and I did it, and was like, “Is it corny? I don’t know.” I was going over the masters with my engineer, and one of the pieces came on, and it said, “She didn't need him anyway.” He was like “she sure didn’t!” You know, he just responded. And that response confirmed to me that people are connected to the storyline. So that's when I decided, OK, I'm gonna keep it.

Too Much of a Woman is out Sept. 29. What's next?

We're going on tour. We're going coast to coast, of course, hitting here in Virginia. Got some spots in Harrisonburg, some potential listening parties in Richmond — just hitting the road with the record and letting people know that it's here.

Too Much of a Woman by Roberta Lea is out on Sept. 29. She has an album release party that night Soul Haven Studios in Virginia Beach.

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