Adversity is said to strengthen character, and as the saying goes, a cord of three strands isn’t easily broken. This philosophy could easily be applied to the story behind Queen of Hearts, Toronto’s newest addition to the soul and R&B music scene.
Just over two years ago, Nikole Gabriel, Sasha Rodrigo, and Alessandra Nicole were three strangers looking for a chance when they met at an open audition for a yet-to-be-formed music group. The opportunity failed to materialize, but that first meeting sparked a connection which each member felt was too strong to ignore. Deciding to continue on their own, the three ladies who would become Queen of Hearts began to work with a writer and hone their singing abilities and group dynamic, while searching for the opportunity to break into the music scene.
“The thing with us three is – because we really had that connection with each other and we already felt kind of a certain bond with each other – it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, the end of the world is happening,’” says Nikole. “It was like, ‘Okay, well, you know what girls? Let’s just do this and continue with ourselves.’ Because we believed in ourselves. And it took that push, I guess, to get into the group, for us all to realize that we were good enough to do something. And we weren’t going to just give up because someone else made a deal fall through, you know? It was like, we got here to this point, something brought us all together, so what are we doing? We can’t just waste that. So we just stuck together, and it wasn’t like a huge, ‘Oh my God, our lives are over.’ It was more of a, ‘Let’s push ourselves now, and get stronger because of it.’”
With hundreds, if not thousands, of hopeful singers out there (after all, there’s a reason American Idol is still going eleven seasons in), the trio knew they had to bring something different to the table in order to stand out. Vocally, they each have strong, yet distinctly different voices to work with; and as for their image, it goes without saying that they make a striking set. There’s an obvious distinction on first sight: Sasha, whose long, dark hair and olive complexion speak of her Indo-Eurasian background; Alessandra, the blonde, bouffant-haired Italian; and Nikole, of Spanish-Trinidadian descent, whose sleek, tawny blonde hair contrasts nicely with her bold, tanned features.
In a city like Toronto, however, it’s not a huge surprise to find a musical act coming from such diverse ethnic backgrounds, and girl groups themselves are nothing new in the R&B world, as these girls themselves know from the many comparisons they’ve received to well-known acts like TLC and Destiny’s Child.
“It’s going to happen. I mean, a girl group is a girl group,” says Nikole. “We’ve already gotten, ‘Oh, are you girls like Girlicious, and Pussycat Dolls?’ And it’s like, we want to make sure people know that we’re definitely not. We’re not a group of girls that prance around and don’t sing, or whatever. There’s not one lead and everyone else dances, but the three of us have our own voice and they’re very different voices, you know? They’re very distinct. Like, if you hear any song, you can hear the difference in our tone and our vocal quality in the way we form the songs.”
This is the remarkable thing about Queen of Hearts, the way these three artists are able to take their diverse vocal talents and combined musical background, and blend it in a way that creates real harmony. It isn’t just the vocals that are in sync either. These girls are deliberate in their decision to balance out the group, insisting that the focus not be on any one member, but rather on sharing the limelight three ways. To make this work, Nikole says it’s a combination of personality, respect, and a distinct absence of ego.
“We all kind of want to share the light with each other, and we’re not looking for someone to lead the group or anything like that. We all have strengths in different places.”
Alessandra adds that despite the initial connection between the three of them, they still had to learn to work together.
“I’d say for the first year it was the most difficult,” she says. “Because we were learning about each other’s work ethics and personalities, and reactions to things, and sort of still learning about everybody’s story. And it made it difficult, first of all, to make decisions on day to day stuff, especially business decisions. You just weren’t really sure what the end goal was, what we wanted the image to be, and everything was sort of just all up in the air.”
But for her, coming into the group had a greater impact on her life than just with regards to the music.
“I have never known two girls in the world like Sasha and Nikole, and getting to know them has really changed me as a person. If anything, it has made me better,” she reveals. “They’ve helped to humble me. We’ve created a sisterhood that I didn’t think was possible for me to have in my life. So at the same time, it’s been very special, and it’s incomparable with anything else. Because I see these girls every day, they’re so much a part of my day, my life, and they’re essential. They really cannot be replaced. As easy as that is to say, I’m not sugar-coating anything – that’s just the truth!”
Coming from the same label that presented R&B singing sensation JRDN to the world (go back and look out for their cameo appearance at the beginning of his song “Like Magic” and take note of the card Sasha pulls from the deck), Queen of Hearts hearkens back to the days of SWV, TLC, and early Destiny’s Child. These may be big shoes to try and fill, but they have the backing of some pretty solid players in the industry. Their production team includes Lazonate Franklin (who co-wrote “Telephone” with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga), KC Livingston (who worked with Pussycat Dolls), and Lil’ Eddie (Jennifer Lopez, P. Diddy, Kylie Minogue), who co-wrote Queen of Hearts’ first single, “Look At Me Now.”
However, their biggest influence comes from Sammy Blues and Bobby Brass, the duo behind Kuya Productions Inc., and the pair who are giving Queen of Hearts their shot at stardom after having connected with the trio at a packed showcase in 2010 at Toronto’s Tryst Nightclub.
“It feels like a privilege. In Canada, they are obviously one of the best people to work with, and it was just like a miracle that we kind of fell into their hands,” Sasha says.
“We were actually working alone by ourselves, and we had the help of a writer, and that was before we met Kuya. So we were already trying to develop by ourselves, so we had our foundation there. But meeting them, it just helped us solidify everything, and we just became a family. So it’s not like they put us together and tell us exactly how to be, it’s like, ‘Okay, you girls are cool. You girls got something about you. You have chemistry. You’re very talented.’ So it was a real privilege and an eye-opener.”
Although they are yet to release their debut album, their first single “Look At Me Now” has been making waves. And their autobiographical song, “It Could Happen To You,” tracks the girls’ progress via documentary-style footage of their journey as a group, from rehearsals and studio time to trips to New York City and Los Angeles to meet with label executives. The trio is currently in the studio working on their latest single, the tentatively titled “Dance for Love.” And when asked about their view of the kind of club hits that flare up quickly and fade away just as fast, the girls say that for them, it’s not about how long the song stays on the charts.
“We’re always shooting for timeless music, so it doesn’t mean it’s going to do amazingly on the radio – because every song can’t do amazingly on the radio – but our fans who love us will enjoy that song forever and ever,” says Sasha.
“That’s sort of the idea. It’s not necessarily about being the most popular song on the radio, because obviously those come and go. Like, they don’t necessarily fit in the industry, and everybody loves it for a really long time. You could get sick of it, especially if it’s overplayed. The key is just to put your all into it, and at the end of the day, I think our music is very feel-good. It’s the kind of album that we want our fans to be able to stick on and not have to change songs. They can just put it on, from top to bottom, and clean the room, cook, prance around, that sort of thing! Because when I think of all the artists I really admire, and I stick on their albums, it’s like I can listen to it from top to bottom – those are the ones I feel like I paid good money for, it was well worth it. So that’s what we always aim to try and do, just make timeless music.”