From performing in a Jellybean Johnson-produced all-girl band in junior high to singing backing vocals and touring with Caroline Smith, 30-year-old vocalist Yasmina Moore-Foster has already accumulated a long and fascinating musical resume. And although she is just breaking out with her first solo material and playing out under her own name for the first time this year, her love for singing and performing dates all the way back to her earliest memories.
“I think there’s an old tape somewhere of me banging on one of those kid toy pianos singing the Snoopy song from Peanuts as a toddler,” she says, laughing.
Moore-Foster is seated at the Selby-Dale watering hole the Muddy Pig, chasing a sunken cherry around a cocktail glass with a tiny plastic straw. She grew up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a home surrounded by music, and as we wind into our conversation she talks of joining her first band, the Sugar Divas, while attending Capitol Hill Middle School in Rondo.
The Sugar Divas—which also included another established St. Paul artist, Mayda—caught the attention of the Time’s Jellybean Johnson and Stanley “Chance” Howard, who recorded and produced their first album. But though their future as a band seemed bright, the members eventually parted ways to attend college and pursue other projects.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Moore-Foster started dipping her toes back into the music community in the Twin Cities, first by singing back-up vocals in a friend’s band, then by collaborating with Al Church (BBGUN, Al Church and the State) on the experimental, spacey, Star Trek-inspired indie-pop project Dear Data. Earlier this year, she applied for and won a songwriting contest put on by the Humans Win! recording studio in Northeast Minneapolis, and now she’s hard at work creating the songs that will go on her debut solo album—the first under her stage name, Mina Moore.
How did you land on the name Mina Moore?
Yasmina Moore-Foster: I was singing with Caroline and she was like, ‘How do you want me to introduce you on stage?’ And I was like, ‘Mina… Moore? I guess?’ And she was like, ‘How have you never thought of that? That’s the perfect stage name.’ [laughs]
And how did you start assembling this new solo material?
Entering that competition, winning that competition, and them saying, ‘Ok, we’re ready for you to make a record’—it was like, well, I guess I should start writing some songs. I knew that I had a bass player and musical director in Casey O’Brien. And I met Joe Strachan—Joe plays in Black Market Brass and Courageous Endeavors, which is a jazz quartet. I would come to them with a sparse demo that might just have some Questlove drum loops, and I might pluck out a bass line on the keyboard, or just have a vocal melody, and then Joe and Casey would come in and fill in the parts. That’s how we wrote the single, “Amanhã.” And then we asked Graham [O’Brien] to come in and play drums.
When you were in the band in junior high, were you writing music?
Yeah. Primarily it was me and Mayda and our drummer, who is now a professor at Harvard. But yeah, we just started songwriting as kids. And I guess never grew out of it.
Had you written songs up until now?
I wrote with Dear Data. Al and I wrote together with Dear Data. And that was part of the hangup—I was always like, well, if I’m going to get into music again, I need to write songs. Songwriting has always been really hard for me, and I’ve always felt this guilt about it because I love karaoke, I love cover songs, I love singing other people’s songs, so when it comes to actually writing my own, I think I have a little bit of a psychological block or something.
When you write, are you looking for melodies first?
Yeah. Definitely all about the music first. If you were to go back and listen to these Dear Data songs, you would see that most of the lyrics are nonsensical. Sometimes I’d think, maybe I should just be a trumpet player or something, because lyrics to me are completely secondary. 90 percent of the songs that I’ve written, as I’m writing the melody it will just be scratch lyrics, kind of whatever vowel feels right, whatever syllables feel right in that melody, and a lot of times those lyrics just stay. Which is why some of them sound like gibberish.
And that’s where Caroline came in with “Amanhã.” I literally sent her an email with the lyrics, and she’s really been helping me with that. We’re so frank and honest with each other, we’re very close friends at this point, and she’s like, you know, being that your voice isn’t one that’s like Aretha Franklin or Chaka Khan or Beyoncé, you don’t have this incredible acrobatic skill, but it’s very much—and I take a lot of inspiration from Erykah Badu—it’s very much about the sonic quality of the sound. Caroline was like, “That’s even more incentive for you to invest in your lyrics, to make them even more meaningful.” So that’s what I’m working on.
What have you learned about performing from being on tour with Caroline?
Ok, let me just back up a little bit. I had mentioned that I read your article about Caroline’s show. Up until then, Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps—I couldn’t sing you any one of their songs. I was just like, cool. It’s not my thing. But then she put out Half About Being a Woman, and I remember I was on the U of M campus and she was on the cover of Vita.mn, and it was like ‘Caroline Smith goes from indie rocker to sexy R&B,’ and I was like you have got to be ****ing me. I was so mad. I was like, no. No. I was just so annoyed.
I felt an energy around Minneapolis around that time, and was having conversations more and more with people about what was happening, and sort of feeling a segregation within our community. So when I got that message from Caroline, “Will you come tour with me?,” I was like, YOU? But it was like, well, you don’t say no to this. I was a 29-year-old college junior at this point, so I was like, ok, I should probably do this. And I had almost even written Caroline off—I had looked at some YouTube videos, and they were with Lizzo and Hannah—and I was like, whatever, I got this, I’m not intimidated. This is just some white Minnesota girl, whatever. So she likes TLC, whatever. I got this. And very quickly I realized that she puts. In. Work. I was like, oh my god.
So your original question was what did you learn about performing by touring with Caroline? First of all, I think Caroline has some of the greatest stage banter of anyone I have ever seen or worked with. And that’s something that I really, really appreciate. I appreciate how serious and how devoted she is to her show. She’s like the quintessential woman who has confidence, and is not the perfect size 2 but is still beautiful and still likable, and I think that’s part of her appeal: you see her show and you’re like, I just want be her friend. I just want to see if she wants to hang out, maybe. And she’s not perfect, and she makes mistakes.
I’m so excited to perform now, this Tuesday and other shows, because I’m absorbing everything I’ve seen her do: Give the people a show. Wear that weave. Make it larger than life. And that’s really what I appreciate about working with Caroline. We just have so much fun.
Let’s talk about the rest of your material you’re working on. How many songs do you have?
Right now we’ve got about six or seven songs. It all kind of started with winning this Humans Win! competition. And I had been thinking, ok, what am I going to write about? I think for a lot of people, but especially for a lot of women, romance is your go-to subject. It’s one of the easiest things to write about, it’s often one of the realest things you’re going through, as a young adult, and it makes for a good song. Part of the reason those Dear Data songs were just nonsense if I’ve never really been able to write a love song. I’ve always felt this certain tinge of like pathetic-ness writing one.
So I was just like, ok, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to write a full record, and I’m going to dedicate it to the women in my life, and we’re not going to talk about the men at all for a while. Women write so many love songs, and they don’t really write them for each other. We’ve been socially trained to undercut and undermine each other, and to see each other as competition and to be jealous instead of befriending each other. So, I’ve had plenty of wonderful, wonderful women in my life, and it was like, I’m going to write songs for them. And you know what? Even platonic love gets messy. And there are some women in my life that aren’t my friends anymore, and I’m going to write about them, too. So that’s where the subject matter came from. And every track, the title will be her name.
Do you identify as an R&B singer?
I just have a little stank on everything I sing. I can’t help it. I try to sing sweet and pretty, and it’s still there. There’s just a little hint of soul in everything. A little hint of R&B. And that’s fine, I’m ok with it. I’m proud of it. Although I wouldn’t have admitted to that a couple of years ago. I would have said my voice is my voice. But, yeah. There’s just things that I’m probably not even aware of—the way I choose to phrase, or the way I choose my vibrato.
Is there anything else on your mind as you prepare for the big show?
None of this for me would be possible without Casey O’Brien, Joe Strachan, and Graham O’Brien. Those dudes. Especially Casey. Casey put in so many hours of producing and arranging to really get the song where it is, and I have a feeling, as we continue, that it’s really going to be a lot of that collaborative effort. So to me, they are invaluable. It’s really important to me that, although it’s called Mina Moore, there’s still a band behind me, and they’re not just hired guns. They’re contributing creatively in terms of production and overall mood and vibe.
Mina Moore and her band perform tonight at the 7th St. Entry with the Maytags, Sophia Eris and Prophis. 7:30 p.m., $7, 18+.