Doria RobertsBy Matt Arnett

Doria Roberts is a force of nature. She is a musician, activist and bodega owner, in no particular order. Or I should say, in interchangeable order. As if that weren’t enough, she also started her own record label.

Whatever she has chosen to do in her life, she has done so with the force of a hurricane. So it should come as no surprise that when she started her record label, she named it Hurricane Doria Records (Not to be confused with Tropical Storm Doria, the storm that hit the East Coast shortly before the Doria in question was born).

I’ve known Doria for several years, and been aware of her music for more years than that, so I was glad to learn that she was releasing a new record this month, Blackeyed Susan. It’s been five years since the release of her last record, Woman Dangerous. But we should forgive her, because she’s been spending more time lately at Urban Cannibals Bodega & Bites, her East Atlanta Village establishment, than on the road touring or making music.

As a gifted musician, it was only a matter of time before she’d get back into the studio and make more beautiful music. I was excited to have the chance to spend some time with her discussing Blackeyed Susan and find out what else was on her mind. Most of the times we tried to get together, one food program or another (one day it was the Food Network) was at her bodega filming for an upcoming episode. Such is the life of Doria Roberts.

I remember when I was young, and exploring my dad’s record collection, I became interested in Bob Dylan. I listened to all of his records and wanted to know more about him. It was through him that I first learned about Odetta and listened to her music. What attracts you to Odetta and why a tribute album to her?

Well, there was a time when I was getting compared to Tracy Chapman a lot, you know when I was first starting out. I love Tracy but she wasn’t really an influence and more and more I realized what the comparison was really about. So, I guess because I was young and wanted my own identity as a musician I distanced myself from that as much as possible. But, as time went on I realized there weren’t many Black women playing acoustic guitar let alone singing folk music and I started reaching out to find a community. I felt very isolated because the folk scene was very much a “club” and I was constantly in the position of having to prove myself, which doesn’t make for good art.  In that search for community, I found Odetta and it was like finding the Holy Grail.

I had gotten some flack for being “politicized” a couple of times and, even though I never backed down from things, I wanted and needed to say through my music, it made me a little self conscious. Finding Odetta validated and reinforced so much of my musical and social identity that I became less worried about ruffling feathers and more aware of my role and part in this tradition. I also realized that I did indeed have roots and my sense of duty to carry it on to the next generation was amplified.

I was able to tour with her a few times but I didn’t get a chance to work with her before she died in December 2008. My great shame. I’ve been grieving the loss everyday since the day I heard. The tribute came about mainly because whenever I mentioned her on stage I’d get these blank stares from my audience and I realized I hadn’t been doing enough to put her name out there. It’s a tribute in the sense that there are covers but I also illustrate her influence through my original work thereby cementing our connection.  But, working on this has really helped me move on in a sense and be at peace with the fact that she’s not really gone as long as we keep her body of work alive.

More than just an album, Blackeyed Susan is a work of art. I noticed you have Susan Archie, who designed Dust-to-Digital’s Goodbye Babylon (one of my favorite records of all time) designing the record. Tell me about all the special features you’ve packed into this record and what we can expect.

I didn’t want the packaging for the project to be secondary to the recording. I decided on a “keepsake box” to house the CD and a few mementos. There’s the CD of course, a lyric sheet that doubles as A poster, a Blackeyed Susan wild seed pack to plant in her memory, a copy of the only photo I have of us and a piece of SmartGlass jewelry (shaped like an O in her honor). I used to collect little keepsake boxes as a child that I would fill with found objects and such so it has some sentimental value as well. My hope is that people use the box for their own memories.

Another driving factor for making a reusable box was my knowledge of the waste my industry creates from putting out CDs. I don’t know if people know this but jewel cases are made from crude oil and always wind up in the trash. You can get corn based ones now but they crack easily.  So, I wanted to send a message that if you get a little creative with your packaging you can do some good at the same time. Including the SmartGlass jewelry, which is made from used wine, soda and beer bottles reinforces the notion that recycling  and repurposing can be beautiful.

You are donating portions of the proceeds from the first 1,000 specialty boxes to a couple of great organizations. I am a huge fan of Tim Duffy’s Music Maker Relief Foundation. How did you select Music Maker as the recipients of these proceeds?

The Music Maker Relief Foundation assists Southern artists over the age of 55 with everything from medical bills to rent to acquiring equipment. I’ve “taken” so much from Odetta and those who came before me that it’s only fitting that I should give something back in this way. Also, my fans funded 100 percent of this project via a website called Kickstarter, so finding a way to “pay it forward” was important to me. This project would not exist without their generosity and faith in what I do.

I’ve also had personal experience with this type of organization, which made the choice clear. I’ve been on an extended hiatus from touring since 2008 because the economy has made cost effective travel nearly impossible. I was paying extraordinary fees for my guitars and baggage on flights, gas prices were rising, rental car costs were climbing, even hotels were charging extra for electricity and water! I came home with a little over $75 after expenses after one tour and I thought, “This is it. This is not viable.” The thought of stopping what I loved more than anything after 15 years was heartbreaking, but I really didn’t have a choice.

I actually had to break down and apply for assistance from an organization called MusiCares. They’re affiliated with the Grammy Foundation and are in place to help musicians who don’t have healthcare or trust funds (laughing). They were so efficient, kind and non-judgmental that I was able to walk away from the experience with my dignity in tact.

Despite a lot of national success over the years, you’ve really made a conscious decision to be a “local” artist? What does local mean to you and what has led you to that decision? And I should point out that you were local before local was cool

Ha, thanks! Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as a local artist no matter where I‘m playing. When the road is your home, you really learn how to adjust – quickly. I made every hotel room familiar, I memorized long stretches of highway and I found favorite places to eat and get my coffee (always local) in every town I visited. I also always read the local newspaper before my shows to get sense of what was happening in a particular city. It made it easier to create a sense of community on stage. I admit that I had some stage banter that was foolproof and recycled from night to night but for the most part it is based on whatever is happening there and that kept things new for me and interesting for the audience. But this is also part of the tradition of the folk singer and troubadours so it’s nothing I invented or can take credit for. Taking these stories with you and being conscious and respectful of your surroundings. But, it’s a delicate balance.

For example, I remember playing in Australia and there was social revolution happening within the Aboriginal community. People were “coming out” as Aboriginal, which could have landed you in inferior schools or housing years before. But, they were now being counted in the census, demanding their rights and equality and it was so exciting and precious to watch even a small piece of an entire country’s activist development happen.

I took some of this story to Sweden where I was asked to facilitate a workshop on Multi Issue Activism at the University of Stockholm and learned even more about the issue in the course of that session. Strangely enough I was “confronted” about being American and, ironic to me, privileged and I found myself not only defending my presence but also my country, which was then a George W. Bush led United States in a two front war! My globalization as an artist returned me to my roots so to speak and helped me have a better understanding of my place in the world. I learned that beyond any potentially disenfranchising identity as an American, black woman, etc my anchor was always going to just be me. My mantra became “Home is wherever I am.”

Do you see a connection between what you are trying to do with your music and what you and Cal are trying to do with your restaurant, Urban Cannibals Bodega & Bites.

Absolutely. Just to clarify we’re a bodega (not a restaurant), which is just another name for a neighborhood grocery corner store. You’ll find the term bodega mainly in New York where they are a permanent cultural fixture.

Of course. I should have phrased that differently.

We opened on the late side of the local food movement so for us it’s not a “trend” to keep up with but just the way to do business. Even though we focus on the needs of our immediate community our mission is universal–to make access to affordable healthy food a right not a privilege. Also, working with local farmers and vendors really changes the pace of doing business. Sometimes we simply run out milk or eggs because the cows and chickens are too hot and people have gotten used to this pace and prefer to wait for good food than giving into the instant gratification of something that isn’t goof for them. It takes some getting used to but we’re really getting the hang of the ebb and flow of this. But, this model simply would never work on the grand scale of say Whole Foods, so we don’t aspire to that. We can be small and local everywhere and in that sense it’s the same way I approach my music career. If I was signed to a big label,  I wouldn’t be able to do or say half the things I do or say. I have less notoriety, yes, but I stay relevant to the my fan base and I have more freedom to create an environment that I’m comfortable with.

I don’t separate who I am from what I do. I was on the road 10 months out of the year for nearly 10 years and we’re at the store 14 hours a day 6 days a week so it’s important to not have to stray too far away from what you believe in.

So, we run the store as if it is our flagship store and with the intention of one day having Urban Cannibals all over the US in neighborhoods like East Atlanta, which is incredibly diverse culturally, socially and economically.

East Atlanta is a small snapshot of what the country looks like and how people are feeling. We’re very aware of everything that’s happening around us and, though  we have very clear goals and a business plan, they are ever evolving to keep us relevant to our customers. When there is tension we see this as a catalyst and an opportunity to create change with all sides having to give in a little here and there. Issues like gentrification and violent crime are hot button issues and the best case scenario is that everyone is working towards the same thing in the end–a place to live peaceably and without fear.

So, we leave room a little wiggle room while trying to stay focused on our bigger goal. The true barometer of the health of a community or business is how it resolves its differences and how it adapts to change. It‘s like the saying “What doesn’t bend, breaks.”

Speaking of food, tell me about the tour you’ve set up in support of this record and the exciting ways you are combining food and farmers with music and musicians.

Yes, the “Farm to Ear” tour. We’re really excited. The store is going to be on the Food Network later this month so we thought it’d be great to take it on the road. I do all the baking for the store and my wife Chef Calavino Donati, does all the cooking. In the spirit of “home is wherever I am” I though it’d be great to book an entire  support tour of just house concerts (no venues), visit local farms (urban and rural) in each city and then cook a pre-show meal for my fans inspired by their local products. We’re hoping to reinforce the idea of eating local and maybe give them a little inspiration on how to do that but it’s also another way for me to get to know the people that support my work. I regularly make butter and ricotta from local cream and milk at the store and Calavino is always coming up with flavor profiles and specials based on what’s available (sometimes using my ricotta for lasagna) so it’ll be fun to show people how easy it is to live this way.

I’m also touring as green as possible, which also something we’ve done at the store. We recycled palettes for our shelving, tables, the kitchen’s knee wall  and for our specials boards. It looks great and it saved us a lot of money when we opened. It shows that being green can be affordable.

It’s hard for independent musicians to tour green but I’ve also found a database of “green hotels” throughout the country to further offset my footprint that way and I’ll be traveling by train mostly and hubbing via hybrid car rentals to cities that aren’t on the immediate line. Traveling by train not only cheaper and greener than flying or driving, it’s also another throwback and “hat-tip” to that way it used to be done which brings it full circle. Traveling by train will also give me the opportunity to document the trip since I won’t be driving as much. I’m hoping to shoot a short documentary called “No Ticket Home”, which is the title of one of the songs on the CD, to chronicle my interactions with farmers and food activists along the way.

The “Farm to Ear” tour reinforces the mission of the project and my life as a local foods store owner, which is to honor the past but bring it fully into the place and time I live in. I can’t wait to get back out there.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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