The Fitzgerald siblings — Darius and twins Alexandria and Alexis — and their cousin Jasmine Mullen realized as teenagers that there was really no established template for the band they wanted to be: a coed quartet of Tennessee-bred, African-American kids initially playing a variation on folk-rock. Their response was to keep at it, experimenting with whatever styles struck their fancy at the moment and sifting through the influences they'd absorbed from their upbringings. (Mullen's mom, Nicole C. Mullen, rose to contemporary Christian popularity in the early '00s as a singer and songwriter of inspirational ballads and, as homeschooled preacher's kids, the Fitzgeralds were steered toward modern gospel and Motown.) Now in their early 20s, they're releasing their bright-eyed take on throwback rock 'n' roll, peppered with blues and soul references and calibrated for maximum pop effect, under the moniker The New Respects.
The way that Jasmine, the lead singer, springs off of the darting, furtively funky pattern laid down by guitarist Alexandria, bassist Alexis and drummer Darius in "Money," a track that debuted last month and also appears on a five-song EP due in March, captures the foursome's musical interplay. They'll also take their show on the road next month, opening for Robert Randolph & the Family Band.
Jasmine Mullen and Alexis Fitzgerald were recently dispatched to an East Nashville café to represent their bandmates, and the two of them proved to be sharp, eager interviewees, quick to second each other's perspectives on where they've come from and what they're about while nursing their artisanal lattes.
Alexis, you and your siblings grew up as homeschooled preacher's kids, and Jasmine, you're the daughter a successful contemporary Christian and gospel singer. How'd that shape your musical awareness growing up?
Jasmine Mullen: I didn't realize how much of an impact my parents' music[-making] would have on me later on, just 'cause I never wanted to do it. So people would always be like, "Hey, are you going to sing like your mom?" And I would be like, "No. I'm not gonna sing."
Alexis Fitzgerald: She'd say, "I'm nothing like my mother."
So it was a defiance thing.
Mullen: Absolutely. My parents are both songwriters along with my mom being a singer, so there was always people in our house who were writing with them. Or I'd be at the studio with them while they were writing. ... I think as a result it really birthed in me this need to write songs. So I wrote my first song when I was probably, like, 3 years old. I would bring all my songs to my parents, and I would be like, "Is this good?" They are very blunt people. So they'd be like, "This is good, but this line doesn't actually make sense. This metaphor doesn't line up, and A does not rhyme with B."
At what age were you having these conversations?
Mullen: Probably 7, 8. ...I would go back upstairs and write another line and bring it back down and be like, "How's this?" Most of my childhood was like that. Also, my parents listened to a lot of music. I was raised on U2, Amy Grant, Coldplay, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder.
A lot of singer-songwriters.
Mullen: Right. And I think that they shaped my parents and then they shaped me. ... There was so much music going through our house that I guess it was a little bit of a self-fulfilled prophecy for me to end up here. But I never thought I would, so it's kind of incredible.
Fitzgerald: We were very different, our family. My dad was a pastor, so my understanding of the world was very limited because we were only allowed to listen to [certain music]. Either it was gospel, Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin, or it was the Jackson 5. Or Veggie Tales. But that was it for a while. So it was just a lot of different sounds that I feel like shape what we do now. With Fred Hammond and the gospel world, everything is really intricate, the way they play and the harmonies that they sing. There's a lot of key changes in the middle of the song. So we just grew up singing along with that, not realizing it was training us to do that.
What was the band like when you were in high school?
Fitzgerald: Yeah, Mumford & Sisters.
I found a 2010 YouTube video of three of you giving an acoustic performance at a coffeehouse. How did you get from folkie mode to throwback rock 'n' roll?
Mullen: We started listening to older things. We've always been passionate about what we're listening to, so whatever we're listening to kind of has informed what we do at the time. This one just happened to stick, I think. We started listening to Aretha [Franklin] and we also started listening to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
Fitzgerald: ...They have a very specific voice, and it was in listening to them that we found ours in the midst of that.
Did you take your name from the Aretha Franklin version of the Otis Redding song "Respect"?
Fitzgerald: No, we didn't. But we're going to tell people that now.
Mullen: We actually had a different name before. It was the John Hancock Band. For legal reasons, we had to change it. Also, praise God that we changed it. I feel like it didn't fit us. We went through a really long process with our A&R [guy], trying to figure out a new name.
Unlike a lot of young musicians, you didn't move here to pursue this. So what difference did your proximity to the music industry make?
Fitzgerald: It was such a normal part of life. I think because music was everywhere, we were able to experience it in a way that didn't add pressure to it. ... Music is fun — and we get to do it with our best friends. We're family, but we've done everything together. So there's not the stress of, "I have to form a band. I have to go find these people." It all happened pretty naturally.
Sometimes it's label executives who assemble a group and shape its identity from the get-go. How did things change once you'd signed to a label and started getting outside input?
Fitzgerald: Throughout our entire process we've always had outside voices, just because we've always valued the opinions of other people who know more than us. We realize how young we are. We started when I was 16 and they were 17. Now I'm 21, but I still understand the fact that I'm crazy young. So I don't know everything. ... The difference was when people had opinions that were not really welcome, we had to learn how to filter through those opinions, because you can't take everything to heart and you can't take everything as truth, no matter what people say.
How did the way that people responded to your folkier stuff compare to the way people respond to your music now?
Mullen: Most of the time when we played shows when we did folk, it was for our family. So they loved it. They cheered. ... So it's different in that when we started playing the kind of music we play now, it was for people who don't really know us as much. I think my fear at the beginning was, "Will people like it if they are not related to me?" But they did like it, and that was kind of shocking and a huge blessing.
How aware are you of expectations people have about what kind of music you play simply based on how you look?
Fitzgerald: Oh, very, very. You can look at people and be like, "I know what you're thinking."
Mullen: A lot of people, I know when they see us they're like, "Y'all are about to do some R&B or some gospel." Then they see us come out on stage with guitars and they're like, "What?"
Fitzgerald: We're four black kids with big curly hair and all have instruments. We understand that that's not normal. I think when you're a part of something this unique, the first thing you have to do is accept the fact that it's not normal. ... The hardest part is feeling like you have to combat the idea that we're something else.
Mullen: We've had a couple times where girls who look like us will come through the signing line and they just want to meet us because we look like them. ... We have people in our culture that do that for us, like Tracee Ellis Ross. I see women like that and I'm like, "I can do something too."
Fitzgerald: Michelle Obama!
Mullen: For me to be able to be that for somebody else is life-changing.
Fitzgerald: Because that was lacking for us when we were little, especially being around CCM music. Outside of Jasmine's mom, there weren't really black female figures, or black people in general.
I would say that your mother and BeBe and CeCe Winans were about it.
Fitzgerald: Exactly. Imagine how big the industry is, and we're thinking of two or three people. I didn't realize until later how much that affected me, because you see this idea of what you can and cannot be based on what's represented. So just stepping out into an arena where people can see us and say, "That's not what I expected, but I can do that too," it's really powerful, and a mantle that I'm so happy I get to carry.
Alabama Shakes is one of the few groups that people can think of to compare you to — a self-contained, Southern band, fronted by a woman of color that was initially pegged as a retro-soul outfit, then got more expansive. Is there anything about what they've done or what they represent that you identify with?
Fitzgerald: Oh, all of it.
Mullen: [The second Shakes album] Sound & Color changed our lives. It's got all the weird sounds.
Fitzgerald: I think they expanded the idea of what was possible in a lot of different ways — obviously having a black woman leading it, but also sonically what they're doing is really different as well as really classic, which is an interesting balance. And [lead singer Brittany Howard] is so free to be who she is. We got to see them when they came to Nashville, and she had on this dress and a cape that matched.
Mullen: I was like, "You should have a cape, because you're a hero."
Fitzgerald: Even little things like that speak volumes. ... Like, I can be a black female and be free [enough] to say, "If I want to wear a cape on stage, then I'll wear a cape." Or, "If I want to sing this song, I'll sing this song." The boundaries are expanded so we have more space to grow and to find who we want to be as black people. And we've still been in front of a lot of heavily Caucasian audiences, but to have them accept us for who we are has been really cool too.
Mullen: I feel like we are a bridge for people, for a lot of people who don't understand black culture, or people on our side who don't understand Caucasian culture, or any of the cultures. We grew up heavily around Caucasian people who loved us really well, and around African-American people who loved us really well. My mom said something the other day in the kitchen: "When you're a bridge for people, you can't be surprised when you get walked on a little bit."
Opening for more established acts is often how young bands start to find their audiences. You've opened for Switchfoot, a pop-rock band with one foot in the Christian world, and for Crowder, whose known for praise and worship music. I'm guessing their audiences are mostly white. What did you learn on those tours about the kinds of spaces and crowds that suit your music?
Fitzgerald: I think the biggest thing for us is we want to be in a space that invites anyone who wants to come to be there. That might not look like church, probably won't look like churches, because not everybody believes the same thing. Our music isn't set up to be a specific idea of something, but freedom — freedom and fun and family. Wherever that will be welcome, that's where we want to go. As far as specific venues, I don't have an idea of what that looks like. This next tour that we're going on, we're playing clubs. ... We've only done the two tours and random shows here and there, so we don't have that much experience in what we want. ... We'd love to play arenas, but we'll see.
Do you identify as a Christian band?
Mullen: I would say we identify as a band of Christians, not as a Christian band. ... We have enough people, I think, writing songs about what each one believes, but we don't have enough people willing to be like, "Hey, you know something that I don't. I know something that you don't. Let's tell each other that." ... I think that's why we have as much strife as we do now; it's not really a hatred as much as it's a lack of understanding between people. That's where the arts are supposed to step in.