IT'S late night inside a New Orleans jazz bar and Zoe K is ready to send the crowd home in raptures. There's one tune the Maitland-raised soul diva knows she can rely on - Etta James' classic At Last.
"That's the song that gets you the tips," K, real name Klemenczuk, says from quarantine in a five-star Sydney hotel after arriving home from New Orleans last week for the first time since 2017.
"Another thing in New Orleans, we don't get guarantees there. We get a percentage of the bar and all the musicians survive purely on tips. So that's the dinner winner song."
At Last, with its dramatic strings and James' booming contralto, is known the world over due to countless radio airplay, movie soundtracks and ad campaigns.
In 2008 Beyonce even performed the song for former US president Barack Obama on the night of his inauguration. James famously criticised the performance and was angry she wasn't asked to sing her signature song for the president.
The album At Last was released in 1960 and introduced a then 22-year-old James to the world. Songs like A Sunday Kind Of Love, I Just Want To Make Love To You and Stormy Weather have since become classics and the Rock'n'roll Hall of Famer's raspy vocals and blend of soul, blues, jazz and R'n'B has influenced everyone from Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse to Pink.
Klemenczuk was another young singer whose trajectory shifted when her aunty gave her a copy of At Last.
Before that the former Maitland Grossmann student loved the powerhouse singing of Patsy Cline and modern pop divas like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.
"I'm an old romantic," she says. "I might appear to be all hard and sassy, but I'm very sensitive on the inside.
"That's what I love about Etta James, because she's not afraid to tell you, 'I've seen you with another woman and it f--king hurts me', but in the next line she says, 'but I'm just gonna let you know that this is how it goes'.
"I like that honest vulnerability."
Later Klemenczuk delved into the story of James' life, which included growing up in an abusive foster home in Los Angeles and battling heroin addiction during the '60s and '70s. Despite those struggles, James helped pave the road for other female singers until her death in 2012 aged 73.
"I really did like her don't-take-shit attitude as well, so that became an influence on my songwriting as well," Klemenczuk says. "You can have the best of both worlds. You can sing something sweet, but also let them find out."
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Klemenczuk will return to Maitland once her quarantine ends next Wednesday and plans to re-acquaint herself with the local music scene. Due to COVID-19 work in New Orleans dried up as the usually raucous party city became a ghost town.
However her long-term plan is to return to New Orleans next year to complete her third album. In the meantime a fresh Zoe K single is due to be released in spring. It'll be her first new music since her 2017 album It's Just What I Like.
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