Whether or not musical talent can be handed down genetically is a matter of debate. But one thing is undeniable: talent, ability, and an affinity for the arts (and specifically music) tie together siblings -- and often parents to their children -- far too frequently to be written off as mere coincidence.
In the rock realm alone, a number of (usually volatile) sibling pairings have left their stamp on popular music's subconscious, from the Davies brothers (The Kinks) to the Gallaghers (Oasis) to the Robinsons (Black Crowes). Of course, a working artistic relationship doesn't have to be explosive, as displayed by the Dickinson brothers in North Mississippi All Stars and a host of other acts. When arguing genetics, you only need to consider the similarities between John Lennon and his sons Julian and Sean, or Ben Taylor's subconscious hybrid of styles, looks and delivery from parents James Taylor and Carly Simon.
In R&B and pop, the Jacksons may be the ultimate example of fusion of genetic ability and environmental impact, yet the natural ease and chemistry of the Neville Brothers make a good argument for genetics. And when stepping into the modern jazz age, how else can you explain the common thread of universal talent woven throughout the Marsalis family?
When thinking locally, you need look no further than Olivia and Zeke Duhon. Both landed on UTW's Hot 100 list this year, based on their own individual talents and credentials. Aside from sharing a last name (and a few physical traits), however, you probably wouldn't connect the dots between these two rising artists. Yes, they cross paths and share some common ground in the pop music realm and a few creative influences, but from there, their respective paths diverge.
Olivia, the elder sister at 29, is the jazz siren; Zeke, 18, is the pop songsmith. She's the student and scholar, studying her craft and laboring over her work; he's the savant, a natural talent for whom the creative process comes innately. Regardless of these differences, the siblings share a common bond, growing up in a home saturated with music and a love of the arts, creating a magical cocktail of genetics and environment that nurtures natural talent and allows it to become fruitful.
In the Duhons' case, each merely follows a different path to musical fulfillment.
A Scholarly Approach
If you live in Tulsa and haven't heard Olivia Duhon yet, you might just have to get out more. The young lady with striking features and a voice that can melt steel first appeared on the local music scene about six years ago, immediately winning the attention of Tulsa's jazz fans with her loyal translation of jazz and pop standards. Her reputation quickly spread beyond jazz circles, based on the sheer strength and beauty of her voice and a natural yet refined talent.
A native of Lake Charles, La., Duhon landed in Tulsa as a teenager after her father relocated the family for educational and job opportunities. With a strong French Cajun background, she grew up with music of all styles surrounding her.
"My dad's mother loved Benny Goodman and jazz, while my grandfather loved Bob Wills and country swing," she said, revealing the early layers of her musical influences. "My grandfather was the classic, Southern head of the household, though, so my grandmother just kind of suppressed that and kept her love in the background."
It wasn't just a love and appreciation of music that was handed down through the family, though; there was a natural talent that flowed from generation to generation as well.
"My dad grew up playing guitar because my granddad did. He was self-taught and my dad plays by ear," Duhon explained. "Myself, I started taking piano lesson in the fifth grade."
That wasn't the beginning of Olivia's life-long love affair with music, merely the start of her educational process. Duhon sang in front of an audience for the first time nearly two years earlier and was instantly hooked.
"I was in the third grade when I sang my first solo in church and I loved it so much," she said of the experience. "I know then that was all I wanted to do, to sing in front of an audience. It just felt so good to perform something I believed in and felt to be true."
During middle school, Duhon joined the Children's Theatre Company and loved the experience, finding herself especially drawn to musical theatre. That led her to continue pursuing theatre through her high school career, which began at Sam Houston High School in Lake Charles and finished at Union High School after the family relocated to Tulsa.
When it was time to move on to college, Duhon enrolled at University of Tulsa with a major in music theatre. After beginning school, however, she changed her major to music with jazz emphasis and added an art minor.
Olivia said of the transition, "I changed majors because I wanted to focus and be great at one thing, but I tend to like a little of everything and spread myself too thin. That really helped me focus on things like getting my book together and really learning the music and my craft."
"There's a stigma of singers, especially female singers, being dumb and not knowing the technical aspects of the music. I didn't want to be like that. I can walk in prepared and say 'Here are my charts' and know what I'm doing."
"That's why I love TU," she continued. "It really prepared [me]. I can talk to musicians on their level and have their respect."
It was during college that Duhon started performing locally as a jazz artist. After forming a jazz trio for semester exams, word spread and the group started playing additional functions, getting calls when the law school or other organizations needing jazz artists for their functions.
Shortly after exams, Olivia and her trio played their first real gig at Vintage 1740. That was nearly six years ago and although that original trio has since split up, Duhon has continued to perform in Tulsa, becoming one of the city's most well recognized and sought after young jazz vocalists.
Although there are few venues for jazz artists in Tulsa, Duhon manages to keep a relatively busy schedule, balancing regular performances at Smoke (one Sunday evening each month), Main Street Tavern in Broken Arrow (alternating Thursday evenings), and The Tropical with occasional appearances at the Mayo or the Jazz Hall of Fame and a number of private events.
Duhon's influences and abilities are broad, which gives her flexibility in her performances, catering them to whatever the situation calls for. If it's a private party, she'll likely settle in to a quiet, mellow mood, whereas a gig at the Mayo opens up the evening to explore a more pop-infused direction.
What's truly impressive, beyond the strength of her voice, which turns heads of all generations, is her flexibility within the genre. Not only can she shift her performances to fit the audience or venue, but she can also identify with musicians of all ages.
When inspecting Tulsa's jazz scene, the entire movement has largely skipped a generation. With the exception of a few artists who have moved on to perform outside of Tulsa -- like Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Grady Nichols -- there is a separation between our city's old school jazz artists and the generation of jazz musicians currently emerging. The two rarely cross paths or meet in the middle.
That isn't the case for Duhon. Much like Annie Ellicott, Olivia bridges the gap between the generations, a young artist with a mature soul and understanding of the genre. She is able to perform with musicians of all generations. By performing primarily with the Frank Brown Trio, which has recently consisted of Frank Brown on guitar, Ron Adams on bass, and Jimmy Karstein on drums, Duhon's band alone represents a unity between multiple generations of Tulsa's most respected jazz musicians.
Once an audience hears Olivia sing, it is automatically won over. As a perennial ABoT music award nominee and winner in both the jazz and female vocalist categories, Olivia's talent and appeal are undeniable. The challenge for her, especially as a jazz artist who loves the standards, has been finding the proper outlet and venues to continue to perform and grow her audience.
"If I want to continue to pursue this, I'm going to have to do originals," Duhon said recently. "... or move to Europe. In America, unfortunately, people are looking for original jazz artists, not ones who play the standards."
While she is interested in writing (and does write) her own material, the writing process comes slowly for her.
"Writing is more of a struggle for me," she confided when discussing the process. "Lyrics are a lot easier for me than the melody and music in general. That's the reason I love to sing: it's the written words and how they relate to my life."
"I used to write a lot in high school, but I would labor over it, sitting at the piano for hours, trying to work things out," she added. "I remember growing up, Zeke was 11 years younger than me, so I'd be babysitting after school when our mom and dad had to work late. So I'd be practicing or writing and he'd hear me playing and finally come in and just bang on the piano. He'd come and interrupt me and want me to come play with him and I was like, 'Can't you see I'm practicing?'"
"It's almost funny, because it comes to him so easily," she continued with a laugh. "Sometimes I feel like I sat there so long working at it and got up to go to take a break and go to the kitchen or something, then Zeke came up to the piano and was sitting there when the muse fell and it landed on him instead of me."
Of course, one of the keys to the next level of Olivia's career will be releasing a CD. Fans have been anxiously awaiting a CD for some time, and a new album is currently in the works. Roughly half of the tracks are recorded and the rest are being handpicked in hopes of having a disc ready for release this summer.
"It's been a long time coming," Duhon admitted, adding, "Sometimes I'm just a perfectionist to a fault."
No one can blame her for wanting her debut to meet her own standards as well as the expectations of her fans. That alone is a tall order, as she has already set the bar incredibly high, with her consistently amazing live performances. As such, anticipation is building amongst local jazz and pop fans for an impending release.
What you can expect from Olivia is a long and diverse career. At a young age, she was influenced by Rogers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, and Leonard Cohen, and she now takes her jazz cues from classic jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Anita O'Day. Perhaps her biggest influence and inspiration, however, is Joni Mitchell.
"She has always been such a multifaceted artist, from her lyrics to the music and the visual arts," Duhon said of her fascination with Mitchell. "Every album was different. She went from folk to pop to jazz to her '80s stuff. She's always been experimenting. I hope to say the same thing as my career goes on -- I never want to stop growing."
Somehow, with the combination of talent and ambition, I don't foresee that being an issue. So long as Duhon continues to make the steps to perform in front of gradually growing audiences, she has the potential to do anything she wants.
The Natural Touch
Although Olivia and Zeke Duhon grew up in the same household, their paths largely diverge from there. While his sister has drawn the majority of her influences from theatre and jazz, Zeke has mined the classic rock of his parents and balanced it with a touch of Tulsa's history and a healthy dose of the modern rock and pop that any average teenager might absorb.
Zeke Duhon is no average teenager, however. Not many other high school seniors have recorded two CDs and opened for a handful of nationally touring acts.
There are some similarities between the Duhons. Zeke also embraced the theatre in high school, most recently playing the role of Tug Tigger in Union's production of Cats. Unlike his sister, however, as of late January he didn't have a clear vision for the immediate future and was still indecisive on where he would go to college and what he would study.
Also unlike his sister, instead of studying music formally, it has come to him naturally.
"Basically, my dad was big on '60s music like The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Eric Clapton and he got me into it," Duhon said. "He taught me how to play piano and guitar by ear. I started on guitar at 13 and then he started teaching me piano when I was 15."
And that muse that Olivia mentioned? When it fell, it landed on him hard and heavy. Zeke wrote his first song, "Paper Cut," at the age of 13, shortly after his father had taught him his first chords.
"When my dad first heard me playing it, he didn't believe I wrote it," Zeke said. "After I wrote some more, though, he realized I didn't plagiarize anything and decided to go into the studio."
Recorded at Blue House Studio with Joel Wade, Duhon's debut EP, Eric's Marine, was released in 2010, when he was only 15. The disc included the first two songs he ever wrote, "Paper Cut" and the title track, "Eric's Marine," which was also the first song that he got published and recorded a video for.
Even before a CD was recorded, however, Duhon started performing live and developing not only his songs, but also his stage presence. Appearing on the local scene in 2007 and 2008, Zeke played his first show at The Pinkeye and followed it up by opening for Capital Lights at The Marquee for his second gig. From there, he began performing semi-regularly in all-ages clubs like The Pinkeye and The Marquee in Tulsa and King of Clubs and The Tree in Claremore.
"In the 8th grade, I opened for Never Shout Never at King of Clubs, in front of about 300 people," he said while reflecting on the earliest stages of his fledgling career. "I was a big fan at the time and I got to hang out with Christofer Drew backstage, so I remember thinking that was pretty cool."
Much like most other teenage boys, however, Duhon's taste reached beyond pop songwriting and into louder, more aggressive music. Zeke was also a member of scream/hard rock act Relax Relapse for roughly a year before stepping down to focus on his own material. During his tenure, the band played a number of shows, including opening for nationally touring act Asking Alexandria at Crush Lounge.
Following Duhon's departure, the band moved in a slightly more melodic direction and changed its name to Parallels, releasing a CD in 2011, before going dormant as the members focused on school during their senior year. During that time, Zeke worked on his solo material, moving in a more indie/alternative rock direction while still retaining his pop sensibilities.
Over the next year, he proceeded to write and record what would become his sophomore release, Tides, with Kendal Osbourne and Jacob Song. Completed in early 2012, a professionally shot, HD video for the title track, "Tides," was directed by Ryan Valdez and released in January 2012, building anticipation amongst fans and a small groundswell of Internet buzz.
A release party was planned at The Marquee for last April but when the club unexpectedly closed its doors, it left Duhon without an all-ages venue and the album was released quietly through iTunes and digital outlets with little promotion or fanfare.
That proved to be unfortunate, as the album proved to be one of the best local pop/rock releases of the year, but it flew under the radar and went unnoticed by most of Tulsa. Besides developing his voice and eliminating the need for auto-tuned vocals, Duhon grew by leaps and bounds as a musician and lyricist as well. The album also took on a more indie and alt-rock direction, moving from the more simple singer/songwriter pop of the debut disc.
The disc's opening single, a breakup song entitled "From A to Z," created a buzz at the high school within days of its release online, but it proved to be more than a flavor of the month single like most premanufactured pop. Somewhere in the mix, Duhon merged the vocal harmonies and melodies of The Beatles and Beach Boys with the pop-punk energy of All Time Low and found what would have amounted to a hit single for an artist on a major label with radio airplay.
The album didn't hinge on a lone single, however. Beyond the lead track, Duhon crafted a fine indie alt-rock album that channeled artists like Anberlin and Switchfoot and showed even greater depth in his songwriting skills with the songs like "Battle Hymn" and "Tides."
Ultimately, Zeke found himself facing a challenge much like his sister, only on a magnified scale. While Olivia faces a lack of proper venues for jazz artists, The Marquee closing its doors also marked the closing of the last proper all-ages venue following the closure of previous outlets like The Pinkeye, Crush Lounge, King of Clubs, and The Tree over the past few years. By the time Vanguard had opened in the old Marquee location in late July, the album had already been released and Duhon was already pressing forward.
To his credit, instead of letting the lack of venues and live opportunities crush his spirit, Duhon dove into his music and resumed the writing process. Currently, he is working on a new CD and roughly halfway through the recording process. He is once again working with Kendal Osbourne and Jacob Song, recording at Black Box Studios with an eye on a potential late summer release.
The album's first single, "Love Me Too", has already been recorded and was released in late August 2012 with another HD video, again directed by Ryan Valdez. Although the video gained a favorable response from Duhon's immediate fans, the song took off when it was posted on Brian Stars' YouTube channel, garnering over 7,000 views in that location alone, creating enough of a buzz that the video was added to mtv.com, vh1.com, and cmt.com.
Once again, the song marks another sonic departure for Duhon, this time moving in a more acoustic, folk-infused direction. When standing next to additional new tracks like "Open up Your Eyes" and "Jenny," the songs will immediately draw comparisons to artists like current buzz acts Lumineers, Avett Brothers, and Mumford & Sons. Dig a little deeper, however, and his early influences are lingering just below the surface, not straying far from Simon and Garfunkel or Lennon and McCartney in their structure and melodies.
Although some local music fans might find some frustration in Duhon's shift in styles from album to album, each new release continues to show development, promising more in the future. Zeke has always been a songwriter at his core, and the current tracks merely frame his songs with slightly different styles.
When viewed as an entire work and taken in sequence, you can clearly see a progression in his development as both a songwriter and singer. Instead of coming off as whitewashing his songs in the color of the month, each shift in styles has shown another layer in Duhon's talent and more depth in his songwriting palette.
When looking at the big picture, it helps to remember that Zeke is still only 18 and most teens' musical tastes are constantly shifting. Each change in direction thus far has been accompanied by another step forward and will ultimately all be distilled down as he finds his own unique voice and signature with both his composition and vocal delivery.
Whereas Olivia admittedly labors at the songwriting process, it comes easily to Zeke. When asked about his approach to composing, he said, "Normally when I write, I play around with chords, looking for a hook line and build from there. I might find a few of the right words and the rest just comes together from there."
"Recently, I've been experimenting with writing lyrics first and starting with ideas and going backwards to put music to it," he added.
When reflecting back on writing his first song, Duhon said, "I was just playing some chords my dad had showed me. I was about to go over to a friend's house and wasting time and out of nowhere, the words to the chorus with a melody came to me. I remembered the chorus and when I came back, I wrote the verse and put them together."
"When I write, I try to be conscious of how I say things," Duhon said of his lyrics. "My dad helps critique what I write, so when I've got something I'll show my dad. If it's not good, I don't record it. He tends to keep me focused."
Ultimately, his father's opinion helps direct what Zeke continues to refine and record. "After all," he added with a laugh, "he's the one who pays for me to go into the studio."
So far, Charles Duhon -- the family patriarch -- has done a fabulous job of helping direct his son while letting him explore different styles and continue to grow as an artist. With a half dozen songs already recorded and more in process, Zeke's next album promises to be yet another step forward in his growth as a musician and artist. With half an album already recorded, his goal of a summer release should be readily attainable.
Aside from finishing the new album, he is also looking at returning to the stage on a regular basis. Accompanied by Jake Butts on guitar, Tyler Fitzsimmons on bass and Ben Blount on drums, Duhon has already played at The Vanguard a couple of times, including a New Year's Eve show which saw Forrest French (formerly of Crooked X) fill in on guitar in Jake's absence. The show went so smoothly that he is considering adding French to the lineup for future performances if schedules permit.
Once he finishes his senior year and graduates, Zeke also shared that he'd like to try a small tour this summer, possibly visiting Texas and the surrounding area and is even considering playing some acoustic shows. When combined with an album of all new material that's already creating a buzz, 2013 is shaping up to be a big year for a young artist that has already shown a poise and talent beyond his years.
When considering the talents of the two siblings, the one question that seems to hover in that back of many local music fans' minds (aside from "What did their parents put in the water?") is whether or not the two will come together to work on a combined project in the future.
Although Olivia's focus has been directed towards jazz and Zeke was excelled with a more rock-oriented approach, the two share a common musical thread where they overlap in the pop genre. The real intrigue of a possible pairing doesn't lie as much in the sheer talent each possesses as it does in just where their combined influences might lead them.
When discussing the possibility of the two working together in the future, Olivia said, "I would love to collaborate with Zeke and try something new with him. It might sound clichéd, but I think we could both learn a lot from each other. I could learn a lot from his younger, fresher perspective and I think he could learn from me as well."
When asked if the topic had been approached previously, she answered, "No, not really. Not up until just recently, anyway. He's really grown a lot a musician and a songwriter, though, so maybe we'll get to do something."
When discussing the creative relationship with his sister, Zeke said that although they haven't written or worked on anything together, "I've noticed that I've picked some smaller things in how I sing from her, maybe something in how I put words together. I think it's possibly something I picked up from hearing her practice when I was younger."
When asking about the potential working together, he said, "Recently, we've wanted to do something together, possibly something like The Civil Wars. We just haven't taken the time to work on anything yet."
Granted, he did acknowledge that a good part of that is because both he and his sister are currently working on separate solo albums, which has restricted their time and opportunity to work on something new together and the focus for each is to get their respective projects completed.
"Once we finish, though, hopefully we'll have the time to give our full attention to it and see what works."
It would seem that a collaboration between these two siblings is inevitable, if only for one or two songs. The potential that comes from combining their individual strengths is all but undeniable. Even if it doesn't work out in the near future, though, the Duhon name is one that appears destined to be burned into the minds of music fans in Tulsa and beyond before the end of the year as both Zeke and Olivia have new albums hovering on the horizon.
When looking at Olivia and Zeke Duhon as individuals artists, you might never connect the two as siblings. Each of them is immensely talented, but possesses a different set of artistic strengths and is pursuing a different direction with their music. As they continue to grow as performers and prove to be a pair of the most talented young artists within the local music scene, however, you can only come to one conclusion: It's more than just a name -- there's got to be something in their blood.
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