A highly successful TV journalist changed careers and is now making a name for herself in music. We meet Rondi Charleston on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
We spoke with Andrew Patner - a long-time friend of Charleston's - and the classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and critic-at-large for 98.7 WFMT Radio Chicago, to learn more about her musical career.
How long have you known Rondi and followed her career?
I have known Rondi for probably about 52 years, because I’m 53 and she’s 55 I think. Our mothers knew each other when we were babies and her younger brother, Erik, who’s a professional percussionist, singer and pianist in New York City, was born two days before me. He and I were in the Chicago Children’s Choir together.
Their mom is a retired classical musician and soprano, and their dad was a teacher, but definitely a talented musician in his own right. They were from East Hyde Park, and went to Bret Harte Elementary and we went to the William H. Ray School in Hyde Park. We all went to Kenwood High School, and then Rondi transferred to Metro High School.
They were definitely a talented family, but there was nothing show-offish about them. There are birthday party pictures of us at ages 3, 4 and 5 as pirates and bunny rabbits, but as a girl, Rondi was the princess or ballet dancer.
Her career path is an interesting one: she was a student at Juilliard, seemingly on the fast track to a career in music, but then went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a journalist. Now, it’s all appears to have come full circle, with her more recent success as recording artist. Are there similarities between the careers?
I would say three careers, because popular singing and the opera singing that she was trained in at Juilliard are very different. The similarity in her approach to all of them is that she’s a very questing person - she wants to learn new things. We all know journalism is a place for people with curiosity. But now, she’s writing music and writing songs, a number of which are quite good. This is a woman who has always challenged herself. Her songs are about growth and change. To be writing songs is very different for someone trained in classical music, where you’re singing songs that have been handed down over the centuries. It’s very unique how she has taken something from one area of music and brought it over to another area.
How do you think her journalism background shapes her music?
I think it has added curiosity. I think if you asked her years ago, if she would be playing jazz or Latin music like she is today, I don’t think she would have said that was in the future. It’s just about learning new things. It’s the same thing with writing a story - you find the find the sources that really know a topic, and sometimes those are people you need to pry things out of. In that way, looking at things you didn’t know about before is all connected.
How would you describe her musical style and in particular, her voice?
Her voice is very rich, which I think is a legacy of her opera training. She’s very flexible too though. She can sing at all levels of volume and she’s very malleable. I think her voice is very attractive and inviting. She’s very, very strong with lyrics without sounding pedantic. The style, I would say a lot of it is a sort of mainstream jazz.
How has her music evolved in the years that you’ve followed her?
I think it’s less evolution and more shifting. I wouldn’t be surprised if she explores two or three other different styles in the coming years. I think she’s changed fields because of the curiosity that she has. I don’t want to say restlessness, because she goes deep into things. There’s always been a sort of formality with her in clarity and presentation, and I think that has to do with the intense training she received as a professional musician as a child.
Rondi has been quoted as saying, “I somehow see myself as an archaeologist, always digging for the truth behind the story, and it’s all about storytelling.” How is her knack for storytelling evidenced in her music?
That’s definitely a big drive for her. She made her first trip to Norway a few years ago and I think that was a major influence for her. On her newest album, she’s definitely looking back at her heritage and her life.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Watch Rondi Charleston perform I Hear Music live at the Mayne Stage in Chicago:
Watch Charleston perform Your Spirit Lingers live at the Mayne Stage in Chicago: