For years, singer/guitarist Kelly Jo has been one the most talented vocalists on the Southeastern music scene. When she finally found the right vehicle for that voice in 2017 with her Latin-pop band Phat Lip, the results were stellar. The band’s first EP, “Vision,” was an infectious blend of powerhouse vocals, romantic, yearning lyrics, Latin rhythms and pure pop melodies.
The band and the EP gained national notice, with NPR praising Kelly Jo’s “ravishing alto vocals” and the band’s “potent mix of soulful blues, Latin roots rhythms and moody pop.”
And as it turns out, that release was just the warmup for the band’s next move. Their new EP, “Bembona,” is heavier, more experimental and more rock-oriented while still maintaining a solid foundation in Latin rhythms.
The EP includes two stellar singles that the band released last year: “Citizen Alone,” a funky kiss-off to an ex, and the deceptively buoyant “Coyote,” which deals with the danger illegal immigrants face when crossing the border into this country.
The three other songs, “Hot Spring,” “Lips & Curls” and “Rewind More,” consolidate the band’s strengths and push their music forward, adding rock muscle and, on “Hot Springs,” a bouncing reggae groove.
“I was sitting there looking at an empty calendar and basically having an identity crisis, and the songs kind of became more of me trying to search for my love of music again.”
“Musically speaking, I wanted to present a more focused sound and a more aggressive sound,” Kelly Jo says of the new EP. “‘Vision’ was more, ‘This is the variety of music that we can do,’ and with ‘Bembona’ [the title is the band’s name in Spanish], it’s more centered around Latin fusion. It’s definitely more energetic in certain parts, and it’s definitely heavier overall.”
Kelly Jo says that she and the rest of the band (drummer Troy Jones, bassist Sam Kruer, guitarist Matt Dingledine and percussionist Bert Brown) were more confident going into their second release.
“With the first EP, we really hadn’t been together that long when we released it,” she says. “That was something I wanted to do on purpose because I had learned from previous bands. I wanted to have the product first, and then we could work on the tightness of the band. And with this project, our chemistry has worked better, and because of that, you get a harder rock sound.”
And while most of the songs on “Bembona” were initially written about love, heartbreak and romance, Kelly Jo says that the year 2020 has brought a new meaning to a lot of her lyrics.
“As listeners, we’re always drawn to what the story behind the song is,” she says, “but as the artist, that gets lost. All these songs have changed meaning to me during this COVID year. I was sitting there looking at an empty calendar and basically having an identity crisis, and the songs kind of became more of me trying to search for my love of music again, and going back and trying to focus on what it is I want to accomplish with music. It’s so funny how a song like ‘Rewind More’ can come up as a romantic story, but when I sing it now, it’s really how I felt about music in general.”
“I really have to thank the Peace Center for approaching me,” Kelly Jo says. “With masks and everyone spaced out, they’ve really gotten creative with live shows.”
At least in the immediate future, Phat Lip’s calendar isn’t completely empty. The full band will perform for the first time in months at Genevieve’s in the Peace Center this Friday, to celebrate the release of the EP. Occupancy is limited, masks are required at the show, and tables will be sold instead of individual seats to promote social distancing.
“I really have to thank the Peace Center for approaching me,” Kelly Jo says. “With masks and everyone spaced out, they’ve really gotten creative with live shows. So I owe them for finding a smart and safe way to put on shows. We’re looking forward to actually playing for people.”
What: Phat Lip
Where: Genevieve’s @ the Peace Center
When: Friday, Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $125 for a table of 4