Just trying to talk over the general noise at Opening Bell coffee shop in the Cedars was a struggle for Becky Middleton on Sunday. “I sang for two people last night,” she explained, and then cleared her throat to emphasize the strain.
Known for her powerful vocals, she often records or sings live for other artists in Dallas. But that’s not why we wanted to talk with her. Middleton's long-awaited LP, Break the Fever, is coming out soon, and she's determined that 2017 will be the year she gets her time in the sun.
“Her voice is a complete gift,” says Beau Bedford, the producer at Modern Electric Sound Recorder as well as the unofficial leader of the Texas Gentlemen. “Becky really is in her own realm as a female vocal artist delivering her own sound and cutting loose with a live band. She has a one-of-a-kind vocal talent — just amazing pitch control. She’s really great for our local music scene.”
In December, Middleton released a single from her forthcoming album appropriately named “I’m Still Here.” Her soulful, sultry voice might be called a breath of fresh air, except that Middleton is by no means new to the Dallas music scene. She’s the artist you’ve heard before, even if you don’t realize it.
The daughter of a music minister, Middletown grew up in Dallas listening to the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding, and making music was all she ever wanted to do. She was classically trained at Hardin-Simmons University and after spending some time in Austin, she moved back to Dallas where she continued to pursue her music career by playing in coffee shops, at churches and open mics.
“I cut my teeth, as we all do, just playing a lot of random shows,” she says.
She produced her first album, No Trouble, in 2009 with producer Salim Nourallah. Several guys from the Texas Gentlemen played on her first album, although that was before the Texas Gentlemen were a thing. “We were all just little baby musicians coming up together,” she remembers. “We were all starting our own things at the same time.”
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She began hosting the Songwriter Round at Opening Bell in South Dallas on Monday nights (which still goes on today, although Middleton no longer hosts it). “Then all of a sudden everyone around me started taking off, except me,” she says and laughs.
She fell into more of a supporting role, often singing and playing on other artists’ albums. “When I’m not doing my own stuff, I’ll record in the studio for other artists or sing live for them,” she says. “Most of the time it’s vocals, but sometimes I’ll play piano or guitar, or I’ll do a little bit of songwriting for them.”
Then a bad breakup gave her the perfect fodder for songwriting. She wasn’t planning to write an album, it just came out – with soul. “It’s a proper breakup album from beginning to middle to end,” she says with a smirk. “It’s all the pain and anger and then coming out on the other side.”
She started working with Bedford to produce the album, but this time she wanted more. She was done holding her voice back. She wanted to push herself and Bedford was eager to help.
“Becky was going through a lot of changes when we started working on this record,” he says. “She’d never really opened up her voice, so from the get-go that was one of the things we talked a lot about was really pushing her voice, and not just settling for pretty. She was always more known as a singer-songwriter with a really nice voice. The thing that was really fun with this album was discovering her more soulful side. It led to us adding more horns and a more R&B bass section.”
The Texas Gentlemen once again played on her album. Bedford was lead guitar, acoustic guitar, keys, organ and background vocals. McKenzie Smith played drums; Scott Lee played bass guitar; Daniel Creamer played piano, organ and electric piano; Nik Lee and Cal Knapp played electric guitar; and Becky Elias and Jennifer Taylor (Middleton’s sister) chimed in as background vocals.
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It took longer than expected to finish the album. Halfway through, she discovered she has Hashimoto’s Disease, a thyroid disease that causes fatigue, depression and a host of other symptoms. She took some time to deal with her health, which surprisingly gave her new perspective on some of her songs, particularly the lyrics of “I’m Still Here.”
“You can lose your chance, fall from grace, and they look at you expecting more of the same. I’m just taking my time with the darker years, but I’m still here,” she sings.
And now she’s ready to prove it.
“I’m Still Here” is available on iTunes and Spotify. Look for Break the Fever later this year.