When you go through college music programs, you try a little bit of everything, says singer-songwriter and bandleader April Bennett. “I play a lot of instruments — pretty much anything with strings.” The recent transplant to Asheville — she grew up and went to college in South Carolina — is also very hands-on with her musical career, overseeing everything from booking shows and making flyers to recording and selecting the musicians in her rotating cast of players.
“People are always asking to manage our band. I’m like, ‘I can’t relinquish that kind of control to you. It’s my livelihood. It’s everything,’” Bennett says.
The musician is in the process of guiding her jazz-, funk- and soul-infused collective, April B. & The Cool, onto the Asheville music scene. The group plays One World Brewing on Friday, Feb. 23. It’s one of a handful of local shows — Bennett is still booking many gigs in and around Greenville, S.C., where her original audience is based. “I didn’t want to rush anything,” she says. “I don’t want to book a show and play for nobody.”
That’s not likely. The group’s debut EP, The Sidechick Chronicles, released last spring, is the opposite of a sleeper. Thick bass, deep grooves, slinky beats and Bennett’s lithe vocal add up to something that sounds familiar (hints of Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo) and also new. “I like freshness,” says Bennett. “It’s 2018. You can’t expect to grow if you’re just influenced by the same things. I draw influences from all different kinds of music.” She names Latin, rap and electronic as inspiration, and adds that she likes to play with a microKORG synthesizer sometimes to bring in spacey sounds.
But the EP itself, “a collection of songs about a precarious situation,” according to the liner notes on Bandcamp, is not what Bennett originally envisioned for her first album. While in a college class, the musician was encouraged by a professor to do more writing and penned a number of political songs. Those were intended for the initial recording (and are still played at shows, and will likely be on the band’s next release), but The Sidechick Chronicles — about the experience of a relationship gone wrong — took precedence.
“It feels a little bit confidential, a little bit vague, but it’s a whole lot of truth. Arguably too much truth,” Bennett says with a laugh. “We had been working together so long, I didn’t want to discount the work my band had put into [the project].”
A highlight is a rapped verse by drummer TJ Jeter on the song “What’s Real.” A powerhouse musician himself, Jeter also performs with the likes of Shane Pruitt. But, because he’s based in Union, S.C., Bennett rarely gets to perform with him these days.
But there is a sense that Bennett — who started her musical training as a viola player and performed, with her high school orchestra, at Carnegie Hall — has always been open to new experiences and collaborators. She studied classical guitar in college “and then started playing more jazz stuff,” she remembers. “Then I just started gigging with my band.”
That initial version of April B. & The Cool “started as a project for my senior seminar and just stuck,” says Bennett. The group has been going strong, albeit with a level of fluidity in its structure, since 2015.
Despite her instrumental prowess, Bennett’s songs start with words, and the melodies and harmonies come later. “I definitely [see] myself as a writer,” she says. “I work on music all the time. It’s hard to get away from it — my mind is always making music.”
The latest challenge for the performer is tapping into the local music scene. Part of what drew her to Asheville was her boyfriend, JP Miller, a member of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band. Among area artists, Bennett points to Ryan RnB Barber, Leeda Lyric Jones and Jesse Barry as those with whom she can imagine sharing stages. “I’ve definitely been [watching] what people are doing who have paved the way for other R&B and soul bands to have a place to play in this area,” she says. “It’s really important.”
She adds, “I don’t look at anything as a competition. I’m just looking for my place around here.”
WHO: April B. & The Cool
WHERE: One World Brewing, 10 Patton Ave.
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 23, 8 p.m. avl.mx/4kq