Alexis Stark / by Michael Falco

Who is Alexis Stark?

Alexis Stark moved to Michigan when she was three. Her family settled in Albion when she was seven. Alexis grew up in Albion and attended Western Michigan University for her degree in choral education. She currently lives with her boyfriend Joerg in Battle Creek, where she teaches private voice lessons and performs as a singer throughout the region. Alexis is white/European descent, identifies as politically progressive, and is an atheist. She was interested in participating in this project because of her upbringing as a white child in a small town with a population that was half black, half white. She was eager to share her experiences and talk about prejudices that she's seen and felt; she hopes this project will help all Americans in attempting difficult and vulnerable conversations.

Excerpt from interview with Alexis Stark by Whitney Dow, 2017

Q: You know, there’s always lots of talk around music about appropriation and how white artists have appropriated black music or there’s different [unclear] come from. Has that been anything that you think about in the type of work that you do and the type of bands that you play in—

Stark: Yes.

Q: — about how it relates to you personally in your race?

Stark: [13:41:02] Absolutely. I love music of all types, and I really feel like I could be Diana Ross reincarnated. But when, like, I’m at karaoke, I stay away from Aretha Franklin because I can’t sing it as well as I think she did. And so I’m very aware that there are some really different tone colors that can come from voices. Actually, one of my colleagues here in Battle Creek has done some research on why black voices sound different from white voices and whether there are structural differences or if it’s all about how they have come to—We learn to speak and to sing by imitation, much more so than like trying to play a clarinet or piano where you have to hit the right buttons. And so he did some research on how these different tone colors come about, and I’m sure it has to be learned because you can hear on the radio or in a phone call when somebody sounds black or sounds white. And it’s not just about the accent either, but there seem to be different ways that they generate the tones as they’re speaking.

And so when I sing, I actually teach my students about, you know, different vowel shapes and how to use the structures of your face to change how you sound. And so, like, I love to, for myself and for my students, to try all different types of genres of music. But I can still tell that when Aretha sings something, she can belt it in a way that’s different than the way that I can. So as I try to study, I don’t know if there is something structurally different or if it’s all just a matter of that’s how she’s sung for her entire life. But I actually had a very specific example of this. A few years ago, I got to sing for the Battle Creek Symphony when they did a ’60s revolution concert, which is just right up my alley. It’s what I grew up on and what I love. So they invited me to sing a couple of songs on my own, but then they wanted me to do a duet with one of the other soloists who was coming in.

And the soloist was LaKisha Jones, who was on American Idol, and was, like, fourth runner up. So she’s like legit, really great singer. But she’s black, and so she specialized more in like the Motown and the gospel-inspired rock of that era. And so we were singing Tina Turner’s “River Deep - Mountain High,” and it terrified me because I knew that I was not a black soul singer yet. And I wanted to do really well on it. And so I tried to talk with LaKisha a little bit about this, but I was nervous. And so I don’t think we got to have as much of a conversation as I would have liked to, but it still ended up working out very well. I was thinking that I would need to sing the lower notes because one of the signatures of the black style that I think is there is that they can belt higher. They can use their chest voice. Usually for the lower part of the range, it seems like they can use it higher in their voices than I can, at least, and than other white folks can sometimes.

But I ended up actually singing the higher part because I could make that work in my range in a different way. It was not the way that Tina would have sung it, but it worked, and I think it balanced even pretty well with what LaKisha was doing for her part of the duet. So it was a really great experience, but it was definitely one where I was, you know, very aware of wanting to do really well on this, but also not wanting to try to sound black, but to be me and doing the music as Alexis would, but still being able to go toe-to-toe with this really, really great singer.

Interview Transcript