THE FIRST TIME I heard her sing was at the Green Dolphin with Mr. A.L.I. Her command of the stage and sweet lullaby of a voice grabbed me right away, and I was instantly a Carla Prather fan.
Carla is best known as the lead singer of Mr. A.L.I. as well as one of the singers of the veteran Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering. She has recorded with the likes of Maurice Joshua, Byron Stingily, and performed with acts as varied in range from Hootie and the Blowfish, Blue Man Group, Cheap Trick, Common, Martha Wash, Loletta Holloway and Chico Debarge.
A woman of many talents, she not only sings and writes her own music, but is also proficient at the piano, drums and clarinet. Early on in her career in 1996, Carla penned several tunes under the production and guidance of club legend Maurice Joshua. In 1998 she started her own publishing company (CarlaPratherMusic Publishing c/o ASCAP), and began writing songs for not only herself but other artists such as Latin recording artist Zanya and dance diva Dajae.
It wasn’t long before she was invited by Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering to become a full time member of the band. She began touring with them across the country to sold-out venues. Shortly after that Carla joined neo-soul band Mr. A.L.I., and she and Dajae sang to a huge following, first at Green Dolphin and later at The District.
To date, she has released several singles backed by powerhouse producers such as “Rainy Day” (Jere McAllister of Mr. A.L.I.), “One Day” (Byron Stingily), “The First Time” (Kenny Carvajal), “Somebody” (Nick Santillan), “Come Into My Life” (Anthony Nicholson) and “No More Love” (Quentin Harris).
One day at Claremont Elementary School where she is currently teaching, Carla Prather sat down with us and told us a little about herself.
Tell us about your background.
I feel like I’ve been singing forever. Most of my background began here in the city of Chicago as a singer and songwriter… just working with local singers and producers.
Were you trained as a singer?
Not really. I had a few formal lessons with Lena Mclean, who is R. Kelly’s godmother. As a kid I went to Mayfair Academy which is a music school on the southside of Chicago. That’s where all of my formal piano training came from.
As far as my vocals are concerned, I was in choir as a kid, and I went to Alabama State (I was a music major there). I only stayed there one year and I returned to Chicago. I finished my degree in National Louis University. During that time I was doing a lot of shows locally. Initially I started out doing a lot of talent competitions around town which led me to doing shows with local bands, just as a person sitting in. Eventually I signed on with Poi Dog Pondering. I’ve been in the band for about seven years, since 1999. That meeting led me to a lot of opportunities.
After being in Poi for about four years I started working with Mr. A.L.I. I came in with Dajae as one of the lead singers and it just catapulted from there. We did shows at the Green Dolphin and then at The District. We started to record and a couple of songs got picked up. Eventually Mr. A.L.I. became more of a recording band, as opposed to us doing live shows which are not always as economical.
What kind of music did you listen to? Did you always want to sing House?
I did listen to House growing up, but it wasn’t on purpose – my neighbors used to have the craziest parties next door! It was always a style of music I wanted to try out but I had never really had an opportunity. So that was pretty much my influence.
I’ve always loved every style of music. I don’t really have a particular preference because I do gospel, dance, hip-hop, R&B, folk, jazz… I just really feel that music and singing are therapeutic and so I really don’t have any preference.
Did you go to House parties back in the day?
The only House parties that I used to go to were at Mendel High School. That was my very first experience with House music outside of the next door parties. It was the greatest experience. Just this free flowing atmosphere, everybody was on their own just dancing. There were even some people crying, they were so in love with the music.
That’s what I love about the House music scene… I think that it’s a place where you can express yourself and not feel guilty about anything that you do.
Do you write some of the songs for Mr. A.L.I.?
I write all of the songs that I’ve sung from lyrics to the vocal arrangements.
How did you like working with Dajae?
I loved it. I actually learned a lot from working with her. She’s had a lot more experience in the dance industry than I have and I felt like she was the greatest mentor to work with, as far as explaining the business and helping me to understand what the fan base was like. [laughs] People from all walks of life were coming to our shows! But it was good to see people who were there for the music.
I really learned that about the dance community: it’s all about the music. It’s not about the party, it’s about the music. And that’s one of the things she helped me to be in tune with. “Just get up there and do what you gotta do. They’re gonna love you, girl!” I love that about Dajae. She’s one of the most genuine artists in the business.
Have you always been writing music?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. My older sister and I would write almost like nursery rhymes at home. And as I got older, I started writing poetry and I realized you could add music to it. And that’s pretty much where my foundation of writing music came from. The more experience that I have, the better I’ve gotten.
Most of the time the music comes to me first. If I hear a particular song and it inspires me, then it’s easier for me to write to it. And that’s pretty much how all these songs came about, especially “Rainy Day.” I have about six songs on Poi’s record In Seed Comes Fruit as well.
What would be your ideal career?
I would love to be a solo artist backed by a band. I love the live element. I think that it gives you an opportunity to improvise – you can go wherever you want to go with the music as opposed to doing tracks and being stuck in that particular frame of mind for that particular song.
That’s the thing about dance music too – the crowds just react in such a warm manner. I love that! And it makes you feel appreciated.
I’m working on my own solo record right now. And more than likely I’ll be using Mr. A.L.I. as my band. The record will be coming out sometime in spring.
Describe your creative process for us.
Mostly a lot of me-time. Most of my inspirations come really late at night when everyone else is sleeping. I’m a total night owl when it comes to writing. I think that most of my influences as far as writing are my life story. And to me that’s what songwriting is all about – it should be your life experience.
2005 was a really rough year for me in terms of songwriting. My younger sister was killed in a car accident in March. So we started a foundation for her (The Nelly Prather Foundation, for young unwed mothers). During that time I wasn’t able to write. But I’m coming back around now. I really didn’t want to write because I knew all of my material would be about sadness.
You’re a music teacher now. Is that what you wanted to do?
My degree is actually in applied behavioral science. I really wanted to get into social work… helping families in need of some direction at the time. I got this job teaching music, and I also lead the choir and created the drumline.
How do you think vocalists can start getting their shine more the way producers do?
The first thing I would say is to know the business. Also to write your own music. My advice to vocalists is to stay consistent and persistent. It’s easy to give up and just party. Prayer has also been an important part of my life. I have a strong faith in God.