From jazz to blues, just feel the groove: Olga Watkins explores her love of music, influential artists and the orgins of her own band

(Courtesy of Olga Watkins) Olga Watkins fronts her self-titled quartet, The Olga Watkins Band.
(Courtesy of Olga Watkins) Olga Watkins fronts her self-titled quartet, The Olga Watkins Band.
(Courtesy of Olga Watkins) Olga Watkins fronts her self-titled quartet, The Olga Watkins Band.

By: Lauren Zawatski | For the Duquesne Duke

Olga Watkins is the Director of Board Operations for Parkhurst Dining at Duquesne. Outside of her job at the University, she also is the lead singer for her own blues/soul/funk band, The Olga Watkins Band, which was named the Best Blues/Jazz Band twice by the Pittsburgh City Paper. Prior to her occupation at Duquesne, Watkins worked as a culinary instructor at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a food features writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and a consulting chef at Hollywood Gardens in Rochester, Pennsylvania. We sat down and talked with Watkins about her greatest inspirations and how her band came to life.

Q: What sparked your interest in music?
A: I started singing in public when I was about two years old, and then I started piano lessons when I was five, violin when I was seven and voice when I was 12, so it’s just something I’ve always done.

Q: What is it that you love about the genres of blues/soul/funk as opposed to other ones?
A: Blues and soul have been two of my favorite genres but I’m classically trained and jazz trained, as are the other people in my band. We all have a lot of other influences because we’ve all been involved in music since we were kids. We all like different kinds of music, so the flavor that evolved in mixing the four of us is the funk, soul and blues. But it’s sort of a combination of all those things, not just one straight thing at a time. It’s kind of evolved into its own style with all of those contributing genres.

Q: How did the Olga Watkins Band originate?
A: I was in Chicago singing opera, and I quit that and came back to Pittsburgh. I had an unfulfilling experience in Chicago. I never really wanted to sing [opera] anyways, so I just stopped singing and writing for a while. Basically, after the birth of my daughter I decided to sing again because I didn’t want to be somebody who “used to do something.” I wanted to let her know she could do anything she wanted, she could be as many things as she wants.

My brother, Reggie Watkins, is a jazz musician. He was heavily involved in the jazz scene here, so when I started to sing again I started playing some jazz pickup gigs with him. He hooked me up with some of his musician friends who needed a vocalist and things evolved. But, I really didn’t want to do jazz pickup gigs. It was a good way to get the rust off of the pipes and get back in the swing of things, but I ultimately decided to do what I wanted to do.

So, I started working with a jazz trio. The drummer is Subha Das, who is a Duquesne graduate. The guitar lead in that trio moved, so Subha and I stuck together because we had some gigs already booked with that trio. We started looking for a guitarist to fill that void so we could keep those gigs, and eventually settled on a fellow named Mason Embry. When Mason left for other opportunities, we found Jay Weaver, another Duquesne music school grad. Getting Jay and Subha, it changed the flavor of the band. We got a funkier bass player and a guitar in front, so the band just sort of naturally progressed into funkier stuff. It’s like your whole life process. You grow, your tastes change, and you’re influenced by new things. That happens in music the same as it does in life. Whatever is coming in affects what’s going out.

Q: What song that you’ve written is most fun to play?
A: It doesn’t have much deep emotional meaning to me, but it’s called “It’s A Lie.” I used to work as a chef and an area manager at an Air Force base. The ratio of men to women was significant: 12:1 or something like that. So, on the weekends when the club was very busy, there were a lot of men and not so many women and a lot of nonsense, ridiculous drunk talk happening. What I found then is that you get the same line of BS from everybody down the line, and a song came out of that. It’s meant to be irreverent and funny. The song is basically: if his lips are moving, he’s lying. It preceded the Meghan Trainor song, “Lips Are Movin.” She actually has some pretty similar lyrics to mine. I’ve had a whole bunch of people say, “Meghan Trainor stole your song!”

Q: Who have been some of your greatest influences as an artist?
A: Ella Fitzgerald, for sure. Aretha Franklin and Etta James. Etta James probably even more than the other two. And of course Janis Joplin.

Q: How have your aspirations changed over the years?
A: It used to be important to me to impress people with my skills and or accomplishments. Now, I just want to do what I do well, and hope that other people appreciate it. Now I don’t feel the need to try to earn anyone’s affirmation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.