Carolyn Malachi was living a divided life. The lifelong Washingtonian had a 9-to-5 job in corporate logistics; at night and on weekends, she was building a reputation as a singer-songwriter. But the split was no longer working.
“My weekends and any vacation time I had were dedicated to touring,” she says. “And on my lunch breaks I was always working on getting my music out into the world. I was starting to miss days of work, and even that wasn’t enough time. It wasn’t fair to the people I was working with.”
Music was hardly a dead-end proposition for Malachi: She was receiving acclaim and success, including a 2011 Grammy Award nomination for best urban/alternative performance. It was thus tremendously fulfilling when, two years ago, she decided to give up the corporate job for good and devote herself full-time to music.
It was still a risky move, of course — especially considering the precarious state of the music industry. Nor has it been without obstacles. But for Malachi, it was worth it.
“I would take these challenges over the previous challenges any day,” she says. “I’m loving life.”
Still, the change was profound enough that Malachi, 32, has set herself to exploring it in a planned trilogy of albums that she calls “Rise of the Modern Natural.” Its first part, “Rise: Story 1,” was released this month. She is supporting the album (her fourth) with a tour that includes a performance Friday at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
“It’s really dealing with the fear, with being afraid of what was on the other side of the desk,” Malachi says of “Rise.” “And I dealt with the fear the way I deal with other things: I wrote about it.
“And then after leaving, I started to write about the experiences of what was happening, life on the other side of the desk. So this album is equal parts life behind and life after the desk.”
The album thus features two chapters of her story. Each opens with a brief spoken recording of Malachi’s great-grandfather, jazz pianist and D.C. resident John Malachi, who died when she was not yet 3 years old in 1987.
Jazz is a prominent ingredient for Malachi, the first member of her family since her great-grandfather to venture into music professionally. She’s performed locally at Blues Alley and Bohemian Caverns, and this year took part in the D.C. Jazz Festival. But she doesn’t limit herself to that, or even the catchall urban/alternative category into which Grammy voters placed her. On Malachi’s artist page on Facebook, she lists her genre simply as “good music.”
As for influences, she lists “soul, jazz, R&B, blues and go-go as well.” Specifically, she mentions Anita Baker, a vocalist with a similarly expansive palette. Malachi’s voice doesn’t really sound like Baker’s; it’s higher and subtler. But the elder singer’s writing style is apparent in the younger’s. (In particular, “Blowing Smoke,” the first single from “Rise,” shares some of the distinctive harmonies of Baker’s signature hit “Sweet Love.”)
“I got really inspired watching Anita Baker in Baltimore one summer,” she says. “She played outside at the African American Festival; it was a thousand degrees outside and she came on late, and everybody was angry and frustrated. And she changed the entire mood of all the people instantly, just by communicating joy.
“I saw all this joy, and I thought, ‘I really want to do that . . . this is what I want my life to be.’ ”
Friday at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.
Show starts at 6 p.m.
202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. Free.