© 2024 WRTI
Your Classical and Jazz Source. Celebrating 75 Years!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alita Moses on her Philly training, her family legacy, and her dynamic role in Jacob Collier's world tour

courtesy of the artist

I first became acquainted with Alita Moses singing with various R&B and soul outfits in New York City around 2016. Back then, she was new in town and fresh out of her undergrad at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her stage presence is commanding. She’s strikingly confident and, as she would put it, knows how to “find her light” and hit her mark.

Not long after graduating, she completed a small European tour with a jazz combo, but nothing on the scale of what was to come. In 2022 she joined the multi-instrumentalist phenom Jacob Collier on a world tour to support his album Djesse Vol. 3 — roughly 80 dates spanning four continents.

Earlier this year Collier released Djesse Vol. 4, and embarked on another massive world tour, with Moses in the ensemble. The fifth stop on the tour brought Collier and his team to The Met Philadelphia. While she was back in town, Moses — who first appeared on WRTI’s radar back in 2015 — stopped by our studio for a conversation about road life, her family upbringing, and her connection to Philly.


It’s been 10 years since you won the Montreux Jazz Vocal Competition, where you sang with Al Jarreau. At that same festival, Jacob Collier was performing; is this where you first met?

No, but ironically I went to his show with my mom. I don't think I knew who he was back then. But I remember walking into the theater that he was performing in and just being flabbergasted by the energy that was in the room, and that he was providing and conjuring from everybody. But no, I didn't meet him then at all.

How did you get the gig? 

Prior to the pandemic, Jacob had a different band, and a whole other tour planned throughout the U.S. One of the singers could not do a span of two weeks of the tour. And Michael Mayo, who's a brilliant singer now based in L.A., was in the band as well at the time. I think Jacob asked around for recommendations, and Michael put me forward. I got a call from Jacob asking if I would be down and available for those dates to fill in. I said yes, and I was so excited — and then the world shut down and the tour was canceled. I was like, “There goes that opportunity.” Fast forward to when things started opening up a little bit again. That's when Jacob's team started putting the new tour together and this new idea of a new band together as well. At the same time, he was doing these challenges on social media, where you can duet his a cappella arrangements and put your own spin on them.

He created a call to action. 

Exactly. I think the one I did was “Overjoyed,” by Stevie Wonder. I duetted his video, and he saw it. That kind of put me back on his radar. He reached out and was like, “Hey, I'm putting together a new band. And I'm also doing a gig at the Blue Note in New York coming up. Would you want to come and sing?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” I think it was like a pseudo-audition. But it went really well and I got the gig, and now we're here two years later.

You're in the middle of the second world tour. I think there's a mystique, where people think, “Oh you’re on tour”...

It can be very romanticized and idealized. “What a life! Oh my God, you must love it.” Which, yes. And also, it's crazy, we have chosen such a crazy lifestyle and a crazy thing to be a part of, and it is not easy, because everything is so much more expensive. So it's also a matter of: OK, if we're going to take the step and commit to a full world tour, we’d better be in the best shape that we can be in, so that we can complete it. Because there are so many major artists who have canceled their tours in the middle, because they can't handle it, or because their mental health is suffering, or they get sick or have an issue. If you can set yourself up for success and just be mindful at least about all those things, of course it can only help in the long run. It’s tough.

And you need your bandmates to be all on the same page. 

That's true. Any support that you can build up amongst the group is always good.

Jacob Collier, center, with musicians from his Djesse World Tour, including Alita Moses.
Deanie Chen
/
courtesy of the artist
Jacob Collier, center, with musicians from his Djesse World Tour (including Alita Moses, to his left).

I know you have a background in musical theater. When you make a musical, you're doing this world building, and it requires this kind of buy-in from everybody, including the audience. I see a similarity where you build this world, or at least a sonic world, with Jacob Collier. 

Having a background in theater — or pops and jazz, and this curated show that I grew up performing in and being a star of, singing with a big band and being a part of this little world that was created — absolutely trained me and taught me how to live and how to work and how to sing in this environment as well. And from staging to finding your mark and finding your light and distinguishing when it's appropriate to sing out like a soloist versus being a band member, and blending and considering what you're listening to and considering all the other band members. Again, I’m very lucky that Jacob is a fan of all of those things, and wants to feature us as much as he does.

Both your parents are musicians…

Both my parents are singers. And so my mom has been on and off Broadway. She's definitely more in the musical theater world, although she got her start in opera and actually went to Curtis here, and Juilliard. She's a badass. And then my dad was also an opera singer, and he taught classical voice at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, which is where we were based.

So you moved to Philly. I thought it was so interesting that you went to UArts, and not Hartt.

Yes, and it's a little loaded. My dad passed away when I was 15, in the middle of high school, and to be honest, I just could not imagine walking past his office every day for college. I also think, at that point, after going through that loss and also being in the middle of grieving, I just wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to spread my wings and move on, and really go out on my own. So I auditioned for a bunch of different schools and really just fell in love with Philly and UArts, and ended up here. And I loved it. It really changed my life.

Philly comes and wraps you…

Welcomes me with open, slightly stinky arms. Yes. [laughter] Once I moved to Philly, I feel like my eyes, my ears, my mind, were all so opened when I came here. I was, on one level, petrified to be alone in a major city and on my own. But also so excited to be, like, almost finding your way through the dark with your eyes closed. That's what it felt like at first. But then I met some of the most wonderful people that I've ever met here, and made some lifelong friends at school and on the scene. There are so many stories and so many different experiences. I will say that UArts really provided such a platform for performance and just gigging, and just learning how to be a bandleader, and learning how to set up your own gigs and go after what you want. I definitely got a ton of experience with that — and also through UArts, upperclassmen who already had bands heard me and then were like, “We want you like come, play with us.”

Speaking of which, one of my favorite experiences was singing with this hip-hop group that is still around called ILL DOOTS. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be one of the singers in a hip-hop / rap / R&B group. Anybody who knew me thought it was hilarious. But it was also so much fun, and I learned so much from singing with them. I was 18, running around Philly with them, playing in apartments, basement parties, and all all over the place. Being in such a different crowd and really getting a taste for that scene. I also went through musical phases of absorbing Philly goodness and Philly soul and everything, meeting musicians along the way who just taught me so much about singing. I feel like I always had this concept stuck in my head, probably from the training that I had growing up, of just needing to sound pretty and perfect, and just pristine. I'm not claiming to sound that way all the time, but that was just the mindset that I had, very controlled. I think being here — whether it was through class, or through an ensemble where we were singing different songs, or through going to hear an artist live here in Philly — I felt how much soul and how much emotion comes through the singers who lived here at one point, or just grew up here, or are a part of the scene here.

I want to go back to when you were 15 years old, and suffered this really profound loss, and made a choice to avoid what could be a very painful experience. I'm curious as to how you've been able to navigate that, or maybe returned to honoring your father in the years since, into your own adulthood.

Absolutely. It took me a while to figure out how to be my own person without him. I'm going to get emotional. But because my parents were split up, I lived in West Hartford with my dad my whole life, until he passed. He was such an important figure in my life, of course, as any parent can be — but especially musically. I find that there are definitely moments I've had where I am singing to him, or I choose to sing a certain song in honor of him, because it's a song that I knew he liked. Or even when it came to my senior recital at UArts, the classical piece that I chose to sing was a piece that I grew up listening to him teach his students in his vocal studios at Hartt. From age three to six, I would just be sitting in the back of his lecture halls, soaking it all in and observing him. This one aria, a lot of his students sang it. So when it came time to choose an aria for my senior recital, I was like, “Oh, of course I'm doing that for sure.”

Deanie Chen
Deanie Chen
Alita Moses with Jacob Collier's Djesse World Tour band

And I wrote a song for my younger brother, who's 10 years younger than me, about our dad; I sang that at my senior recital as well. Along the way, I've also written many songs about him that just haven't seen the light of day. I feel like I've written them just for myself as a cathartic exercise, just to get out my feels. But I will say, last year on tour with Jacob, we did a gig somewhere in California. I have a lot of family on my dad's side who live out west. And they never get to see me sing, because I'm on the east coast and they're a little older, so traveling is always hard. Anyway, I just had so many family members from my dad's side come out to that show. And I remember being in the wings right before going on, and I could feel him there. I felt my dad's presence, for sure, like he was just in the room with his brothers and his family and my cousins and everything. That was a super heavy performance, and it felt amazing, and just so emotional.

Yeah.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who I was opening up to about the death of my dad at one point. I had a realization that my heart will never be whole, it just won't. But when I'm onstage, performing, that is one of the only times that I do feel whole again, and it's through singing and just being in this world that he was also very much a part of, and being able to access that. Music can be so healing, and as long as you just try to remain open about your feelings towards your loss and have an outlet for them as well — whether it's through writing or journaling, poetry, music, acting, whatever it might be — I think it's really helpful.