February 2015 was a cold month for Nashville, but despite the dreary wintry surroundings an ember of warmth emanated from a secluded jazz club in the heart of the city. Tucked away in a corner of The Gulch, The Cave is a fairly new institution that nurtures a haven for Nashville's burgeoning jazz community, and it offered the perfect venue for people to warm their hands around Mocha, an eight-piece neo-soul band from Belmont University.
Mocha emerged in the fall of 2013 from the combined efforts of Sakari Greenwell and Adam Kirincich. Drawing inspiration from legends such as Allen Stone, Justin Timberlake, and Parliament, Mocha offers a funky sound packed with soul that has been missing from Nashville's music scene for so long. Outside it may have been brutally cold, but inside Mocha lit a fire that kept the guests of February's first Amplify Session warm. Amplify Entertainment Group's Forrest Brown (FB) sat down with Mocha's Sakari Greenwell (SG, vocals) and Sheila Graves (SH, bass) after the session to talk more in-depth about the band.
FB: You have kind of an interesting sound…I wouldn't necessarily call it funk. I've heard it described as "neo-soul" "jazz," but how would you describe it?
SG: Well I know, Sheila, you come from a pretty funk background.
SH: Yeah, I come from a funk-pop background. I feel like [Sakari] comes from a funk-pop background. Horns probably come from more of a school band, jazz background. I feel like there's kind of a mix. It's not strictly soul, it's not strictly pop…it's kind of a mix of those.
SG: It's kind of like we're influenced by R&B, funk, and jazz and they all find their way into our songs.
FB: It's a really cool blend of a bunch of different styles. So are there any artists in particular that you take influence from, or do you mainly draw influence from your respective music backgrounds?
SG: I know me and Adam and Sheila listen to a lot of Justin Timberlake, especially his newer stuff.
SH: Yeah, because 20/20 was right when Mocha was forming, so that definitely had an influence.
SG: I'd say a lot of Gospel singers, just growing up. I listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook…all those old time Motown-type singers. That's what my parents listened to. And then funk…I know me and Sheila listen to Parliament and some more old school stuff. Allen Stone is a current guy we totally look up, worship, and aspire to be.
FB: So when you're writing, is it like [Sakari] or Adam has an idea and brings it to the band, or is it more jam session inspired writing?
SG: Well, it actually has a lot more form to it usually. There are some songs that can be developed from jamming. Adam plays instruments whereas I don't, so he might think of progressions and then we'll try to write lyrics. We definitely take everything to everyone in the group and see what they think and see what their input will be and how they'll interpret it. We get to draw from everyone's personal musical background. That's probably why our genre isn't really clearly defined.
FB: I guess since you do get to jam a lot, what do you think is so special about the live experience when you're seeing a band or playing in a band? Do you think that live aspect is crucial to your band? Do you think you would sound the same if you didn't jam so much?
SH: Probably not. I feel like [the live aspect] is important. No matter what, with all the songs, while we do have a basic idea of what we're doing every time, it's not like "this is my bass line," "this is Ray's drum part" or whatever. As we all get to improve as musicians our parts within the songs can improve, because we can change them or modify them to whatever sounds better. I think that's pretty important to our sound as a whole, especially with songs like "Boy You Gotta." That was formed off of jamming because Sakari just had this song written and it was built out of that. And that's all important to us as musicians, too, because we like to learn and try new things within the music.
SG: I'm a performer. That's at the base of everything I do. What really gets me going is a live performance. I'm not too fond of the studio, but a lot of people love getting in the studio. And it's great, it's a great time for creativity and creation, but for me where it really hits me, where I really feel it is when I have people right there in front of me who I can engage with. And playing live really does help us improve with thinking on our feet, like doing what comes to us based off our feeling. Really I think that's a super cool thing, because Sheila could switch up her bass line, but it still works. That's just what she was feeling in that moment.
FB: Do you think it's way different for people seeing you live versus hearing you on a record?
SG: I think what we try to do is capture the energy that we put out live, but that's not to say the tracks will be exactly like how we do it live, because live there's a lot more chance for improv.
SH: It's a different aspect that we can't capture live, like multiple vocal tracks, more effects…
SG: …birds chirping. [laughs]
SH: Different arrangements of the songs.
SG: I think it's cool. Our talent still sounds the same. Y'know some people, you listen to the track and you hear them live and you're like, "That doesn't sound anything like the recording." I think it will probably be a different experience listening, but still a cool experience.
FB: My last question– how did you guys get the name "Mocha"?
[laughs from Sheila and Sakari]
SG: It was finals week first semester freshman year. Adam came up to me and was like, "Hey I just wrote this song, can you sing it?" So we met up in the practice rooms and I sang the song. We had both been thinking we should form a group, so after I sang the song, we both knew we should start a group for real. It just so happened that we were already friends with Sheila, Ray, and Nick, so we were like, "Wow, we want this sound and we have all these friends who play these instruments, so let's just form a band." But then Adam was like, "So I've been thinking. We should call it Mocha." And I was like, "…Why?" I was totally not on board at first. Why would we name it after coffee? What are you talking about? But then he was like, "Well…I'm white, but a little black. You're black, but a little white." Sometimes Adam has ideas that he's just so for and you just gotta trust him. It works out that this was just one of those times. When I hear the word "Mocha" I don't think of coffee anymore. I totally just think of the band.