* Who: Brenda Russell
* When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
* Where: The Birchmere, Alexandria
It's a good time to hear Brenda Russell. The soulful, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who once said, "I'll leave you crying, but I won't leave you hopeless," returns to the area next week for her first solo performance in the region in three years.
Since the 2000 release of her "Paris Rain" CD, Russell has been performing and writing for film, television and stage. She is working with co-writers Allee Willis and Stephen Bray on the score for a musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple," slated to open on Broadway in 2005.
"It's very intense working on a musical," the performer said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I had no idea what I was in for, but I'm loving it. It's a lot of work. So it's kind of a break in a way to come out and do these gigs."
The Brooklyn-born Russell specifically wanted to reconnect with her audience in this region. "I've always felt a strong bond with my fans back East."
Although moving to Los Angeles (after spending her teenage years in Toronto) led to the release of her first CD in 1979, Russell said the District holds a special place in her heart as one of the first cities that embraced her multilayered work, which incorporates influences from rock, pop, rhythm and blues and Latin jazz.
With a nuanced voice that has been compared to melted caramel and emotional lyrics that help fans get through hard times, Russell is a big believer in the healing power of music. Her songs, filled with wishes for peace and universal love, seem positively prescient in these times.
"At a very young age, I was exposed to different cultures, and I understood that people were all the same," she said of her world view. "The more you travel, the more you see, the more you realize that we are all one. That helps me a lot in my music."
No doubt, in her career as well, which became somewhat less visible a decade ago. After her 1993 album, "Soul Talkin'," Russell took time off to regroup and travel while continuing to write, produce and collaborate with other artists.
Besides providing songs to such artists as Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Sting and Patti LaBelle, Russell wrote the score to "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," two songs for director Barry Levinson's film "Liberty Heights" and incidental music for the Oxygen network, among other works.
At the time of a chance meeting in 1999 with the head of Hidden Beach Recordings, which resulted in "Paris Rain," Russell said, she wondered whether she would ever record again. Radio then was ruled by poppy glitz and hard-edged samples. "It seemed like nobody wanted to hear songs or lyrics or melodies. It was just not the thing at that moment," she said.
Now, thanks to Norah Jones's great sales and armload of Grammies, the industry may be ready again for Russell's soulful style. "I think record companies might have been a little shocked at Norah's success," Russell said, laughing. "There's a lot of adults who have the money. We have the 5.1 system, and we want to hear great music on it."
She hopes to offer fans an album of new solo material in the next year (she's recording new songs for it), but for now, the Birchmere audience can expect a retrospective evening of classic tunes such as "Piano in the Dark," "If Only for One Night" and the much-loved anthem for reuniting lovers, "Get Here."
-- Marianne Meyer
The Birchmere is at 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. Tickets are $27.50. To purchase tickets, go to www.ticketmaster.com or call 703-551-SEAT. Tickets also may be purchased at the box office 5-9 p.m. on show nights. For information, call the Birchmere at 703-549-7500, or visit the Web site at www.birchmere.com.