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.