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The Interview: Amber Knicole

No one puts Amber Knicole in a box. Knicole isn’t easily defined by any one musical genre. She sings: neo funk, soul, jazz, classical, pop, or musical theater. The daughter of career military parents, Knicole is used to being on the move. Knicole returned to Columbus, where she lived as a child for a few [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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No one puts Amber Knicole in a box.

Knicole isn’t easily defined by any one musical genre. She sings: neo funk, soul, jazz, classical, pop, or musical theater. The daughter of career military parents, Knicole is used to being on the move.

Knicole returned to Columbus, where she lived as a child for a few years, as an undergraduate at Capital University on a full-tuition scholarship and stayed to become the lead vocalist of MojoFlo, now one of Columbus’ top original bands. But even after a decade of well-deserved success and an anticipated full-length album release in 2018, she isn’t staying still, as evidenced by her recent turn in Short North Stage’s production of Dreamgirls.

Even just sitting with Knicole and watching her luminous smile, I have no problem imagining her in a difficult choreography rehearsal, in a training session on aerial silks, or pursuing a possible future career in entertainment law. (She’s interested.) A dynamic presence in whatever venue she graces, Knicole continues to expand her vision of herself while staying on top of her primary goal: to bring sound and happiness to others.

How did you find your voice?

I started singing in church when I was a kid, when I was four. And that’s how I discovered I liked to sing—but I wouldn’t even say that I actually found my voice until very recently. I’ve always known that I liked to sing and all. But there’s been a lot of growth, I feel, personally with myself and just really discovering who I am and what I want. And then actually finding that balance to get to somewhere I’m happy with what I’m doing and I’m also putting out something that is positive and making people happy. I don’t just want to be singing just to be singing, and I don’t want to just sing. I want to do a lot of different things. But it’s really that I want to make other people feel good—bring joy and light to people. And that’s been something that’s been important to me. I feel like I’m just now getting to really own who I am and be comfortable with that.

Tell me about the beginning of MojoFlo. Was that a college gig?

Yes. I was the last piece of MojoFlo. The two people who started it were our guitar player, George, and Walter, the saxophone player. They were roommates freshman year of college and started a band together. They decided they needed a singer and I was asked to rehearse. April of 2008 was my first gig and I’ve not looked back since. It’s been a joy. Columbus has been fantastic to us.

MoJoFlo is extremely accessible to everyone, and I’m most proud of that. We’ve done a really good job at putting out a positive, all-inclusive, empowering music … and a show that just makes people feel good.

You majored in political science and international business. How did that happen?

Well…in my house it was always about business and learning the business of music. My parents always wanted me to know how to run a business or myself as a business. I was also supposed to be going to law school after undergraduate … I’m okay with it. I’m happy that I have that background because it’s really helped me out in my music career—to be bold, and to know that I’m smart, know that I’m intelligent, and know that I know what I’m talking about when I have to get into a room with a booking agent. You have to negotiate your contracts. I’ve had to settle [MojoFlo’s] bills. I’ve had to go into an office and get money, and people at the end of the night sometimes forget what they guaranteed you when they booked the gig. So I think that my background and my schooling really did help me have that fortitude.

Our conversation eventually turns to family, career, and how reality TV has changed the music industry. At 17, Knicole traveled to Las Vegas to audition for American Idol.

I completely blew it. I got nervous. I got in there. I was in front of the executive producers and I recognized one of them, and I walked in and I was just like [gasps] “This is crazy.” I’d never seen cameras this big. Huge cameras. Huge everything. All the lights. Totally bombed. I also auditioned for The Voice, and I probably just picked the wrong song there. What I saw with American Idol and The Voice was that unfortunately a lot of it is [that] if you don’t fit into a type that’s already out there: the indie girl, the soulful African-American, the soulful white chick or white guy, the soulful sound in the unexpected package, the country guy, the country girl. There’s all these boxes that you have to fit in, and if you don’t—they can’t really use you. I understand marketability and all that stuff, so I get it from a straight-up business side of looking if you can sell a product. And that’s what you have to understand: You are a product. Your music is a product. And that’s a hard connection to make when you’re making music from your heart and you’re making music from your soul. But I do like [TV singing competitions]. It’s entertaining. Once you kind of see the formulas they’re working with, you can start to understand how all that works, I think it’s a really great look into the industry.

The season one audition of American Idol was hilarious.

Auditions really were like that. I saw people in chicken suits, and I’m like, “Why are you here in a chicken suit? You know how long it took me to flip my hair like this?”

Congratulations on your run as Effie White in Dreamgirls at the Short North Stage. Tell me about that experience.

It was phenomenal. It was amazing. It was every great adjective you could think of wrapped into a five-week run with an extremely talented, warm, and loving cast. We had a great time together. The girls enjoyed each other. We all shared a dressing room. And that room was on 100 every day. Energy. Jokes. Just fun stuff. [The show] challenged me in a way that I’m used to being challenged, but I haven’t been challenged like that in about 10 years. I used to do musicals, and musicals are incredibly difficult to do. There’s a million and one things that are going through your head beyond just singing the notes right. It made me discipline myself in a way that I haven’t had to [when] doing original music, doing an original show, and being my own musical director and [instead] learning someone else’s music. Learning all of that was a new, yet familiar experience and came right on time for me.

I bring up the the thought that from South Pacific to West Side Story to Hamilton, no other stage form has examined the concept of race like the American musical. Knicole tells me about a scene in Dreamgirls where a white pop group covers a more popular version of the Dreamettes’ song “Cadillac Car.”

The thing is, this isn’t a black man writing this musical. I think that’s why it’s extremely important to tell stories when you have the platform, to tell the stories of those…whose voices have been marginalized. That’s how you help. [At this time] with the administration, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with cops killing black children. People are scared. People are questioning. People are really asking…ok, what can we do to help? You can start by telling the stories and handing your platform over to those who have been marginalized and let them speak, not necessarily speak for them. That’s why I love musical theater for that. I think that the theater and music are two very effective vehicles to stimulate change, to stimulate discussion, and to stimulate compassion. You have to reach people when they’re not so vulnerable. So you’re going out to the theater, you’re going out to have a good time. I saw Rent when I was…in high school. I didn’t know about gay men like that. I didn’t know about gay women like that. I didn’t know about anything. All I knew was that I cried like a baby when Angel died [of AIDS].

I love Angel. I still can’t listen to the “I’ll Cover You” reprise without losing it.

At that moment, I was like, “I’m not questioning this anymore. What is there to question?” That’s theater though. Theater and music will expose you to a world you know nothing of. And [you] come to find out, you’re in love with these people…because [theater] humanizes everything.

MojoFlo will celebrate their 10th anniversary 1.27 @ Rumba Cafe. For more, visit mojoflomusic.com.

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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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People

I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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