As colorful and fragrant as her name, Yolonda Lavender's music background is influenced by everything from gospel to hip hop.
"My first singing experiences were in the Children’s Choir, and then youth choir, adult choir. I remember gospel being played a lot in my house but there was a nice mix of [Sugar Hill Gang's] "Rapper's Delight," and then my mom was really in Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder - ao there was a really nice mix and range of music," she says.
Born and raised in Kalamazoo, she held her own with solos in the choir. And as she got older, her mother encouraged her take music more seriously. She had the talent, sure, but she needed the space to find her sound and build her brand as an artist. It was the perfect opportunity to join Truth Tone Records, an independent label created by her cousin Kevin Lavender, in 2006.
Lavender's spent than the last seven years honing her craft through live performances, recording in the studio, and taking in each new experience. Last year marked the release of her first full-length album "The Genres of Me."
"I always say that the music is 100% me, so even if that if it's not something that I've gone through directly, it might be something that I see is happening - or people that are close to me might be going through - so it's always just 100% what I'm feeling or experiencing or what I see," says the 29 year-old. "I wanted to be able to express that I'm more than just soul or neo soul kind of music - that gave me an opportunity to express my gospel roots. If you listen to the lyrics of that song there's a lot of scripture in there, so that one I really hold close."
As the title implies, the album is a mix of everything from pop to soul to gospel, as heard in the album’s title song. Lavender even gives a special shout-out to her hometown with the head-bopping "Kalamazoo."
"People know that song, which is always crazy to me that people know it, and really gravitate towards me if they're really from Kalamazoo," she says.
Being an independent artist, Lavender does it all, including her own PR and booking. She says "on the job training" has prepared her for when and if she ever decides to sign with a more mainstream label.
"I think that it's helped shape us because we have to advocate for ourselves. We have to know how to promote and how to book shows and be our own managers and write the music and organize the bands, set up the live performances. I'm really grateful for that grassroots experience because it's helped to continue to motivate. Knowing that you have to be the one to put it out there and let people know, otherwise they're not gonna know.”
Lavender balances her music with her responsibilities as full-time-student at Western Michigan University, where she is majoring in sociology. While her talent and growing notoriety has been fun to pursue, her status as a musician is not all that she aspires to become.
"I still don't really think of it- my one set career is music, I just feel like it's been able to blend and partner with a lot of the other things that I want to do."
Lavender will perform at LINC Community Revitalization Inc. in Grand Rapids on March 7.