Rajolei Pickens is a man who certainly lives up to his name -- the dude is one serious picker.
Sitting at a boardroom table inside the KPFT headquarters one Saturday night, Pickens (his friends just call him Raj) constantly, steadily picks away at his bushy Nat Hentoff-esque beard with his right hand. "This has been the last six months or so," says Pickens of his newfound growth. "I didn't know if I could actually do it." So, is it a nervous habit? Maybe. An affectation? Perhaps. Just straightening it out so it won't get nappy? A possibility. But it could also be a way for his right hand -- his strumming hand -- to continually stay in shape when he's not performing.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Pickens is a guitar player. This 26-year-old may possess all the stereotypical characteristics of a standard-issue brotha-with-a-guitar, right down to his multicolored dread hat, trinkets around his neck and lanky, pencil-thin presence. But Pickens can't help but keep himself in an introspective frame of mind when it comes to his music. He later puts it in simpler, more understandable terms. "I've always loved music," he says. "I know everybody says that. But it's just how I think about things."
Raj Pickens with Chelsea Beauchamp
Oscar's Creamery, 1201-C Westheimer
Every Wednesday at 9 p.m.; 713-521-1808
Born on the north side of Houston, Pickens picked up his name, which means "the rage of Lee," from his father, whose middle name just happens to be Lee. "That's pretty much all I know about it," claims Pickens. "He made it up. People think it's French or something, but he just made it up." As with most musicians, he got the music bug at a very young age -- took up piano lessons at age seven, practiced playing the guitar at age 16, began composing his own tunes a year later.
It was during his college days at UT-Austin in the mid-'90s that Pickens began toying with the idea of going pro. In his freshman year, he started up his own band with four other cats and became known as Eclectic Socket. An amalgam of rock and soul, the outfit began playing gigs in Austin as well as his hometown. Too shy to sing, Pickens stayed in the background, strumming away while the band's lead singer stood in the limelight. After Socket broke up in 1994, he joined forces with vocalist Matt Hawk, who provided the vocals for Pickens's compositions.
During this time, while recording a demo, Pickens says, he got words of encouragement from Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne, in-demand session man and guitarist for popular Austin reggae band the Killer Bees. As Pickens recalls, "After we recorded some of it, he came out and said, you know, 'Keep going; you got soul.' And if it might not have been for that, I might not still be playing. But that really felt good, because the guy was amazing." When Pickens moved back to Houston in 1998, Welbourne's words resonated in his mind so much that he decided to go solo and perform his own material.
As a performer, he creates such a unique versatility for himself that the only way many people who've seen him live can describe his music is to link him to another versatile black artist. "Actually, I guess since the beard has come along, I've gotten a lot of Richie Havens," he says. "I've gotten Tracy, of course, Tracy Chapman, Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper, Thin Lizzy -- I thought that was a really good one. I got [Bob Marley's] brother last week, and I didn't even know he had a brother."
But Pickens does have a proper description of his sound. "I used to call it, like, acoustic Gap Band music, basically," he says. You may believe Pickens is on another plane of thought when he compares his acoustic stylings to the music of the '80s R&B/funk trio, but you can hear a little bit of the funk when he plows through his surprisingly seductive blend of folk, soul and rock. "But, I mean, I don't actually play that type of music, but, you know, funk music has been kinda misconstrued. So it's kinda acoustic funk."
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As someone who finds inspiration in many different genres of music, from the groundbreaking guitar rock of Hendrix to the silky-smooth jazz of Gillespie to the eloquent hip-hop of Rakim, Pickens can devise a song and take it in any direction he sees fit, whether it's joyously funky or romantically somber. "It really starts, for me, with the rhythm that I want to carry through the song," he says. "I'll pick a rhythm that I think is a little different. I try not to do the same thing. I start with the rhythm, and if I get a little melody in my head, I'll try and loop that in my head to get a lyrical idea. And if it reminds me of something, something that I wanna talk about or make a point about, or even a turn of a phrase as far as wordplay, you know, there's always that. Basically you can strum something and almost hear the words that should go with it."
For Pickens, as for most musicians, creating a tune and then performing it for an audience is therapeutic. "I almost write songs as advice to myself If they help me, I would think they would help other people better understand a situation."
But with his boho vibe, do people willingly take in Pickens's sounds, or does he get some resistance from those baffled by the concept of a black folk singer? "It depends on the crowd," he says. "I played a show in a south Houston bar and I was playing electric at the time. And I would record the shows, and it took me probably a month after where I actually heard some of the contents that people were saying, you know and [what the people were saying] had nothing to do with the music, you know. It was just, you know, the racism or whatever. So it just depends on the crowd you're playing for. You can play a coffeehouse and people wouldn't care. That's what I'm more used to. I guess you can't really pick your audience, but you have to adjust also for your audience. But I think people, for the most part, are more enlightened than that."
Pickens will continue to play his music for all those enlightened folks who do get it. He and guitarist/vocalist Chelsea Beauchamp have a regular Wednesday-night set at Oscar's Creamery. Although no big record deals are on the horizon, he does have an important project coming up: the birth of his first child, William, with his significant other, poet/author Kim Cotton. While delighting audiences is a snap for this guitarist, keeping a baby happy 24/7 certainly won't be easy pickin's.