Q&A: Mavis SWAN Poole on the Power of Authentic Expression in Music

Mavis SWAN Poole

Award-winning singer/songwriter and music educator Mavis SWAN Poole, dubbed “Little Ella” by legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller, was born in Durham, North Carolina, and attended North Carolina Central University. She’s produced music in several genres, such as Jazz, R&B, and Gospel, releasing several albums of her own and performing with notable artists including Lauryn Hill, Gladys Knight, and the Wailers. She prides herself on her unique style of music that embraces rough, rugged sounds and genuinely represents herself.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Durham VOICE: How did you first become interested in music and vocals?

I’ve actually sung since I was a child. It’s always been something I’ve loved. My mother is my favorite singer, I’ve always heard her singing around the house and I just went into that lifestyle as I grew up in church and it’s always been a part of who I am. 

Did growing up in Durham and attending North Carolina Central University influence your musical style?

In the jazz world, it definitely did, because that’s where I was new to jazz, and it definitely helped shape my perception.  Dr. Ira Wiggins and Mr. Arnold George were very influential in shaping how I approach music jazz-wise, and that’s what I got my degrees in, focusing on jazz. So in that regard, my style was definitely shaped, because they were good at their craft and they were big on making sure that we learn the style true to it before we started branching out and doing other things to the music, so because of that, like, purist form of teaching shaped me in jazz. That’s definitely where I got my jazz chops.

What other genres have inspired you the most, and do you have any particular idols from those genres?

Gospel first because I grew up in church, and the Clark Sisters, Kim Burrell, John P. Key, and so many others, such as Fred Hammond, and Kirk Franklin. Within jazz, the ones that I adore would be the cliche names, Ella, Sarah, and Nina, but also like Oscar Peterson. Ahmad Jamal is my all-time favorite pianist. He and Oscar Peters, and Dexter Gordon. As far as R&B, I love SWV, and Mint Condition. Let’s say most of the groups from the 90s, and I also love that 70s soul era.

What have been some of your favorite projects?

Jeff “Tain” Watts, who used to play in Branford Marsalis’ band as a drummer, he invited me to do a gig with Geri Allen and so many other people, Robert Hurst, Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Nicholas Payton. It was me on vocals and it was in Detroit. It was basically doing Driva Man, the music of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and I think that was one of my favorite performances. 

Are there any particular topics you enjoy writing about or messages you want to get across in your music?

It’s not necessarily a particular topic. They’re all very real, like real-life situations, things that I go through or that people that I know have gone through, and they’re just kind of relatable, approachable topics. I’m not singing about Gucci purses and money, and I’m not into that, but I am into self-love, self-care, respect, those types of things, and true love.

How has your music evolved over time?

I’ve accepted myself more, and I’ve put that into my music. I guess it still always has been my message, but I was more general with things. It’s just kind of like, it’s evolved in a way where it truly represents who I am, what I stand for, and I think vocally it’s learning to be okay with songs that aren’t so pretty, like the rough, rugged songs, the edgy sounds, the growls, all of those things that people don’t necessarily consider feminine. But, you know, they get the message across in a way that I want. So, I think I’ve kind of grown to accept myself, good, bad, and ugly, in music.

What is your favorite part about your involvement in music education?

Letting them know that there’s space for everybody, and that they should just authentically always be themselves. However they hear music is fine. They don’t need to do it a certain way or do it like someone else. Your sound is your signature, and it’s okay to hear it the way you hear it. So just always, what I call “be big you”, always be yourself. The biggest, truest, version of yourself.

What other projects or events are you looking forward to?

I’m actually about to release my EP entitled Adult Time, Vol 1. That comes out at the beginning of May and it is five songs. Three of them came out as singles, and then I have the full work coming out soon. That’s going to be something that I’m definitely looking forward to releasing. I’m working with a producer named Eddie Gypsy Stokes who’s produced for Dr. Dre and is just an amazing producer as well as artist in his own right.

Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about you and your music?

I’m a very unorthodox person all around, and I just kind of take life and music as it comes. I do things in a way that feels organic and genuine to me and that’s pretty much it. I’m just genuinely myself and hoping that people who can appreciate who I am and how I am get the most out of my music, and that it brings joy and hopefully changes lives for the better.