Women In Jam Part III: A Conversation with Shira Elias and Sammi Garett of Turkuaz
Feature Photo Credit: Yvonne Gougelet
Fans of Turkuaz have a saying: “Friends don’t let friends miss Turkuaz.” True this about one of the hardest-working jam/funk/dance bands in the business. Known for their funky, colorful stage presence as much as their killer musical chops, Turkuaz is a band of equals blessed with extraordinary talents who turn layers of funk and retro dance rhythms into an irresistible party.
Michael Carubba (drums), Dave Brandwein (guitar, vocals), Taylor Shell (bass), Craig Brodhead (guitar, keys), Greg Sanderson (tenor sax), Chris Brouwers (trumpet, keys) and Josh Schwartz (baritone sax, vocals) are the cake that makes up the core musicians of the Brooklyn-based nonet. Completing the ensemble and no less indispensable are vocalists Shira Elias and Sammi Garett – the icing that makes Turkuaz simply delicious and the focus of the third installment of our “Women In Jam” series. Get caught up on the first article about the fairy godmother of Jam, Annabel Lukins, here and the second featuring Southern Avenue’s Tierinii and Tykira Jackson here.
Both women are a wellspring of talent whose diverse backgrounds laid the groundwork for music careers in Turkuaz and beyond. They both shared an affinity for musical theater from a very young age. Shira was just six when she started her formal training and would practice her song and dance skills for her family. Like Shira, Sammi’s budding talents were on display as a girl growing up in Port Washington NY, and she started training for musical theater in middle school.
They would go on to earn degrees from some of North America’s most prestigious universities. Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Shira studied voice and theater for year at The University of California and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from The University of British Columbia. Sammi is an alumna of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she studied drums and voice, ultimately earning her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance.
A feast for the eyes as wells as the ears, Turkuaz has been a building a zealous fan base since 2011 with nonstop touring in support of five albums, infectious grooves and joyous choreographed shows on par with theatrical productions. Resplendent in the colors of the rainbow, each musician claims a signature hue reflecting their distinct styles and personalities. For Shira, it’s brilliant shades of yellow, and for Sammi, it’s dazzling pinks.
When not touring or recording with Turkuaz, Shira and Sammi keep busy with inspired lives outside the band. Last year Sammi teamed up with space age future-funk bassist extraordinaire Freekbass for a collaboration on his 2018 single “Love In Your Pocket” and its wild accompanying video. She’ll also be joining him on his current tour in between Turkuaz gigs and is the featured vocalist on his new album All the Way This. All the Way That.
Last year, Shira completed a stint in a production of Hair and has fronted numerous mega-collaborations that include the jam world’s best and brightest. These include 2018’s legendary performances of “Shira Elias’s Soul Tracks” and “Purple Party: A Tribute To Prince.” Both are a part of the annual Brooklyn Comes Alive series held each year in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. A talented songwriter in her own right, she also stretched her wings with her solo project, which debuted original material as well as soul classics at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 in New York on June 14.
The following is a conversation with these two enormously talented artists about where they’ve been, where they are now and where they’re going next.
MFN: Both of you have incredibly diverse backgrounds in the arts. Sammi, you were educated at Berklee College of Music, studying voice, and you play drums.
Sammi: I do play drums. That’s my first instrument. I grew up playing drums in the school band. And then I got into singing like a couple of years later and just loved it.
MFN: Shira, you’re from Canada, and you have duel citizenship.
Shira: Yes I do. My dad is from New York.
MFN: And you have been doing theater. You just completed Hair?
Shira: Yeah. I did a little stint on the Jersey Shore last summer. We happened to have a week off from Turkuaz, and I haven’t been in the theater world since joining Turkuaz. So it was really nice.
MFN: How did you prepare so quickly for that and still stay on top of Turkuaz?
Shira: I had done Hair before – one of my favorite shows, one of my favorite roles. So, I already knew it, and it wasn’t a fully staged version. It was part concert. So it was, like, jump right in there. I knew most of it already.
MFN: How do your backgrounds in the arts inform what you do today?
Sammi: I think it’s very similar. I mean, our show is very theatrical. We wear these colored costumes on stage.
Shira: And all the choreography, and all dance moves.
MFN: Who does the choreography for the band?
Sammi and Shira (simultaneously): We do.
MFN: Do the boys do some?
Sammi: Yeah. The boys sometimes do.
Shira: The horns do a lot. They kinda take what we do, and then they go off of that.
MFN: The costuming is another theatrical element of what you do. Who does that for you?
Shira: So, Dani (Brandwein) who is our creative director, you could say, she does pretty much all the aesthetic things you see in Turkuaz like the photography and stuff. She’s kinda in charge of that. We pick a lot of our own stuff, especially Sammi and I. We look for our own outfits and stuff. But as far as the concept of the whole group, Dani is the mastermind.
MFN: Going a little further back in your backgrounds as kids. Most artists knew what they wanted to do since they were kids. Was it that way for you? Shira, I know that you were doing theater for your family when you were knee high.
Shira: Yeah. I did.
MFN: Sammi, how about you?
Sammi: I actually did music theater in middle school and high school. It was funny, my parents and me, we were looking at these old home videos. And I was always singing into a wooden spoon, tap-dancing, or singing along to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. It was my favorite. So I was always doing that. And my brother, he’s a visual artist. He’s a sculptor, and he was always drawing.
Looking back, I think at the time we didn’t really realize that we were going to go into jobs that reflected what we’re doing when we were younger. But reflecting back we’re like, “Oh, wow! You’ve been doing this since you were little.” It’s interesting that we went into it when we were older.
MFN: Shira, was your family artistic?
Shira: Not super. My sister played piano. My mom played piano and a little bit of dancing. But it wasn’t the biggest focus of the family. I was the one who really took to it.
MFN: Most families are worried about their kids making a living. So when you two decided to pursue the arts, were they like “Oh, no. You need to be a dentist.”
Sammi: Not at all.
Shira: They were definitely like, “You have to get a university degree.” For sure that was my thing, but I got my B.A. Theater, and they were super supportive of that. I went to University of British Columbia and a year at UC Irvine, California.
MFN: So during your time coming up, who were your mentors in the arts?
Shira: Growing up, I was pretty heavy into musical theatre. I didn’t really get super into the soul/funk until a little later. So I knew a lot of the Broadway people. Luckily singing-wise those were the days of the pop princess – Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey.
Sammi: I had a really fantastic drum teacher, Jason Cheri, growing up. I took drum lessons from him all throughout high school. He was fantastic. And I had a really fantastic voice teacher in high school, Holly Ross. Those two people were my mentors. They helped prepare me for college and my auditions.
I did some percussion and drum stuff for my audition at Berklee, and they made sure I could play an instrument. And that was really cool, too, because there were not that many girl drummers then.
Shira: I had the same voice teacher from age of six until I went to college. He shaped and formed a lot of my vocal skills. I was in a lot of shows with older performers. Starting young, I was always this little kid looking up to older people. I guess I was kind of absorbing all those people. I didn’t really have just one specific person.
MFN: You both put your time in in theater and the arts and have fallen into the jam world in such a beautiful way. Were there any roadblocks along the way?
Shira: The theater world in New York is so hard. I did it for like five years, and it was really hard. I got a few things. But getting up at whatever in the morning and lining up with hundreds of girls to sing 16 bars to someone to give you a chance to be in a show. I don’t miss that part of it.
When I started transitioning to the music world, I could be me. In the theater scene, I probably would have done better had I been more me. But I was trying to fit into this box that I though all these casting directors wanted. But in music, I felt automatically I could be myself.
MFN: Did that surprise you?
Shira: I don’t know if it surprised me. It pleased me and made me feel so good. It felt like this is where I’m supposed to be.
MFN: Was music a road you thought you were going to go down?
Shira: I thought music was going to be the secondary thing and that theater was going to be the primary thing. And then it totally flipped. Now I can’t even imagine being back fully in the theater world. I hope it will always be part of my life, but I can’t imagine fully living in that world anymore.
Sammi: Similar to Shira, I actually auditioned for mostly musical theater colleges because that’s what I wanted to go to school for. With the auditions I was like, “I don’t know if this is my world.” But then I found Berklee, and I could just be myself. I went there, and I saw all the kids who were going, and I fit.
MFN: You’re now part of the jam world and Turkuaz, a band that’s woven together like a beautiful, colorful tapestry. As part of the band, you both do a little writing, is that right?
Sammi: We’re starting to do more. There’s nine of us, so the songwriting has become more collaborative. Shira and I will write lyrics and melodies or have ideas for songs.
MFN: You’ve both pretty busy outside of Turkuaz and have done some amazing collaborations. Shira, you not only do theater, but you’ve also done Brooklyn Comes Alive and a lot more. Sammi, you’ve worked with Freekbass on his new record. Will you continue to do these kinds of side projects?
Shira: Definitely. We hit it hard with Turkuaz, and we’re busy a lot, but it’s really nice to be able to go out and explore other things. All nine of us do whatever, but then we come back together and bring all these things back. It helps to make our stuff more dynamic. You never know what’s going to happen in life, so you have to do all the things you can.
Sammi: It’s fun doing lots of stuff. I love to keep busy. Obviously keeping busy with music is the best. Getting to travel with Turkuaz, Freekbass or travel with our own stuff, I just love it, and we have a blast doing it.
MFN: When I look at you, I see artists first and women second. Is the jam world a more accepting place for women than other scenes?
Shira: It’s hard to say because we’re not in another scene.
Sammi: I do have to say that the jam scene fans, they are diehard fans. They will stay with you from beginning to end, and they just love you and everything about you. It’s very accepting. It’s just really heartwarming to know that people are willing to travel from everywhere to come see you. I feel like there’s no other real fan in another scene that would do that.
MFN: If you could go back and give your young selves a piece of advice, what would that be?
Shira: I think it would be: “just be you.” You’re the only one that can do you. Don’t try to be someone else or something else that you think other people want, because that would be inauthentic, and ultimately it’s not going to make you happy.
Sammi: It would be something like “It’ll all work out.” Don’t sweat the small stuff. I believe that everything happens for a reason. Whether you don’t get this one audition or this one show, that door is closed. But then another door opens. So, maybe you weren’t meant to go in this one direction because it led you in this other awesome direction.
To keep up with Shira and Sammi and for more information on Turkuaz including tour dates, click on the links below.