Isaiah Sharkey on His Musical Journey, Winning a Grammy and Performing in the Illinois Lottery and Mariano’s Virtual Music Series

Born into a musical family, Chicago native, Isaiah Sharkey, has always known that he would have a career in music. From watching his father and uncles, Isaiah developed an interest in the guitar, which led him to the Grammy’s, where he won an award for his work on R&B singer, D’Angelo’s 2014 album, Black Messiah. From there he has toured and collaborated with some of music’s most memorable artists and continues spreading love, good music, and good energy with all that he encounters.

Racquel Coral (RC): Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to me. Let’s start with you and your background. I was reading your bio and saw that you come from a musical household and was introduced to music at the age of four. What led you to want to become a guitarist?

Isaiah Sharkey (IS): My dad and his brothers had a band. They were recording records, and we had an old VHS of them from the 80s, and I remember seeing my uncle playing guitar, and I just knew I wanted to play ever since then. I was about three years old. And I was just fascinated by the sound of the guitar and the look of it. And when he would come over, he would have his guitar, and I just loved everything about it. The smell of the wood, everything; I was just really fascinated. And then listening to a lot of different records, I would always ask, “Is that a guitar?”, because I just really loved that sound. And that’s what made me choose the guitar. That’s actually my first memory, the guitar.

RC: Okay, so tell me a little bit about your musical journey. You inherited the musical gene from your family, you fell in love with the guitar, and you learned how to play. How did you go from that to developing it into a passion, and now it’s your career?

IS: Well, when you ask a child what do they want to be when they grow up, sometimes you hear basketball player, doctor, fireman, but for me, I never wanted to do anything else. I had other interests like science and astronomy, but I always knew that I wanted to be a guitarist. There was never really a question. It was always something that I wanted to do. I just continued to practice when my parents bought me my first guitar when I was four. And then they bought me a more advanced or better quality guitar when I was seven. I just practiced every day and transcribed a lot of my favorite records and musicians. And also sitting under the tutelage of my dad and uncles. My dad was an instrumentalist, and so I just took that course and went that way. From there, I played at church and for many different community choirs. Then later at concerts. And it became a thing where I was like, “I like this. I really like this. This is what I want to do forever.”

RC: At the age of 14, you recorded your first album with your father and brothers? How was that process?

IS: It was more of what we were doing in the house. We all grew up playing in church together. We would play Gospel music at church, and then at home, we would play Gospel and Jazz tunes because my dad loved all types of music. He exposed us to so much great music that was happening from classic R&B, to Jazz, to Rock, to Fusion, Pop, Classical, everything. And so basically, that record was a showcase of the Jazz influences that I had growing up. Some of the songs on that album were me paying homage and tribute to greats like Wes Montgomery and George Benson. I had my brothers, Michael Sharkey, Jr. and Alonzo Sharkey, and of course, my dad, Michael Sharkey. And we pretty much just decided to do an album, and have me as the front guy because I was the youngest (laughs). I took the music seriously, so they decided to push me out there in the front. It was a really good experience. And I would say it was a documentation of what we were doing.

RC: So what have been some of your biggest collaborations to date? I know you have played alongside Smokie Norful and Donald Lawrence. You won a Grammy, which we’ll get into in just a second, for your work on D’Angelo’s album, Black Messiah. But what were some of your greatest collaborations and memorable moments?

IS: Oh, wow! There’s quite a few. My very first major Gospel artist was playing with Smokie Norful, and it was a great experience. I was about 16 or 17 years old, and I would be traveling with Smokie on weekends, because I had school during the week, and then during the summer, I would do all of the summer festivals with him. That was a great experience just to get my feet wet. Donald Lawrence was a great influence. I learned a lot of information on how to produce music. D’Angelo as well. He’s one of my top, if not, top favorite artists/collaborations. We both come from a musical family, and both had roots in the church. But we also loved funk music and all of the classic R&B and soul music and quartet music. So we really connected and hit it off. John Mayer, of course, is a fantastic artist and great guitarist. And so I enjoyed working with him.

RC: (laughs) You have a really extensive list of people.

IS: (laughs) It’s a lot of really different experiences, as well as a lot of good experiences. Recently, I’ve been working a lot with rapper, activist, and just great guy in general, Common. And I’ve been collaborating with him quite a bit lately, and it’s been really good and refreshing.

RC: Now, let’s back up for a second. Let’s talk more about D’Angelo. How did you come to work with him? How did that come about?

IS: Well, I was actually doing some live recordings out of town. And one of the live recordings just so happened to bring me to Richmond, VA. So basically, on an off day, I was trying to find out where I could go do some shopping for a live performance. Because I needed a belt, me and a couple of the guys went to Walmart. Right next to Walmart was a little mom and pop music store. They had signs up saying that they were offering lessons, and as musicians do, we went in and got side-tracked and started jamming out in the music store. I saw a gentleman and another guy holding this guitar case walking out of the store, and I joked with my friends, saying that he looked just like D’Angelo. And then I realized it was him. So I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, but are you, D’Angelo?” He seemed kind of hesitant and said yes. So then I told him that I was a huge fan and that one of my mentors, Spanky Alfred, was his guitarist, and just told him how important his music was to me. He then asked if it was me playing the guitar, and said that he felt this presence of Spanky Alfred in the store, and it scared him a little bit. So he asked me to play for him, and from that, he asked me to be his guitarist. And this was a couple of years before the album came out before we started touring or anything. And since then, we just hit it off. We got in the studio and just started recording. Then we started touring. It was like an instant connection between us two.

RC: Wow, just like that, huh?

IS: Oh yeah. During that time, I was playing with the Isley Brothers too. So I was just in that Soul arena. It was perfect timing. It was the perfect segue from playing in the Jazz clubs and Gospel scene to Soul with the Isley Brothers. It just kind of stemmed from there.

RC: So you work with D’Angelo and then go on and win a Grammy. The highest honor in music. What was that experience like for you?

IS: It was surreal. It was unexpected. When you’re so into what you do and what you love, and you’re constantly just wanting to be better, and constantly want to express yourself through music and your gift, you don’t really think a lot about the awards and accolades. You’re just more focused on what you’re doing. So getting an email from the recording academy, saying that I was nominated for a Grammy, was unbelievable. I mean, first of all, D’Angelo was one of my dream gigs. He was off the scene for at least 10 years, and during that time, I would say to myself that if there was one artist that reached out saying that they wanted to make a comeback, I would want to play with him. So to be able to work with him was one thing. But to record with him was another. Because when you’re recording an album, you’re not only just playing with the artist, but you’re literally creating something that a person could hear a hundred years from now. It’s documented. It’s a timestamp. And so that was crazy. But then to be able to say that, that timestamp or that particular recording that was documented, literally had an effect where it would be nominated for three Grammy’s, and then win two, is a blessing. It just brought everything home for me.

All of the hard work that my parents put in, and then my father and his brothers and sister. And all the stories I would hear about them being on the road. I was like, wow, this is not only for me, but it’s an extension of the legacy of my family and the musical lineage. So it was a really big deal. I got to bring my mom to the Staple Center. God rest my dad’s soul; I wish he was there to see it, but I know he was there in spirit. It was just a really, really great experience. And motivation. It was the motivation that anything can happen. Anything you put your mind and love to. And just thanking God. Thanking the Most High for that.

RC: Okay so I have to ask this, who has the Grammy? You know in black households when we have major accomplishments, the parents keep the awards. (laughs)

IS: (laughs) For a moment, I had it at my mom’s house, and then I just recently got my home, and I put it up in my studio room. Cased up and sealed.

RC: That’s nice. So I want to switch gears for a second. Today you are going to be playing in the Mariano’s and Illinois Lottery Virtual Live at Mariano’s Music Series. How did that come about?

IS: Well, I have a really good friend by the name of Lee Farmer, who’s an incredible producer, writer, and just all-around great guy. He’s a fantastic DJ who’s been in the music industry for quite some time. And this was curated by him. He called me up and said he was doing this showcase with Mariano’s and the Illinois Lottery to present live music during this time of the pandemic. And I told him I was all for it. I figured it would be a great thing and a great platform to reach more people. It just a way to get people from thinking about what’s happening in the world at this moment and just free themselves a little bit.

RC: What can people expect to hear from you today? Will there be covers of songs you’ve been a part of? Some original music? A little Funk, Soul, Jazz?

IS: All of it. I’ll be doing a few originals. Some covers. Some stuff that might have influenced me over the years. Just having a good time. And just feeling it out virtually, and seeing what the moment brings. But a little bit of whatever I can.

RC: Well we are definitely looking forward to that. Last question, what can we expect from you in the future, and what is one thing that you want to be remembered by?

IS: Well, I am currently working on some music. Hopefully an album three. And just really talking about love. The last couple of albums were about different dynamics of love and life situations. But I also want to touch on some of the things that we deal with on a day to day basis. Especially around this time. Just a lot of different topics. And still dealing with music, Classic Soul music, but also Hip Hop, Rock, Funk, and all these different things that I want to work on. Definitely, be expecting more music from me very soon. And, I just want to be remembered as someone who wants to spread love and good music and good energy and give my gifts to the world. I feel that a gift is to give. And I just want to be remembered as that and to make somebody smile, make somebody joyful, and just make people happy.

Be sure to check out Isaiah’s live performance today at 6 pm CST on Mariano’s Facebook page, facebook.com/marianosmarket. And for more information on Isaiah, please visit him via his website, www.isaiahsharkey.com, Facebook, Isaiah Sharkey, and Instagram, and Twitter, @Sharkey335.

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