Alissia ‘14: Can’t Fake the Funk

Five years ago, Alissia ’14 was a student shooting for a scholarship to Berklee at the Umbria Jazz Festival. Now, the Berklee graduate and rising sensation is bringing her fresh brand of modern funk to tens of thousands from the festival’s stage.

July 21, 2015

As Alissia Benveniste ’14 rips into the opening bass line of her original song “Let It Out,” thousands of concertgoers at this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival eagerly embrace the driving funk groove. Onstage with her live band, the Funketeers, Alissia (who has recently dropped her last name for her official artist name) gives the crowd’s rising energy right back to them, and by the time the horns kick in, the party is fully on. It would remain “on” for many nights to follow, as Alissia and the Funketeers delivered a set of originals with some funk classics mixed in at each night of the two-week festival in Perugia, Italy.

Given her level of comfort with a gig of this scale, it’s hard to believe—but true—that five years ago, Alissia was a teenaged student attending the Berklee at Umbria clinics, an opportunity for musicians from all over the world to study with Berklee faculty while attending the festival. What’s even harder to believe is this: she didn’t play bass at the time.

Read more about the 30-year partnership between Berklee and the Umbria Jazz Festival.

From the Classroom to the Big Stage

Alissia attended the Berklee at Umbria clinics as a pianist and vocalist, and her talent won her a coveted scholarship to attend Berklee full-time as an undergraduate student on the college’s Boston campus, where she majored in professional music. While attending Berklee, Alissia picked up a bass at a friend’s house and instantly fell in love with the instrument. Before long, the classically trained pianist was rapidly gaining proficiency on the bass and in the realm of funk music with mentorship from Berklee faculty members such as John Blackwell, Lenny Stallworth, Jeffrey Lockhart, and Tia Fuller.

“John and Lenny especially made me work really hard,” Alissia recalls. “John gave me several DVDs of Prince and Cameo and the Time and told me, ‘You’ve got to study all of that.’”

She did. The great leap forward from promising student to popular success came in the form of a music video, shot by Berklee, for “Let It Out.” Once the video hit YouTube and was shared via Facebook and other social media, it took on a life of its own and quickly notched more than 1 million views.

Capitalizing on that initial momentum, Alissia has just released the first single, “On the Go,” from her new EP, Back to the Functure, due out in mid- to late-August. Billboard premiered the video for the single just last week.

Watch the video for "On the Go" by Alissia here:

The new EP’s goal, Alissia says, is to “bring back the funk” that enjoyed widespread popularity in the '70s and '80s, but to do so with a modern feel by bringing in sounds from other genres, such as electronic music or dubstep. Alissia, who now resides in New York City, is also working with other musicians, taking on projects such as a studio session with acclaimed hip-hop artist Q-Tip.

Having experienced an extraordinary degree of success in such a short span of time, Alissia is eager to share what she has learned, and she does so with students attending this year’s Berklee at Umbria clinics.

Go inside the classrooms at the Berklee at Umbria clinics.

“I was right here in your seats five years ago,” she tells the students at Umbria. “If I can make it, any of you sitting here can make it.”

The Hardest Working Woman in the Funk Business

To make it, though, Alissia tells the students, one needs to be smart and committed to one’s goals. Alissia cites the importance of Berklee in establishing her network of contacts. She calls Berklee “the place to network for musicians,” as evidenced by the fact that her Funketeer bandmates, as well as her manager, Ethan Schiff ’12, who also manages Betty Who ’13 and others, are fellow Berklee alumni.

Both Alissia and Schiff say that part of what they love about Berklee is the room it creates to explore music in all different directions: Alissia came in thinking she was a pianist and left a bass player. Schiff thought he was attending Berklee to be a drummer—a funk drummer, as fate would have it—but soon realized that he was more passionate about working in the business side of the industry.

Despite all that she gained from Berklee, Alissia adds that neither the college nor the connections one makes at it can “do your work for you.”

 “A lot of people say success is 10 percent talent and 90 percent work,” Alissia says. “A good part of that is taking all opportunities that come your way. I took as many gigs as I could, because there’s only so much you can learn about music in books. A lot of it comes from your ears—what you listen to—and from your heart.”

While Alissia offers the students many takeaways, from the importance of a foundational understanding of the music business and marketing to more nuanced technique points for bassists such as the power of octaves in funk bass or how to gracefully slide into the next note in a slap-bass context, her central message revolves around putting all of one’s self into one’s music.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about feeling it inside,” she says to nods from the student musicians in attendance. “Whatever feels good in your heart and you feel is right, that’s it. You can’t fake the funk, as they say.”

And for two straight weeks of concerts at Umbria Jazz, Alissia practices what she preaches, meeting with roars of approval from an international crowd that appears more than ready for this rousing return of the funk.