Nona Hendryx has had a prolific music career dating back to 1961, as both a successful solo artist and a member of the popular Labelle trio.
She’s heading to Palm Springs to headline the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival, taking place Friday, Oct. 9, through Sunday, Oct. 11.
Before Patti Labelle went on to a solo career, she was part of Labelle with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. They toured with The Rolling Stones and The Who before breaking up in 1976 (with occasional reunions over the years).
During a recent phone interview, Hendryx said all three members of Labelle shared duties and were equals as singers and songwriters.
“When we split up, people focused more on Patti and her career,” Hendryx said. “When we began in the early ’60s, groups were just groups, and you weren’t considered a lead singer or backup singer; you were a group. When we transformed into Labelle in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we were three individuals whose managers worked with groups such as The Who; we were more individual artists within the group. I was the primary songwriter, and we all had our strengths, and it wasn’t seen as Patti as the lead singer.
“I think our careers were able to go on from there because we had strong foundations as individual artists.”
As a solo artist, she’s worked with the Talking Heads, George Clinton and Peter Gabriel, to name a few notable names.
“Working with the Talking Heads was very creatively interesting,” she said. “There have been other people I’ve worked with, such as Dan Hartman. He was a songwriter and producer I’ve worked with over time, and (he) worked with me on my album Female Trouble. As a songwriter and an influence on me … I would say Dan was the most interesting person. He went from the pop world in music through experimental, and totally accepted me.”
When Hendryx went out on her own, she was creatively one step ahead of everyone else. While Hendryx was never a smash success, you can hear in her music how ahead of the game she was compared to her contemporaries.
“The music always informs me as to what it wants and how it wants to be presented,” she said. “The funk part of it is because of my live performances, and also my audience is an audience that’s more into the music, the lyrics and the funk I create, rather than just listening to it. My audience also likes to get up and dance, so the funk always provides some booty-shaking moments. Funk has a deeper groove in music than pop or dance music. The rhythms are much more tribal and African in the lower notes; the bass is very important to me along with the rhythms. That’s what informs me when I have a vision for an album.”
Hendryx also has talent in the visual arts. In fact, on the morning of our interview, she had just spent several hours preparing her latest art exhibition.
“When I was in school many years ago, that was one of those things I did and enjoyed the most,” she said. “I was developing that, and my desire to go to college to study it was interrupted by music. That took over my life, and the visual arts side of me went to the wayside, especially when I discovered songwriting, which has been my muse and my way of expressing myself.
“As the music business has changed, I’ve had more time to focus on visual arts, and a friend asked me about five years ago, ‘Why don’t you have a show at a gallery? I know someone who’d be interested in doing it.’ I did it, and it reawakened that expression inside of me.”
Hendryx has also been an innovator in music-performance electronics. She’s designed wearable controllers and has worked with technology students at the Berklee College of Music.
“When I first started in music, there were always so many wires involved,” she said. “I have been trying to move toward wireless, and the world has caught up with me. I was looking for a way of performing out in the open without wires to a soundboard or anything like that, and to be a pied piper, and I found this guy who was creating these audio installations, and one of the things he was working on was called the ‘Audio Tutu,’ and I had him develop one for me. It’s a Plexiglas wearable sound system. I can walk down the middle of the road and perform—or as I did at Lincoln Center, when I walked through the outdoors of the center and ended up inside in the show, singing.”
Hendryx has some new music in the works.
“It’s not going to come out until 2016,” she said. “It’ll be a different view of where I am now. It’s that hybrid of electronics, vocals, and the analog world.”
Nona Hendryx will perform at the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival at the Reception and Singing Party at 4:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 9, at the Hyatt Palm Springs, 285 N. Palm Canyon Drive ($15); and at the Jazz + Blues = Soul event at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive ($75). For tickets or more information, visit pswomensjazzfestival.com.