Music Is Love… Music Is Life

Spotlight on Saxophonist and Singer/Songwriter
Debrissa McKinney

Photo: Jenna Rae Chitwood

The first time I met Debrissa McKinney six years ago, I was in a bad mood. I don’t remember why but what I do remember is that she brought sunny into my gloom, and turned my frown upside down. She asked me questions about myself. She was truly interested in my answers. I know oodles of people who are good at give and take. But something about Debrissa makes me and everyone she meets, feel that extra special mojo. Walking away from an interaction or conversation with her, and I can confidently speak for others on this, she always leaves one feeling lifted.

Our first meaty music project together, we were backup singers for a Bob Marley birthday celebration show that Jim Arrendell produced and asked us both to be part of. Thank you Jim Arrendell for that, and for allowing me the opportunity to have Debrissa all to myself! It was a mother-daughter kind of experience, rehearsing and then performing alongside her. Only she was the mother and I was the daughter. She actually took my hand when we entered the stage (to a standing room only crowd!) and took it again, when we left stage on break and again at the end of the show. She hugged me during the concert many times and her big beautiful smile reassured me that I was doing just fine on material I had to study hard to master. Those “I Threes” (Bob Marley’s backup singers) would have been proud of the “We Two’s.” If I flubbed up and sang her part, she’d switch and sing mine. She’s been adjusting and pivoting and rolling with the punches, her whole life.

Growing up an only child in the small town of Buchanan, Virginia, 30 miles north of Roanoke, the musical gene skipped a generation as neither of her parents were musical. “My great-grandmother played guitar and my great uncle was an amazing maestro pianist with nary a lesson!” But it was her cousin, Sidney Robinson who played saxophone, who influenced her most. “I remember when I was very small; he was already very good on sax. I’d look up at him while he played and say to myself “oh I wanna play saxophone like Sidney!’”
So in sixth grade, she picked up the saxophone and didn’t put it down until after high school graduation from James River High. She was in marching band, jazz band, and concert band and by the time she was a senior, she was chosen as Field Commander for the marching band; one of the highest honors at the institution. “When I was selected as Field Commander, it felt like a really high achievement. I was honored to be trusted by my peers in this leadership role. I loved every minute of learning that new skill, being a visual representation for keeping time. It was very cool!”

Following high school she put the sax down for a spell and was elated to get a break from all the practicing. Attending Hollins, an all-female University in Roanoke, she had planned to major in clinical psychology. “When I divulged the plan to my grandmother she said, ‘Hmm, I always thought you’d do something in music.’” To which she wondered aloud: “That’s an option?” So while she kept psychology study plans on the stove, she also decided to join the Roanoke College’s concert band to keep up her chops.

In the meantime, she hit the college night club scene and started to follow a Reggae/Ska band that inspired her called, “The Seed.” Though they had no saxophone player, she loved their style, their musicianship so much, that she became friends with them. She listened their CD’s and learned their songs in order to sit in on their shows. “It was the inspiration I needed to get me playing again!”

This laid the groundwork that would eventually lead her to Asheville in 2007. For instance, her tenure as backing vocalist and horn player for then Asheville based band Laura Reed & Deep Pocket, came about from supporting those shows along with Your Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band gigs in Boone, Roanoke and Asheville. “At one Deep Pocket show, I was singing harmonies really loud from the front row and after the show ended, I met up with Laura backstage and we instantaneously started singing together. Our voices and chemistry was so palpable that we promised to stay in contact.”

Fresh from that potent encounter, she made it her mission to learn all the horn parts and backing vocals for Reed’s originals and began sitting in with them whenever they played in the area. You sense the pattern here folks? She was regularly invited up on stage whenever they were in town, and one night Reed asked her to move to Asheville and officially join the band.

Work mates and friends scoffed at her decision to quit her job and move to pursue a full time career in music. Their doubts created a motivation and a powerful assertion to prove them wrong.

After Deep Pocket broke up eight years ago, she joined Josh Phillips Folk Festival band and toured with them for several years. As they were breaking up, she was approached to join the outfit Secret Agent 23 Skidoo by the “King of Kid-Hop” himself, a genius guy who goes by the name Cactus. With their recent 2016 Grammy award, as part of this “Dr. Dre meets Dr. Seuss” kid group, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo won best Children’s Album for Infinity Plus One. Bravo Debrissa, bravo!

A recent survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, McKinney has obviously let nothing stand in her way. She’s carved out a life of full time employment doing what she was put here to do. As she successfully and joyfully juggles independent project work along with the Skidoo band, she’s also a member of Pauly Juhl’s on-going project, the infamous Empire Strikes Brass band. They’ll be playing a New Year’s Eve Masquerade party at New Mountain Asheville starting at 9pm. for tickets!

And in the MEANTIME, she’s been working on an original project with fellow musician and boyfriend, Austin Haynes that has yet to be defined, so stay tuned on that. She’s also teamed up with musician friend, Oso Rey in a trip-hop venture they call “Debrissa and the Bear King” where they blend electronica, Dj and vocals to form a transmittable big beats and deep bass dance sound and experience, at local haunts like the One Stop.

I’ll leave you with one of her favorite quotes from Jimi Hendrix, which sums up what she’s all about in very high degree: “I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see.”

Peggy Ratusz
Written by Peggy Ratusz