360°Sound recently spoke with soul-jazz singer Tracye Eileen. The 59-year-old Chicago native has enjoyed much success since the release of her EP It’s Time in June 2020. The first single, “Now That We’re Here,” went to No. 2 on the UK soul charts and got play on SiriusXM’s Heart & Soul. Her latest single, “Sweeter With Time,” is currently the Billboard No. 2 most added song to smooth jazz radio, right behind saxophonist Dave Koz, who we interviewed last fall.
For years, Eileen has had a residency at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago. That’s been on hold during the pandemic, but Eileen hopes to resume live performances later this year. In this exclusive interview, Eileen discusses her smooth fusion of jazz and R&B, songwriting, career goals, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: You decided to pursue a professional music career after your divorce. Please start by telling us the story of how you got started.
Tracye Eileen: My first performance was actually at 8 years old. I was in a third-grade, three-cast play of The Wizard of Oz. I was just so shy at the time that I couldn’t get the role of Dorothy. But when I sang, they were like, ‘We gotta have her.’ So they rewrote the play, and I got to be in all three casts just to sing “Over the Rainbow.” That was really the beginning. I continued to sing in the jazz band in high school and college, in church, weddings, funerals, and so forth. That was always a passion. I got sidetracked as we do in life.
In 2009, I got divorced, and at that point, I said I’m just gonna do what I’ve always wanted to do and just kind of step out on faith. That was to be a professional jazz singer. I studied at the Bloom School of Jazz [in Chicago], and after a couple of courses, they introduced a course to go from amateur to professional. I took the class, and I promised myself and God that I would not stop until He said no. That started my journey.
The owner of the school, David Bloom, put together my band in 2011. I still have all the same guys except for the drummer, and I later added a sax player. It’s a five-piece band I named the PTR Band. All my musicians are amazing; they’ve all been in the business for over 20 years. We played our first gig at the Hollywood Casino. I have an MBA, so I was able to really take over the business of the band in building a music career. I did all the booking, the promotion, the website development as well as continuing to work on my craft.
Love’s Journey was the first CD, and that was part of that year-long course. We had a professionally produced CD that we worked on over that year. I packaged it commercially and used that to leverage and begin to book myself and the band in different places. The second CD was Why Did I Say Yes? [The title track] was the first original tune that I wrote and recorded, along with my keyboard player Tom Viatsas, and really began to start establishing myself as more of a soul-jazz artist. I began to develop more of what I wanted to sound like and who I was as an artist. Through that time, I continued to perform, and I got a residency at Buddy Guy’s Legends. That’s been a wonderful thing.
You had big release plans for your EP, It’s Time, and then the pandemic hit. However, you’ve said that that actually benefited you because a lot of things were on hold.
Tracye Eileen: It’s Time is my third album, and it was really one I had made a huge investment in. It was going to be my big commercial release. I worked with Kendall Duffie [of the R&B group Kloud 9] down in Nashville, a wonderful producer, and a team of radio promoters, PR, and social media. I did a great video with Emmy award-winning director Ali LeRoi for [“Somehow Someway”] the first single off the new EP. I’m an independent artist. I own my own label, Honey Crystal Records. It was a big launch for me that had been planned for about three years. I think we ended up being one of the last music videos filmed in L.A. before it shut down. The first single was supposed to drop in April.
When COVID-19 hit, it just hit me like it did everyone. I put everything on hold, and my team was like, ‘Well, this is bad, but it could be good.’ The thing is, now you’re on equal footing with everybody else that has introduced their music. We had planned a little bit of TV, but I didn’t have the budget that a large label would have for a much more established artist. Really the only outlet for everyone was the internet. In order to help promote the album, which dropped in June, I started doing a web show, “Meet Me in My Parlor,” and the first day, I had like 1,500 people online looking at it because there was nothing to do [laughs]. I think all of that helped, and it gave me a leg up in releasing the album.
The album is all original tunes. It’s reflective of my journey of love in life. That’s where the content ended up going and fitting nicely together. Three of the tunes I co-wrote with my producer Kendall Duffie. The name, It’s Time, was not by accident. At this point in my life and my career, I felt like it was time to take things to the next level with the goal of being an internationally known soul/R&B singer.
You said the lyrics to “Somehow Someway” came to you during a vacation in Belize while you were in a hammock by the ocean. Tell us a little about your songwriting process.
With songwriting, you have to be willing to be revealing because it has to be authentic for people to connect to the human experience. The first song that I wrote, “Why Did I Say Yes?,” I was just really mad about a situation. The melody and words literally came into my head and I jotted them all down, then tweaked it with my keyboard player and got the composition done. “Somehow Someway,” “Now That We’re Here,” and “Sweeter With Time” were collaborative efforts with my producer Kendall Duffie. Basically, what he would do was write a hook or a line of a chorus then I would build the rest of the song around that. Interestingly enough, it just kind of came together in almost telling a story of a trilogy of a love journey, from “Why Did I Say Yes?” to a more aspirational place of love. I remember one of my fans at a show saying, ‘I love these songs you do, but love can be good, why don’t you write about it?’ [laughs]. I decided this next project would be more aspirational in the type of love I want to draw into my life.
I think the biggest and most important journey you can take is the journey to self-love, and then love expands and grows from there, and you draw the best type of romantic love to you. I try to take a solo-cation every year. It’s just gorgeous down there [in Belize]. I said I need to write this song. I had the music track. The music felt perfect with where I was. I was in a hammock on the ocean. The ocean in Belize feels like bathwater; it’s just amazing. The song just came to me, and I wrote it while I was there.
What are your goals for your career in the coming years?
I have two careers now. I’d like it to where I have 100% of my time spent with my music. I want to expand my touring base where we perform. The goal is to leverage the success of this EP and continue to build awareness of my music. We were able to accomplish that, so now I’m working on trying to book things for 2021 and just continuing to grow and expand my career musically.
I feel like there’s a lane that’s open for me. Unfortunately, we’ve lost so many female singers in the genre that I do, so I think there’s room for me in that space. Even being picked up by a larger label and growing my label to the point where that interest and awareness is there would be great.